Editor's note: Contributor Alex Manchester is an Intranet researcher, strategist and experience designer. Follow him @alex_manchester
I've written before about the idea of using Microsoft SharePoint out of the box, with the general point being that it's typically not the right aspiration or question to be asking. Nor is it all that realistic.
Thinking like this is 'SharePoint first thinking', where decisions are railroaded because of the technology being SharePoint or your organisation being a Microsoft house and being locked in, as opposed to SharePoint as a technology product being fit for a given purpose in the first place.
SharePoint is a complex product. Only in the most basic scenarios will a vanilla install meet the needs of the organisation it supports, the project being undertaken, the people paying for it and - too often - the poor, bewildered employee tasked with using it every day.
With SharePoint 2013 (SP2013), one sub-topic that's taken a further twist in the 'out of the box' debate is that of design (and design includes IA, layouts, branding and functionality – the user interface).
Should you, or shouldn't you, brand, tweak and customise the user interface of a SharePoint 2013 intranet?
We covered this topic to some degree in the SharePoint Best Practices report. With SP2013, Microsoft's advice in this area has seemingly hardened.
According to Jeff Teper - senior vice president for SharePoint:
"Use SharePoint as an out-of-box application whenever possible - We designed SharePoint [2013's] UI to be clean, simple and fast and work great out-of-box. We encourage you not to modify it which could add complexity, performance and upgradeability and to focus your energy on working with users and groups to understand how to use SharePoint to improve productivity and collaboration and identifying and promoting best practices in your organization."
So, that's that then? Not so fast...
In a further discussion on SPYam, (the SharePoint community's Yammer space), Teper clarified:
'For core collaboration, document sharing and social, a number of customers would be better off using the new default experience as some suffer from... what we'd call the MySpace problem' (via Bjørn Furuknapp).
Teper was alluding to the tendency of organisations to get in deep trouble badly hacking their SharePoint installations to look 'prettier'.
Hacked abominations versus great looking sites
For intranets (as with websites), such hacking and the subsequent design faux pas are nothing new. We've all seen awful intranet designs: flashing lights, animated gifs, gaudy colours, pet animal themes (my favourite), though thankfully they're now less common.
We've seen many a poor looking SharePoint site, too. But we've also seen lots of very good ones – if the people creating them know what they're doing and if due time and care is given.
I realise all of those things are big 'if's, but it's pretty obvious isn't it - get someone or a team that who knows what they're doing?
Look - here's a landing page from Coca-Cola Enterprises and one from Stockland (both from the Best Practices for SharePoint intranets report).
Image courtesy of Coca-Cola Enterprises.
Image courtesy of Stockland.
These are great looking intranets, way better than the vanilla design that SharePoint otherwise provides. Both sites are built on SharePoint 2010 but the point is applicable to SP2013 too. Perhaps with better HTML, CSS in SP2013 it's even easier to make them look this good.
These sites are closely tied with their business's look and feel and better for it.
What would you rather have if either were your organisation and intranet?
A Microsoft prescription?
I also tend to think the day we take Microsoft's 'one-size fits all' advice on matters of design and user experience is still some way off at best.
Why? Well, here's one example. The screenshot below shows profile fields on an Office365/SP2013 instance
Yes, you can see:
- 'Basic Information'
- 'Contact information'
- 'Details' and the increasingly common
- '...' for even more 'settings' via a pop-up menu.
Four fields that make little sense together and even less so when separated (Thankfully they've dropped the 'My' from 'MySites' – it's now just 'Sites').
It also hasn't taken long for people to shoot some holes in the SP2013 social and Skydrive UI, nor scratch their head at Microsoft's vague roadmap for Yammer integration.
Taking on board how good the reengineered enterprise search is in SP2013, we can have faith that Microsoft has the ability to improve things. Yet these obvious examples should make anyone with a modicum of UX design under their belt very, very cautious about out of the box ambitions.
We should also be conscious of Microsoft's mixed messages around SharePoint being 'a platform to build upon' versus this notion of being 'a complete, out of the box solution' (the main point covered by Bjørn Furkunapp in his post a few months ago).
So, yes, it's still too early to take Microsoft's UX, UI and design statements as gospel, even if they're from the SharePoint Vice President.
But, should you customize?
As hinted at earlier, ultimately whether you should customize SharePoint - UI or deeper, and to what extent - isn't even a SharePoint question. It's a business question.
SharePoint is a means to an end. It has to do what an organisation needs it to do (be fit for purpose).There are some situations where a vanilla SharePoint instance may suffice, but there are a lot more where it won't.
Some situations will require a different or additional product (see Microsoft Australia's John Barrett comment on the difference between SharePoint 2013's good but basic social features, and something comprehensive and next generation, like Newsgator Social Sites version 3).
Other situations may require a little or a lot of customisation for SharePoint.
All of this is determined by (hands up if you're shocked by this statement) focusing first on business and user requirements, and not whether SharePoint can do it out of the box.