clip_image002I began driving in the era when Interstate highways were beginning to replace the convoluted network of US and State highways interconnected by local roads. One of the first major bits of Interstate to open up in western PA was I-79 between Bridgeville and Washington, PA a.k.a. “little Washington” so you didn’t confuse it with Washington, D.C. I-79 was an alternative to, but did not replace US Rt-19. Unfortunately for me, my father stood by Rt-19 as his first choice for any destination between our house and little Washington. I can remember his arguments, which varied between: “Rt-19 is actually shorter” to “by the time you deal with getting to and from the ramps, the highway isn’t that much faster” – I call results like that a Failure Due to Marginal Improvement (FDMI).

I have recently been reminded of those conversations with my dad, as I try to replace an Excel spreadsheet with a series of SharePoint lists. The issue is that we aren’t talking about replicating data; we are talking about changing, and hopefully improving the process that the data is associated with. The question is, are we doing enough.

The spreadsheet works – The current “system” in Excel doesn’t work well, but has the advantage that people know how it works. This is often the reason why people want to just move what they have into SharePoint, the thought is that they will still understand it. When we are replacing a list, we are often changing the way items are created, maintained and viewed. The result should be a better overall experience, but will it be good enough to offset the change?

Several weeks ago, Marc Anderson raised the question of whether form or function was more important. I suggested that the form-function ratio should never be less than 4:3, and this little project is an example why I think that is true. SharePoint lists are about as close to a database solution as you can get without invoking SQL, but we’re still talking rows and columns, and rows and columns are Excel’s forte. When you start moving Excel data into SharePoint, you create one or two (in this case three) Custom Lists. If you show the user an All Items view of their data in SharePoint, it’s going to look worse than it did in Excel. SharePoint doesn’t use its screen real estate as efficiently as Excel, and people who like Excel will pick up on that immediately.

The Excel-based solution I am replacing is a collection of observations and recommendations. Each row has details about the observations on the left, a huge column of text containing the observations in the center, and a series of recommendations on the right side of an A-X layout. The text is nearly unreadable and it is hard to stay on the same row as you scroll right to left, but the process is easy to understand. Read the details, read the text, write the recommendation.

Moving to a data view web part of items, with options to expose the details in a second DVWP, the observations in another and the previous recommendations in a third, give us a composite view of each item in an easy to read format.

I am planning to add an entry part to write the new recommendations, but that can wait. What we have so far is based on the initial discussion, and it’s time to check-in and show the results.

I’ve got one more concern as I get ready to touch base with the future owner of this solution. Since the stuff isn’t in the same “row” (it’s not even in the same list) he needs to have an increased level of trust in the underlying process. Sometimes it’s hard for people to accept that everything on that page is everything there is. Again, you gain that confidence in the spreadsheet visually; it’s not a pretty sight, but you can see it. I plan to walk the new owner through the process of building an entry from the ground up. By the time we come back to the composite page, he will know exactly what he should see. I’ve made that trip eight times, so I know it’s going to be a sweet ride. In addition to making it work, the user experience needs to be clearly superior to Excel if we’re going to avoid FDMI.

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.