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Wish List: Four keys for SURFACE and SharePoint Next

Microsoft made a big splash with the unveiling of their long-awaited Surface Tablet yesterday.  Never mind the interesting choice of branding (anyone familiar with the previous Microsoft Surface will be surprised they took the name from the world’s coolest cocktail table and applied it to a slate), the big question in our secret mountaintop command center here at Perficient’s World SharePoint HQ is no surprise: What can Microsoft do to ensure that SharePoint’s “Wave 15” release takes full advantage of the company’s slick new tablet?

With that question foremost in mind, and in the name of truth, justice and instant analysis, I’ve compiled a quick list of my take on the four most important qualities that Wave 15 SharePoint will need to support if it’s truly to play well with the new Surface Tablet.  Microsoft’s ability to provide answers to these needs—or not—will say a lot about the potential of their different product groups to work together.  If they want to compete in the consumer market and retain their enterprise dominance going forward, that’s a must.

By the way, these are not predictions, but really more of a wish list.  Once Wave 15 goes public, we’ll come back down the list and see how they did.

Without further ado, then, here it is: Four SharePoint 15 MUST HAVES to take full advantage of the Surface Tablet (and coincidentally, the iPad).

1. Command interaction needs to be TOUCH FRIENDLY.  Hey, Ribbon!  Yes, you.  Even with a sound information architecture and a simplified navigation scheme, navigating the basic commands of a SharePoint site from a tablet can be awkward.  Anyone who has seen me fat-fingering various apps on my NewsGator-for-iPad video blog knows how important it is to design user interfaces that will allow people to swipe, pinch, and expand with the touch of two fingers.  This is as true for SharePoint as it is for any other web CMS.  SharePoint 2010’s ribbon made this occasionally problematic, leaving slate users longing for the days of Clippy to swoop in and show us how it’s really done.  Let’s hope Microsoft got it right for the Surface.

2. RESPONSIVE design is key.  You can no longer assume that everyone hitting a SharePoint site is doing so from a supported, “first tier”, desktop browser.  Even three years ago that was a relatively safe gamble, but it’s no longer the case.  Among many other things, Surface is Microsoft’s public admission of that.  SharePoint 15 will need to be highly customizable from a UI perspective, allowing designers the freedom they’ve only had in limited amounts thus far, in order to take advantage of designs that adapt to the form factor of the platform used to access them.

3. An INTEGRATED USER EXPERIENCE is essential.  There’s been a lot of talk about the “Metro” UI of  Windows 8 and the Windows Phone.  It’s beautiful and slick and very appealing, although of course some have grumbled that it’s too much of a jump from the traditional Windows style.  To truly integrate into this brave new world, SharePoint Next needs to look and feel like an extension of Windows 8 and (less difficult by far) play well with its cousin, Office 15.

4. Do you think we could get an APP for that?  SharePoint apps on the iPad are extremely limited in scope.  If Microsoft takes an integrated user experience with Windows 8 seriously, and really wants SharePoint to be functional on their own Surface Tablet, they’ll publish and support their own official SharePoint app that does more than just expose basic lists and libraries.  Search?  Records Management?  BI Dashboards?  Social feeds?  There are plenty of possibilities here if only they’d seize the day and attack them—and Surface seems like the perfect opportunity.  And while they’re at it, would it be too much to ask to write one for iPad?  The Bing app is both gorgeous and functional, the Lync app is great, and the OneNote app is really helpful– you know they can do it if they just decide it’s worth doing.

It’s said we’ll be seeing a public beta for Wave 15 soon.  Once that happens, I’ll be looking for any sign of these features and reporting back on just how the beta measures up.

MS Exec Nitin Bhatia on Yammer Acquisition (from TechCrunch)

We all have a great many questions about the roadmap impact of Microsoft’s much-discussed (and still, as of this writing, unofficial) acquisition of Yammer.  Serendipitously, TechCrunch has published an interview with departing Microsoft executive Nitin Bhatia, someone who might have better guesses than the rest of us.  In the interview, Mr. Bhatia– who is departing for NextDocs– gives his thoughts on Yammer as it stands today, and how SharePoint and Yammer might complement one another in the future.

One theory this interview does not advance is the hot theory that Dynamics CRM and a SalesForce/Chatter compete motion are driving this move.  Telling?

On Yammer:

“I used Yammer for a while to test it out and I thought it was fairly good but not quite where it needs to be.”

Sounds like a fairly lukewarm endorsement.  But wait, there’s more.

 “[Yammer] certainly does break periodically. We weren’t really aligned on Yammer when we were using it. There’s no doubt that scalability is still a concern.”

So what will Microsoft do to improve reliability?  Read on.

On the acquisition’s future implications:

“My gut instinct is that Yammer will be left alone as a stand-alone product like Skype business. Then they will integrate Yammer with Sharepoint as part of the collaboration suite, and over time, it will become a big part of Sharepoint.”

One very interesting thought Mr. Bhatia brings forward is the possibility of Microsoft leveraging its Facebook investment and relationships to improve its solution for enterprise collaboration.

“I think what Microsoft is going to do is leverage its Facebook relationship to really develop and grow this product into a more scalable enterprise-ready software that they can build out. Microsoft will take the core of the product and start from there. They’ll have to make some sizable changes to it, but I think the Sharepoint engineering team can pull it off with the relationship Microsoft has with Facebook.”

He goes on to laud the Office division’s success in creating enterprise-ready software, which is valid praise.  Microsoft may have its share of critics, but the ubiquity of Office and SharePoint make a pretty solid case for the value of their software.  This is a company with a very solid track record and that’s a good sign for the enterprise regardless.

“They’ll review it and get it to the point where it is suitable for large companies. Sharepoint is used in projects that have over 300,000 people. Scalability is a big thing for Microsoft and it clearly has to be reviewed as the product evolves.”

For more, please read the original interview on TechCrunch’s own site.

Your Culture = Your Intranet

The last month at Perficient has seen me working on various social intranet projects both here in the Midwest, and outside of my usual stomping grounds.  On a project in Philadelphia, I was treated to a close-up sight of that city’s beautiful City Hall every day, and it got me thinking about architecture, culture, and corporate intranets.

How exactly does an American civic building designed to evoke the grandeur of Imperial France lead me to intranets?  You’d be right to wonder, so I can tell I’ve got some explaining to do.  Let’s start with my least favorite question.  When it comes to SharePoint portals, applications and intranets, it seems that clients and customers always love to ask me one thing:

“C’mon, Rich, you’ve built a lot of these.  What are other companies in our industry doing?”

It’s not a bad question, mind.  Some people are genuinely curious, looking for ways to deploy an admittedly rather general toolset in a way that provides direct business value.  Sometimes, it’s their thinly-veiled way to get an idea of what their competition’s up to.  Other times, they lack confidence in their own ideas and want to borrow from what’s working elsewhere.  In many cases it’s all of the above.

I get it.  Business, and the ways technology supports it, isn’t always rocket science.  If it works in one place, there’s a pretty good chance that it works somewhere else.  A repeatable process or best practice quickly becomes part of the public domain.  (Of course, what’s best isn’t always what’s cool, or all pop music would still sound remarkably like The Beatles.  Thankfully good business only cares about the bottom line– so, what’s best.)

When it comes to designing intranets, though, I’m going to say that approach does not hold up.  In general, enterprise IT is like offensive schemes in the NFL– as any student of football could tell you, there’s only two or three ways to do things well in any given era of the game, and any winning innovation is relentlessly copied by coaches leaguewide.  (This is how Gartner and Forrester make their money– always driving the next best-practice trends.)  But I think intranets are more like high-school football, where a team’s offensive scheme is built to maximize the talent around it, and often reflects the very nature of the community the school and its team represents.

And that idea of reflecting a community– or a culture, as the case may be– is what brings us to civic architecture and intranet design, my friends.

The Intranet as City Hall

I’ve always believed that you can tell a great deal about either a city’s heritage or its aspirations by the architecture of its civic buildings. Not so much the courthouses– those always seem to hearken back to Ancient Rome in their neoclassical designs, in an overt homage to the Roman code of laws, I suppose.  I’m thinking of City Halls in particular.  New York.  Philadelphia.  The list goes on.

Emerging, outer suburbs, meanwhile, build sleek, modern courts and offices to set themselves apart from their inner-ring brethren. In many cases, “who we are” is defined as much by “who we want to be” or “who we were” as it is by whom we really are.  Who we want to be?  That’d be your institutional vision.  Who we are/were?  Your corporate values, ladies and gentlemen.  You see where I’m going now, I think.

As an example, my own adopted city, Milwaukee, was once home to an overwhelming majority of German immigrants.  As an outward display of this Teutonic heritage, Milwaukee erected a City Hall for itself of brazenly Germanic design.  The building still stands as the emotional and geographical heart of the city, even after assimilation and successive waves of immigration have long since pushed the actual German  presence in the city to its margins.

When people think of Milwaukee, they could think of any number of things: the Brewers, the Violent Femmes, Happy Days, divisive recall elections– oops, that’s Madison.  But no, when it comes to Milwaukee, they usually think of bratwurst and beer.  They’re not wrong.  The German influence is alive and well, even now with all the Germans living out in the suburbs and unable to speak a single word auf Deutsch.

There’s a parallel here when we consider good intranets– you can learn a lot about the culture of an enterprise from the look, feel and organization of their portal.  Done right, an enterprise intranet will work like Milwaukee’s City Hall.  It will project a sense of what makes a company unique and individual, and in the best cases, what makes it a special place to work.  That’s where the “what are other companies doing?” question runs out of steam.

If your company has a certain culture, a certain personality, that needs to be reflected front and center in your intranet.  Consider the mission, vision and values of your company– how can we use a shared understanding of those concepts to drive how our intranet works?

Making It Real

Branding is certainly an important aspect of this.  I once worked for an infrastructure-focused Microsoft partner that only paid vague lip service to UI design and branding.  Coming from a web design background myself, I always believed companies like this were doing their clients a disservice by trying to build them a collaborative intranet application without a real effort to give it a unique identity that lined up with the company’s mission, vision and values.  An ugly tool is an unpopular tool.

There’s a reason businesses spend so much money on marketing to the consumer.  They want their products to look good, because if all else is equal, people will buy the more visually appealing product.  If you care about your employees and their productivity, you want their internal tools to be welcoming as well as functional in this world of slick applications and beautiful, content-rich websites.  (Now that the UI of a SharePoint site is so easy to customize, there’s no reason for anyone to suffer through an out-of-the-box SharePoint experience.  Any consultant who tells you otherwise is hiding something.)

Beyond branding, what else can you do to reflect your corporate culture in an intranet?  In agile, open organizations, enabling social media with tools like NewsGator Social Sites is an obvious answer.  These social applications bring the discussion, creativity and innovation already present at the grass-roots level and bubble it up for all to take advantage of.  Not every corporate culture is best reflected (or even energized) by internal social networking, however.

Many clients have asked me about a “killer app” for SharePoint, and my answer is typically, “Well, what can’t you do today that you wish you could do tomorrow?”  SharePoint is never going to replace your ERP or CRM systems; it’s not a line of business application.  What it can do, of course, is integrate with your line of business systems in powerful and valuable ways.  Whether it’s through BCS and the Microsoft BI suite, a slick and powerful connector to meaningful data like Duet Enterprise for SAP, or integration to customer relationship management software like Microsoft CRM, that’s how SharePoint provides the so-called “killer app” to support your business.  That’s definitely a reflection of culture.

Other applications enable people to do the things most typical of your organization.  If you’re a matrixed organization that’s heavily dependent on process, approval workflows and document management will be your keys to success.  If you work in healthcare, tying into your EHR system will help you keep the focus on the patient.  If you work in a fast-moving organization of any kind, Lync integration for real-time presence and communication throughout the portal becomes a must.  That’s the nice thing about a SharePoint-based intranet in particular– the list can go on and on.

Of course, I wouldn’t write about this stuff if we hadn’t done it.  I’ve got examples and war stories to cover the above and so much more.  The obvious irony in my saying so, of course, is that those stories don’t matter– yours do.  I only hope that I’ve made some sense, and helped others out there realize that when you’re redesigning your intranet, who your company is should be far more important than what the competition is doing.  Intranets can’t be one-size-fits-all, or you could install them off a disk and go your merry way.  Build your own City Hall, and build it to reflect your own corporate or institutional mission, vision and values.  You’ll be glad you did.

There are more SharePoint designs on the Internet, Horatio….

A comment was recently posted to one of my older blogs looking for more than text.  “Words, words, words,” the commentor said, quoting Shakespeare’s Hamlet– “Are there visual examples of SharePoint Designer done right?”

As it happens, there are.  Of course, we need to be clear that not all SharePoint visuals are conceived through SharePoint Designer.  And as always, we can’t go without our traditional caveat that visuals are only a part of the experienceUI is just one element of UX.

That said, our commentor is right.  Pictures help.  But you might have to pay for them.  Intranets aren’t public, so it’s hard to find good examples of intranet design.

In the last few years, SharePoint has done very well for itself in Nielsen Norman Group’s annual study of the Ten Best Intranets.  If you purchase a copy, you’ll find some great examples of SharePoint-based work.

The same SharePoint platform that we use for Intranets is used to host plenty of public-facing internet sites as well. Some fantastic designs have been done on this platform. Wssdemo.com provides a good sampling and a handy Silverlight pivot viewer to quickly find a site that appeals to your own sensibilities.

I’d also suggest just browsing around for SharePoint video case studies (using Bing to earn credits and get social context, of course).

Much like the Bible, you can find a quote from Hamlet for anything.  After all, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Or in this case, more things on the internet.  You just have to know where to find them!

Building a Social Business Environment

Mark Fidelman recently posted an interesting article on Forbes.com titled “Microsoft’s View of the Future Workplace is Brilliant, Here’s Why” in the article Mark shares how he’s visited Microsoft Technology Centers  in the past couple of months and its left him

“feeling both energized and alarmed. Energized because I am seeing a dramatic rise in the attention given to social business and the foundation for it is being laid by social CIOs. These CIOs and their executive counterparts understand how the social and mobile transformations are changing the game. Never has business been handed so much opportunity and so much risk.

Perficient Chicago office. Open spaces, great views!

The blueprint for this opportunity has been drawn by several social business thought leaders. But rarely has it been represented in physical form.

To see that, the opportunity is best demonstrated at one of Microsoft’s MTC around the world. If you haven’t seen a demonstration there, it can best be described as the Enterprise equivalent of a Microsoft or Apple Store. As Microsoft MTC Director Adam Hecktman put it to me, “We’re here to help envision, architect and demonstrate the needs of our customers.” Thanks to the fully equipped MTCs, anyone can see a live simulation of their current and future technologies under several different circumstances.

The MTC demonstrations are leading to a rush of new technology implementations. “Every square foot is built around some element of the customer’s decision making process,” Hecktman explains, “we’re reducing the risk for businesses to quickly prepare and implement Microsoft technologies.”

Seamless in person & online collaboration - you can see the conference room with the door pulled up in the background.

It struck me while visiting with the Fortune 500 intertwined with my stopovers at the MTCs that the future workplace will need to evolve. Seeing the juxtaposition of the digitally enabled MTCs next to the analog (think 1960s Mad Men era) workplaces of today, I was alarmed by the amount work that needs to be done to accommodate a more social and mobile workforce.

In this new workplace model, born of the social and mobile age, what are the best ways to meet the workplace challenges of the future? What do we see as the digital office of the future? How do we accommodate the unprecedented numbers of mobile devices entering the workforce?”

Mark’s post immediately made me think of Perficient‘s Chicago office.  This is a physical office space built for collaboration – from the open spaces,  meeting rooms and conference room that has a rolling door that opens it into a large collaboration area (with a kitchen) everything about the office says ‘lets collaborate’.

Perficient Chicago Office

Using SharePoint and NewsGator Social Sites the team collaborates both online with remote team members and in person leveraging Lync (on mobile devices too) to seamlessly move from online to voice collaboration.

I think Mark raises a really interesting point, when you start to think about physical spaces being built for how, when and where we work today and where we’re headed, we may increasingly find physical office spaces built to enable Social Business requirements.

You can follow Mark’s blog on Forbes.com here.

Lync, SharePoint, OneNote, NewsGator & more on the iPad

Rich Wood and I recently chatted about how Rich is able to use Microsoft technologies on his iPad.  In this video Rich shares how he uses Lync, SharePoint, NewsGator Social Sites, One Note, Bing and more on his iPad to allow him to use it as more than just a consumer or entertainment device.

SharePoint and Social with Mike Gannotti (@gannotti)

I recently caught up with Mike Gannotti in Philadelphia. We talked about his new role in the Philadelphia MTC, SharePoint, Social Media, Dogfooding (of course!) Tahoe (Mike’s been around SharePoint for a while), Social Business, Women in SharePoint & more. I learned that Mike is the Seventh most followed Microsoft entity on Twitter! You can see the video here

SharePoint 2010 Permissions and RunWithElevatedPrivileges Context

These days, many people are using SharePoint anonymously or creating mash-ups of data from various SharePoint sources.  As a result, these various resources have differing permissions governing their visibility.  For example, the Managed Metadata Term Store cannot be accessed anonymously. 

Indeed, the most likely occurrence, and where I discovered this problem, is when you want to display all items in a list even if the current user doesn’t have permissions to edit or view the item.  My specific situation was for an editor that needs to know a particular topic exists but doesn’t have the permission to see or edit the topic.

Displaying content from a secure source on a site must be done after the user has logged in or (more likely) via SPSecurity.RunWithElevatedPrivileges.  This was the only solution in my case.

Once inside the RunWithElevatedPrivileges security delegate, it’s well known that you must recreate any object that you need to access with full permissions.  This is because previously created objects maintain their security context once inside the security delegate.  So an SPSite created outside of the delegate will have the same permissions as it does inside the delegate.  Although not necessarily straightforward, it’s intuitive that permissions would not get remapped within the delegate.

Slightly less intuitive, and poorly documented, is the fact that the security context for objects created within the security delegate is maintained once you leave the delegate.  So if you get a reference to an SPListItem within the security delegate and pass it outside of the delegate, you will still have full control on the item because it was referenced from within the security delegate!

This behavior can lead to some interesting ramifications.  In my case, the use of the DoesUserHavePermissions method on the SPListItem class was acting strangely.  Calling this method on the item I got out of a security delegate always returned true because the security context followed the object.  To avoid this unfortunate situation, I had to get a reference to the item outside of the security delegate to get the correct permissions for the object.

In general, treat SPSecurity.RunWithElevatedPrivileges as a separate context entirely and don’t reuse objects across the context boundary for items with permissions.

Take Your SharePoint With You: NewsGator Social Sites on the iPad

So you’re using NewsGator Social Sites on your SharePoint intranet and you want to stay connected when you’re on the go?  Check out my new video blog on using the iPad app for NewsGator Social Sites.  As NewsGator’s inaugural Partner of the Year (2011), we just might know a little something about this.

Oh, and if you’re not using Social Sites to make SharePoint more social, you probably should be.  There’s a lot of knowledge out there to be managed that winds up slipping through your fingers if you don’t bring those conversations online and take advantage of crowdsourcing!

That link again in cut-and-paste format: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mtzumRCYsEU&feature=digest_mon

Enjoy!

Why Your SharePoint Portal Includes a Lunch Menu

I’ve lately been reading some thought-provoking posts by Stephen Fishman over at CMSwire.  I think he makes some very astute observations from the UX point of view, and I’d suggest looking into them if you follow this topic.  (In fact, a number of his points are exactly the sort of “pure UX” analysis I’ve been working to rationalize with design on the SharePoint platform in my previous posts.)  I’ve said before that SharePoint information architecture alone doesn’t make for a good UX.  Mr. Fishman gets this.

In his latest post, he studies the need for organizations to balance quantitative and qualitative approaches, and cites the swinging of the pendulum back-and-forth between these worldviews vis-a-vis trends in the tech space.

This is something that has particular value to consider from our SharePoint-specific corner of the universe.  Many of the projects I get engaged with (whether through the envisioning, or the actual solution design and implementation) start out with a qualitative driver.  Companies want to make certain work functions easier and more enjoyable for their employees, with the understanding that this will lead to efficiencies.  If not up front, however, then down the road this vision is usually trumped by the qualitative– aligning with business processes to somehow prove return on investment (ROI) in hard dollars.

As we all know, proving ROI for collaboration tools has always been tricky.  It’s only become tougher with the trend towards social computing in the workplace.  I really don’t think you can do it, successfully, but these projects still get funded.  Why?

They get funded because at some level, the stakeholders understand the qualitative value of this stuff.  The problem we run into is when that argument gets outweighed by quantitative factors.  There’s always someone looking at the bottom line and wondering whether this solution is worth the cost.

This is where a company like ours comes in; I see it as the duty of the third-party consultant to push for the qualitative, because sometimes clients are myopically focused on the quantitative.  As Mr. Fishman says, “user happiness” is what drives engagement.  Giving users solutions that work for them will bring them in and get them going with other, related tools.

In a SharePoint world, that means lunch menus, social communities for the flag football team, community events and user spotlights.  Users who come in to engage with these are more likely to stay and fill out the form, review the document, or kick off the workflow that gives that quantifiable business value.

It really comes down to balancing the happiness factor (which drives engagement) with and against the business value (which drives budget). In my experience, projects and systems that lean too far towards one or the other inevitably fail to some degree.  Use the qualitative to drive for the quantitative.  Do your user research (as much of it as you can get in the budget!) and know your audiences.  Understand and document how they work, how they think, how they’d like to work, and what motivates them.

Then, when you have to make a case to the man in the suit with the checkbook, present it in a language he’ll appreciate.  A quantitative language.  Hit him with the facts and figures.  Let him know what his users want, and build them THAT solution, not a shoestring-budget naked SharePoint site with a nice taxonomy.