SharePoint Usability

SharePoint 2010 Usability Report Card

Many people complain about the usability and lack of user-friendliness of SharePoint, so I thought I’d examine the interface against standard website usability principles and see how it stacks up.

Before I get started, I want to highlight a great book on website usability titled “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug.  Krug’s number one rule is so important that he named his entire book after it.  Basically he is saying that websites should be self-evident, obvious, and self-explanatory.  Users should not have to think about what they are doing because they should just know what to do; it should be that obvious.  And every time they have to think it sways their confidence and trust in your website just a little bit more.  So if you want to learn more about website usability in general, I highly recommend reading his book.  It’s a light, easy, funny read and does not go into a lot of usability theory or other boring stuff.  It’s just a lot of common sense things that you probably already know but never really thought about before.

SharePoint Navigation Areas

The first two images below were included in my presentation SharePoint Site Usability and Design Tips for Non Designers that I presented at SharePoint Saturday Twin Cities last November.  Figure 1 shows all the various areas of the page in a SharePoint 2010 site created with the out-of-the-box team site template that has not had any branding or customization done to it.

Figure 1 – Layout areas of a SharePoint 2010 site created with the out-of-the-box team site template

Websites usually have two types of navigation – navigation by browsing and navigation by searching.  Navigation by browsing generally includes a primary navigation menu, secondary navigation menu, and utilities links.  In addition breadcrumbs provide a way for users to easily see where they are at in a particular site or where they’ve been. Some best practices around navigation include the following:

  • Create a concise and consistent primary navigation that is identical no matter where you are.  SharePoint refers to this as the global navigation.  Your primary navigation should contain no more than nine links, as studies have shown that the maximum number of links a human brain can process are nine.  Think of the primary navigation as the aisles in a grocery store.  No matter where you’re at in the store, the dairy aisle and the snack food aisle never change locations.
  • Secondary navigation links should be relative to where you’re at.  In SharePoint team sites, this area is called the quick launch.  Using our grocery store example, think of them as items on the shelves.  If you’re in the dairy aisle, you’ll see milk, butter, cheese, etc.  However if you’re in the snack food aisle, you’ll see crackers, potato chips, cookies, etc.  So the secondary links would change depending on where you are within a site, and only show links that are pertinent to the page or area of the site that you’re on.
  • Navigation should be used not only to assist you in getting to where you want to go, but it should also tell you exactly where you’re at along the way.  This is where the use of breadcrumbs comes in handy.  In addition, active navigation links should be highlighted in some way to draw attention to the fact that you are on that page.  And page titles should match the link names, so there is no question that the link you clicked on to get here was the one you intended.

The Report Card

So how does SharePoint stack up?  For the most part, if we’re primarily looking at the basic tenets of usability and how they relate to navigation, I think it does pretty well.  Figure 2 displays my grades for each element of a SharePoint team site.

Figure 2 – Report card with usability grades for the various elements of a SharePoint team site

The various areas and explanation as to why I graded each the way I did are listed below:

  • Primary navigation -This gets high marks because SharePoint includes a built-in navigation system that allows the building of primary navigation bars that are consistent everywhere (provided site owners haven’t broken navigation inheritance).
  • Secondary navigation -This also gets a high mark because SharePoint’s navigation structure is designed to display only the links that are relative to the site you are on.
  • Breadcrumbs – I give breadcrumbs a D because it is not evident where they are on the page.  You have to know exactly where they are located.  Furthermore, they’re not in a format that typical breadcrumbs follow or in the proper location; you actually have to click on a tiny icon in the upper left corner to expand the breadcrumbs menu before you can see them.
  • Page titles -Page titles are misleading as well, so I give them a C.  To me they appear to be breadcrumbs, but they’re really not.  The crumbs only go back as far as the current site, not all the way back to the root site.  Also, page titles are typically found in the content area below the navigation.
  • Search – Search works great as long as it’s turned on and set up properly!
  • Screen size compatibility – I give this a B because it can be a little tricky to work with sometimes to get all your content to fit without left/right scrolling on smaller screen resolutions.

Overall Grade

If you take the average of the grades on a 4.0 scale, you get 3.0, or a B.  That’s pretty good, right?  So what is all the complaining about?

I’d like to point out that the usability principles I have examined pertain primarily to the end user experience of SharePoint, or the consumers of information.  For those users I believe that SharePoint can be pretty user-friendly, IF (and this is a big “if”) the sites have been constructed properly.  But what does that mean?

Site Owners are Webmasters

Typical site owners are people in the business, many of which have no previous experience with SharePoint and/or creating and managing a website.  Many organizations just throw SharePoint out there without realizing that essentially they are asking site owners to be webmasters of their sites.

How can we achieve the ultimate in usability and user-friendliness of the SharePoint sites in our organizations?  We need to teach our site owners how to be webmasters.  Just some of the responsibilities of a webmaster include designing the site, setting up and maintaining the information architecture, analyzing usage statistics, and content facilitation.  They need to understand their audience so they know what kind of content to put on the home page and how to lay it out to ensure maximum adoption and keep visitors returning to their site.  If the site isn’t designed properly and the information architecture is poorly designed or nonexistent, you can pretty much guarantee the site won’t be very usable.


So while Microsoft has touted (and a lot of organizations bought into hook, line, and sinker) that SharePoint is extremely user-friendly, what they failed to mention is that the content on the sites must be designed and organized properly.  While the shell may in fact score high in usability, the fact is that most SharePoint sites in the real world would not be considered very user-friendly.

I think the key is training our site owners to understand exactly what is expected of them as site owners (aka webmasters) and how to do it.  These responsibilities could vary across organizations or even inside them.  This should all be thought about up front and addressed in the organization’s governance plan.

What do you think?  UI experts, am I way off the mark here?  I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments.

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About Me

Wendy Neal

Wendy Neal

I am a .NET SharePoint Developer for DMI. I've worked with SharePoint since 2007. I love to share my passion for SharePoint and Office 365 by speaking at various industry and user group events, as well as writing articles for various publications and this blog.   Read More

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