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SharePoint Egg Timer #1: "We want a SharePoint site that doesn't look like a SharePoint site"

Print | posted on Thursday, June 21, 2007 5:54 PM

If there was a novelty egg timer for SharePoint consultants (a bit like a magic eight ball) without doubt it would feature questions such as "can I do that SSP stuff over the WAN?", "can I have sub-minute inter-data center failover?" and "does it work OK with Office 1974?". These are a few of the questions you just know are coming straight off the bat, most likely before the customer even has a comprehension of what WSS or SPS or MOSS can do for them.

However, if there was a "limited edition" SharePoint Egg Timer, say one which timed only one minute, it would be the sometimes important, but mostly the utterly irrelevant, "we want a SharePoint site that doesn't look like a SharePoint site, can we do that?".

What makes this worse is it's not just BDMs that ask the question, it's "architects", "developers", "IT pros", TDMs, "information architects", "designers", "web monkeys" - whatever - you get the drift. Pretty much anyone new to SharePoint.

So the quick way to answer to the question, is to say, "Yes". Because you can do that. But hold up a second there Mr Pimp My Site, it's a tad more complicated. And this is neither inconvenient nor a problem. However, to answer a complicated question, and to make a informed decision you need accurate information...

Whilst the question has come up in every single SharePoint gig I've done (and it's over 20 now, all enterprise deployments). Only rarely has there been a rationale for the question.

Before you consider "tweaking the look and feel" you need to be able to answer some fundamental questions:

1. What do you mean by "SharePoint site"?
This phrase is a nice catch all that doesn't mean anything. There is no such thing as a "SharePoint site". There are lots of different types of "SharePoint site", all of which run on SharePoint Technology. There are Team Sites, Blogs, Document Workspaces, Search Centers, Publishing sites. And on and on. 

SharePoint is not Dot Net Nuke, it is not MCMS, it is not Ektron, it is not Interwoven. It's a technology platform upon which a multitude of applications are built. It's more akin to ASP.NET than to a "competing product" that in reality only competes in one or two feature areas. Now, that's not to say that the vast majority of customers don't simply use the out of the box functionality.

So first you need to understand what you mean when you say "SharePoint site" and make sure the whole team has the same understanding!

2. What is the purpose of your site?
Following on from the above, the purpose of your site defines things such as look and feel, navigation, usability, etc. However, one thing will always be true for as long as the Web exists - Content is King. No content? Your site will suck regardless of the bling you apply to it.

Take the following examples (all of which are "SharePoint sites"):

Hawaiian Airlines: In some scenarios it is entirely appropriate to "sex up" your SharePoint site by giving it all the latest "bling" such as reflections and so forth, where the goal is to entice punters. This makes sense in a Publishing site, which is delivered by the Web Content Management features of Office SharePoint Server 2007 and is intended for primarily Internet facing public web sites.

Plymouth Hospitals: In some scenarios it is entirely appropriate to implement a mild mannered design approach to meet the primary goal of presenting dull text heavy information required by legislation and following de-facto standards for a particular vertical. It's not "wow", but's it nice, it's "clean" and it's reasonably "accessible".

Any ole Team Site: In some scenarios it is entirely in-appropriate to mess with the default Team Site. Why? Because the primarily goal is collaboration and easy to find information. Say you have 250,000 team sites, they should generally speaking all look similar as to not confuse users.

In other words, in general, the goal of a non Publishing site is quick and easy access to information and documents, removing half the useful browser real estate by slapping a nice logo at the top won't help your users in the "new world of work". A bunch of your users will never use the site via a browser anyway preferring the Office or decent third party clients. Remember why you bought SharePoint in the first place?

If you hired an information architect to tell you how to build a portal, they'd probably tell you a) English folk read left to right, you need a hierarchy based navigation system which is near the top of the screen and context based navigation to the left. They's also scam you out of plenty of cash for nothing useful, but that's a post for another day. The point is that's what SharePoint has got. There's a reason for that.


3. What do you actually want the site to look like? 
Many folk say they want to make it look "not like SharePoint" but cannot articulate a) why they want that and b) how they actually want it to look like. As a consultant you say, "OK, so how do you want it to look?" - often times the answer is "we don't know". In one case, somebody said, "we don't care as long as it doesn't look like SharePoint". Now that, frankly, is just silly.

Modifying things like fonts, colours and logos and tweaking navigation so that the "SharePoint site" is unmistakably a company asset, "reflects the corporate culture" or satisfies the branding police is one thing, changing the default look and feel simply for the sake of it is madness. You have to be able to answer the question "why do you want it look different?".

Microsoft spent a bunch of cash figuring out the default (specifically for WSS) - its pretty good - and I apparently know about this stuff as I am a trained graphic designer and typographer. More importantly, I've been building peoples portals for nearly 15 years and that's way more relevant.

If you don't like the colours, fonts, navigation controls, logos etc you can change them (more on this later), but have a good reason to change them.

It is also paramount to understand that if you have a "SharePoint site" it will always look like one! Bling up massive - it will still need the things that SharePoint needs, like the Create New List page. Remember, it is a SharePoint site. If you really don't want your site to look like SharePoint, don't use SharePoint...


4. Are you sure you want a "SharePoint site"?
If you are "inside the firewall" and branding tweaks don't satisfy your lust for HTML madness, you are stuck in 1999 I'm afraid. If web page making is what you need, then SharePoint is not the solution to your problem. Yes it can do them, and do them very well - but it's not about just making web pages. If you want a plain vanilla Content Management System, go buy one. One you could buy happens to be Office SharePoint Server 2007. It's nice. But don't try and slap a Content Editor Web Part on your Team Site and then bitch and moan cos you can't get it to look like that Interwoven Team Site from seven years ago which implemented a left hand frame for links and a content frame for your fledgling HTML prowress. Remember, the key concept of many a CMS was preventing users from making a mess of the HTML.


5. Do you understand the impact of changing the look and feel?
Not using the out of the box look and feels - yes plural - costs money and takes time. Have you got them? Have you got appropriately skilled resources who understand the SharePoint architecture and myriad ways of customizing it's appearance. Do you understand the inevitable tradeoffs between "pimping your site" and it's accessibility? Do you understand you will need multiple iterations before you get to your goal?

Customizing SharePoint is perceived as being hard. It's not really, but there are some weaknesses and considerations around supportability. SharePoint has a bunch of features, for which there needs to be a CSS definition. If there ain't a CSS def, you can't customize it. That's why core.css is so big. It could be smaller and cleaner, but the core (no pun intended) reason it's big is because SharePoint got a lot of stuff. This is not a blank ASP.NET web site where you can start from scratch. Some things are badly done and I am not saying otherwise, but software is about tradeoffs and SharePoint is software, not a web site.

Producing decent graphics is time consuming, requires talent, patience and money. If you use an amateur you'll end up with clip-art style graphics and it definitely won't look like SharePoint (a professionally produced user interface).

Also - how will your customizations be applied, will they be portable to other environments, can you enforce branding globally etc. All these elements impact your project in significant ways.


6. Do you understand that the target audience of your "SharePoint site" isn't you?
Your "SharePoint site" is for your users, not for you, or your project sponsor. Spend time and money satisfying the whims of stakeholders needs to be weighed against the ultimate users who will define the success or otherwise of any implementation. This is a tricky one. But remember, how users use SharePoint is what is important. That's why Microsoft spend hundreds of millions watching users use their software before making it available for you to buy.




In summary, Publishing sites are a strange beast for which not looking like SharePoint is a) appropriate and b) much easier to do (form over function).  Other SharePoint sites are function over form. Some sites are in between - e.g. blog, wiki.

Before you start hacking at the look at feel of your "SharePoint site", ensure you can answer the questions above. If you can't you will end up being disappointed and likely blame the results on the technology rather than your decision making.

Before asking the question, consider what you are asking for.