8 tips to get started with SharePoint communication sites

Lessons learned from an early adopter

get started with SharePoint communication sites

Last week, Microsoft started rolling out SharePoint communication sites to first-release customers. On one of my projects, we got early access to communication sites, and we’ve already got quite a few sites created. Most are still getting loaded up with content, but I thought I would share a few tips and practices that are helping our team.

Communication sites are beautiful, mobile and super easy to use right out of the gate. The team at Microsoft did a fantastic job on the layout, and you don’t need a degree in SharePoint to figure out how to add content and sections—and multiple columns! Moreover, there is clear, well-written documentation available that I’ll link at the bottom of the post. The documentation provides great “how to” information about each web part.

Even though it’s very easy—and fast—to create communication sites, there are some things you might want to think about.

1. It helps to do a little planning

I created a planning template in PowerPoint for folks at my client to use to think through site designs prior to building them. I made sample “cut and paste” images that reflect each of the possible hero web part configurations so that we can see how different configurations will work on paper as we plan each site.

“Paper planning” is probably not necessary for a simple site because it’s very easy to just try out different configurations in the site itself. But it’s been very helpful for more complex sites that have a lot of pages. Part of my planning template includes a place to list all the pages needed for the site and a place to document the kind of content needed for each page. That helps both me as an IA and folks who are building SharePoint sites for the first time think about how to create great experiences for their users.

One thing we are documenting for each page is whether we want to leave the default comments on the page. This feature allows you to collect feedback on every page. It’s great for news but not always relevant for other types of pages. And if you leave comments on, you need to make sure someone pays attention to the comments and responds to them. You won’t see the comments attribute until you publish the page the first time and then go back and edit it. So far, my users have asked to turn it off on every page. I’m still looking for a setting that will turn them off by default so that I can optionally turn them on when I want them and not the other way around.

2. Pages and content first, home page second

Every element in the beautiful new hero web part (the default web part at the top of the Topic template) needs to be connected to something. In most cases, we’re connecting to pages that we need to create on the site. It’s much easier to create the pages you need first and then “wire them” to the hero web part after.

Here’s one time-saving reason: When you create a page, you can add an image to serve as the banner, replacing the boring grey swirl on all modern pages. When you connect that page to the hero web part, you can use the auto-selected image and voila—your page banner image becomes the image for that tile of the hero web part.

3. All pages are pages, so you may need a custom column if you want to separate them

All of your pages live in the Site Pages library, but there is no easy way to tell if a page is news or a “regular” site page (at least not yet). We are using a Page Type column in the Site Pages library to categorize pages—for example, News, Category Navigation, Site Page, etc. You can only add the column from the library view of Site Pages in “quick edit” mode, but once you do, it helps you organize a site that has a lot of pages.

4. Not every tile needs to have an image

You can use images and text in the “hero” web part or you can use a solid colored block. (For now, you can’t change the color of the block, but that capability will be available at some point.) You can fake it until they make it by using a solid colored image as the “background picture” for your link.

If you are using five promoted content links in the hero, adding a solid block can help break up the images and direct the reader around the hero area logically.

5. Placement of the elements in the hero matters in mobile experiences

The hero web part “collapses” into a side-scrolling single panel on mobile devices. The primary image is always first, and users will need to scroll left to right to see secondary images—so give some thought to mobile experiences as you plan your page.

6. Images: Gotta love 'em, but you gotta own 'em

You and your users are going to use a lot of images on modern communication sites. Every news article and every page will look a lot better if they have at least one image—at least in the banner, but also in the body. If your organization has a paid subscription to an image service, that’s great—because you should have the legal right to use an image before you upload it to your intranet, even if the site is internally facing. I have a 10 images/month subscription to istockphoto.com for which I pay $40 per month. I do a lot of public presentations, so I am willing to pay the monthly fee—and the images are fantastic. But over the years, I’ve collected a few great web sites that have wonderful collections of searchable, high-resolution free images. Here are some of my favorite sources for free images:

7. It’s just as easy to make a crappy beautiful page as it is to make a crappy page—but your page is still crappy

Just because your pages look good with pretty images, it doesn’t mean they are good. You still need to create great content for your beautiful pages. Telling a story on a web page is not the same as telling a story in print.

  • Don’t overwhelm your readers with too much information on any page. Use “progressive disclosure” to help the reader maintain their focus of attention by grouping detailed information into logical categories so that readers can quickly scan the categories and then “click through” to learn more about that category.
  • Promote frequently needed content. Make sure what readers need most is easy to find.
  • Make your text “scannable” with bulleted lists and short sentences. People rarely read web pages word by word. Instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences.
  • One idea per paragraph of text. The first sentence should provide the summary or conclusion.
  • Don’t underline words that aren’t hyperlinks.
  • Do not use “click here” for hyperlinks. Look at the “do not use” example below. Your eyes are drawn to the word “here” and you must read the words before and after here to understand what you are clicking. The second and third example are much easier to scan, which means your users will find what they need quickly.
    • Do not use: Click here for the latest application form
    • Better: Download the latest application form
    • Best: Latest Application Form

There isn’t a lot of text formatting available on modern communication sites yet, but I like the “pull quote” style as a way to call the reader’s attention to an important concept. (See example below.) But remember, you can cut and paste from Word, and it just works!

sharepoint communication sites pull quote example Susan Hanley

8. SharePoint communications sites training provided by Microsoft

Want to learn more?

I’ll be participating in a live webinar hosted by Microsoft with our MVP and client team working at Shire on Wednesday, July 13, 2017 at 11 a.m. EDT. Register today to learn more about what we are learning. And Dave Feldman and I will be sharing more about building modern intranets at Ignite in September.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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