SharePoint – out of the box and customisation

Deciding whether to opt for an out-of-the-box or customised intranet is still a difficult decision with a few things to consider.

There are three main options:

1 Out of the box by this we mean using SharePoint and Microsoft 365 as it comes without modification or third party features

2 Customisation through a third party add in or set of services (like LiveTiles)“ which you typically pay a monthly licence fee for (sometimes called intranet in a box)

3 Bespoke customisation extra features built specifically to your particular requirements

In a previous webinar we compared the differences between intranet in a box and bespoke customisation. But, what about option one staying entirely out-of-the-box and only configuring what Microsoft gives you?

This used to be a very limited option, particularly for online flavours of SharePoint provided by Office 365 and, later, Microsoft 365. Because of the basic feature set, it tended to be an option only for smaller companies or those on a very tight budget.

However, Microsoft has continued to build on its intranet capabilities in SharePoint and Microsoft 365 and now, in 2021, it’s a more compelling option. New features and configuration options make it possible to deliver a best practice intranet at low cost – that’s why we offer an Accelerate package for companies who want to take this route.

What can you achieve now with out-of-the-box SharePoint?

  • Cascading (roll-up, roll-down news content) using Hubs and Communication sites
  • Mega menu style navigation
  • Global navigation across multiple sites
  • Upcoming events feeds
  • Improved presentation options (thanks to new display template options for lists)
  • Better integration with other Microsoft 365 apps like Yammer and Stream including better webparts

What is out-of-the-box SharePoint still not good at?

  • Targeting of content is still very basic
  • Branding and user experience customisation options are limited
  • The news experience is not very sophisticated and larger companies will struggle with it
  • Templating, provisioning and governance of intranet components like workspaces and hubs

It’s also worth remembering that you don’t have to choose from only option 1, 2 or 3 above. You can have a mixture of options. For example, you could choose to go mostly with an out-of-the-box approach, but with one or two minor custom elements e.g. an improved news feed experience or an enhanced policy library.

As part of our digital workplace discovery process, we help many organisations to decide which route is the best for them the one that will help them meet their business objectives, but efficiently from a cost perspective. As a digital workplace consultancy we help organisations deliver all three of the options, so we are neutral in terms of deciding which route you should take.

Out-of-the-box SharePoint doesn’t work for everyone and there are often good reasons not to embrace it, but for some companies it’s a good choice and we see more and more organisations having success with the core Microsoft tools. A key thing, as ever, it to ensure that you have help from a partner who lives and breathes intranets and digital workplace. That way, whichever route you take, you will get the most value out of the tools available.

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Intranet governance and contributor engagement

Dan ends our video series by exploring the people elements of intranet governance. Subscribe to our YouTube channel for more.

Dan Hawtrey, Managing Director
+ 44 20 7471 8500 | [email protected] | LinkedIn

Governance is a big word. It carries connotations of centralisation, power, control, and authority. But actually I think it’s perhaps a bit of a misnomer because today’s intranets are very social systems with ownership distributed across many different people.

Yes, you do have to define a strategy, put in place a steering team, think about policies and processes; I’m certainly not trying to downplay those pieces, they’re very important. But getting governance right is also about putting the right support structures in place, in particular support for content owners and site administrators.

The key aim of modern intranets is to get plenty of contributions from lots of different people. On top of that you want contributions to be high quality, so that they’re engaging and useful. But that’s only half the battle, you also want your content owners to keep things up-to-date and to continue contributing after their initial burst of activity. It’s all about maintaining high levels of enthusiasm.

Stats graphA great way to do this is to share with them analytics about how their section is doing, and perhaps even show them how it’s doing versus other people’s sections. After all, who wouldn’t be interested in knowing how many times their piece has been read.

You could give them a login to Google Analytics, but I’ve always found that GA is pretty opaque to people who aren’t familiar with it. A better way to do it, is to take the time to create a report yourself, something that is going to be quick and easy to read and digest, rather than letting them drown in data.

Giving support and analytics on a regular basis to your content owners is not only providing positive reinforcement, but it’s also giving you a chance to keep up the dialogue between you and them. This is going to help reduce the chances of empty sections and content growing old and outdated.

View Joe’s previous video: making life easy for your content contributors.
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A 7-point framework for employee engagement in the digital workplace

Modern organisations are using a number of clever techniques to accelerate internal change and make it stick. This free e-book puts forward a simple and effective 7-point framework to use to deliver change campaigns and programmes.

Making life easy for your intranet content contributors

In our eighth video, Joe argues that publishing content should be as pleasant as browsing content on a well designed intranet. Subscribe to our YouTube channel for more.

Joe Perry, Technical Manager
+ 44 20 7471 8500 | [email protected] | LinkedIn

We don’t just design and build intranets, we also run them.

We have a number of clients who rely on us for the day-to-day management of their intranet; this is not just technical work, but also content planning, publishing, and design.

This means that we have intranet managers and content editors who are not developers.

Just like our clients they need administration interfaces that make publishing information as easy and as fast as possible.

We involve these team members in every project to help us make better choices about how our intranets will be managed. We don’t want our clients to be in a situation where they need a developer every time they want to make a simple change.

This is especially important when an intranet has many content owners and contributors, often across many countries. Things need to be designed so that they’re not only efficient, but also intuitive, and require little or no training.

This is an important tip for anyone designing an intranet; when you think about your users, don’t forget about your administrators and your contributors.

View Joe’s previous video: SharePoint — out-of-the-box and customisation.
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The importance of good graphic design – Planning your new intranet

In our sixth video, John explains four reaons why visual design is so important to intranet success and employee engagement (and trust). Subscribe to our YouTube channel for more.

John Scott, UX Director
+ 44 20 7471 8500 | [email protected] | LinkedIn

Boursin home page v2There are some successful intranets out there that are not particularly attractive, but they work, they do the job, they are fit for purpose. There are other intranets which are very pretty, but they’re not successful, they don’t achieve their objectives.

So does this mean that graphic design isn’t important on intranets? Actually we really think it is important, and sometimes it can even be a deciding factor.

Why is graphic design an important part of an intranet? There are four reasons:

1) Corporate identity – Even though the intranet is internal facing it should still feel part of the brand to employees. The company should be emitting its corporate values both internally and externally, otherwise the employees won’t identify with them.

2) Trust – When employees use the intranet, and the first thing they see is good design, then they are more likely to assume that other aspects of the intranet will meet the same standards. If however they see poor design, then they are more than likely to assume that the content, the functionality, and the usability of the intranet will be equally poor.

3) Clarity of message – Decorative but purposeless design can distract people from the message that’s being communicated. Instead there should be an emphasis on design that aids the communication of the core message. Design can be used to promote the importance of certain content but also to downplay others.

4) Usability – Just as unnecessary design can add noise to the communication, it can also adversely affect the usability of an intranet. As an example, using large scale graphics can dramatically increase page load times, this is a massive factor for usability on mobile devices. Often the quest for making things unique or different can also cause us to break usability conventions.

Jagua Land Rover mobile devicesThe graphic design is always a factor, even on the most functional of intranets. However, depending on the audience and the objectives of an intranet, it can be a decisive factor in its success.

But take a look at our recent designs to see the results we create for clients.

View Joe’s video: Out-of-the-box SharePoint and customisation.
View John’s previous video: prototype testing.
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Planning your new Intranet – prototype testing

John talks about the importance of getting end users involved with the design process in our fifth video of our series. A working prototype helps stakeholders and employees guide the final design. Subscribe to our YouTube channel for more.

John Scott, UX Director
+ 44 20 7471 8500 | [email protected] | LinkedIn

Many intranets fail because they are designed and launched without ever being tested on real users.

It’s important to involve users in the design through workshops and interviews, but it’s even more important they help you test the site early on.

Fortunately, you don’t even have to wait until the site is built. We use wire framing software that allows us to create clickable, interactive prototypes. We can use these to simulate content, information architecture, page layouts, and even the functionality of a real intranet.

These interactive wire frames are useful for getting feedback from business stakeholders, however you can also put them in front of employees and ask them to complete a set of typical tasks, such as completing an expense claim or finding an internal vacancy in another country.

We invite around twenty employees to take part in our wireframe testing sessions, it’s best if theyre from different departments, countries, and levels of seniority. One by one we ask them to complete a set of around fifteen tasks using our interactive prototypes. We ask people to think out loud and tell us what they’re thinking as they make decisions and click through the pages.

It’s really interesting to run these sessions because it can be surprising what people struggle with. It gives us an opportunity to revise our wireframes and make sure we fix problems before we move into the build phase. This all saves precious time and money, and helps us to deliver an intranet which is already validated by employees.

View John’s next video: good graphic design.
View John’s previous video: getting the navigation right.
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Planning your new intranet – getting the navigation right (video)

In the fourth of our planning your new intranet videos, John explains how online ‘card’ sorting can help discover the navigation structure that suits your people. Subscribe to our YouTube channel for more.

John Scott, UX Director
+ 44 20 7471 8500 | [email protected] | LinkedIn

One of the first things you define when designing a new intranet is the navigation, what information sits where. We decide first on the top level items, then the second level, and so on.

How well the navigation is structured will have a big influence on the success of an intranet. Therefore, rather than just guessing and hoping we get it right, we like to test early on with real users and make sure that our navigation really does make sense. This can all be done before any of the site is built using a technique called tree testing.

What we do is give the user two things. First, a piece of information that they need to find on the intranet. The second thing is that we actually give them the top level of the navigation. The user then has to click on the item in that navigation that they think will contain the piece of information they’re looking for. And they do that then through the levels, until they reach the end of the navigation.

This is all done using online software which means that you can invite a large number of people to participate, and that gives you more meaningful results. This software normally includes analysis tools that allows you to see where people struggled to find the right information. Also you can see where people made the wrong decision and decided to backtrack. It’s best to ask users to try and find information that you struggled to categorise yourself. These are often the areas of most debate, and theyre the ones you need to find consensus on.

View John’s next video: prototype testing.
View John’s previous video: defining intranet architecture.
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Planning your new intranet – defining information architecture (video)

In the third of our series on planning your new intranet, John talks about involving end-users to inform the structure and navigation of your intranet. Subscribe to our YouTube channel for more.

John Scott, UX Director
+ 44 20 7471 8500 | [email protected] | LinkedIn

Businesses are complex, even if they don’t have a lot of staff, they have a lot of information, different processes and terminology. A big part of designing an effective intranet is making sure that we define the right information architecture.

The information architecture, or I.A., is basically the structuring of information, how we should organise things. The problem with this is that everyone seems to see this in a different way, everyone has a different mental model. So what we need to do is find the consensus so that we create an information architecture which makes sense to the most people possible.

In order to understand how different users see the business and how we should organise the information we run a series of card sorting sessions. Card sorting is a design technique that involves users. We write different topics of information on individual cards and then we ask the users to group those cards into logical categories.

There are two types of card sorting. An open sort is where the participants can invent their own categories, and this is useful when you’re creating a new site and you need to define a completely new information architecture. A closed sort is different, in this case the participants, have to categorise the information into pre-existing groups. And this is useful if you’ve got an existing information architecture and you need to bring in a lot of new information in to it.

The old fashioned way to do card sorting is face to face with users, using actual physical cards. It’s more time consuming but you do get more qualitative insight because you get to ask people what they’re thinking as they perform the task. Alternatively you can use online software to run your card sorting exercise. This is good because it gives you a larger sample size and you can get more quantitative insight. Such software often comes with built-in analysis tools that allow you to make more sense of the data. Ultimately whichever way you run your card sorting you should find that you have an improved sense of the I.A. that will resonate most with the majority of users.

View John’s next video: getting the navigation right.
View John’s previous video: end-user interviews.
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Planning your new intranet – end user interviews (video)

In the second of our series on planning your new intranet, John goes deeper into the discovery phase with end user interviews. Subscribe to our YouTube channel for more.

John Scott, UX Director
+ 44 20 7471 8500 | [email protected] | LinkedIn

At Content Formula, we advocate a user centred design approach; we involve users in the very early stages of the intranet project, because it’s vitally important to get people involved in the design of your new intranet, in fact we involve them in just the second step of the project.

We carry out a number of interviews, or sometimes we call them depth interviews. We do this by coordinating ten to twenty different people across the organisation that represent a good cross section of levels of seniority, different departments, regions or countries. It’s not a scripted interview per-se, but there are certain topics and themes that we want to cover and discuss with employees.

Our aim really is to discover more about their role, the information they need access to, and who they talk to and in what way.

We’re not asking them to design the intranet for us, in fact what we’re getting is insight so that we can make better decisions about what the right intranet looks like.

The personas we develop are fictional but they do provide us with a realistic representation of typical users across the business; they’re something we can always refer back to throughout the project so that we can make better decisions about how we design the intranet and make sure all users’ needs are catered for.

View John’s next video: defining information architecture.
View John’s previous video: stakeholder interviews.
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Planning your new intranet – discovery and stakeholder interviews (video)

In the first of our series on planning your new intranet, John dives into the discovery phase with stakeholder interviews. Subscribe to our YouTube channel for more.

John Scott, UX Director
+ 44 20 7471 8500 | [email protected] | LinkedIn

At the start of most intranet projects, we frequently have to do two things. Firstly, we need to find out more about the business and the things people want to fix and challenges they face. But also, we need to get ‘buy-in’ from stakeholders across the business. These are typically the heads of department or leaders in a particular region or country. For any intranet project to succeed, you need to have the support of these key stakeholders. If they are disengaged or don’t see the value in putting time and resources into the project, then this can be a major barrier.

To address this, we normally kick off an intranet project with a discovery workshop that involves these key stakeholders. This not only includes discussion points and us asking questions about the business, but also case studies and research findings that highlight the benefits of intranets, and how they can effectively support a wide range of business activities – from communicating company culture to automating common business processes.

Once stakeholders have seen examples and learned more about what intranets can do, they tend to become more interested in the project as they begin to recognise how it can help them. At this stage we can move on to the interactive part of the workshop where we ask the participants to name anything in the business that they wish that they could fix.

Further in to the project, we have regular touchpoints with them to ensure they continue to be aligned with the general direction of the project and remain willing to committ the time and energy of their teams.

View John’s next video: end-user interviews.
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