Disposable SharePoint

clip_image002I was pretty sure that I have written about this subject before, but I can’t find it so here goes. One of the things I love about SharePoint is one of the most often overlooked features – the fact that sites can be destroyed. When I say “destroyed” I mean exactly that, deleted, eliminated and removed from use. When I say “overlooked” I mean that we are usually focused on building sites to support an ongoing need or to automate a permanent process; I mean that we are thinking long-term or permanent. In our case, it’s because we tend to focus on Content Management solutions as opposed to playing to SharePoint’s strength of collaboration.

This week, we started the process of setting up a new temporary site, just as I was getting close to eliminating a similar site. Both sites were built in support of a systems development effort, and both benefit from several of SharePoint’s out-of-the-box technology.

The older site was built to organize documents related to a major redesign of our policy rating system. We used SharePoint to hold spreadsheet models, sample reports, SQL Select statements, documentation and we even used a SharePoint wiki to design changes to a user interface. We had a discussion list to track problems and potential solutions and we had a task list to keep people aware of pending deadlines. Today, as we are beginning to build out a more comprehensive site for our underwriting department, we are moving the useful artifacts from the development site to a permanent home. Soon, we will simply delete the old site. I must say that I wish SharePoint had some of the features of my daughter’s old game, Kid Cad, which let you delete structures by running a bulldozer through them or by using explosives. Microsoft could have at least added some sound effects to list, library and site destruction.

The new site will be used to help us as we design and develop a replacement for our foreign reinsurance management system. Right now, we are simply providing access to some reports that are being used to verify our data conversion process. As the system grows and as we start breaking ground on design issues, we will likely expand our use of SharePoint. This makes sense for a few reasons.

Proximity – If you’ve been reading this blog for even a little while, you knew that was coming. Having the things you need clustered together is a good thing. People like being able to find everything about a project in the same general area, and SharePoint allows us to quickly assemble highly functional little areas.

Feels Like Home –Yeah, I’m dreaming, but people are getting used to SharePoint and we are starting to benefit from the fact that they generally know what to do to get from A to B and how to get back to A. That may not sound like much, but navigation was a big complaint early on, so either people have figured it out, or they’ve stopped complaining. We have already delivered some reporting solutions to this department in SharePoint, so I think the feeling of familiarity will actually help us.

Easy to Delete – I have been doing systems development for 35 years, and one thing that hasn’t changed is the amount of stuff that gets generated. Not only do we create a lot of tables, diagrams, reports and data, we tend to spread it around, and forget where we put it. I am reasonably sure that I could find documents related to development projects from the early 1990’s if I looked hard enough. When we do tear this site down, just like the one I mentioned earlier, it will go in one smooth motion.

SharePoint sites can be made to stick around and serve future employees, but they can also be built for a single, temporary purpose. That’s one of the good things about this platform. Unfortunately, humans have a tendency to hold a certain pride of authorship that causes us to keep sites after they have served their purpose. We tell ourselves that “this data might be useful someday…” or “we may need to show this to the auditors…” or “we may want to review this when we make the next change…” Those aren’t hypothetical; I’ve said all three of them before. If the site is good, make it a template, and then light the fuses.

Taking the Next Step

imageIf you follow this blog, or even if you drop in from time to time, you know two things about our SharePoint implementation – we have had some success, and much work remains. Given that situation, this might not seem like the time to be more aggressive with our SharePoint goals, but I think it is. I want to build on the success we have had; I want to extend our reach into other areas of our business, while also expanding the number of ways that we can take advantage of SharePoint.

Lately, we have been working to find something in between the boring out-of-the-box look and feel of SharePoint and a totally custom solution. We want to avoid recreating, as Owen Baern said: “The Problem SharePoint Solved”, but we are trying to give our users the experience they deserve. I am also trying to save time and money by extending SharePoint into the realm previously dominated by fat-client desktop applications. During the past 10 months, we have had some good success building off the lessons we learned during a training session last year with Marc D. Anderson, but as the title suggests, it was time to move the bar. Last year, we learned a lot about working with Data View Web Parts and script, and we used that knowledge to build a couple of very cool summary analysis pages (dashboards if you prefer buzzwords). This year, we wanted to get started with Marc’s SPServices library, so we had him take us to school again.

I have seen a large number of shout-out’s and thank you’s to Marc on Twitter about SPServices, but we really hadn’t come up with a reason to use it, until a couple of months ago. Having split our Internet-facing server into several site collections, we wanted a way to intelligently share items from a master list at the root level of the farm. The list contains employee contact information, including relational items so we can assign them to the sites we insure, the committees of our Board of Directors, and the business partners we deal with. All of these assignments are made by role, so an insured knows who the underwriter is, who the engineer(s) are and who to call for technical support. We have done this in the past with a separate master list in each site collection, using views or DVWPs, but we wanted a single list, so the people who maintain the contact information didn’t have to bounce around between sites. We also wanted the list to be easy to load on each/any page, and we wanted it to look good.

Marc quickly put us on the road to success, with a simple extract of data from the master list, displayed in a Content Editor Webpart that had that familiar SharePoint look and feel. We were impressed, but then Marc put us on the highway, making the list look a little better and driving its contents dynamically from the page it was on. I dropped that link on a test page, in a different site collection, and it sprang to life with the appropriate data. Next, Marc put us on a Trans-AM course, when he used his library’s feature to return a JSON array, so that we could group the results in a way that made sense to our customers, as opposed to the way they were returned by the query. image

Some of our insureds operate multiple reactor sites and there may be numerous underwriters and/or engineers assigned to the account. In those cases, we wanted the account staff to be grouped by insured site, but we wanted the technical staff only listed once. For single unit locations, we wanted the team listed without any grouping or at least with the single group opening in an expanded state.

As Marc worked his middle-tier magic, we got the clear impression that he could put us on a Formula-1 course if we wanted to go that far – we didn’t. We want a good user experience, but we still wanted our users to know they were in SharePoint. This is the point when I am glad we teamed up with Marc. He didn’t come here with a solution in search of a problem; he didn’t walk in trying to sell us the same approach he used at his last client, or his favorite approach, in fact, he ended up trying something new. He came to teach, and he taught us how to do what we wanted to be able to do. If we ever need help building a solution, he’s the first person I would call. This time around it was a learning event, and it was a total success.

Does SharePoint Make You Happy

Earlier this week, I was lucky enough to share the stage with Jill Hart, at an AIIM New England event titled “Usability Matters”. Jill set me up, by asking me to speak first. She had the advantage of having seen my presentation and she knew that it included information about things we did wrong in addition to the things we did right. During my presentation, Jill revised her presentation to include quotes, examples and even pictures of me. Even as I introduced her, Jill was revising her presentation.

As we were preparing for the transition, I asked Jill if she wanted to use my remote control device to advance her slides. When she started speaking, she talked about how she immediately felt good once she realized that my remote was a Kensington. She had used this manufacture’s devices before, she knew it would work and, more importantly, she knew how it would work. She went on to talk about the ways that previously positive user experiences build brand loyalty with customers. She gave tons of examples, good and bad, and she helped me understand that although my wife jokes about me being a marketing sap, I am really responding to a great user experience when I reach for my Stanley FatMax tools. Then I started wondering about SharePoint.

If you are in a typical business environment, someone is bound to ask “where can I get a copy of…” and the answer, at least on occasion is going to be “that’s in SharePoint.” The next time that happens, watch the person’s facial expression. Are they as happy to know that the stuff they need is in SharePoint as Jill was to know that the remote was a Kensington? Are they as excited as I was the day I saw a Stanley FatMax Utility Knife hanging on the rack at Home Depot? If they aren’t then you haven’t done your job. If their expression is similar to that of someone who just realized that they are missing a key ingredient for a recipe, you could be in trouble. If their expression matches the one when they are told “you have to go to DMV to process that transaction” you might want to think about starting over.

I have to be honest, I am trying to stay out of trouble with SharePoint user experience; ours hasn’t always been good enough. The biggest problem has always been navigation. We would have that little discussion quoted above, and, along with the recipe face (see above), the person would say something like “oh, I can never find anything out there” in a way that would equate SharePoint with the area of space beyond the asteroid belt. When we upgraded to SharePoint 2010, we consolidated a lot of SharePoint content to make it easier to find. In some cases, we eliminated sites completely because the only thing of value in the site was a single document library. Why make people step around an empty task list, an empty list of links, an empty calendar and that picture of those freakishly happy people that adorns the Team Site template – all to get at one library. A very simple example of something we added was a link on most pages (we’re not done yet) back to the main page. Breadcrumbs are great, but they are still two clicks instead of one, and many people don’t realize that the little folder icon contains the breadcrumbs in SP 2010.

In my presentation, I also mentioned that we are working to decrease the degrees of separation between task and content. We bought SharePoint as an ECM solution, to manage our digital content, but there’s a problem with that approach. In most cases, digital content is the end of the line; the report, the PowerPoint file, the PDF, all represent end products of a sometimes lengthy process. We are working now to insert SharePoint into the process itself. We are trying to find ways to accommodate the precursors to those results, the links, data, reference material and images that went into the report or presentation. Hopefully, by bringing people into SharePoint earlier in their process, they will get more comfortable. Besides, someone is just as likely to want to find the image they used in a report last year as they are to find the actual report.

For the ROI fans in your organization, remind them that we will never get our money’s worth out of SharePoint if people only use it when they have to. If we want to move the bar on SharePoint adoption, we need to focus on user experience. I wonder if Stanley makes a FatMax web part.

Great Ideas Come From Customers

clip_image002We spend a lot of time and considerable effort managing an Internet-facing server for our members, customers and business partners. Usually, this is a “build it and they will come” type effort. We build out what we think is an effective site, we track a certain amount of usage that tells us it’s working, we pat ourselves on the back and move onto the next task. In the course of normal business, we don’t actually have contact with these important users. Recently, I attended our company policyholder meeting, and I got to spend some time in one-on-one meetings with a few of our customers. It’s one thing to send someone their user credentials and receive a “Thanks, this looks good…” email. It’s a whole ‘nother thing to sit next to that person and walk them through their site.

I always get a little nervous before these meetings, and I always come away realizing that the nervousness was unnecessary. We are providing a service to our customers, and they appreciate it. If they have problems, suggestions or questions, they really appreciate the fact that we are willing to solve, consider or answer them. We had a few of each to deal with this time, and I learned a lot in the process.

One of the things that I learned is how important it is to consider SharePoint from the point of view of the user. We look at this site as a multi-use portal; it serves our members, our policyholders, many of our important business partners and our employees. One of the things we did when we upgraded to SP 2010 was to create separate content databases along these various groups. That we had to do this is a good thing, it means people are using the site. Of course, it also means that the URLs changed. Navigation from the top level site didn’t change, and the main URL didn’t change, but these people want to start at a place that makes sense to them; they don’t want to enter the front door and then walk down to “Men’s Wear.” Fortunately, we anticipated this problem, and we secured a domain name that will link them to the front page of the policyholder site – forever!

One of the things that we didn’t anticipate is how our site can be both important and trivial, and how that dichotomy influences what our users want. Our site is important, because it is a source of information that our policyholders need. Our site is trivial, because they have a thousand other things to keep track of. They rely on our content always being up to date; they want to know when our content changes but they don’t want dealing with that content or those changes to be a big drill. They want us to improve notification.

We thought that notification was easy – users can set up alerts and get notified of everything that changes, and they can have as many users as they like. Well, some of their users don’t remember to set up alerts, and they want some people to be notified without having them be credentialed users on the site. They want to have a contact list that can include users and non-users, and they want a “more descriptive email notification” to go out when content changes, not simply the SharePoint alert. I know that we can handle that request for one policyholder sub-site, and I think we can handle it for all of them with a roll-up list, but suffice it to say, we have some work ahead of us.

Another challenge that lies ahead of us is training. One of the changes we made during the upgrade process was to eliminate folders in the various document libraries. Face-to-face, I was able to show the benefit of having all the content in one place, and being able to sort and filter on the metadata. Apparently, “face-to-face” was the important part of that sentence. I was asked if I could provide remote video training. The answer is “yes I can,” but now that task is on my plate; I don’t think anyone from my awesome staff is going to volunteer to be the trainer. At least this will give us a chance to put Lync to the test.

I am famous for looking for the bright side to every situation (and there always is a bright side). When I look at this situation, I think about how lucky I am to be able to meet with these folks and get their honest feedback. Of course great food, open bars and a hike through a San Diego canyon helped set the stage for a comfortable exchange, but the important thing is that the dialog will help us turn a good site into an awesome site.

Appearance Matters

Along the Windsor Locks Canal PathTwo weeks ago, we upgraded our internal SharePoint server to SharePoint 2010. I say ‘we’ because, years ago I drank the Microsoft Software Assurance Kool-aid that allows us to upgrade at our leisure, I beat the SharePoint drum around the office and I write the blog. My Systems Admin single-handedly performed the upgrade – good job Chase! I wanted SharePoint 2010 ever since I saw the first presentation that talked about the new look and feel and the new features. I wanted it even more after ‘we’ built out our test server and I started working with SharePoint 2010. I like the way our solutions work on 2010, and I like the way they look. I also like features like External Lists, and for the record, I am working in these latter areas. Despite all the testing, anticipation, promises and training, I was surprised to find just how much I like working in SharePoint 2010.

Last week, we welcomed a former employee back into the fold. This woman worked with us in the late 1990’s, just barely crossing into the new millennium. She is primarily a Systems Analyst, but like everyone in our small organization, she wears many hats. When she left, she had just put the finishing touches on a system in Lotus Notes, which was to be our document platform. Going forward, she will be involved with the solutions we build on SharePoint, as well as the systems we build that interface with SharePoint. Right now, she is in learning mode and one of the things she is learning is where we keep our department information, including our design documentation – of course that would be SharePoint.

I was truly amazed at how much easier it is to introduce someone to SharePoint, now that it’s SharePoint 2010; it’s almost intuitive! It was nice to be able to point to the Ribbon and say things like “this tab includes all the things you can do with the documents and this tab is all the things you can do with the library itself”. Simple look and feel changes like the way a form opens over the grayed-out library or list, instead of bouncing between pages, are really refreshing. Replacing the breadcrumbs with a drop-down little tree-view, and locating the Site Actions on the same side of the page as everything else, actually chip away at ‘navigation’ issue that has dogged SharePoint since inception. My new coworker was seeing all this for the first time, but I was happily aware of all the places I used to say “ok, this is a little confusing, but…

Of course, the really amazing thing became apparent when we stepped into the settings to add a few columns and create a couple of views. We made our Custom List and our Library significantly more useful, and we only touched about 10% of the available features. In previous versions, it seemed that by the time you fought your way to the settings, you were too tired to experiment. Now, it’s like walking down Main Street and popping into all the new stores. I know, the Settings page hasn’t actually changed much, but I am no longer frustrated by the time I get there. As further evidence that SharePoint 2010 was a big step in the right direction, another coworker offered that “this new version is much easier to understand.” This guy represents many of my users; he grudgingly agreed to use SharePoint because it made sense, but he never thought it was easy.

As I reflect on our training exercise, I think that SharePoint is finally getting out of its own way with 2010. I know some will point out that my new coworker is a bright, talented IT-type, but I think the changes in SharePoint 2010 will work for everyone. The stumbling block that was the cumbersome interface has become a stepping stone. In a previous series on this blog, I talked about my development mantra “make it work, make it fast, make it pretty.” SharePoint has always worked, and SharePoint has been “fast enough”; now, with SharePoint 2010, I think Microsoft has added just the right amount of ‘pretty’ to let our solutions stand on their own.