There’s an App for That

clip_image002Actually, there isn’t, at least that’s my opinion. I spent the bulk of the past week attending iPhone/iPad DevCon in Cambridge, MA. If this is sounding familiar, it’s because the conference was organized by BZMedia, the same wonderful people that bring us SPTechCon. When I attended SPTechCon last October, I decided I would skip this year’s eastern version in June, and begin my journey toward developing iPad apps by attending this conference instead. You see, we will be deploying iPads to several of my coworkers, and I think that we are going to want put some custom applications on those iPads at some point.

As you would expect, IPDevCon was amazing; great content, excellent speakers and a well-designed and well-orchestrated program. I attended classes on beginning programming in xCode, debugging, designing and (it seems) a thousand points in between. There were several consistent themes that were mentioned by many instructors. Given the nature of the iPhone, this really didn’t come as a surprise. One specific message that came through, loud, clear and often was “don’t fight the framework!” Apple provides some remarkable class libraries for handling everything from managing a table view to gesture recognition, and we were often being asked “do you really think you can write that code better than they did?” Another common question was “do you think you can create a better iPhone experience than Apple?

Since this is my SharePoint blog, let me try to adapt this lesson to SharePoint development. I could start by saying that Microsoft provides awesome tools and we would be silly to try to make SharePoint better than Microsoft made it. I could ask, in my best intimidating style “do you think you can provide a better SharePoint experience than Microsoft?” – OK, I guess I really shouldn’t start that way. On the other hand, Microsoft has given us a lot to work with; we could gain a lot by thinking of SharePoint as our iPhone, and applying an ‘App’ metaphor to the solutions we build. Here are a few guidelines we are trying to follow:

Use out-of-the-box stuff – There are a large number of great native features in SharePoint. Every time a user sees one of those in use, and says “I want something like that”, an easy answer follows. This is especially important if you want your users to be able to serve themselves. Either use features that they can build quickly or make your features self-provisioning. I know there are a lot of power users who want to push the envelope, but as I’ve written before, there are many, many more who simply want to do their day-job.

Focus on the user experience – I can already hear @JillBrainLogic laughing at my including this topic. Jill founded Brain Logic, and she is all about #UX, and IPhoneDevCon was all about the “user experience” and, to be honest, that’s not what I am known for. I like my users, but providing a good user experience doesn’t mean giving them everything they want. Most people can only imagine a world that is based-on, but a little better than, the world they live in. If you are introducing a disruptive technology like SharePoint, you have to be bold enough to suggest things that are right for your users. You have to work to understand their business process, and then use the tools that Microsoft gave you to improve that process. You have to bring to the table the things your users don’t yet know about. You probably can’t do that as well as Steve Jobs, but you can do all of that, with the User Experience in mind.

Advertise success – I didn’t attend many of the iPhone App marketing sessions, because I am hoping to write apps for our employees, but I realize that marketing is still involved. Implementing Content Management, or Business Process Management solutions involve changing behavior and my boss frequently reminds me that I have to be an agent of change. The best way to change peoples’ collective attitude toward SharePoint is to show-off how well it works. Show them “this really cool app” and get them to want it.

SharePoint isn’t an iPhone, but it is wildly successful, it has a large and passionate group of power users and practitioners and it can change the lives of the people who work with it. Microsoft isn’t Apple, we aren’t locked into a static, albeit awesome look and feel; we don’t have to seek approval for our solutions and we are not limited to a small number of (awesome) platforms. We can make SharePoint into anything we want, but I think we should temper our desire to make it our individual brand of SharePoint. As Owen Baern said here, let’s not reintroduce the problems SharePoint solved