Award winning SharePoint intranets that don’t look like SharePoint

Investing in user experience and branding for SharePoint solutions can help create successful intranets

I'm spending this weekend hunkered down with the 433-page Intranet Design Annual 2011 from Nielsen Norman Group featuring what they consider this year's 10 best intranets. As in the previous several years, about half the winners (5 in the current edition) use SharePoint as a foundation for the entire intranet or a significant component. However, unlike some previous years, unless you read the detailed descriptions of the technology behind these award-winning intranets, you would never know that they are built on SharePoint. I often hear clients say, "I want to use SharePoint but I don't want it to look like SharePoint." As these winning intranets demonstrate, with a little time and effort (and money, of course) this is definitely possible.

Why do people say that they don't want their intranets to "look" like SharePoint? I hear this comment a lot in my consulting practice.

  • First, Microsoft provides SharePoint as a platform to get you started with any of the many features SharePoint can enable, but what most users see is collaboration or intranet. Out of the box, it has generic branding and site elements - that you are supposed to adapt to be more relevant to your organization. However, when many organizations first deploy SharePoint, they install the "vanilla" version and turn it over to end users, often without any custom branding (or without getting rid of the standard Microsoft pictures and links), and without any guidance, expectations, best practices, training or governance. Eventually, consultants like me get brought in to clean up the mess, but first impressions don't go away quickly and users are left thinking that somehow you can't make things "look nice" in SharePoint when that is, of course, completely not true. To be sure, it's much easier to provide more user-friendly themes and branding in SharePoint 2010, but if you look at the award winning intranets in the Neilsen Norman report, they are all built on SharePoint 2007 - so, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, you have always had the ability to brand your site as your own and make it "look less like SharePoint." It might not be as easy as clicking your heels together three times, but it definitely can be done.
  • Second, ignoring branding considerations, no one will tell you that everything in every out of the box site template is going to be relevant for your organization or your teams - it's up to you (the intranet or SharePoint designer) to do a little homework to customize the templates to best meet the needs of your organization and how people work. Most of my clients have no use for the out of the box "Contact List" in the SharePoint 2007 team site template so we create a customized version where this list isn't in the default site. I also typically get rid of the Shared Documents library and replace it with a Documents or Team Documents library with custom metadata based on an analysis of information needs. Meeting Workspaces get a "I love them" or "I hate them" reaction but even people who love them typically find a need to make some customizations to the structure and layout of what they get out of the box. Even a simple reorganization of the content on a page can significantly change how a page looks and get users to say, "Gee, that doesn't look like SharePoint!"
  • Third, it's very important to understand and apply best practices for site navigation when you build a SharePoint solution. Out of the box, SharePoint can dynamically build top and left side navigation - but that doesn't mean it's the right or only way to create a navigation path for your site. Microsoft wasn't thinking about your organization or the best way to organize information for you when SharePoint automatically creates a new tab when you create a new sub-site. You can easily add images in Content Editor Web Parts that can include hyperlinks to create more visual navigation if that is appropriate. Many end users don't know that they can change the site navigation with a few simple steps - another way to easily change the look and feel of a SharePoint solution to make it feel "less like SharePoint."

My point is the following: there are several ways to make "SharePoint not look like SharePoint." The first involves simply using the out of the box configuration tools, information architecture best practices and a knowledge of the business needs of the organization to create a more compelling user experience. The second requires engaging a creative team that understands how best to work with SharePoint to create a visually compelling look and feel that combines both information architecture and information findability best practices with creative web branding skills. The combination of both of these approaches is what I think makes it virtually impossible to easily tell that the 2011 award-winning SharePoint intranets are based on SharePoint.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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