How To Get SharePoint Buy-In
Search and Architecture, Not Just Pretty Design

One of the most important aspects of SharePoint success (or really any website/portal) is to make sure people find what they need, when they need it.

A beautiful looking site without a properly configured search solution and intuitive navigation interface is the same as having a great looking car with no engine: It sits there looking beautiful but is incapable of going anywhere. Initially people will stop and look, impressed with the vision of the “solution” but will soon discover it is nothing more than a shell, offering little value other than eye candy.

A primary component of any successful SharePoint application or site is user experience. Users must be able to find the information they are looking for in an easy, intuitive, logical flow. From a user’s perspective, for them to use an application or site they have to get immediate value from its use. The solution must integrate into their work and thought processes at an intuitive level, to ensure they find value and continue to use the site.

Because of the problems inherent with end user buy-in when implementing SharePoint, not only must users get immediate value, there must be a simple way to get information in and out of the system with minimal training. Bill English, SharePoint MVP and CEO of MindSharp, appropriately calls this “findability.” Users must be able to immediately comprehend the display of the information, how to move through that display and find what they need in the context of their need.

Many companies leave the user experience to a site designer. Problems can occur when a site designer or user interface (UI) designer becomes concerned with the way things look, the layout of the page, while overlooking the necessary architecture needed to expose contextually relevant information.

A Place for the IA
During the planning phases for a SharePoint implementation, an information architect (IA) should be included on the design team to ensure understanding of the underlying architecture and the ability to surface information based upon metadata and context. Without direction from an IA, there will be a tendency to build a pretty shell, overlooking the real business solution needed.

Search is being driven into all parts of the user experience and its ubiquity is being seen as a distinct advantage to the user experience over static navigational structures. It drives such things as the “Content Query Web Part (CQWP),” which can search through and iterate through all parts of a site infrastructure and display only relevant content. Search places filtered content in the path of the user at the appropriate points, creating displays of contextually relevant content through selective filtering.

A good information architect will work with a site designer to make the SharePoint interface and user experience search-driven. Through significant improvements in search technology in SharePoint 2010, architects can surface the right functionality that will allow the entire navigation experience to be based in search and queries. Search improvements in SharePoint 2010 include:

  • Refinement panels, enabling users to filter and/or refine content with attributes such as content type, content location or content author;
  • Managed metadata properties;
  • Aid in the relevancy of results returned;
  • Ratings features to promote the higher rated results; and
  • A “did you mean” function which can provide suggestions in those cases where a user misspells a word.

However don’t let these specific search improvements take away from ancillary features in SharePoint 2010 that dramatically affect the architecture, navigation and search functionality. Features such as the new metadata management capabilities, as well as the content-type syndication are key capabilities upon which proper information architectures are built.

IA in SharePoint 2010
SharePoint 2007 system architects found that a combination of CQWPs, connected Web parts, faceted search solutions and third-party software have given them the ability to create dynamic search interfaces. The possibilities have become much broader with SharePoint 2010. We now have the access to CQWPs, pages, search, metadata and content types, all combined together to create an intuitive interface based upon search.

A good SharePoint architect will help design a solid base of content types, as well as associated metadata. These two components are key to a robust information architecture and making SharePoint 2010 a high-performance platform. Once you have created this underlying structure, you can take advantage of it through both search and navigation or, in our case, a combination of the two.

Suppose you are a manufacturer of several different kinds of widgets. On your site you want to ensure that people can easily find information of all kinds that pertains to anything you would want to know about the different widgets. There are several potential approaches to ensuring this is an easy process, but consider the idea of creating a series of product pages that utilize the CQWPs. You can dedicate a page to each widget type. On this page you place a series of CQWPs that search through the entire structure looking for either a Content Type that is used for any product documentation, or you can leverage the Managed Metadata service to look for any content that has been tagged with that product term. You can then further refine these Web parts to categorize the content into “marketing documents,” “manuals,” “design documents,” etc. All this is displayed on one page, leveraging search at its core. Clicking on each result in the CQWP navigates to that file.

Taking a similar route you can leverage the idea of connected Web parts on a page. Create a list of common tasks or common search terms gathered from monitoring your environment. Clicking on one of these initiates a search and populates another search-results Web part on that page. This makes the user experience very simple and makes navigation easy.

You can then also take advantage of SharePoint features and add in some additional suggestions and or guidance to the page that would display best bets or related terms they may be interested in. Taking this path helps the information architect or system administrator to guide the user to relevant content. This effort does, however, take consistent effort to ensure that they are regularly monitoring the systems, looking at common searches so that they can provide a true best bet.

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