I’ve been working with SharePoint since 2007, and I’ve witnessed its evolution over these years. I saw this software boom – where every customer wanted a SharePoint solution. I answered many customer questions, like “Does SharePoint have a nice picture gallery in the new version?” (you can guess the answer 😊).
Microsoft has also made me learn a new development model with each SharePoint version. We had Solutions, Sandbox Solutions, Apps, and now the SharePoint Framework. But there is one good thing! After a couple of years, SharePoint is becoming sexy again.
But, especially in a constantly changing and evergreen cloud world, one question arises. How to create a good intranet or digital workplace? Which SharePoint options to use, how to provide the best user experience with good solution maintainability for the future?
In my opinion, there are three main options right now for creating an intranet solution using SharePoint. The choice determines which features will be used, what will the user experience be and what customization options will be available. The first option is using SharePoint Publishing.
What are the best SharePoint solutions for creating a digital workplace?
SharePoint Publishing is a set of features that enable creating, managing and displaying content – especially in the form of content pages. Some out-of-the-box components such as Page Layouts, Cross-site publishing, Content and Search Query WebParts, give creators a great flexibility for creating, styling and managing large, enterprise-scale portals. If you already have SharePoint-based intranet, it’s almost certainly done with Publishing features.
Using Publishing has its advantages:
- Most of the components are standard features that are only configured using well-known options, so migration to the newer version of SharePoint should be easy (in real life it depends on the solution though)
- All SharePoint user experience comes with the solution (if you want it that way, it’s an advantage)
- A fairly complete set of features allows rapid enterprise solution development
- Most of the components work in both SharePoint on-premise and cloud versions (although some of them are not recommended for the SharePoint Online scenario).
There are however some disadvantages to this solution:
- Microsoft no longer develops Publishing features (there was no official statement, but there were no improvements to SharePoint 2016, and all development effort goes into SharePoint Framework)
- It’s time-consuming and difficult to implement a portal using Responsive Web Design approach. Standard components don’t support it, and there are always a lot of limitations and trade-offs to be made. In practice, it means implementing a lot of custom views and controls
- It doesn’t scale well in SharePoint Online (for example, you should implement your own menu, according to Microsoft guidelines)
- User experience for editors is far from what people expect now – some things are too complicated (for example, creating friendly URLs for pages).
When to use
As you can see – Microsoft didn’t improve Publishing, and resources for developing SharePoint are allocated to different feature sets – mainly cloud. When you are planning a large corporate portal, you should consider different approaches described below. But, when you need a small SharePoint-based portal with a custom look and feel and have a limited budget, you should consider this option.
Modern Sites and SharePoint Framework
SharePoint is implemented using fairly old technology – ASP.Net Forms. It makes it harder and harder to create modern applications with a nice user experience. That is why Microsoft created Modern Sites and SharePoint Framework.
To keep it simple – Modern Sites is the new user interface for SharePoint. It’s modern, it looks good, it’s mobile-friendly, it’s responsive, it works fast – and it’s incomplete. Microsoft has been working on it for quite some time and what we have now is just a basic version.
SharePoint Framework is a new, modern, development model for SharePoint. It allows using all new front-end frameworks such as React, but similarly to Modern sites – I would like to see a quicker progress in its development. Now you can only implement basic scenarios within the SP Framework.
Using this framework provides a number of benefits:
- It works fast and is mobile-friendly
- Modern development tools can be used
- The Modern Sites interface has nice new features such as News
- Content creation is done using the contemporary Responsive Web Design approach
- Works on-premise and in the cloud (SharePoint Feature Pack 2 will introduce SP Framework and Modern Sites – please refer to this article for more information).
Figure 1. Page designer in Modern Sites allows for easy creation of RWD-friendly pages
Modern Sites are not without their problems:
- Some Modern Sites features work differently comparing to old SharePoint controls. There was a case where validation rules didn’t work on the forms (to make uploading files easier), but it broke all workflows created by customers on these libraries
- Not all views are implemented. User can see the old SharePoint UI on different occasions which makes user experience poor
- Using SP Framework needs a lot more development due to the lack of standard SharePoint controls. Yes – there is Office UI Fabric, but more work is still needed comparing to the old approach, especially with more advanced components like people or taxonomy picker
- New Modern Sites features such as News, are very basic. For example, you are not able to add custom metadata to the News page, and it makes it hard to use in enterprise scenarios
- There are very limited options for branding Modern Sites. Now, only changing colors and fonts is possible.
When to use
With Modern Sites and SP Framework, SharePoint became sexy again! End user reactions are very positive when they see it. For now I would recommend using it in two scenarios:
- Simple intranet – if you are starting your journey with intranet, then it can be a good option to discover your real requirements. The limitations of the platform probably won’t be very important at the beginning
- Collaboration – if you need to extend your intranet with space for team collaboration – Modern Sites will be a great option. We use it internally as project workspaces.
Figure 2. Default user experience of Modern Site – mobile-friendly out of the box
With SharePoint Server 2013, Microsoft introduced the SharePoint Add-In development model. It works very similarly to how mobile applications work. During installation, the Add-in asks for specific permission to your SharePoint environment – for example creating sites, reading and writing documents and reading user profiles. Just like a mobile application asks for permission to access camera or microphone. It addresses a very important issue administrators have with SharePoint Solutions – they don’t really know what the code will do with the SharePoint Farm.
SharePoint Add-in has a number of useful features:
- It can work both on-premise and in the cloud
- It’s the best way for implementing a solution on-premise that will be migrated to the cloud in the future
- SP Add-in is loosely coupled with SharePoint and if done properly, it will migrate easier than old SharePoint Solutions (without the need for recompiling)
- There are no limitations for the UI; you can provide a great user experience with your intranet. You can also provide a UI which is independent from the SharePoint data structure – this is a great limitation when using standard SharePoint components
- SP Add-ins model is the holy grail of SharePoint Developers. Clients have always asked – “Please, just make this new application not look like SharePoint” – now it’s possible without heavily customizing standard components.
Here are some problems with the SharePoint Add-in:
- There are some development restrictions, and some things need admin privileges, are impossible or hard to implement
- Lack of the official library of SharePoint Controls makes development longer and more expensive (same situation with Office UI Fabric as in case of SP Framework)
- It uses OAuth for authentication and many developers don’t understand it, which makes implementation more expensive
- You must implement the whole process of page authoring, if you are introducing intranet – look for a JS library or contact us – we’ve already solved it with our Predica Intranet Framework.
When to use
I strongly believe in Add-In’s future. Even Microsoft delivers features in a similar model – look at Office 365 Video Portal, Planner or Delve. All these tools have a custom UI and use SharePoint or other services as a backend, delivering great user experience. If you have a corporate portal project, you should go with the SharePoint Add-in, and I believe you won’t regret it.
As a summary – I would like you to remember just two things.
First – there are three main ways of delivering intranet in SharePoint. If you’re planning a large project that will require long-term maintenance and development – you should only consider Modern Sites or SharePoint Add-ins.
Second – if you are about to start a project, especially if you are willing to buy it as an IT service from a consulting company like Predica, be sure to understand the models different vendors are proposing. It will be crucial for user experience, cost of maintenance and future upgrades to your solution.
And finally, if you need further information or would like to discuss your requirements, don’t hesitate to get in touch!