Inside SharePoint

The Evolution of the SharePoint UX

With Microsoft about to make some major announcements about The Future of SharePoint (May 4th event, which you can watch live), the level of speculation running through the community is high. Of course, as we have been experiencing in the new world of "evergreen" updates with Office 365, most news appears as an iterative trickle rather than through one grand release event. I expect that much of what we'll hear during the event next week will build on what has already been announced or has begun to roll out -- but then again, Microsoft has always loved the drama of the major release event, and I'm sure there will be some news-worthy updates, as well.

Some key hints to Microsoft's planned event trace back to November when Corporate VP of SharePoint and OneDrive for Business Jeff Teper gave a keynote at the European SharePoint Conference in Stockholm, during which he shared news that Microsoft has been making major changes to the SharePoint user experience. Teper used some of the same language that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella shared in his first Worldwide Partner Conference address after taking the helm two years ago about how the company intends to "reinvent productivity," and how ever new feature is looked at through the productivity lens, asking whether the change would improve individual or team productivity.

SharePoint has always been a major component of Microsoft's enterprise productivity strategy, and Teper shared some of his team's broad goals to make SharePoint more simple, mobile, intelligent and secure to help customers unlock the value of the platform. Seth Patton, GM for SharePoint and OneDrive for Business, shared much of the same message when announcing SharePoint 2016's Release to Manufacturing (RTM) back in March.

Thinking about the evolution of Office 365 and how the ongoing innovation happening in the cloud is a good indicator of what we can expect in upcoming SharePoint announcements, here's what we know:

Microsoft is working hard to streamline administration activities, simplifying common tasks and making the back-end of the platform more flexible and extensible, especially tasks and controls that span workloads, such as SharePoint and Exchange. Having worked in the migration and administration space within the SharePoint community for a number of years, these updates are welcome -- and long overdue. They're also making changes to the flow of the home page, which looks and functions more like the App Launcher, making it easier to find the last document or presentation you were working on, or to jump into your favorite application.

That's all great, but an improved administrative experience is irrelevant if end users turn away from the front-end experiences. For example, I've long wondered why SharePoint didn't function the same way as my Microsoft Office experiences. Microsoft owns the number one office productivity suite of tools (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) and the number one document collaboration platform, and yet many aspects of the SharePoint UX have remained kludgy and outdated. Yes, we're seeing improvements on this front, but why has it taken so long for these to come together?

One of my all-time favorite blog posts that I wrote back in late 2010 borrowed an image from Kathy Sierra's 'Creating Passionate Users' team blog in which Kathy talked about something called the "suck threshold." The premise behind the image is that when any new product or service is made available to end users, their initial response is always "Well, this sucks." The longer you take to deliver the UX and features that your end users want and need, the less likely you are going to keep them engaged. Deliver quickly, moving them to the passion threshold, and they'll love the platform. Fail to deliver quickly enough, and it doesn't matter if you eventually get there -- you'll lose them. For many organizations, SharePoint took far too long to deliver what people wanted -- to the point where administrators and consultants would not mention the fact that a new system was SharePoint because users would reject it outright.

Why do I mention this post? For many organizations, SharePoint has provided solid capabilities and helped teams centralize their content and improve governance -- but it has failed to provide the compelling UX that users want. For many of those organizations, their employees have sought out more modern, engaging, and beautiful experiences through competing, and largely consumer-based cloud solutions, such as Slack and Dropbox. All while the number of net-new SharePoint installations has continued to rise, with billions of documents being managed within the platform. The end result is that our collaboration environments have become increasingly complex. In many ways, organizations are stepping backwards into the information silo problems of yesteryear. The evolution of the SharePoint UX is greatly needed.

I don't blame the end users for this problem. To me, it's a UX problem, pure and simple. Employees want to get their work done, and the technology needs to fit with the way in which people need to work -- individually, within their teams, across an organization, and with externals customers and partners. It is a huge ask of any technology to fit all of those possible scenarios, and, frankly, one technology or platform will never suit all of those needs.

But now we're getting to the reason why SharePoint became popular in the first place: it was our Swiss Army Knife solution. We had a common platform as a company that could be built-to-suit for each team or business unit. It was never perfect, but it met many of our needs, and helped organizations maintain one version of the truth. The SharePoint UX has just not kept up with the demanding, ever-changing needs of its user base. Let's see if any of that changes next week.

If you have not yet registered for Microsoft's Future of SharePoint event, do so now. I'm excited to see how the progress being made in the Office 365 UX will translate across all-things SharePoint. I'm expecting to see iterations of what has already been announced, but I'm also looking forward to a few surprises.

About the Author

Christian Buckley, founder and CEO of CollabTalk, is a frequent speaker and writer, and a SharePoint and Office 365 MVP. In the past he worked on the SharePoint team at Microsoft and later served as an evangelist at Echo Technology, Axceler, Metalogix and Beezy. Follow him on Twitter: @BuckleyPlanet.

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