By John Ross
Let’s face it: Out-of-the-box SharePoint isn’t going to win any beauty pageants. Whether you are talking about SharePoint 2007 or SharePoint 2010, one of the most common requests we hear from clients is, “Can you make it not look like SharePoint?” And the simple answer is “Yes.” But the less simple answer is that how much you want to customize the SharePoint user interface is going to determine the overall level of effort required.
The following is a list of the top five considerations to keep in mind when you are planning out your custom-branded SharePoint site. I’ve tried to keep them in order of importance and potential impact to the level of effort and approach:
1. Version of SharePoint: First and foremost, there is no bigger decision point than what version of SharePoint you are using. Is this SharePoint 2007 or SharePoint 2010? Do you have SharePoint Server? The biggest distinction here is going to be whether you are talking about SharePoint Server or not (i.e., Windows SharePoint Server 3.0 or SharePoint Foundation). SharePoint Server gives you the ability to take advantage of Web Content Management functionality in the site, which is ideal for making custom-branded sites. There are plenty of things you can do if you don’t have SharePoint Server, but it simply might take more time to achieve the same or similar results in WSS or SPF.
It should be obvious that if you have SharePoint 2007 or SharePoint 2010, it is going to make a big difference in the level of effort. There’s a different set of functionality available in the newer version that can open the doors for different requirements or sometimes make things easier. For example, in SharePoint 2007, you had the option to apply branding as a theme. However, in SharePoint 2010, themes are drastically different. If you had some specific branding requirements, it might have been possible to achieve the desired results as a theme in SharePoint 2007, but in SharePoint 2010, that might now require a custom master page.
2. Size and complexity of effort: Normally, right out of the gate, you should have an idea about how big and complex your SharePoint design effort is going to be. Usually there is a deadline and ultimately a budget associated with the effort as well.
One of the biggest issues faced in a SharePoint branding effort is that even very skilled designers have a ramp-up time associated with creating a design in SharePoint. If your team is new to SharePoint, it is important to account for the learning curve. This means that things your designers might have knocked out really fast in other technologies will take more time than you expect.
I don’t know of a good metric to simply apply at the beginning for estimation purposes, but initially saying something would take twice as long as it might in a technology your designers were more familiar with is a good start. Keep in mind, this is to account for the learning curve; over time, the process goes much more quickly. Underestimating the number of hours required is one of the most common issues faced by SharePoint projects, and this is mostly due to not accounting for the learning curve!
3. Creating your design: You don’t want your site to look like SharePoint, but what do you want it to look like? Where do you start? My suggestion is to start by looking around on the Web to find other sites you like and ones you don’t like. Try to identify specific elements of other sites that stand out to you and make a list. What colors, fonts, general layouts and the like do you love, and what do you hate? Once you have all of those things—along with your company’s corporate style guide—you can start the design process.
If you are looking for some inspiration, a good place to start is either wssdemo.com or www.topsharepoint.com. Both of these sites are filled with lots of examples of SharePoint sites. Obviously these are all public-facing sites, but they can still serve as great ideas for design.
Also, one other word of advice here when it comes to creating an intranet design: Try to avoid making your intranet too heavily styled. I’ve made that mistake myself despite being warned against it by designers.
4. What is the main purpose for each site? At a high level, SharePoint sites can serve one of two purposes: Communication or Collaboration. I’m sure there’s someone out there reading this that can come up with some example of some hybrid type of site, but at the end of the day, the scales will always tip in one direction or another. A site geared towards communication would be like the home page for an Internet site or the main page for your intranet portal. A collaboration site would be one where the focus is on actually doing and sharing work, like a project, department or meeting site.
The primary difference between the two is that communication sites are likely going to be more heavily styled and collaboration sites will be more focused on the actual content being collaborated on. When you are planning your custom-branded site, it is important to keep in mind the overall purpose for the total implementation as well as keeping tabs on how many communication vs. collaboration sites you’ll have, because each requires a slightly different approach.
5. Client configuration: One of the most common topics that gets debated with customers is around what browser should we be developing for and for what screen resolution. For intranet environments, this is usually far more tightly controlled. But in many other environments, it isn’t so easy to control the configuration of the client machine.
The old rule of thumb was to develop for IE6 and a resolution of 800x600. Many are surprised to learn that IE6 now represents just more than 6% of the browser market on the Internet and almost 98% of machines are running resolutions higher than 800x600. Check it out for yourself.
The key to remember here is that the more varied the client specs are that you need to support, the more time that should be allocated to development and testing for your branding to ensure that all scenarios are properly supported. In addition, it is important to make sure you test your branding with real content! Greeking doesn’t count as real content either. Have a small set of users enter some content that would typically go on the site and make sure everything looks as expected.
These are just a few of main considerations to think about when creating your custom branded SharePoint site. Some of these points might seem like overkill for very small projects, and that might very well be true. But in most cases, these points can be applied to just about every custom SharePoint branding effort. For more information on SharePoint branding, be sure to check out my new book, "Professional SharePoint 2010 Branding and User Interface Design," from Wrox.
John Ross is a SharePoint MVP and Senior Consultant with SharePoint911.