Introduction to SharePoint Branding

Slalom Consultant Tracey Nolte

Slalom Consultant Tracey Nolte is a SharePoint User Experience engineer who enjoys designing and developing engaging, intuitive and beautiful sites for companies of every size.

During, my presentation at SharePoint Saturday in Dallas. I talked on a very high level about Branding SharePoint. Below is a link to my slide deck, but I’ll also reiterate it in snippets below.

Click here to download Tracey’s complete slide deck as a PDF: Introduction to Sharepoint Branding.

The first concept is UX/IA, which stands for User Experience Information Architecture.

A way to approach design …

  • defines users motivations, needs, wants and pain points
  • designs interactive /iterative solutions with users
  • delivers a clean site with intuitive navigation, logical taxonomy and an engaging BRANDED user experience


Branding is is the artful process of combining:

  • Logos
  • Colors
  • Style
  • Information
  • Culture
  • Design

Click here to download the entire presentation.

Effective Dashboard Design: why your baby is ugly

Slalom Consultant Aaron Hursman

Former Slalom Consultant Aaron Hursman is a user experience architect who applies user-centered design principles and techniques for his cients. He has a background in web development and enterprise applications and enjoys participating in the social web.

I presented a topic entitled, “Effective Dashboard Design” at the 2010 Big Design Conference. I have uploaded the presentation slides to SlideShare and embedded it below. I hope you find it to be an informative and interesting topic.

7 Reasons to Prototype with Microsoft Sketchflow

I’ve been trying to use more of the Microsoft Expression design tools (for a number of reasons). I’ve decided one of its biggest advantages over other options is its prototyping tool, Sketchflow (included with Expression Blend 3).

Slalom Consultant Aaron Hursman

Former Slalom Consultant Aaron Hursman is a user experience architect who applies user-centered design principles and techniques for his cients. He has a background in web development and enterprise applications and enjoys participating in the social web.

Why should you be using Sketchflow to prototype?

  1. It’s the closest digital option to paper prototyping
  2. Sketchy styles – helps people remember that it’s still under construction. More on this from this boxesandarrows article.
  3. Pen tablet integration – allows you to hand draw stuff, which is faster than anything else. Want one? Check out the ones from Wacom.
  4. Progressive Fidelity – move from hand-drawn objects to sketchy objects to wireframe objects to highly-polished designs
  5. Portable – can be packaged up quick and sent out to your team and your clients
  6. Feedback Management – your team and clients can annotate mockups directly and share back with designers
  7. Snappy transition to developers – it produces xaml and code behind files that front-end developers can use as the basis for their code (instead of just looking at a set of graphic mockups and having to translate those into development assets)

I recently watched a good video on Microsoft Sketchflow. If you just want to see a demo, jump to the 31 minute mark.

And if you didn’t know already, you should be prototyping your solutions, because it leads to better requirements and faster development. If you don’t have access to Sketchflow (or time to learn it), at least get out a pen and paper or jump on the whiteboard with your team. That would be better than nothing. Happy prototyping!

Penny Sorting: A User Research Game

Let’s face it, user research can be a total bore…especially for the research subjects. Answering numerous survey and interview questions can lull them to sleep. They are taking time out of their busy day to answer a slew of boring questions when they would probably rather be doing something else. As a result, the data we collect from existing techniques can be suboptimal…especially when the subject is disengaged due to the use of antiquated research methods.

Slalom Consultant Aaron Hursman

Former Slalom Consultant Aaron Hursman is a user experience architect who applies user-centered design principles and techniques for his cients. He has a background in web development and enterprise applications and enjoys participating in the social web.

So, here is an alternative technique that can produce even better results, because it engages research subjects in a fun and tactile game format. Pulling inspiration from the term, card sorting, I call it, Penny Sorting. Here’s how it works:

Supplies:

Participants:

  • 1 research subject (user)
  • 1 or 2 facilitators

Instructions:

  1. take subject into a quiet room with table and shut door
  2. setup cups in a horizontal line on table
  3. give marker to subject
  4. ask subject to label each cup with a pain point
  5. give subject pennies
  6. ask subject to distribute all pennies across cups putting the most in the cup that represents their biggest pain point (and so on)

When completed, thank the user and capture the data in electronically (spreadsheet, etc.). It would be *really* cool if you had a coin counter onsite. Anyway, repeat exercise with as many potential users/stakeholders as you have time for. You’ll need to do some synthesis before the data is ready to be analyzed (subjects will use different labels).

This method just works because:

As you can imagine, the variables in the game can be modified to your liking. You might use a different number of cups or pennies. You could have the users label Post-It sticky notes and place them near the cups instead of writing on them directly. However, the best variable to play with is the “pain point” instruction. You could do this exercise again and ask the subject to instead label the cups with their:

  • most crucial personal needs
  • most important business goals
  • most important responsibilities
  • biggest daily concerns

In fact, while you have the user there in person, you might as well run through the exercise multiple times, but change the question in #4 each time. Happy sorting!

Enabling User-Centered Navigation

Slalom Consultant Aaron Hursman

Former Slalom Consultant Aaron Hursman is a user experience architect who applies user-centered design principles and techniques for his cients. He has a background in web development and enterprise applications and enjoys participating in the social web.

Organizing site navigation based on user needs versus based on internal organization structures is a major step towards creating an effective user experience and enhancing findability.  However, it can create some security/ownership complexities.  This is why organizations rarely bother doing it.  They might understand the benefits to their audience, but they can’t stomach what is required to think through these complexities or how to support them.  They would much rather align their content to their internal departments, so they can simply apply security permissions using people from within those departments.  Practically, it can be very difficult to both a) organize content based on user needs/tasks and b) use departments to define content ownership.

In researching this dilemma, I came across some great articles from Step Two Designs:

Based on these articles and my own experiences, here is a practical approach I would recommend to clients:

  1. Identify just a few key roles from each department that will be responsible for content authoring/review
  2. Fill these roles with real people (this will change over time as people leave, change roles, or the organization is restructured)
  3. Create a ‘community of practice’ made up of these people and an intranet manager
  4. Train the members of this community: a) get them intimately familiar with the task-based organization of the site (what goes where & why it is important); b) grant them fairly significant content authoring access (they need shared ownership of the site content); c) help them understand the implications of their raised security permissions (risks & responsibilities)

So, move forward with that site redesign.  Maybe you already knew that you should organize it based on user tasks, but now you know how to make it happen!

Sketchy Wireframes

Slalom Consultant Aaron Hursman

Former Slalom Consultant Aaron Hursman is a user experience architect who applies user-centered design principles and techniques for his cients. He has a background in web development and enterprise applications and enjoys participating in the social web.

I really like using a sketchy visual theme for wireframes. They purposely convey a feeling of roughness. Incompleteness is actually a good concept to leverage when you still have mockups to build later.

Microsoft Visio may not be the best tool for wireframing, but it suffices. To make it even better, Henrik Olsen and Niklas Wolkert built some fantastic templates and sketchy “shapes” for Visio. Jonathon Abbot created an additional template that improves upon this work. This template combined with the Hand of Sean font (or some of these other web designer fonts), can create great results. I have posted my own Visio file as well.

UPDATE: Per Jonathon’s comment, I am now giving proper credit to Olsen & Wolkert.

Boutique Dashboarding

Recently, I received a question from a colleague that I found to be particularly stimulating from my point of view:

I have a client who is currently looking at OBIEE and BOBJ (Xcelsius) dashboard solutions. The client recently became aware of another dashboard tool from Adobe called Flex. Do you have any experience with this tool? Do you have any precautions or considerations around leveraging this simplified and substantially less expensive solution?

Slalom Consultant Aaron Hursman

Former Slalom Consultant Aaron Hursman is a user experience architect who applies user-centered design principles and techniques for his cients. He has a background in web development and enterprise applications and enjoys participating in the social web.

I do have some experience w/ Xcelsius and a lot of recent experience with Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition (at my current client). I don’t have any direct experience w/ using Flex to build dashboards, but I’m very intrigued and have been meaning to learn more about it.

Lately, I’ve been turned off by the big players in this space platforms. They make good sense for large enterprises w/ varied business & technical needs, but I continue to get very frustrated by their limited data visualization options, their bloated architecture, inefficient code, and inflexible customization options (for both data visualizations and web presentation [CSS, XHTML, ...]). In turn, meeting the client’s business requirements becomes increasingly difficult. I discuss some of these challenges in my presentation on Effective Dashboard Design.

Alternatively, I’m intrigued by the “smaller” & less expensive options. Their high points are the contrast for the low points of the big boys. They don’t spread themselves thin by trying to solve every possible problem. Instead, they go deep on what they do best, offer a wide variety of customization options, and allow themselves to be plugged into other clients/platforms (web apps, portals, even office apps like excel). Instead of trying to be the be-all-end-all, they just become plug-able components to a larger architecture. That makes them easier to absorb/invest in, besides the fact that they are cheaper, too. In addition to Xcelsius and Flex, I’d also add the follow to this genre: Google Charts API, Dundas, Microcharts, Juice Analytics, Prefuse, Open Flash Chart. At one point, I’d include Alphablox in there, too, but IBM has buried it since its acquisition over 4 years ago.

The biggest hurdle for these cheaper options is probably distribution. Especially if the tools being leveraged are Excel-based (plugins, macros, hacks, …) like if the physical dashboard being distributed is just an Excel file. Part of the reason the collective enterprise moved to the web is because it solved a massive distribution and maintenance issues. The thin client removes the need to figure out how to publish new files and/or get software updates required for the thicker alternatives.

I don’t buy the “support” argument (e.g. big software vendor “X” has better support than these small niche shops). It sounds like a repeat of a portion of the Firefox vs. MSIE argument (e.g. security patches depend on the desire of a so-called disorganized, unaccountable set of freelance developers vs. a large organization w/ the experience, know-how, and funding to provide sufficient levels of support). Smaller organizations are typically more open, nimble, ready, and willing to respond to all their customers (both to support requests and ideas for new features)…and their user community is better connected and more willing to share learnings. When it comes to support issues, I’ve enjoyed dealing on these “smaller” scales than waiting for someone to pick up my support request of a bloated and bureaucratic queue.

That being said, you might always feel more comfortable investing in a product from a large vendor vs. something else, for the simple reason of long-term viability. There are no guarantees in life, but the big boys aren’t going anywhere. However, this is probably another weak argument, because eventually, even the biggest of software vendors will sunset support for the product you invest in today. Software life spans are incredibly short no matter who’s name is on the box.

So, I say go for it. At least go through a trial period and use it to prototype/POC something. If you don’t end up using it for a production app, at least the prototype can serve as a requirements gathering tool. I’m a big proponent of high-fidelity prototyping, which is very difficult to do for BI applications. I haven’t done this before, but toolsets like Google Charts API might make high-fidelity prototyping more of a reality in BIPM solutions.

By the way, if you want specific feedback on Xcelsius, check out this discussion on Stephen Few’s blog.

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