Evolution Conference Roadshow: Penny Coventry Shares her Top User Interface Tips and Tricks

SharePoint MVP Penny Coventry’s session in Cambridge, titled Top User Interface Tips and Tricks, was all about user interface and how it has changed throughout the years. Penny has been dealing with creating a user-friendly interface since SharePoint 2003 and has built up a solid base of tips and tricks. Users beware; however, Office 365 has really thrown a wrench in the whole thing.

Penny’s advice centers on taking customizations and branding seriously. You need to think carefully about what you are doing. If all you want to do is switch between the supplied color themes, it won’t cost you any money. That said, if you want a customized look, you need to be prepared to spend money. The biggest thing to remember when embarking on SharePoint customization is functionality. If you brand a site in a way that is hard to look at or visually confusing, you are inevitably making things worse. Nowadays, it is essential to consider what devices will be using your site so that you can be sure everything is clean and organized regardless of the screen size and orientation. Speaking of all those screens, you need to factor in who will be visiting your site, who will be editing your site, and who is ultimately responsible for the site. All of these
factors should play a role in your planning.

In 2003, if an organization wanted to customize its SharePoint sites, it had to go in and modify the master page, which is generally considered a no-no. With SharePoint 2013, you can go nuts with master pages and even create sub-master pages that can be assigned to individual sites or departments. The user interface has really come a long way. This is essentially a result of advanced technology like HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript. Microsoft wants SharePoint to function like a regular website (when used as an external site), so they are building in these capabilities. Penny says it’s still not quite there, but it is certainly much better than it was. Better… that is unless you are using Office 365.

By now, I’m sure you have read all of my other session posts and are totally up-to-date with what’s going on with Office 365. Any guesses as to what about Office 365 makes customization hard? Anyone? Bueller…?  Bueller…? Automatic updates! I’m sure that’s what everyone reading this was thinking. Those pesky random updates you have no control over seem to love breaking heavily branded sites.

Penny detailed what to do to get the most out of your customizations. If you make your site too wide, Penny might just come to yell at you. People are perfectly willing to scroll down, but NO ONE scrolls right. When building a Web Part page, choose a layout with stacked zones versus horizontal ones. Also, with Web Part pages, Penny suggests choosing a more complicated layout than you need. Unused Web Part zones will collapse away, but once you set a layout for the page, you’re stuck, so it’s better to have options available. Another debate you will likely have is whether to use responsive or adaptive web design. The difference is that responsive web design enables sites to react to screen size change, whereas adaptive design focuses on sending the right-sized site to the requesting device. If you look at a responsive design site on your computer and change the window size, it will change along with the window. With adaptive design, the site will look correct in full screen but will give you scroll bars if you change the window size.

Penny’s final advice was to learn about what you are doing. You don’t have to go out and become an HTML5 expert, but if you are going to use it, make sure that you at least know the basics.

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