SharePoint 2007: Pointedly unskinnable
~ 24 October 2007 ~
Remember all that clamor about skinning SharePoint with standards?
Well, it turns out SharePoint 2007 isn’t nearly as customizable as I (and others) were led to believe. Not even close in some cases. Given the amount of exposure my original article garnered, I feel obligated to share what I’ve learned since.
There is a fundamental distinction that must be understood when implementing SharePoint: SharePoint can be used primarily as a CMS or primarily as a collaboration tool. However, try to use it as both in a single implementation and you’ll entangle yourself in a strenuous skinning effort.
Let me attempt to explain why.
At its core, SharePoint is a robust content management system (CMS). Just about any flavor of web content can be built and maintained by it — public or internal, small scale or large. One site referenced often throughout our initial skinning effort was the public site for Hawaiian Airlines, powered by SharePoint. In this scenario, typically one or very few individuals access admin screens, while the majority of users merely consume published content.
Complementary to its core, SharePoint is a massive collaboration tool. It can facilitate the many activities common to any workplace — intranets, document sharing and versioning, project tracking, and much more. The most common of these is probably “team sites.” In this scenario, you have many site owners accessing admin screens. In reality, nearly every user can simultaneously be a site owner and consumer of content.
Here’s where things fall apart: Any changes made to Master Pages (i.e. templates for the CMS) will not carry over to the admin screens. Apparently this is intentional, but I consider it a major UI flaw. (See comments #56 and on from the original post for more info.) This is all perfectly fine in the CMS scenario, as only an infinitesimal fraction of your users will switch between published screens and admin screens. However, in the collaboration scenario, nearly any user can, and will, switch between published screens and admin screens to complete tasks. Because your skinning won’t be reflected in the admin, what should otherwise be a continuous visual flow for users instead becomes a jarring transition from your beautiful theme to SharePoint’s vanilla theme and back again.
No one ever made the above distinction, and thus “Hawaiian Airlines did it, so can we!” became our rally cry, not realizing the difference between CMS skinning and collaboration skinning. The ensuing deep dive into customizing images and markup for our team sites led to an unsuccessful skinning effort that was eventually scrapped. This inevitably begs the question: Is SharePoint completely unskinnable when used as a collaboration tool? No. It’s still possible to skin the interface using CSS overrides, but not to the extent which we were customizing it.
In summary, if your organization plans to use SharePoint 2007 primarily as a CMS, evaluate it as you would any other CMS. I think we can all agree that pretty much all content management systems are crippled, but at least you’ll be able to customize the entire experience — interaction, design, markup, and so forth.
If using it as a collaboration tool, treat it as licensed software with minimal branding customization. Or better yet, avoid it like the plague and convince your organization to go with Clearspace or even Basecamp.
Lastly, and most importantly, my greatest concern for customizing SharePoint was the hope that I’d not only be able to paint the app but customize the interaction workflow, as well. Not a chance. In fact, I feel it worth your time to warn you that the out-of-the-box user experience is downright horrible in many areas. Sally User needs to change the logo on her SharePoint team site? No problem. She’ll just need to navigate away from the site customization screen to find the image gallery, locate the image she wants, click it, copy the URL in the address bar, navigate back to the customization screen where it asks for a customized logo, paste the URL, click submit. (No joke!) Sadly, much of the built-in interaction in the app functions as awkwardly as this.
Alas, what more can one expect from something that looks like a cow, swims like a dolphin and quacks like a duck?
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