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.

Serious Fun Stuff

clip_image002Earlier this summer, our company started a Wellness program. You know, eat right, exercise and avoid bad thoughts and foods. If it wasn’t for the prospect of living longer, this stuff would seriously not be worth it. We did a walking contest, where we divided into teams and counted steps for seven weeks. It was a fun activity, my Systems Analyst clocked in with the highest number of steps, and my team had the most steps of any team (yeah, she was on my team). We tracked the results on SharePoint, but it was a bit of a pain. We weren’t sure this program was going to last, so we tweaked a few custom lists and views on a weekly basis to record activity and show results. Now we are getting ready to kick-off an ongoing wellness campaign, and we want to track it on SharePoint. I was eager to help with that request, because it was an opportunity to show how versatile SharePoint is. Then, the woman managing the program asked “can the site be pretty?” If you have been reading this blog, you know that that’s code for “can we have someone other than Dan working with us?

My reputation for focusing on “let’s get it to work first and then worry about pretty” was earned over a long time, and even though my opinion is changing, I’m fighting history on this. I do support the idea that this site should have a unique look and feel and I want it to offer a great user experience. The wellness program is meant to be a fun, yet serious activity and the site should reflect that. Wellness is an important non-business-transaction related activity. That means we want people to participate, but it isn’t mandatory. If we can do something with SharePoint to encourage, or at least not discourage participation, I’m all for that – even at the cost of pretty. My Systems Analyst is doing most of the SharePoint work (when you only have three people, titles aren’t that important) and she is a strong advocate of a great user experience. Clearly, getting this site to work the way that we want it to was going to require some help. We are comfortable with defining and building the underlying model, and we are confident we can wire up the workflows to track activity, calculate points, let people choose prizes – oh yeah, prizes; I’ll exercise for free, but there needs to be a prize if you want me to eat healthy. With respect to look and feel, we know what we want, but we’re light on the skills to pull that off.

Unless you just started reading this blog, you can probably guess that we reached out to our friend Marc D. Anderson ( @sympmarc) for help. The reasons for engaging Marc are detailed in an earlier post, but this project fits one of my cases for using a consultant. I use consultants to take care of:

  1. The stuff I don’t want to know – Some things have to be done infrequently, things like setting up the trust between our internal farm and our Internet-facing farm. Yeah, I hired someone to do that.
  2. The stuff I do want to know – Huh? SharePoint is a big amorphous blob of a software platform that can be made to do wondrous things. I have seen examples of these things at conferences, in blogs, on websites, and I want to be able to do some of them. Sometimes, we try to figure that stuff out for ourselves, but sometimes we bring someone in to help us get it right the first time. That’s what we want to accomplish on this project.

Let me make sure I don’t violate my major pet peeve, even just by implication. Here’s a quick lesson in business etiquette:

Never, never never never, tell a consultant “I could do this myself; I just don’t have the time”.

First, it’s rude, and second it’s probably a lie. If I could do this myself, I would.

I am not too close to this project. I have been working to prepare for and participate in our company’s Policyholder Meeting so I will let Marc and Doreen fill you in on the details, after the project is complete. I have been part of the conversation regarding the direction and design, and I can say that I think we are going to create a very nice user experience. That means we will be supporting this worthwhile business objective, and we will be selling SharePoint. To get better than that would require adding bacon, and I don’t think that fits with Wellness (but don’t ask me to give it up).