In a September interview, SharePoint expert Asif Rehmani described how users, developers and organizations are dealing with SharePoint Online’s so-called “modern” innovations.
Redmondmag.com recently checked in with Asif Rehmani about the state of SharePoint for end users and organizations.
Rehmani is the CEO and founder of VisualSP, a company that offers interactive guides (walkthroughs) directly on top of the SharePoint interface to help end users get their jobs done effectively. He’s a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) and the author of four books.
A few years ago, Microsoft charted a different course with SharePoint Online, its cloud-based collaboration and document-sharing SharePoint solution. SharePoint Online supports intranets using “modern” pages, which offer a more responsive design that can be used across different devices, including mobile ones. The lighter SharePoint Framework is used for client-side application development. Sites based on SharePoint Online have a more flattened intranet hierarchy, as well. Overall, this approach gets branded as the “intelligent intranet” by Microsoft.
In contrast, organizations may currently be using SharePoint Server on-premises, with its earlier “classic” pages approach and use of subsites. They may or may not be feeling the modern pull toward SharePoint Online, an Office 365 product that gets more frequent feature updates from Microsoft.
I was curious to hear Rehmani’s views about this shift. What follows is an edited Q&A along those lines.
Redmondmag.com: How are end users feeling about Microsoft’s modern pages shift and flattened hierarchy with Hub Sites at the top?
Rehmani: Subsites had been part of SharePoint since the beginning and yes, it will be a drastic shift for many organizations who are going from the subsite hierarchical model to Hub Sites and top-level sites.
Having said that, this is definitely the right move from Microsoft to go that route. Subsites have always been difficult to work with. There will definitely be some pain while organizations figure out how to take their current schema and nested sites and bring it to a flat schema and have them be connected using Hub Sites, but it will definitely be worth it in the long term.
Modern pages are a better experience for users. New users particularly like the experience because it looks and feels very much like the experience they get from other sites on the Web these days. Still, folks who are transitioning from the classic experience to the modern experience are having challenges because of their preconceived notions of how things have been. It’s the typical change management dilemma. Organizations will have to re-teach their end users who have grown up in the classic mode. It will definitely be beneficial to organizations to plan ahead for this change.
The help that users need should be readily made available to them at their moment of need, and they shouldn’t have to go find the information elsewhere. The issues for them include simple things, such as document-naming recommendations when uploading to a library or information about the elements they see on the screen. These types of friction points should be removed as much as possible. Help/support should be available directly within their screens using SharePoint. Training doesn’t really work when you try to cram a lot of information into users’ heads and expect them to remember it later.
Is VisualSP seeing a divergence in capabilities between what can be done on SharePoint Online versus SharePoint Server?
SharePoint Online and SharePoint Server are both growing and evolving in their own directions. The capabilities will be very similar for the most part. However, there definitely will be components of the cloud that cannot be brought behind the firewall. Some organizations will never move completely to SharePoint Online, but they still may go hybrid to take advantage of Microsoft’s amazing cloud capabilities.
VisualSP focuses on helping end users wherever they are. Cloud or on-premises doesn’t matter to us. VisualSP software detects if the user is on the classic or modern interface and it helps the user accordingly. We don’t really focus on training as much as helping the users perform their tasks.
“Folks who are transitioning from the classic experience to the modern experience are having challenges because of their preconceived notions of how things have been. It’s the typical change management dilemma.”
Asif Rehmani, CEO and Founder, VisualSP
Has the SharePoint independent software vendor (ISV) community made the shift to the SharePoint Framework and modern pages, in your impression, or is classic development still the norm?
The shift is taking place. I know that many companies that provide intranet-in-a-box are making this change but they have a lot invested on the old classic interface, so it’s not an easy change for them. However, most of them do understand that they need to keep up with Microsoft, so they are definitely going that route and making the changes as needed.
SharePoint Framework is being used by many developers these days to enhance the productivity on top of the modern way of doing things. However, development in the classic sense, where you customized the entire experience of the pages, is not the case anymore. ISVs are focusing on providing add-on functionality instead of trying to replace what’s already there. I think that’s good for customers because migration experience going forward is going to be much easier when you are building on top of the platform instead of trying to replace the platform components, which was never a good idea in the first place.
I also see a lot of traditional solution integrators (consulting companies) making the transition to adoption and change management strategies — focusing on how to get end users to be successful with the software instead of relying on heavy customization. This realization has been very strong within Microsoft already for a few years, and now the solution integrator community has also started to believe that the main focus should be to help users be successful with the product and the platform. A lot of investment from Microsoft and from their partners is going that route and it is a very good thing.
Are end users stuck on using InfoPath 2013, or are they taking to alternatives like PowerApps to create forms for SharePoint?
Many companies are making the shift from InfoPath to other platforms, such as PowerApps and Microsoft Forms or third-party forms software, but there still are many InfoPath forms out there. When I speak at conferences and ask attendees if they are using InfoPath, many hands go up. Microsoft will support InfoPath ’til 2026, so there’s still a lot of time remaining and customers know it. However, most companies are realizing that they’ll need to make that shift sooner than later.
PowerApps is more of a developer or “super” power-user product. You need a higher level of technical skills to be able to go that route. Microsoft Forms is much easier to use and build solutions but it lacks feature-rich capabilities, so PowerApps likely will be the solution to replace most InfoPath scenarios.
What aspects of SharePoint typically confound end users?
Overall, the experiences with the modern interfaces in SharePoint Online have become much easier and better. However, as with all SaaS applications, there still will be points of contention where users won’t know exactly what to do when trying to get work done. No matter how easy the SharePoint interface looks and feels to the Microsoft folks, people will always need to get in-context help because they won’t understand the software designer’s intent.
SharePoint is a platform that supports building custom solutions for specific business functions, and users will always need help in that regard. If they don’t find help in context, they’ll either defer the task or find a workaround. Of course, we don’t want our users to do that! As a trainer, I’ve found that having contextual help at the moment works best for end users.
Will the Microsoft Ignite conference this fall (starting Nov. 4) possibly bring any SharePoint developments of note?
Microsoft always releases new features and makes features announcements regarding SharePoint at Ignite, on top of its May SharePoint Conference announcements. Much of Microsoft’s Ignite news tends to be about its cloud developments, and SharePoint is a big consumer of those Office 365 cloud-based solutions.
SharePoint is still the driving force and the back end for many other applications within Office 365. For example, Microsoft Teams, which is an amazing application for connecting people in the organization, has a major dependency on SharePoint. Teams cannot live without the SharePoint back end.
Some people feel that not much investment is taking place in SharePoint anymore, but that’s not true. For instance, Microsoft has enhanced SharePoint Lists and Web Parts. It added new site templates, such as SharePoint Home Sites and Hub Sites. There are new interaction points between SharePoint and other Office 365 apps. A whole bunch of stuff has already been announced, but look for more to come.