The consumerization of the SharePoint UI

Posted by Marc Anderson

Now that I’ve had some time to internalize the plethora of announcements from the Future of SharePoint event back on May 4, one thing really stands out for me: The SharePoint user interface (UI) is becoming a consumer UI. Let me explain what I mean.

For many years, studies have shown that while SharePoint works, it lacks a friendly user experience (UX). Many people use the terms UX and UI interchangeably, but they aren’t the same thing at all. The UI is what is on the screen while you use software. It’s about the colors, the fonts, what you need to click on, what you need the read, to get some unit of work done.

Can you spot any differences between these two UIs?

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Of course you can; it was sort of a trick question. But while both of these SharePoint home pages have a few nods to humanity, they are fairly blah. That blah-ness is something people like me have been working to improve for years.

As I discuss in the sessions I do about UX at conferences like the upcoming SPTechCon Boston, blah-ness in the UI doesn’t itself make for a poor UX, though. A poor UX comes from the bundled experience of the UI, the support options, the comfort of your desk chair, how lists and libraries are structured, and so much more. While two people are likely to see a given UI in pretty much the same way, they may have vastly different user experiences.

Along with the more technical announcements on May 4, we also got some glimpses of where the SharePoint UI is going. When we hop from one of the home pages above to something like this admin page, it’s a very different feel.

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These newer pages have a lot more color, which is nice, at least to most people. But even more importantly, the page seems accessible. When we walk up to it, we have a clue what we should do next. (Why is the e-mail activity spiking today? Should we try to encourage Skype usage more?)

Or take a look at the new SharePoint home page that is rolling out to First Release tenants now. When I land there, I know the page is for me. It’s not the same page everyone else sees, and it helps me to immediately get where I need to go. There’s even the chance of serendipity—for instance, if I see that Julie has added a new file to one of our client sites, that may mean I change what I work on today.

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Once again, we see more color and visual interest than we’ve ever gotten out of the box with SharePoint. It’s hard to show in a flat page like this article, but the same UI works from my desktop (as above, but even that is scaled down a bit) to more of a mobile phone form factor. The page adjusts itself without me doing anything.

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It’s pretty incredible if you think about it: Microsoft seems to have finally realized that there are PEOPLE using these UIs! They are a bit behind in this, of course. For years, companies like Facebook, Trello, eBay, Amazon and many more have been tweaking the devil out of their UIs to get us to click and dwell and share to the nth degree. Now that Microsoft is running a cloud service that needs to appeal to enterprises of one to 1 million, they are stealing a card from those companies—literally.

Do you recognize a little Pinterest above? A whiff of Twitter? Maybe some Instagram? A dash of Facebook? You should, because some of the most robust development frameworks for the UI have come out of those companies, as have many visual metaphors we’re all used to seeing.

When Windows Server started to prettify the UI for administrators a few years ago, there was a lot of pushback. “Just give me a command line, and I’m good.” It’s the tech version of machismo: If it doesn’t hurt, it must not be good for you. We seem to have progressed beyond a lot of that silliness. If a UI helps you know what you need to do quickly and makes it even a teeny bit enjoyable—surprise!—you’ll get more done. I don’t know about any studies that prove this, but I’ll believe it until my dying day. Fun activities are repeated; painful ones are not.

When I call it the “consumerization” of the UI, I’m comparing Microsoft’s latest efforts to the best of the consumer Web. That’s nothing to scoff at, not if it makes people enjoy using the technology they need to use every day. I think that Microsoft is finally getting the fact that their end users are real people, who can do with some parity between the consumer sites they love and the business sites they don’t. A little whimsy can go a long way to creating a better UX. Think about how you can take some of these ideas and improve the UIs you put in front of your end users. If you give them a better UI, you’re likely to give them an improved UX as well.

Marc is the cofounder and president of Sympraxis Consulting, located in the Boston suburb of Newton, Mass. Sympraxis focuses on enabling collaboration throughout the enterprise using the SharePoint application platform.

Topics: SharePoint UI, SharePoint UX

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