Thursday, 23 October 2014

Why SharePoint is a document graveyard, and how to fix it

Many SharePoint installations quickly become a "document graveyard", and many bloggers blame the installation process and recommend that document tags be used, but the real reasons why SharePoint sites are document graveyards are more fundamental, and they are all to do with usability.

Tags are not the answer

The main solution people put forward is to use tags, but this overlooks the fact that a directory of documents contains very little indication of what each document is actually about: all you have to tell you what is in the document is the filename, the directory's name and path, and some tags!
What you need is a detailed context... in a document you can easily view.

Opening a Document isn't as easy as opening a web page

Why isn't Wikipedia a web-page graveyard but SharePoint is a document graveyard?
Why isn't the World Wide Web a graveyard of web pages, but SharePoint is a graveyward?

It's because of three things:

Web pages are easily accessible,
but opening documents has a cost

Firstly, the friction of opening a document from SharePoint, and returning to where you left off in your browser, while small, is enough to make you pause.

Web pages have information about them,
but documents just have names, tags and directories

Web pages are easily navigable,
but Word Documents lock you into that document

SharePoint Documents don't have the full context of the web. They are isolated from where they came from: if you open a document, you are now in "Word", not your browser - you've lost your context. So you've now lost your "back" button, your connection to other web pages, and so on - you're isolated in that document, where as on the web, you're connected to everything else.

SharePoint does a poor job of displaying its folder structure

Even worse, Sharepoint doesn't fully list your document's path when you navigate directories (as of 2014)! This simple missing feature (and you can find a fix for it here) means navigating back up your directory path is painful in SharePoint, and you can't easily see your folder structure.

In other words, there's a hidden hurdle to using Word Documents: it's the cost of opening a Word Document via SharePoint: it involves waiting for the document to load in Word, and it removes you from the hypertext environment of the browser. This friction is what isolates Word Documents and other non-HTML pages.

Admitedly, Microsoft have done an outstanding job of integrating Word Documents into the browser - you can even edit right inside the browser.

Now, the SharePoint feature that presents a Word Document, or Excel Spreadsheet,  immediately open in the browser is a great step forward.

Use Wiki pages to direct you to Word Documents

The answer is to use SharePoint's Wiki pages as the trunk of the tree, and to use the Documents and other files as the leaves on the tree. To get to the leaf you want, you start at the main trunk, which is a Wiki page which tells you where to go to get to sub-pages aka. branches, which are themselves wiki pages which tell you to more branches until you find the wiki page that points to the document you want - the same as you can easily find information on the internet without anyone having to put tags on their pages!

So to make SharePoint work for you, place a Wiki page on top of all your directories so that you can write about each document (or list of documents) and tell people what to expect when they open those documents.

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