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SharePoint usability: It's all about workflow
What does usability mean in a SharePoint context? Can a concept normally applied to home pages and e-commerce sites deliver similar value on a decentralized end user development platform with hundreds, maybe even thousands, of specialized Web sites? Recent conversations with training clients as well as personal experience have convinced me that we need to rethink usability and information architecture in the SharePoint environment. In this article, I briefly review the usability concept in the SharePoint context. Next, I discuss my experience in creating a slide library using SharePoint, a relational database, and file folders. Finally, I draw some conclusions about the relative value of usability and information architecture versus workflow analysis.
Usability in the SharePoint context
Web site design guru Jacob Nielsen recommends devoting 10% of development project resources to usability.
As a generic concept, usability is certainly relevant to any product, including SharePoint. As a discipline, it may also apply when SharePoint is used for intranets, extranets, or public facing Web sites. That's because these applications are usually large-scale projects that focus on a single or a small number of audiences.
But for other SharePoint applications, the traditional usability discipline is not such a good fit due to the following factors:
Example: Working with images
Like publishers and consulting firms, intellectual assets are our only stock in trade. To use those assets efficiently in revenue-generating products and services, we developed a metadata repository complemented by a full text search engine. The system still works well for text documents, but I needed a better way to manage images — drawings, screen shots, and textual slides — for use in articles, books, and presentations.
The system needed to have the following features:
Four image storage options
Workflow impacts the choice
Images used in learning products and services (i.e. books and slide shows) are a different story. Both need frequent updating, which means there must be an easy way of locating the image file, opening it in graphics editor, and replacing the old version with the new version in the application — InDesign for books, PowerPoint for presentations.
Updating slide images depends on how they were created. If they were created using PowerPoint's drawing tools, it's unnecessary to open a separate graphics program to change them. If they were created using a drawing or paint program, the image must be edited in that application and then pasted into PowerPoint.
The SharePoint slide library solves several problems:
Storing slide images: two options
Each slide in the library has a thumbnail image, but often it isn't large enough to see whether the image used on the slide needs editing. To see a full size view of the image, it's sometimes necessary to copy it to a new presentation. Changing slide metadata is somewhat cumbersome because it isn't possible to edit managed metadata values in the SharePoint data view. Moreover, using a slide image in another process, such as book or Web publishing, requires that the image be pasted into a graphics program and saved as a separate file.
Using a relational database to store slide images has the same benefits as the SharePoint slide library but lacks the "Copy to presentation" feature. Using a database for images adds three steps to the slide creation process:
Although the database adds three steps to the slide workflow, it saves time in using the image for other publishing formats, such as books and Web pages. Moreover, it ensures that the images used in all publications are consistent and current. It's faster and easier to upload images and edit image metadata in a database than it is in a SharePoint slide library.
The pros and cons of each image storage strategy are shown in the table below.
The use of images in Web pages, books, and presentations shows why workflow is a major usability consideration when deciding where and how to store content. Issues include the ease of finding, inserting, editing, and reusing images. SharePoint's tight integration with PowerPoint provides some unique efficiencies in the slide show creation process, but when you consider other processes that use images (e.g. book and Web publishing), the relational database option is the best choice.
The problem is that not all organizations consider workflow when deciding how to handle images in SharePoint, let alone how the choice affects multiple workflows. Even fewer understand the benefits of using an external relational database as a metadata repository. In the SharePoint environment, taxonomists and information architects need to broaden their concept of usability to help end users make their workflows more efficient, especially when intellectual assets like images are used in multiple applications.Created on April 2, 2011 l Updated on April 16, 2013