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Learning to use SharePoint – could this be like learning to snowboard?

By Susan Hanley on Mon, 03/31/08 - 11:45pm.

After a week of fantastic spring break skiing at Whistler in British Columbia, I returned to work and was reminded that training alone is not enough to help users successfully build their own SharePoint collaboration sites.  It’s a bit like my friend Drew describes learning to snowboard, which he says is “easy to learn but difficult to master.”  I’m now convinced that SharePoint has this same characteristic – easy to learn but very difficult to master.  Why?  ...

...Because most organizations end up with just enough time to train users on the basic features and functions of the tool, not on information architecture and design best practices so that they can optimally build sites. You know, the kind where people can actually find information instead of having it buried in the same useless folder hierarchy that existed on the file shares SharePoint is replacing.  Training in the “how to” functions in MOSS 2007 is not enough – site builders, who in many organizations are not going to be IT folks but rather “regular” end users, also need to understand information design best practices.

Here are just a few concepts that can improve the end-user designed sites I have reviewed:

  • Tab Navigation: Sub-sites can be more easily organized and visible by leveraging the out of the box tab navigation that comes with SharePoint.  On one end user-designed site I reviewed recently, the site designer had multiple sub-sites but they were only visible in the left hand navigation, which, due to a lengthy list of libraries, etc., required a lot of vertical scrolling to find.  Grouping the sites on meaningful tabs (and sub-tabs) would have created a much more usable site.
  • Consistent Use of Metadata: In a series of sites in the same site collection (designed for the same group of end users), metadata should be consistently applied.  On this same site, some document libraries used a field called Keywords to categorize documents and others used a more functional term to categorize documents using the exact same values.  All libraries should have used the functional term.
  • Limited Use of Folders:  I’ve mentioned this in earlier posts, but folders are not the only way or often not the best way to organize information in a document library.  On many sites that I’ve reviewed in the past, I’ve seen folders with no documents, folders with one document, and folder hierarchies that are impossible to decipher (often, even for the original designer!).  SharePoint training really must include best practices for content organization or we’re going to have SharePoint sites that are as difficult to understand and navigate as the file shares they are designed to replace.
  • Consistent Page Layouts:  One of my clients described navigating the SharePoint sites in her organization as an “adventure.”  Every site uses a different structure – for example, some sites have Announcements web parts in the upper left, some in the upper right, some show 10 items and take up way too much screen real estate and some show just the 3 to 5 most recent items.  I shudder to think about how an external partner who works with multiple groups in this organization will react when it seems like they are working with 10 companies, not one!  Just because you CAN change the organization of the web parts on your site around doesn’t mean you should!  Organizations need to build  a collection of templates that work for their business and encourage users with design privileges to understand the value of the templates for their end users – creating a balance between “creativity and productivity,” with an emphasis on the latter.

SharePoint is a fantastic end user tool.  The “no code” capabilities are a great way to empower end users to create their own collaboration sites, without requiring IT intervention.  But, IT can’t just provide basic skills training in the features of SharePoint without also helping site designers learn to master the best practices of site design.  Drew tells me that any downhill skier can probably learn to snowboard almost as well as they ski but they have to really devote 3-5 solid days to master the techniques enough to fully enjoy the experience.  They clearly can’t be an expert in 3-5 days, but they can certainly have more than just the basics.  I think that’s how we have to look at SharePoint training – all site builders need to learn the basic skills first, but then they absolutely have to dedicate enough time to learn the best practices for site design and information architectures or their sites will just not be usable.