In my last post, Pizza and SharePoint™—Branding and Design, I drew an analogy between presenting your best work to your customers without presenting your best selves to your employees in terms of the systems and sites developed for internal use. But why is it so hard to gain user acceptance and what sorts of things can we do to make it easier on ourselves? Why do we even care if your employees “accept” sites we build for them?

It’s easy enough to operate from the perspective that there is certain information that employees “need” to do their job, and there is certain information that is “nice to have.” In corporate structures, critical information or the “need to have” information is often presented in the most expedient way possible. Very often expediency in design results in the employee having to jump through hoops to get the information. “It’s the best we could do, in the time we had.”

While we may have accomplished our basic goals for a site, it doesn’t mean we did a good job. In fact, if we aren’t careful, we may actually create new issues in the process. If we didn’t gain acceptance of the platform we used for the initiative, chances are we’ve:

  • Poisoned the platform for future use by leaving a negative first impression.
  • Used too much time ($) to achieve too little tangible results.
  • Sent a message that we don’t value our users.

While it is sometimes necessary to compromise good design for expediency, we pay a heavy price for failing to gain acceptance. When we do gain acceptance, we achieve our goals faster, cheaper, and we create repeat visits that give us a viable way to expand our goals and create something sustainable over time. AND, we send a message that we care enough to think things through and value our team.

So why, when it comes to SharePoint sites, is it so hard to design for acceptance?

When building informational or community sites, SharePoint acts as a content management system, or CMS, and allows us to present the data separately and in different contexts. This means the data or information is contained in a different technical structure than the look and feel, or branding of the site. This is wonderful when it comes to keeping the content up-to-date, but requires a little extra planning when designing page layouts that support content that is meant to be changed independent of the layout. That seems to be where many implementations fall short.

I.T. departments are typically charged with implementing systems, such as SharePoint, and while your mileage may vary, they generally do a very good job of implementing the functionality or data layer… and tend to pay very little attention to the presentation layer. The typical result is a perfectly functional data infrastructure with a bone-stock, straight from the vanilla Microsoft set of page templates. Since SharePoint wasn’t designed to fulfill a specific need from a specific audience, not much care was taken with these stock templates. Frankly, I find them ugly and filled with usability issues, and I am not alone. Nonetheless, as SharePoint is rolled out, content owners are very often forced to use these templates either expressly or because they aren’t informed that they have any control over the presentation and don’t have the knowledge of how to change it.

In many organizations, a user’s first exposure to SharePoint is an ugly, usability-challenged site, a “crew pie” to reference my previous post. They may need the information that the site contains, but they are often left frustrated and unimpressed. For organizations that recognize this failing, this typically results in a subsequent project to improve either:

  • Look and feel (branding)
  • Usability

The truth is you need to do both. If you fix the content organization and improve the usability, it’s hard for the user to get past the ugly and truly engage with the site. If you fix the ugly but leave the usability out, you may get your users back briefly, but they will inevitably get frustrated again. User acceptance of a site means they accept both the way a site looks AND the way it works.

Usability is a topic for another article, but for organizations that have already fallen into the bad- or no-design trap, a good design can help them crawl out of the user acceptance hole. It sends a message that this site is worthwhile and important enough to warrant thoughtful design, and likewise the users of the site are important and valued enough to warrant the time and money spent on design. For those organizations that haven’t rolled out their first sites, let this serve as a tip:

Whether you call it branding, look and feel, or design, it’s a critical piece of user acceptance.

In the next entry, we’ll focus on usability some more, starting with setting realistic objectives and how to map those objectives to the functionality you design into your sites.

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