Archive for December, 2011

Make 2012 Better With a Survey and Workflow


How well are we doing

In earlier posts I gave some thoughts on information structure design which is just one part of the bigger process in implementing effective SharePoint solutions.

Getting feedback from users is a valuable way of determining if your designs are working or not

How to get Feedback – use a survey

Surveys can provide a quick and easy way of getting feedback

The following shows a single question survey

 

 

That presents the responder with a choice of pre-determined answers

 

 

The question is implemented as a column in the survey list. This can be seen from the survey settings page

 

 

Such a survey can be useful but if the answers you are receiving require a particular action a simple workflow can enhance the solution.

Shown below is the SharePoint designer workflow attached to this survey list

 

The End Result is an automatic conditional alert.

I.e. An email is sent to the service department who can take appropriate action ensuring customer care is maintained.

Simple SharePoint solutions made from built in functionality together with simple customisation such as this can make a real difference to your user community and often take little time to create. Consider how long this would take to build if you were starting from scratch without SharePoint using traditional web development (PHP, ASP) techniques.

More complex actions can be taken within the workflow such as creating items in helpdesk lists, creating tasks, building an audit trail etc.

For more information on SharePoint Designer we offer great courses for both SharePoint 2010 and 2007.

 

David Severn

More on Workshops (I.T. and the Users): My Thoughts on Structure Design, Part 3


In my last post I mentioned how members of the I.T department should be included in requirements gathering workshops. Often dedicated business analysts are involved but members of the I.T technical team are not. The rationale being, that I.T. are concerned only with the back end infrastructure. Not so, I argue. I have seen the benefits of including a wide representation of departments including I.T and representatives of the senior management team, in both consultancy engagements and also while teaching on-site courses for Learning Tree.

Is it a course or a workshop?

On-Site courses are where we come to your location, set up our equipment and present a course. Often these courses are customised or tailored to a specific organisation’s requirements. Content from multiple courses can be incorporated. In order to make the most of this, organisations I have been involved with have sent members of many departments to such training. In a number of cases while presenting various SharePoint courses the technical aspects of SharePoint have had to be put to one side whilst the discussion during the class has turned to information structure. These discussions can include sites, site collections, applications and server farms. Interestingly the views of the more technical I.T people vary quite considerably from those of the end users. Often everyone gets along well and at other times the differences can be expressed in strongly vocal terms. In such cases instructors need to be diplomatic in addition to being technically knowledgeable.

Flexibility is key

In a course situation a good instructor will, instead of sticking rigidly to the syllabus, encourage such discussion–in effect, he or she will be running a mini-workshop. The value of this can be immense. The same applies to a great course facilitator. You need to be both direct and go with the flow.

Although it’s unlikely and unreasonable to expect an outsider to appreciate the requirements of a business on short notice they may prove their worth and encourage the group to consider alternative options based on their prior experience. The role is that of facilitator encouraging the group attendees to generate the ideas and develop solutions. Such a person should be confident in directing and involving a room full of people to share and disseminate information. In my totally unbiased way Learning Tree instructors immediately spring to mind as the ideal candidates for such rolesJ

Define the Purpose

Regardless of when the workshop happens the goal is to design a structure that encompasses both technical and non-technical requirements. Defining goals on a flipchart or whiteboard can keep them in focus during the workshop. For example (admittedly a very simple example) I.T are happy with the size and number of site collections that allow for fast backup and restore of their databases, end user champions are happy with an easy to use navigation structure. A key part to achieving this is to get each side to see the others point of view. Talking through scenarios is one technique I have found to be helpful. Seeing that everyone just wants to do their job can take away the emotional side of any disagreements. Doing this on the fly as part of the course can help but more time will usually be needed. Workshops can be carried out as mentioned in previous posts. Documenting discussions and ideas is crucial – dialog mapping, mind mapping, One Note, etc.

The other point of view

Some comments I have heard as a result of such inclusive workshops include the following:

  1. I didn’t realise how important those automated emails were.
  2. How many people rely on this? !
  3. Now I understand why you need to access this site.
  4. I never heard of that department before.
  5. So that’s what they do.
  6. Of course I am sure that library is backed up during the day but will check.

    And many more !

Sound familiar? Can you tell whether the comments came from (I.T, management or end user departments)?

To summarise, the following should be considered in an I.T. workshop:

  • Involve technical and non-technical departments in the requirements gathering and planning process
  • Consider using an experienced facilitator to run the workshop
  • Document the results and store them centrally (SharePoint site?)

Dave Severn

Dialog Mapping Requirements: My Thoughts on Structure Design, Part 2


In part 1 I mentioned that mind mapping is a popular approach to documenting user requirements. I am a great fan of mind maps but I have seen them result in the representation of a structural SharePoint design losing other aspects of requirements. An alternative I am finding very useful that I suggest you consider is an approach known as dialog mapping. I first heard of this in the context of ”wicked problem solving.” To support the use of dialog mapping, Open University and Verizon offer a free tool called compendium.

In requirements gathering a facilitation process can be used with the facilitator guiding and documenting or mapping the discussions occurring as part of a workshop. After installation and starting compendium you will see the following:

This has lots of useful guidance accessible by clicking on the Quick Start node seen above.

Compendium uses nodes of various types. The starting point is a map node:

I have added a map node named DavesDemo and a question node asking, “What kinds of information do we use?” Now I would encourage my workshop attendees to answer the question and as they do I would add answer nodes linking them to the question. Some answers will generate more questions as can be seen in this very simple example.

This use of a dialog map just identifies information. At some point decisions will need to be made and for this pro and con nodes can be added. Another example is in which we ask the question, “What kind of taxonomy should we use?”

Summary

Dialog mapping is a useful tool to have in your SharePoint design toolbox. Give it a try and let me know what you think.

Dave Severn

Structural Basics: My Thoughts on Structure Design, Part 1


Mind mapping is popular among SharePoint designers as it allows layout of potential site structures with little effort. Modern mind mapping tools allow alternate hierarchies to be modelled in almost no time.

The image above was created using FreeMind, an open source mind mapping tool available on sourceforge. This shows an easy starting point based on departments. Most taxonomy designers will immediately be concerned over the above as departmental designs can quickly become limited. For example, where would you store documents that are accessed by both sales and marketing departments?

The key to good taxonomy design is to carry out meaningful requirements analysis. Holding a workshop with a representative cross section of users can be an excellent way of achieving this. I suggest ensuring an I.T representative is included in this group as often I.T and end users perceptions of what is required are vastly different. In essence, these are brain storming sessions where attendees contribute their ideas.

Requirements workshop facilitators can use mind mapping software to document the requirements and ideas as they occur. A departmental design as shown above would be easily created from such a workshop. There is nothing wrong with this approach; however, such meetings can result in consideration only of structure. This is only one part of taxonomy design.

The facilitator should also encourage attendees to consider information and its usage. Consider the following:

  1. What information do we need?
  2. Who needs access to it and who should be prevented from seeing it (security)?
  3. How should it be found (navigation)?
  4. What processes are needed within SharePoint?
  5. What processes are needed within your external systems?
  6. What processes are needed within human interaction?

These topic questions can be broken down further as shown below:

Information needed

  1. What documents are produced?
  2. What appointments need to be made?
  3. What user information is needed?
  4. What does your business need to do its job?

Access

Identify basic categories to start with then sub divide and reorganise these as you build the picture of what is needed:  Confidential, Public, Internal use only, Available on the web or other common location.

Locating information

Do you need a home page for the company, departments or projects?

Decide where hyperlinks and other navigation controls should be placed.

Processes

Is the information you store static? If not, what processes are needed? Who carries them out? How does this fit with your initially mapped structure (taxonomy design)? Where does input come from? SharePoint Data (lists, libraries), Databases or Remote systems? These are all questions to ask yourself as you determine your processes.

When are we finished?

Working through this process can take several iterations initially and again over time as requirements change. At some point a prototype needs to be created. Users can be invited to try this out and provide feedback. Are we ever finished? Possibly not. It’s an on-going process, but we will at least get to a usable design in time for the next organisational change!

Dave Severn

Categorizing in SharePoint, the correct way!


The list of names is actual data from a production system that my company is working with (no we did not write it, but we need to extract data from it). Carefully take a look at how many variations of spelling (and misspellings). This system has the user entering a location in a textbox and we can obviously see the problems that can occur because the user can enter anything they want.

This list is not from a SharePoint site but it got me thinking. We are asking SharePoint site owners to categorize content with columns and often the poor site owner is not a developer but someone just trying to work with SharePoint. The column create screen has many choices and the first on is a text box and often chosen because it’s the default. A textbox, where users, can enter anything! SharePoint search can’t find all the documents and the reports are wrong. The system does not work. Blame Microsoft!

Let that a look at the option to create columns:

  1. Use Single line of text, multiple lines text when you truly expect variable data to be entered, such as a description, or comment.
  2. Choice should be used to categorize information. That way everybody choose from the same pick list, no misspelling and user don’t need to guess how to categorize
  3. Number, currency, data and time, yes / No, person group, hyperlink: Use those to limit type of values should be entered
  4. Lookup (information already on this site): This is like a Choice column but the list of choices is already on a list on the site. Use this to centralize a list of value on the site. This allows you to share the list across multiple lists guaranteeing consistency
  5. Managed Metadata: Is like a lookup list but it can be used by any site in the company. The pick list values centrally maintained by someone in your company (probably a content manager). If a list already exists, definitely use this list options. Someone else maintains the values!
  6. External data: This is similar to the Managed Meta data, globally available to your sites. However, the list of values is not maintained in SharePoint but rather is extracted from existing systems in your company such as a payroll of manufacturing system. Same as before, if this exists, why duplicate what is already created.

With a little care about how we categorized information we will get much better results when looking for information.

To learn more about SharePoint, try one of Learning Tree’s SharePoint courses.

Gord Maric

SharePoint and Business Intelligence Consulting


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