One Stop Shopping Plus Mail Order

imageA few weeks ago, I received an email about an old post about managing a walking contest in SharePoint. Ironically, we are preparing to kick off the 2014 version of that contest in about 2 weeks and once again, we are managing it in SharePoint. I like to use these little side projects to demonstrate what SharePoint can do out-of-the-box. Some might ask “why focus on out-of-the-box? SharePoint can be so much more.

Their question is not quite correct and I am lying just a little bit.

The problem with their question is that “SharePoint can be made to be so much more” but the making can take a lot of time.

The lie that I’ve told is a lie of omission. I didn’t tell you that my box is bigger than Microsoft’s box. My box includes things like HarePoint Workflow Extensions and Nintex Workflows. HarePoint’s extensions add some very cool features to SharePoint Designer workflows and Nintex, well Nintex Workflows are like a slice of SharePoint Heaven here on Earth.

So, truth be told, I like to show people what we can do very quickly in SharePoint with the tools that we have available to us. That’s important for a reason that most IT departments don’t consider often enough.

Sometimes, people don’t ask for things because they think those things will be hard to build or expensive or that they will take too long.

They aren’t trying to save my time or my budget; they’re just trying to avoid being told “no, you can’t have that.

In the 2014 version of our SharePoint-driven walking contest, we have added two new features. Both are aimed at improving the user experience and both came at the request of my new young colleague Stacy. Stacy is not only the architect on this project, she’s the user. She’s managing the walking contest and she’s building the site with some help from me.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with a walking contest, it’s pretty much what you would imagine:

  • Our company is divided into teams.
  • Each person tracks and records their steps each day during the contest.
  • At the end of the contest, the team with the most steps wins a team prize and the person with the overall highest number of steps wins an individual prize.

Stacy wanted to make two improvements to the accounting process for the contest. She wanted to add options for mobile entry and she wanted a dashboard of sorts for reporting progress.

Mobile entry was easy but, again, it uses a few tricks from our bigger box. You can send your entry into a SharePoint Remote Entry library by including the subject line “10-11-2014 8,996” i.e. the date and the number of steps. A SharePoint Designer workflow, aided by HarePoint’s Regular Expression actions parses the subject line and adds the steps to your step count. A second workflow adds your step count to your team’s total.

We could do all the processing in one step, but I like breaking things into small chunks. That is a carryover from my history of coding in Smalltalk, but it’s a good practice for SharePoint. Small workflows are easier to test and they are easier to “debug” since there really isn’t a “debugger” available in SharePoint.

Employees with iPhones can also easily enter their steps via a mobile view of the Steps Entry form. Actually, anybody could do this, but “iPhone” is linked with “easy” because our MaaS360 mobile device management software allows us to push that mobile form through our firewall without the need for a VPN connection (which people hate to make on their phones).

Finally, we needed to build that dashboard, but we decided to make it functional instead of just informative – that’s where the “one stop shopping” comes from. We started with a Web Part Page and we added an Announcement part and an Instructions part in those top-of-the-page whole width zones. Then we added three useful parts. On the left, we have “My Steps” which is a view of the Steps list filtered on the current user. In the center, we added a view of Team Status that shows the current ranking of teams and on the right; we added a simple entry form for steps.

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I have to admit, this is the first time I have ever put an entry form on a dashboard. It works. Having the entry form on the page makes this page the only thing people actually have to look at. My Steps, My Team and, as I look at my steps and realize that I forgot to enter yesterday’s value, I can do it without leaving the page.

Stacy’s homework assignment is to add a chart to graphically display some of these statistics and to make the page a little prettier. Mine is to start walking.

Good Sales – No Surprises

clip_image002I’m so sick of the election coverage that I was actually happy the other day when the local NPR station switched to their fall fundraising during my morning commute. I also realized that it was time to change the audio source for my radio. The car is still sort of new, but I thought I was comfortable with the controls for the radio. I switched input devices a couple of times and Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Halley Came to Jackson” started playing. I knew that the song was on the mix-CD my daughter had given me, and that that CD was in the slot, so life was good again. A few minutes later, “Crippled Inside” by John Lennon was playing and since I knew that song wasn’t on the CD, I started to wonder what was going on. To my surprise, the Bluetooth connection between my car and my iPhone also includes the ability for the car radio to fire up the music library on my phone – what a great idea! If you haven’t guessed, Mary Chapin Carpenter is a favorite and lives in all libraries.

Earlier this week, I was talking with one of our newer employees. He said that he was really becoming convinced that SharePoint was going to play a key role in his department’s effort to turn the pile of documents and their tacit knowledge into accessible information for future employees. However, he added that he wished it was easier to work with. His particular concern was the disparity between the ease of access to email while traveling and access to SharePoint. I asked him if he had the Harmon.ie app on his iPad and when he said “no”, I knew that I had a surprise for him. I told him about the basic feature that caused us to buy Harmon.ie, the ability to integrate SharePoint content with Outlook, and then I explained how Harmon.ie works seamlessly when you move from your laptop/desktop to your iPad – what a great idea!

This isn’t the first vehicle I’ve had that has had Bluetooth, but it’s the first time I bothered to pair my iPhone to the car; I was always happy with a Bluetooth earbud. Similarly, Harmon.ie has been available to our employees for over a year, but some have chosen to ignore the application. Behind both bad decisions is the fact that we often decide whether or not to use a particular technology based on what we think it will do for us. Part of the reason that we do that is the fact that there is a lot of technology, it changes fast and comprehensive solutions are no longer the norm.

Consider that most of the technology I have that deals with music is in the form of a single function iOS app. Before buying this car, the most complicated bit of music technology was the copy of iTunes on my Windows desktop (which Apple is gradually making irrelevant). By contrast, the radio in this car is so complex that its features require the bulk of the owner’s manual and a separate section of the car’s iOS app for description. I should mention that the car is a mid-range Jeep, and this is far from a tricked-out sound system. I am probably seeing an analogy with SharePoint here, because I see them everywhere, but I think it’s fair to say that very few people understand the full capabilities of SharePoint, especially where it has been tricked-out with a few add-ons. That’s where we (practitioners) have to get involved; we have to unveil the surprises.

The salesman who sold me this Jeep showed me the jack where I can connect an iPod. He should have said “I see that you have an iPhone, if you have music on it, you don’t even need a cable, and you will be able to control the music library using the radio’s features.” Similarly, when I’m selling SharePoint, I need to do a better job of pointing out its features, as well as those of Harmon.ie and Longitude Search. Whether that requires me to create more articles for that online newsletter I created, or schedule more training, or just walk around and talk to people; I need to peel back the cover a bit on SharePoint so people who won’t otherwise look get a glimpse of what lies inside.

In case anyone reading this feels that the real take-away from my surprise was that we have to build solutions that exploit their connections, stay-tuned – I’m still thinking about that.

This Will be Fine

clip_image002I want to thank Doreen for filling in for me last week. Judging by my stats, I should have her fill in more often. While she was introducing herself, I was enjoying some of the attractions near my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA and I am happy to say that I almost forgot about SharePoint completely. Coming back to work in the middle of the week is great (mentally) but it makes it hard to dig out and find something to write about. As often happens, something lands in my inbox that solves that problem. This time, it was an email from a different member of my team, pointing me to an article from Information Week, about the Microsoft Web Apps preview for iOS devices.

I have written several times about why Microsoft needs to support iOS devices better, and I am very happy to see this step being taken. I know they are racing to deliver their own hardware, and that’s great, but hardware and software should be treated as different markets; after all, it’s the application people want, and that’s a good thing. It’s a good thing for me too, because it supports the approach that we agreed to take in our company. Our goal is to enable our employees to do their jobs wherever they are, whenever they like and to utilize the computer hardware they happen to be carrying at the time. The current state of this offering isn’t perfect, but I see this glass as half-full and filling.

Implementation – There are a number of features that are missing from the web apps that I hope will eventually be included, and there are some annoying aspects to the user experience, but I don’t care. Microsoft has taken a big step in the right direction and I can deal with an evolving product. At this point, I can work on Office documents on my iPad, and with the help of the products like Harmon.ie and SharePlus, and SkyDrive, I can easily get documents from Exchange and / or SharePoint and back again and now I can edit them with relative ease. I have actually been able to do these things for a while, but it has been getting easier and it’s getting close to the point of being seamless. That’s good, because that’s what I told my users would happen eventually. As I look ahead to the planned integration between Office, SharePoint, Outlook and SkyDrive, I see nothing but blue skies.

Approach – I hope that I am correct in assuming that this approach indicates that Microsoft wants to be a player in the open market. Their platforms (Exchange, SQL Server, SharePoint, etc.) can sell on their merit. Their hardware, (Surface, phones, etc.) can sell on their merit and their software i.e. Office can leverage its dominant position and sell on its merit. Office shouldn’t have to prop-up sales of phones and tablets; those things should be successful if they are as good as or better than the competition. My decision to embrace Microsoft products shouldn’t make people hate me because they associate it with the reason that they have to give up the device they love. OK, I’ll never fully recover from displacing Word Perfect with Word, but I’ve gotten over that, even if some of my coworkers haven’t. Kudos to Microsoft for taking this approach.

Future – I don’t want to suggest that Microsoft is invincible, but I think things look pretty good for the future. I’m not sure that I agree with all of the plans for Windows 8 and I certainly hope that they reverse the decision to drop the Design View from SharePoint Designer, but the community will keep them from failing. We will engage with the new products, we will continue to build solutions on SharePoint and Windows, and third-party vendors will continue to fill the holes, smooth off the rough edges and extend the vision as required. As I’ve already pointed out, I have been working with Word documents, stored in SharePoint, on my iPad for over a year. I didn’t need a solution from Microsoft because others were quick to fill that void.

OK, so those are all the comforting thoughts I’m focusing on today. In addition, I’m enjoying editing a couple of old documents and my AIIM Conference Presentation from earlier this year, on my iPad. This week has ended on a very good note and I’m optimistic about the future.

Automating People

iPhoneRecently, I was discussing process automation with a few friends – yes that is the kind of life that I have, at least during the NFL off-season. One subject that came up during the discussion is the problem that is caused by automation that goes into a holding pattern. When processes were manual and routing and storage were analog, something was physically on a pile on someone’s desk, an obvious constant reminder of the work that needed to be done. Once we suck the content into SharePoint and wrap the process up in a few workflows, the constant reminder is replaced by a single email – do you know how easy it is to ignore an email? Of course, the just-in-time nature of workflows means that while person A is ignoring the task, persons B through G don’t even know the task exists.

Since I am frequently cast in the role of person A, I might be a good example. One of my tasks is to approve expenses added to a cloud-based expense tracking system. This system notifies me of every charge I make, every charge I have to approve and every subsequent status change during the lifespan of an expense. This system has proven beyond doubt that the only thing easier to ignore than one email, is 100 emails on the same subject. Not only do I ignore the emails I receive, I’ve gone so far as to create a rule in Outlook to ignore the emails automatically on my behalf. Based on this unscientific study, I’ll conclude that having SharePoint send more notifications isn’t the answer. OK, what about a dashboard?

Despite not liking the buzzword, we are rapidly becoming fans of building meaningful dashboards around SharePoint managed content. It doesn’t take very long for list items or documents to pile up and turn a list or library into an unreadable mess. Since we have a few of these pages up and running, we have decided to add a personalized Data View Webpart to one of the pages that will show “Stuff you need to do”, but I’m not sure that’s going to help much. I say that because the rule that I created in Outlook wasn’t designed to ignore notifications, it was actually designed to help me pay attention to them. Based on the subject line, the rule puts the notifications into one of two folders for follow-up. The problem with that rule/folder combination is that it is a Pull operation – I have to go to the folder. Dashboards or status pages are also Pull operations, so those tasks will only get done if I go looking for them. Pull operations are forgotten, push operations are ignored – what’s a process to do?

As I think about this, I realize that there are only two types of reminders that I always respond to: calendar alerts and direct requests from people that I like. I recall Marc Anderson saying at the recent AIIM NE event, that he is more likely to respond to humorous notifications. I would agree with that, but there’s no guarantee. If I know that I need to stop for donuts on the way to work, I create a calendar item, set an alert time so that my phone beeps while I am driving; it works, I stop every time. When the nice woman from accounting calls or sends me an email reminding me that I have (n) expense reports to approve, I login and take care of them.

AutomatePeopleVisaCharge

On the other hand, I told my wife that I was planning to stop at the ATM earlier this week; she wrote my planned withdrawal in the checkbook, but I forgot to stop. I also forgot to tell her that I forgot to stop, putting our checkbook out of balance – my bad.

I think a combination of push and pull solutions might help. Something like an alert that says “You have to do something” where the link takes you to a DVWP that includes actionable items. I.E. if you need to review a document, the link will open the document for you. If you need to approve a process step, the Approval button is right there. Maybe calling a person’s attention to an item coupled with an easy-to-use option to act on the item, will be enough to even get busy people to respond. We are even looking into VPN on Demand, so we could send these notifications as directly actionable items to an iPhone. If I add a bit of humor, maybe I can even increase the success ratio.

Is SharePoint Too…?

clip_image001Two great things happened this week. Thing one was that I managed to get my first iOS app deployed to my iPhone. Thing two was receiving an email from a satisfied SharePoint user. I can’t demonstrate the app here, but I can share the entire email with you:

     “Thanks, it’s looking good and easy to navigate

You have to admit, that is one sweet message. Here’s the thing though, the SharePoint solution that is looking good and easy to navigate is a large collection of Data View Web Parts, wired up with a bunch of custom XSL code. Why am bringing these two issues up in the same context? Because of the irony; let me explain.

Both solutions were hand-crafted, and both required about the same amount of code. The reaction I received when I completed the SharePoint solution is the first time one of our employees has used the words “easy” and “navigation” in the same sentence when speaking about SharePoint. On the other hand, I showed five people the iPhone app, and all five simply said “cool!” The iPhone app worked exactly like they expected it would. There are hundreds of thousands of iOS apps out there, and they all share a common and intuitive look and feel. That’s no accident, when I was writing the iOS app, I was following the iOS Human Interface Guidelines as provided by Apple on their Development Support Resource page. It is a well-known fact that if you stray too far from those guidelines, your app will never see a slot in the App Store. My app doesn’t have to be sold in the store, or vetted by Apple, but my users certainly expect an “iPhone experience.” My users never know what to expect from SharePoint.

We have delivered dozens of SharePoint solutions over the course of 5 or 6 years, and almost all of them have been well received by the users who rely on them. We have worked hard to make those solutions effective, efficient and acceptable to our users, but this might be the first time we tried to make a SharePoint solution look cool. SharePoint is big, capable, scalable and largely undefined. I once described SharePoint as vacant office space waiting to be built out the way the new tenants desired. If I had to rewrite that blog post today, I would extend the construction metaphor and add that “sadly, there is no building inspector on duty.” Let’s face it; it is very easy to make SharePoint look like crap. The fact that most of our solutions are out-of-the-box boring is my fault, but Microsoft has been my accomplice. SharePoint, like everything Microsoft owns and offers, has been growing in size, scope and complexity since it was released. Apple drives solutions to the simplicity side of the “Ease of Use” scale while Microsoft seems Hell-bent on extending the difficulty side of the scale.

Somebody recently asked me if I would be switching our users over to Windows Phone7. Seriously? Most of my coworkers jumped at the chance to trade in the Windows Mobile phone I was providing them for free for an iPhone for which I only reimburse them between $15 and $60 a month – oh, I’m one of them! When I asked the person “what possible reason would I have to switch them to Phone7?” they mentioned how well it works with SharePoint. The last thing my users want is to navigate out-of-the-box SharePoint pages on a miniature device. Ironically, the solution that garnered me that awesome email looks great and works perfectly on an iPhone; it looks awesome on an iPad; it just doesn’t look like SharePoint.

When I think about the future of SharePoint, I seriously doubt that any other company will come out with a comprehensive platform (there’s that word) that will dethrone SharePoint as king. That said, I could see a combination of easy to use solutions like Box.net running on phones and tablets putting a serious dent into SharePoint’s market share. We have a vested interest in SharePoint, and in Microsoft, as my reseller likes to point out: “I drank the Kool-Aid years ago.” We use Microsoft solutions for networking, email, voicemail, phone, Office, database and we have recently switched from the software development environment I love (Smalltalk) to Visual Studio. Every solution we have is more complicated than the solution it replaced, but every one offers enough benefit to make the effort worthwhile. Unfortunately, “Simplicity” isn’t in Microsoft’s vocabulary, but I worry that it will be the word of choice of our next generation users. In an attempt to prop up the value of Microsoft solutions, my team and I will continue to work to make those solutions look better than they want to look.

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