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SharePoint Design: What is Possible

Historically, SharePoint had a reputation for being fairly inflexible when it came to the look and feel for end users.  Whether deployed internally within a business as a simple document repository, or used as a customer facing website, SharePoint would typically look the same.  Like SharePoint.  More recently, that has changed.

Greater flexibility in the way SharePoint is developed has led to much more customisation being within reach.  Designers now have more flexibility about the use of CSS and cross device responsive design, while a variety of third party plug-ins and applications offer SharePoint designers the ability to include more flourishes in their design, with visual additions such as carousels and galleries.

At the same time as the increased design flexibility if more recent versions of SharePoint, the core design philosophy of Microsoft has evolved too.  The use of live tiles and the increasingly familiar metro / modern user interface with its bold colours and clear typography gives a clean, and relatively flexible experience for users with SharePoint “Out of the Box”.

In many organisations, the ownership of a SharePoint project falls across multiple departments, and there can be some conflict between them about what features need to be prioritised during the build process.  While the IT or infrastructure team are broadly responsible for the overall functionality of SharePoint, the actual user interface is as likely to be controlled by either a marketing team – for external facing websites, or by a communications or HR team for intranet.  This often leads to compromises in what can be achieved as multiple requirements are managed.

Basic SharePoint Design / Branding

Current versions of SharePoint allow a degree of customisation that was unavailable a few years ago.  The standard interface can be adapted to reflect an organisation’s branding including colours, and logos with minimal configuration work being carried out.  Much of this type of work can be controlled through the main admin panels and applied across the deployment to provide a consistent and experience for users.

This minimal branding can be very useful for staff, as it keeps the core design principles developed by Microsoft to promote usability and offers a very clean, easy to understand user area.

Different Team Sites within SharePoint can be provided with levels of customisation that allow teams and individuals to adapt certain interface elements to reflect internal branding – within the restriction of the overall branding package that has been used.

SharePoint Themes

Recent versions of SharePoint work in a similar way to a modern web content management system (CMS) in that the presentation of content and the content itself are somewhat independent.  The design or look and feel of SharePoint’s user areas are controlled with HTML and CSS with the content leaded into them.

This separation of design and content makes it possible to apply a wholesale change to SharePoint’s design through the use of a theme or branding package.  A business can effectively purchase a SharePoint branding package off the shelf, and with relatively little configuration work, apply it to an installation of SharePoint to make large changes to the look and feel including elements such as typefaces, colours, page layouts, and menu systems.

Modular SharePoint themes allow for an even higher level of flexibility that is not far short of a completely bespoke design package.  By taking the core theme, and then adding additional features such as Mega Menus, or carousel functions, SharePoint can be customised to a similar level to a modern website whilst also remaining responsive to different device types.

There can be some drawbacks with this approach.  Design will always be a slight compromise, limited by what is possible within the branding package, but using pre-configured and customised themes to control SharePoint look and feel provides a significant level of control in terms of design, and is sufficient in most cases.

Bespoke SharePoint Design

SharePoint’s flexibility allows for almost complete control over the user interface.  For projects where compromise of user interface is not possible – such as in an environment where specific accessibility requirements have been specified or SharePoint needs to precisely match an existing website or brand guidelines, bespoke coding is needed.

Through the use of custom CSS files, and HTML master page templates, SharePoint pages can be made to precisely match another web property or provide specific accessibility.  This type of specialist work is often carried out by a web designer rather than a software engineer who will work closely with the development team to ensure that the required functionality can be achieved within the design framework being used.

A bespoke SharePoint design package will often include either the custom development of code to handle certain visual elements, or the use of specific apps to deliver the required look and feel.  As such, a higher level of ongoing maintenance is required to ensure that all elements continue to function correctly as updates are applied, or changes are made to the platform as it evolves to meet business needs.

SharePoint that doesn’t look like SharePoint

A few years ago, many of the projects that igroup undertook included a brief that stated “We don’t want it to look like SharePoint”.  To a certain extent, that requirement was driven by the need to increase adoption by making SharePoint more accessible to staff who were unfamiliar with the principals of the software, but there was also an element of motivation to avoid creating an environment that was ugly for end users.

While we’re not yet at a stage where Microsoft’s Modern Design language has reached a level of maturity that users specifically request it to be left in place, we do see fewer SharePoint projects for internal use where stakeholders prioritise the look and feel delivered.  To an extent, this is a positive sign for adoption, indicating that people are more comfortable with SharePoint as a platform than they were in the past.

There will however always be a place for a custom SharePoint development for projects where an organisation needs their software to represent their brand values and to provide a consistent experience for users.

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