Starting a new intranet? Decide between Classic SharePoint and Modern Communication sites

Over the past year and I half I’ve been privileged to work on work on one of the first modern intranet’s for a fantastic biotech company, Shire. My role is the associate director of collaboration responsible for SharePoint, Yammer, and OneDrive and related technologies. Two companies, Shire and Baxalta were coming together and looking to create a new intranet for the entire company.

As the lead architect for the Intranet and a long term SharePoint guy, I was passionate about being a part of the renaissance that SharePoint was experiencing. Our timing was a bit ahead of the product but we were able to make decisions aligned with our long term goals of modern, mobile, and out of the box even when we needed to build a few temporary solutions to ensure we met the needs of the business.

6 months after the general availability of communication sites, we have launched over 300 communication sites and 3000 modern team sites in our governance first self-service intranet. Being first comes with unique challenges but also some fantastic opportunities to share lessons learned with companies who are redesigning their intranet right now.

I had a great conversation a couple weeks ago with a friend who’s designing right now and was deciding between classic and modern for the root of her intranet. We collaborated on some pros and cons so I wanted to share these with the hopes that it helps others who may be asking the same question.

 What is Classic, What’s Modern?

Classic SharePoint is based on Microsoft’s ASP.NET web technology. The pages are rendered on the server and HTML is sent over the wire to clients. When a user clicks, the page posts back to the server and the server renders the new html. This back and forth can make interaction seen a bit slower as you need to go roundtrip to the server for each edit. This technology was not designed for modern connected devices and works best on desktop browsers.

Modern SharePoint is pages are based on modern web development standards and are written in JavaScript and run on your device for a faster, natively mobile responsive application experience. This new set of experiences was designed for mobility and leverage a number of native iOS and Android applications such as SharePoint, OneDrive, Planner, and Teams.

 Building a Classic SharePoint Online Intranet

Most customized classic intranets in SharePoint rely on master pages for their branding. It is possible but more challenging to customize relying only on css and javascript injection which is more complex and costly but doesn’t have the same supportability challenges.

If you are going to design in classic, please be sure to follow these best practices from Microsoft for the best supportable outcome: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/sharepoint/dev/solution-guidance/portal-branding


Master Pages

The ultimate in user interface customization.
One can rewrite or customize any aspect of the page chrome giving you the ability to make SharePoint not look like SharePoint.
Customizing Master Pages in SharePoint Online is not recommended by Microsoft.

Avoid customizing master pages. As mentioned above, updates
to the service, may affect the structure of out of the box master pages. If you
have implemented custom master page copying the contents of any out of the box
master page, you will need to further monitor if this out of the box master
page is not updated, and re-implement these changes in your custom master page.

Otherwise, some SharePoint functionality may start behaving
incorrectly, when your custom master page is in use. That’s why customizing
master pages leads to additional risks and maintenance costs, and it’s
recommended to avoid it, when possible.

Mature 3rd Party design
options and templates

A very mature eco-system
of 3rd party options and intranet in a box solutions exist.  These can provide a jump start or cost savings versus developing your
own custom solutions.

Be aware that deep knowledge of SharePoint
development (placeholders, delegate controls, HTML and CSS) required to make
changes to these solutions and they are not generally compatible with Modern
SharePoint.

Mature patterns and
tooling for customization

Even within a responsive template, all content must be designed to be responsive via custom CSS as the native webparts and text editors are not designed for
mobility

Classic webparts and
customization techniques

Some customization techniques such as JSLINK for list customization, Display Templates for search based applications, or Filter WebParts don’t have a modern
equivalent

Classic and Modern
Hybrid UX challenges

Inconsistency between Intranet Home and Modern Team and Communication Sites can be confusing to users

Modern Pages in Classic
Sites

Classic customization
techniques do not apply to modern pages within the site such as the Document
Library, Lists, Site Contents etc.

Doesn’t support Modern
News

Does not support Modern
News (rollup to SharePoint Home or Mobile).

Doesn’t support News
Alerts on Mobile

Doesn’t rollup news to a Hub Site

Limited Hub Site Support

No shared Hub Navigation
or shared theme with other Hub connected
sites

 

Building a Modern SharePoint Intranet with Communication Sites

Microsoft’s fully supported forward direction for Intelligent Intranets. Communication Sites will allow you to quickly create an out of the box responsive intranet and extend where necessary using the SharePoint Framework.

Communication Sites are not supported in the root Site Collection for your tenant so you’ll need to create it under the /sites/ path and use a little JavaScript to redirect to the Intranet. This can be done with no user perceptible impact.

 

Responsive out of the box

Both the site chrome and all webparts are automatically optimized for modern mobile
devices.

3rd Party solutions may be immature

Developers less skilled with modern customization techniques may have a tough learning curve. 


SharePoint developers have traditionally been .NET developers working in Microsoft Visual Studio.  SharePoint Framework is based on open source tools and is written in JavaScript so there is quite a bit of learning required.

Anyone can design a great looking intranet

Easily updated without third party or IT support. 


You need some great pictures and writing skills but significantly lowers the
technical demands for creating a professional responsive intranet.

Consistency between Modern Team and Communication Sites.

Maintains continuity in design and function of rest of the new Intranet and Collaboration Sites. 


If you use SharePoint framework to extend the design, the changes can be easily applied to all modern sites.

Evolving Platform

Continually evolving as Microsoft releases mature the platform.  For
example: Hub Sites, News Alerts, Parallax Scrolling, Image Search and Image Cropping have all shipped since the launch of Communication Sites

Hub Sites

Hub Sites will allow you to connect a number of Site Collections with a common Hub navigation, shared theme, news roll-up and ability to search across all Hub connected
sites.

Unlike sub-sites, one can easily reorganize what Hub a site is connected to to adapt as your organization changes over time.

Extensible with SharePoint Framework

Can extend with 3rd Party or custom webparts or extensions on site pages for customized look and feel or functionality

Safer to customize

Modern Customizations are designed to not break as SharePoint evolves and changes.

As an example built in locations for top and bottom user interface
customization will always be supported vs the developer choosing a location on
the page and hoping that it’s not broken by future changes in
SharePoint

Get started with free PNP samples

Large collection of open source Web Parts available from Microsoft Patterns and
Practices

 

Conclusions

For me this is really about aligning with where the product is going to get the best user experience for my company and reducing the amount of rework we’ll need to do over time.

There were some classic sites we build early on when communication sites weren’t available and it’s been painful to go back and rebuild once users have moved in and settled into their sites. For those who are starting now, I’d encourage you to seriously consider if there are hard constraints that would prevent you from starting modern.

 

I’d love to talk with you about your questions and help as many folks be successful with their SharePoint based intranets as possible. If you’d like to learn more there some great events coming up on the east coast and west coast.   I’ll be at SharePoint Fest DC March 26 – 30, 2018 and SharePoint Conference North America May 21- 23 in Las Vegas

 

To save a little money on these conferences:

Use code FeldmanDC100 for SharePoint Fest DC March 26 – 30, 2018

Use code Feldman for SharePoint Conference North America May 21- 23 in Las Vegas

 

 

iPhone 7, Win8, & Modern SharePoint : Client Side Rendering as the “headphone jack”

iPhone 7 – No more headphone jack

I’ve been an fan of the iPhone since it was first released in 2007.  I’m still using an iPhone 5s and have been holding off for a while to see what Apple had to announce today about the iPhone 7.  There had been a number of rumors about the removal of the headphone jack leading up to today’s event.  Buzzfeed wrote a solid article after interviewing a few members of the product team about the motivations behind the move, primarily saving space to make way for new innovations removing something they regarded as antiquated.  For me, the math doesn’t add it and it has convinced me to hold off on a new phone and to seriously examine other eco-systems.  Firstly, I’m on my phone more than 8 hours a day.  I have it plugged in our use a battery to charge it so the lightning connector is already in use.  I’m not really a fan of wireless headphones as I have enough devices to keep charged on a daily basis.  Second, I have a nice investment in that old jack, some incredible headphones including the Dunu DN2000J and Logitech Ultimate Ears TripleFi as well as the Bose SoundSports which i use for phone calls pretty much all day Monday-Friday.  Before the announcement today, Apple had plenty of feedback including online petitions with a few hundred thousands signature encouraging them to rethink the decision, but the general messaging was that we’re killing a dinosaur to make way for progress.  They could be correct, but for years wireless headphones have been around and have never caught on, a very different scenario than the floppy disk and cd-rom drive.

 

Windows 8:  change management is critical and evolution can work better than revolution

I finished reading the article and i was thinking about the lead up to the release of Windows 8.  Microsoft had a ton of feedback from users that the new start menu wasn’t intuitive, the touch focus wasn’t aligned with most people PCs, and the development eco-system just wasn’t ready as it was heavily fragmented across the WinRT, real windows and of course the mobile platform.  The community provided a ton of feedback up front and early but sometimes it’s hard to know if the feedback from your most passionate advocates is representative of the broader market.  In the case of Windows 8, it was of course and the past few years Microsoft has turned it around in Windows 10 and the updates that have happened since that point.  One of my favorite changes is not in the operating system, but the openness, transparency, and willingness to listen that has emerged within Microsoft and the product teams.

 

SharePoint – What was new is old and what’s new is almost ready

This brings me to SharePoint.. There’s a whole lot of exciting change happening right now most of which was announced at the Future Of SharePoint event on May 4th.  Basically every user interface in SharePoint is being reimagined and rebuild with a cloud first mobile first spin.    With the level of change happening across the platform I’ve spent a lot of time describing to people the state of the SharePoint ecosystem; both during the day at work and in broader SharePoint community.

 

I’m working on a new website that i hope to have ready in the next month or so to enable folks to interact and have the conversation about best practices and real world usage guidance on a feature by feature basis.  The general format is a matrix with one axis grouping features by the level of complexity (Out of the Box, Configuration Only, Extending SharePoint, or Totally Custom.  Those classifications were taken from a presentation by Dan Kogan from the SharePoint product team at the Ignite conference last year when he was talking about how the team thinks about customizing SharePoint.  I’m a big fan of this classification scheme as it’s easy to group things like lists, libraries, content types under OOB, forms and workflow under Configure, JSLink, Display Templates, and JavaScript Embedding under Extend, and all the APIs and app patterns under the Custom header.

image

The second axis is designed to provide transparency and guidance to users.  Things in the stop column either have been deprecated or there’s been guidance that these are not the right way to build solutions.  Examples for me are InfoPath forms and Farm Solutions, you can do them, but really not something I’d recommend to a customer.  Sunset focuses on things that we know are going away, but in many cases there just isn’t another options that’s viable today, some easy examples are SharePoint designer workflows, JSLink, and Display Templates.  Finally the items on the Horizon are the up and coming new investments that have promise but either are not generally available or just haven’t yet had the time to mature to their full potential where you’re ready to roll them out to the whole company yet.    A great example of this is the SharePoint Framework, PowerApp, and Flow.  I grabbed a quick capture of the general concept and would truely appreciate any feedback you have as I work to build out the backend of this project.

Over the past 3 years I’ve spent a huge amount of time working with partners and clients to build solutions that work in SharePoint online or on-premise and helped them move away from farm solutions and master pages to more modern approaches focused on client side rendering with JSLink, DisplayTemplates, and JavaScript Embedding or User Custom Actions.  These are 3 newer development techniques that were introduced in SharePoint 2013 to give developers the ability to customize the user interface of SharePoint in a lightweight client side framework.

 

JSLink enables a user to customize the html and css that SharePoint uses to render list items.  It’s pretty incredible as it doesn’t take a really deep developer to create unique and wonderful experiences such as this news list from a simple list.

image

Display templates provides a similar concept for for search results enabling the rapid development of compelling search driven experiances with flexible user interfaces developed entirely client side on top of the wonderful SharePoint search system via the search results webpart and content search web parts.

image

 

A bridge to the future…

As Microsoft is focused on developing the next generation of the development at a furious pace, those of us building solutions today are keenly aware that the technologies available today as on their way out and won’t work in modern pages while the next generation of technologies are still being evolved and just aren’t ready.   The roadmap for the SharePoint framework talks about webparts, full page apps, and list apps each of which provide an ability to engineer custom solutions for SharePoint.  As modern pages and modern webparts begin to replace today’s publishing pages there will be new webparts (real soon) focused on viewing lists and content search but nothing has been shared about a future for these client side rendering technologies.

Think of this as a nice compatible SharePoint “headphone jack”.  Today it feels like there’s a chasm between old and new where investments customers have made in office 365 based portals or customized user experiences made following patterns and practices don’t have a clear transition to the future of modern team sites and modern pages.  The ability to bring forward some of the client side rendering technologies into the next generation of the list view and search results web part could ease the transition and provide customers with a way to take their recent investments forward in the cloud or on-prem.   Over time as the SharePoint Framework matures and evolves they may not be needed.  Today, the ability to build something today that works onprem, in office 365 today, and in the modern experiences of the future is critical.   Just like the headphone jack that may not be as new and shiny as wireless audio, having a  mature, tested approach to bring forward customers investments (just like my awesome headphones i love) would really help us make the transition.

Normally my posts are more focused on a technical snipit rather than commentary.  Let me know what you think and if you want more opinion or if you’d prefer i stick to the code.

 

…Dave