Aidan Garnish

Collaboration Not Competition

Most Common SharePoint Application Development Mistake

SharePoint is a huge product with plenty of opportunities to make mistakes in lots of different ways. The infrastructure could be configured badly, the business may not have clearly defined what they hope to achieve with SharePoint or the information architecture is allowed to sprawl out of control.

Having worked with SharePoint for over 7 years there is one mistake that I see being repeated over and over again when SharePoint is introduced into an organisation.

Imagine the scene, SharePoint has just been installed and in this case the business do have a clear idea of what they expect from SharePoint. The first priority is to move several small legacy systems including some spreadsheets and a couple of Access database applications onto SharePoint.

The justification for this is that moving these apps to the SharePoint platform will make them easier to find and share, they will immediately fall under the SharePoint backup and disaster recovery regimes and using SharePoint as the interface will provide a more consistent user experience across all of these apps. In addition to that the business has heard all about how rapidly small applications can be developed and deployed using SharePoint and are excited to see this process in action.

Back in the IT department the .Net developers have just come back from a weeks intensive training and naturally they want to make a good impression by demonstrating their newly acquired SharePoint knowledge and showing the business what a great platform SharePoint is.

The requirements to migrate several spreadsheet based apps start to roll in and the team begin by putting together a few quick prototypes. The decision is made to move the spreadsheet contents across into SharePoint lists to take advantage of functionality like views and to be able to apply approval workflows to items.

The users of the apps take a look at the protoypes and start to provide feedback. Requests include things like:

  • Can a row be highlighted in red if some field drops below a specific number?
  • Could a link be added to the view item form that takes us straight to a specific view?
  • We don't always really like seeing the Alert Me functionality, can this be hidden for some of the lists but left on for others?

The developers know that technically they can do all of these things and they want to say yes to the business. This is a mistake.

It is a mistake for a couple of reasons. The business has been promised rapid application development by whoever sold them SharePoint. They may even have been told that this assumes you use as much out of the box functionality as possible and avoid code customisation if you can. Understandably, what they don't realise is that the things they are asking for are customisations that will require code to be written, tested, deployed and maintained.

It is up to the developers or IT managers to explain this to the business users and make it very clear whether what is being asked for is out of the box or whether it is a code based customisation.

Another reason it is a mistake is that the requests to turn off alerts or add links in unusual places are significant changes to the standard interface. One of the benefits of using SharePoint is that it provides a consistent platform and each change to that platform chips away at this consistency. The benefit of a consistent interface is that once a user has mastered one application or area of SharePoint they should be able to open any other SharePoint site and feel immediately at home. The changes mentioned may sound small but over time can build up to mean that some areas of SharePoint become almost unrecognisable. This will lead to an increase in support calls and training costs as users will be confused by these inconsistencies and ultimately this can hurt user adoption of the platform as a whole.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't use code based customisations or alter the user interface in any way but these customisations do come with an overhead that needs to be understood by the business. The danger is that if this is not clearly explained the original expectations of rapid application development and the benefits of a consistent platform are not met and the business starts to question whether these claims were ever true or even worse, whether any claim made about SharePoint is true!

An informed choice needs to be made by the business on a per application basis as to whether they are prepared to invest the extra time and effort to get an application that meets 100% of requirements. Or, decide that it is better to have something delivered far more rapidly that meets ~80% of the requirements and loses some of the nice to have elements. In addition, there also needs to be someone in the business taking an overall view of what customisations are acceptable across the platform to preserve interface consistency for the benefit of all applications.

This is clearly not an all or nothing choice and there is a sliding scale of just how much customisation the business is prepared to take on. Once people come to terms with and fully understand these choices and trade offs they usually feel much happier about SharePoint and the best way to deliver applications for their business. Ultimately SharePoint is about giving the business the tools to do a job in the most effective and efficient way possible and sometimes this means having to say no to some requirements.

What do you think? Is this something you have seen happening at companies you work with? Are there other mistakes that you see happening more frequently?