Deft Design Delivers Dividends!

Part B of a two-parter that starts here at Part A.

Part B: To Brand or Not To Brand SharePoint? … Why is This The Question?

Bringing up this topic always seems to invite strong opinions for, but mainly against, however I’m feeling game today…

Before we go on, let me just take a moment to define branding, because various conversations over the years have made me aware this term can mislead and confuse business clients; or anyone, really, who doesn’t spend their lives thinking about such things.

“In general, branding is the act of creating a specific image or identity that people recognize in relation to a company or product… When referring to website, branding usually involves the colors, fonts, logos and supporting graphics that make up the general look and feel of the site.”
Professional SharePoint 2010 Branding and User Interface Design, p. 4

So that single word “branding” does not just mean christening your SharePoint site with its very own name, but also and more so customising SharePoint’s user interface.   Now, that innocuous little phrase can in itself conceal plenty of devilish detail.  SharePoint user interface customisation can be relatively simple and low cost – displaying your own logo and banner, and maybe changing the standard fonts and colours via a SharePoint theme. But it can also be comprehensive, potentially complex and high cost – e.g. altering the look of web parts, adding tabs to a page, replacing the out of the box global navigation with custom mega-menus, creating new templates to modify the layout of page elements, adding a common footer, etc.  At that end of the spectrum, it absolutely necessitates more-than-basic SharePoint Designer knowledge and skills, and CSS expertise. It might require jQuery (SharePoint Blu-tack, Paul calls this: http://www.cleverworkarounds.com/2009/02/27/jquery-sharepoint-blu-tack/ And Jeremy calls it a BandAid: http://wss.made4the.net/archive/2009/02/23/jquery-the-sharepoint-band-aid.aspx ), JavaScript skills and more.  “Branding” then becomes something more akin to development. Go forth with your eyes wide open, sufficient budget, governance at the back of your mind, and I would strongly advise, call the experts in:

“Branding for SharePoint sites is similar to branding for any other sites, except that branding for SharePoint includes the creation of master pages, page layouts, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), Web Parts , and eXtensible Stylesheet Language Transformations (XSLT).”
Professional SharePoint 2010 Branding and User Interface Design, p. 4

Back on Topic – To Brand or Not To Brand, That Is The Question…

Organisations brand to:

  • Stand out from the crowd
  • Establish their credibility
  • Deliver a message
  • Appeal to a target audience
  • Motivate, facilitate and expedite a purchase or other ‘transaction’
  • Cement the target’s loyalty and keep ’em coming back for more (aka a ‘sticky’ experience)

If you’re deploying SharePoint for your organisation’s website, you’re probably in for an extensive custom branding exercise. You’ll want a unique look and feel that encapsulates and promotes your organisation’s brand and – I’m pretty certain of myself here – you won’t be able to achieve that with the out of the box SharePoint interface, not the 2010 version and definitely not 2007.  It’s not you, it’s SharePoint 🙂

However, all the preceding bullet points are, to a greater or lesser extent, as true of internal systems these days as they are of public facing websites. Increasingly, in this overtly designed and packaged world we affluent Westerners enjoy, employees expect aesthetically appealing and user-friendly experiences of their company systems, as much if not more than they do of their website transactions (for example they usually – or they should – spend more of their working hours on their company Intranet or Collaboration environment than online banking or grocery shopping).

Accordingly, I think Microsoft expects you to brand SharePoint to suit, and that’s why the 2010 user interface is so bland out of the box. I approach it as a sort-of canvas, not the final artwork. Sadalit Van Buren is talking about customization generally here, but her point applies rather well to SharePoint branding:

“To me, standing up a SharePoint implementation and not customizing it to your organization’s specific needs is like … Buying a new home and making no changes to it beyond adding furniture. [or] Buying a tuxedo or wedding dress off the rack and NOT getting it tailored.”

For some visual evidence, take a look at the Step Two Designs post Make SharePoint Intranets Beautiful at http://www.steptwo.com.au/columntwo/make-sharepoint-intranets-beautiful/

Now remember I did say design, not window dressing.  I don’t advocate pretty colours and font tweaking for the sake of it.  I advocate thoughtful, user-centred, evidence-based design decisions that support IA and usability objectives.  I believe that SharePoint branding in this context greatly encourages user engagement and facilitates user adoption.

For example:

  • If you are deploying more than one Site Collection – this is a common design decision for internal solutions built on SharePoint – then navigation out of the box between Site Collections is clunky if I’m being generous, and almost non-existent if I’m not.  You really should put some branding budget and effort aside to address this.
  • Is your SharePoint implementation made up of multiple functional components, such as an authoritative Intranet, a work-in-progress collaboration environment for teams, and for projects, and maybe another for internal+external collaboration, an enterprise document management centre, a records archive, etc.? Then consider the degree to which unique colours and other visual cues help users establish their whereabouts easily and encourage them to perform the correct functions and actions in the correct place.  Otherwise, to the user, your SharePoint platform might be a huge, undifferentiated homogenous environment in which they are easily lost and quickly confused.

So, How Do You Do It?

See my post on SharePoint Branding 101 with many useful links for getting started, including some to SharePoint site galleries for inspiration.

Hire an expert web designer with demonstrable skills and experience branding SharePoint.  They’re an extremely rare beast, in Australia at least, so another option is to engage a SharePoint expert who is experienced in communicating with and directing web designers on SharePoint branding idiosyncrasies and insist they make beautiful music together.

<Shameless Self-aggrandizement> Chamonix IT Consulting has consultants who can do just that – our Design Brief template incorporates the client’s user interface and design requirements and marries them up to SharePoint-isms for the designer’s benefit. Plus we have brilliant technical consultants who are experienced in translating a designer’s CSS output in SharePoint 2010 efficiently and effectively.   Contact Us. </Shameless Self-aggrandizement>

See my previous post ranting against extensive customisation/development though, and do not go too far. As always, get the balance right and do worry yourself sick about long term governance. Yes more on that fun topic later.

Summing Up:

  • Don’t think of SharePoint branding as mere window dressing – done well, it aids the user experience and encourages engagement and adoption
  • Then if the question is: Do we brand our SharePoint platform? My answer is yes.

(original author: Lynn Warneke)

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