Category Archives: User Experience

How LiveTiles modernises design and UX in SharePoint

Live-Tiles-logoLiveTiles launched globally in early October and many of you have been in touch to request further product information. In this post we chat with Sepi Ghajar, Senior Consultant and lead LiveTiles Architect in New York, about some of the most commonly asked questions, including what LiveTiles is, what it does and how can it change the way your business operates.

So, what is LiveTiles?

LiveTiles is a product that enables you to have a superior design, functionality and user experience in SharePoint and to reduce the time it takes to build customised interfaces from months to hours – or even minutes. It’s also the first browser-based design tool to support modern UI (user interface) design, rapid mobile site development and out-of-the-box integration with external line of business systems. LiveTiles can be deployed to SharePoint on-premise or to the cloud (SharePoint Online) with Office 365.

How does LiveTiles make using SharePoint easier?
LiveTiles is a very simple, modern interface and doesn’t require a high degree of technical proficiency to operate. It has a straight-forward ‘drag and drop’ functionality and comes with a range of pre-configured apps and tiles. Each of these has in-built functionality and can easily connect to (and display content from) within SharePoint – as well as applications such as Yammer, Dynamics CRM and many third party business systems.

Why does LiveTiles offer a superior UX?
We talk about LiveTiles as ‘flipping the traditional intranet model on its head’ because the days of one-way intranets – where people log in and have to follow a global navigation to source information – are gone. This is not how people prefer (or expect) to work anymore. Good UX now demands that we offer faster, more intuitive, convenient and personalised experiences. Combined with the fact that touch technology is now so ingrained in our daily lives – LiveTiles takes this demand and lets you easily deploy sites that users want to engage with.

Example of LiveTiles as a horizontal scrolling interface.

Example of LiveTiles being deployed as a horizontal scrolling interface.

When a user logs in to LiveTiles they see only information pertaining to them. Individual tasks, schedules, rosters, training videos, business intelligence, and automated workflows are seamlessly combined with global information like a social collaboration newsfeed, corporate policies, important notices or alerts. LiveTiles also leverages SharePoint 2013’s enterprise-grade search capability, meaning enhanced document previews, metadata and people search, as well as discoverable social hashtags or conversations. Strictly speaking, everything a worker needs in their entire day is located within their LiveTiles interface.

In what ways can installing LiveTiles result in cost savings?
From a business value perspective, LiveTiles shortens the amount of time it takes for businesses to see real value from their Office 365 or SharePoint investment. It also helps reduce the risk around technology implementation complexities, and also to achieve sustained user adoption.There are also significant savings to be made from increased employee productivity and collaboration. As an example, the simple act of automating leave requests can reduce a hefty administrative burden and the associated productivity vacuum and costs. Even if each employee only spends an hour submitting and tracking their form each time they take leave, across an entire company, savings of both time and money add up very quickly.

Another example is the use of rich media content to train and educate employees in different geo-locations. The ability to host and manage this through LiveTiles can result in entire training modules being entirely online, removing the need for training facilities, collateral and personnel, and also reducing employee down-time.

How does LiveTiles integrate with SharePoint?
As mentioned earlier, LiveTiles comes with a range of pre-configured apps and tiles which have the ability to connect to both SharePoint and external data sources.

This is achieved by installing the package to SharePoint Solution Gallery. Once the installation is complete, LiveTiles enables you to create aggregated content pages within SharePoint by offering a broad range of page templates with pre-populated and pre-configured content, retrieved from SharePoint lists and librarians. Included in the range of page templates are up to 10 industry specific templates, such as Retail, Education and Manufacturing.

And external business applications or systems?
LiveTiles can connect to and interact with any external data source using SharePoint Business Connectivity Services. Its comprehensive and easy to use tool set allows users to arrange external content as desired on the pages, and to apply look and feel branding concepts by simply dragging and dropping them onto the template.

Got a question for Sepi? Get in touch via marketing@nsynergy.com. nSynergy are the only licensed LiveTiles seller in Australasia. Feel free to contact a member of our Solutions team to arrange a free consultation.

Previous SharePoint blogs you might enjoy:

Why a SharePoint project is like building a house (or should be) – Part 1

Why a SharePoint project is like building a house – Part 2 The Build

What’s the buzz? Demystifying Modern UI

The skinny on flat design

Continuing with our practice of offering the low-down on the latest industry trends, let’s delve into another which is running hot at present – flat design.

While not strictly new, flat design is certainly in favour in the digital community and is also being embraced by major players in the commercial market. At this point, we would actually like to tip the hat to Microsoft, who have been pioneering flat design in recent years through interfaces like Windows 8 and Xbox (below).

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On May 1 we talked about the evolution of modern UI (Demystifying modern UI), which has progressed from the clean lines of Swiss Style to the tile-based graphics we see today. Well, flat design is really the product of modern UI responding to the demands of the current digital landscape.

The philosophy is as simple as it sounds. Flat design removes superfluous graphics and improves the quality of human interaction by focusing on function and convenience. By choosing usability over graphics, flat design makes UX a lot more intuitive. Flat designs are two-dimensional and often feature elements like coloured tiles, clear space and clean edges, without using embellishments such as shadows, faux textures and other skeuomorphic elements.

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Skeuomorphism is a design principle where digital elements are rendered to mimic their real-world counterparts. It’s something we have all subconsciously become accustomed to over the past few decades, as it has played a major role in educating us in the digital realm. Skeuomorphism was particularly advantageous when using new technology was still an alien experience for people, as being able to navigate via familiar cues e.g. a life-like digital folder, helped guide us along. Today, with mobile, digital and touch technology pervading almost every corner of our daily lives, these explicit visual cues far less necessary.

Is flat better than skeuo-ed?

Some will argue that skeuomorphism still has a place, because users still appreciate the familiarity of interacting with things like Apple’s iCal or an online magazine which page turns like its physical equivalent. However, from a UX perspective, we see flat design as being a tool which will help us take UX to a whole new level. By stripping away the ‘extras’, flat designs respond to user needs and behaviours and keep designers honest by insisting that every page element serves a purpose. UX then becomes more than just an accessory, but a way to get people through their tasks more efficiently. This value-add in terms of productivity augments a user’s overall experience – a massive plus given how fast-paced and demanding the digital world can be.

But perhaps most convincingly, is the fact that flat design was born to be consumed on mobile device channels. The way in which a flat design translates to a smart phone or tablet is crisp, clear and – to be honest – extremely impressive.

Is it for everybody?

Like most things we discuss, flat design is not a one-size-fits-all solution. But as businesses start to talk digital workplace, and mobile solutions, so the flat design conversation becomes more relevant. The most important thing to consider is ease of use. Will flat design make it easier for your workers to interact with business intelligence and information, particularly when mobile? If the answer is yes, it could be the start of some exciting new conversations.

Where will digital design go next?

This is a great question, given the nature of flat design is so minimalist and pared back. Perhaps as the common elements of skeuomorphism disappear from digital design people will revolt and demand their comforting presence is restored! Only time will tell. But, as a business, we are particularly interested in how design will evolve as the industry moves towards greater device convergence. Specifically, how modern UI will unfold across different devices and for different users.

From an innovation perspective, our involvement as Project Leaders for a proposed new Digital Innovation Precinct in Tasmania also has us considering the role wearable technology will have on design and the digital experience in the not-so-distant-future. (Hint, hint: it’s another massive leap forward, even from smart phones).

For now, we are working on a number of innovative new designs for clients who are ready to test the water – not to mention being only weeks away from releasing our new flat design-inspired company website. Feel free to stay tuned, or speak with us today.

Recent nSynergy blogs you might like:

Enterprise video killed the radio star

Responsive web design or SharePoint device channels: Which one is the new black?

Responsive web design or SharePoint device channels: Which one is the new black?

In an industry where trends and buzz words are coined on an every-other-minute basis, it’s easy to get a rush of blood and jump headfirst into the latest solution du jour. We love the fact that innovation is the cornerstone of our industry, and are incredibly passionate about pushing the envelope for our clients. But not all solutions are a suitable fit for every business – so today we’re putting responsive and adaptive web design and SharePoint 2013 device channels under the microscope.

In previous blogs we have looked at the implications of mobile device usage from a number of angles, and this conversation fits under the same umbrella. We know that the way people are consuming information continues to shift, with mobile devices generating more web traffic than ever before. As user needs have evolved, so have the practices and theories for delivering a superior User Experience (UX) being used by IT and web development professionals.

First, let’s take a look at the basic principles of each philosophy.

Responsive web design is about rendering the same website for optimised viewing on different devices. In technical terms, responsive sites are built upon multiple fluid grid layouts which utilise ‘media queries’ to detect which device is being used before sizing the grids and images accordingly.

Adaptive web design is built upon multiple fixed width layouts, which tailor themselves to a deliver rich, layered experience on whichever device a person is using. Adaptive sites use a theory called ‘progressive enhancement’ to first deliver a level of basic content, which is built upon as the browser or device becomes more advanced.

SharePoint device channels is a is a technology which allows you to render a publishing site in multiple views on different devices. To achieve this level of flexibility, SharePoint lets your predefined channels render pages using separate master pages.

If you’re thinking they sound similar, you’d be right. The aim of all three practices is to present an optimised UX on various devices. However it’s the manner in which they do so which differs, with responsive sites heavily reliant on CSS3 media queries, while adaptive sites use layers of scripts to help a site adjust to different screens/devices and SharePoint 2013 device channels relying on device channel parameters and multiple master pages.

Case study – RACT custom mobile site

Let’s take a look at our recent client RACT, a major state-wide insurer in Australia who have just shy of 200k active members. As part of a major IT infrastructure upgrade we built RACT a new corporate intranet, public website and mobile platform. The vision for the mobile platform was that it be convenient, user-friendly and focus on the key information a customer would need while ‘on the go’ (for example branch contact details, available services and petrol price watch). The mobile site also needed to be fast.

Simply recreating the master website for users with responsive web design would not have achieved this goal, as it would have presented the user with too much information and required them to scroll and search. Utilising the mobile development features of SharePoint 2013, we created a custom mobile site which delivered the information members needed straight into their hands.

The strength of this solution is that it took more than just device and browser limitation into consideration, but also user needs and physical location as well. Recognising that members were unlikely to want full site while ‘on the go’ – SharePoint 2013 gave us the flexibility to design a solution to fit.

So, do we need a fully responsive site or not?

In our experience there is a time and a place for both, and the two practices can even be combined. For example, you could create a mobile view using device channels in SharePoint 2013, but then apply responsive web design to ensure that the mobile site scales correctly to all device sizes.

As with most IT projects, it always comes back to discovering who your users are, how they consume information and what you really want to achieve. If your mobile traffic is minimal, responsive web design might be a good solution, as spending time and money on a purpose built mobile site is not likely to deliver a significant ROI. Or, if your organisation utilises SharePoint site for real time collaboration, and regularly adds or amends content/sites/documents, responsive web design is the best way to ensure pages will adapt to your content.

However, if you are attracting or want to attract mobile device traffic, it’s worth sitting down to work out how, when, where and why people are using your site, and then building an optimised experience based on these real user interactions. Creating a tablet strategy is an extremely worthwhile exercise at this point to establish the business justification and objectives of creating a mobile site.

As a test, grab your smart phone or tablet and search for the first thing that springs to mind. Are you seeing a full website or a tailored mobile site? How is this effecting your experience? Remember this is what your users, be they customers or employees, will go through when they interact with your site. To discuss responsive or adaptive web design, or SharePoint 2013 device channels, in greater detail, jump over a start a Live Chat on our website.

User Experience: 9 things you need to know before you can call it UX

Do you know why social giants like Facebook and Twitter resisted monetizing their sites for the first few years?

Because their sites wouldn’t have been cool if they did. Nor would they have gained the trust of millions of users.

By deveiStock_000020818259_ExtraSmallloping sites that focused exclusively on UX, both Facebook and Twitter built legions of followers who became so entrenched in the experience they couldn’t live without it. Then they launched user-targeted advertising and started raking in the billions. (Anecdotally, Facebook makes $3 million a day from their mobile ads alone).

What does this have to do with ICT projects? Pretty much everything. When it comes to deploying Office 365 or SharePoint solutions, if your audience doesn’t get on-board and use it, it will fail. So, how do you stop your investment from winding up in the big graveyard-for-unadopted-IT-projects in the sky?

You guessed it – by creating a rich UX. And, while UX conversations are not new, they are more relevant than ever with the range of optimisation features available out-of-the-box. E.g. SharePoint 2013’s mobile development platform, catering for the demand for superior UX across multiple device channels.

There is a depth and breadth of information about UX out there, so we thought it might be useful to give UX a shakedown, and highlight what we believe are the most important lessons.

1. What it is

Type ‘What is UX’ into a search engine and you will turn up dozens of results. However, in the context we are discussing, UX is the quality of human interaction a person has with a site or system. It involves creating a consistent, meaningful experience that drives engagement. UX frames the user as the hero in the story – not a bit player. And, as indicated above, UX can make or break an ICT project.

2. Why it’s top of the pops

The digital revolution has permanently shifted the balance of power. Forget what you think you know about how information should be packaged and presented to an audience – be they employee, customer or other – it no longer matters. Mobility, tablets, BYOD, cloud computing – have all put the user in the driver’s seat when it comes to access to and consumption of information. Your solution needs to be as agile as they are. End of story.

3. The UX attributes you need to nail

Good UX should make a user’s interaction with your site or system easy, dynamic and reliable and includes things like intuitive information architecture and content. Great UX will also be meaningful, reduce pain points and help the user be productive on any device. (Deliver a great UX and you’ll get adoption levels to where you will derive the required ROI). Going one step further, exceptional UX delivers what is referred to as an immersive digital experience, meaning one which deeply involves the senses. Just like the social giants, deliver an immersive experience and you will have loyal users for life.

4. Accept that great functionality comes second

Firstly, we should point out that it’s perfectly OK to come second. To all the developers and technicians out there, your work is equally as important as UX, maybe even more so because you turn a vision into reality. But UX planning should be first. In our experience, if people see something they like, they will use it. Which is why we evolved our approach beyond the traditional SharePoint project model several years ago – because we saw how dazzling clients with technical expertise and high-level solution ideas straight off the bat was limiting our ability to deliver standout UX. Why? Because we had gone too far down the technical path, so by the time UX became part of the conversation, our clients already had expectations in mind about how the system would function.

5. Do the leg work

Requirements gathering is the strategic process of learning about an audience – who they are, what they like, how they access and use information, and so on. It’s vital to invest time in this early on, as the outputs from this research will help you to make informed choices when it comes to UX design. Also, poor UX is expensive to remedy once a solution has been deployed.

To gather requirements, we utilise several best practice UX methodologies including:

  • User Stories – helps us to understand how different people will interact with a site by ‘storytelling’ and evaluating real situations.
  • Persona Profiling – the process of identifying several core types of users within your organisation, how they work, what is important to them etc.
  • Low fidelity wireframes – lo-fi wireframing is the process of quickly mapping out a basic interface to use as a starting point for discussion.
  • Rapid prototyping – the extension of lo-fi wireframing, this involves building a ‘proof of concept’

Talking to your actual audience is also crucial. It’s natural for project steering committees to put their ‘user hats’ on and draw on their own needs/desires, but these are unlikely to reflect those of the broader user group.

6. UX is more than just good design

There are a number of players required to create a rich, meaningful UX. Jobs in the ‘usability’ space have increased significantly in the last few years, and we ourselves now benefit from the value these experts bring to projects. However our graphic designers (and your content authors) also play a key role in translating a strategic UX vision into a complimentary, exciting visual design.

7. It’s not something users’ needs to think about

Good UX should almost fly under the radar, in the sense that if it works, it just works. The user is not likely to finish engaging with your site and want to contact you to say how memorable it was. Particularly in a professional environment. (Rest assured you will soon know about it if you deploy a site with poor UX). For this reason it’s a good idea to set up the correct success metrics e.g. user adoption levels, regularity and duration of use etc. As your users are unlikely to tell you how good it is unless you ask.

8. The tools are out there, so innovate

SharePoint 2013 comes with number of new additions to the feature set, including custom mobile development and social collaboration functionality. This all works in your favour as it helps users to be productive anywhere, on any device, and collaborate in ways that are familiar to them. As well as taking advantage of these tools, consider what custom features or apps would benefit your users and engage the services of an experienced provider to build them. (We have a number of great tools we use, partner with and recommend to clients because they drive UX effectively – ask us).

9. It’s not a silver bullet

Just a final point to reiterate that UX forms part of a well-planned, skilfully built and deployed platform. A successful project is very much the sum of all its parts, so while UX should come first and be a priority, it must be underpinned by sound development, testing and change management practices.

As an exercise, jump onto your company intranet or website and try to imagine you are a first time user. How would you rate UX, on a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high)? If you’re anywhere under the 7 mark, get in touch, we can help.