Is your SharePoint team site a ghost town?

One of the best ‘unknown’ (to end users, anyway) features of SharePoint 2010 and SharePoint 2013 is ‘Site Web Analytics’, hidden away under Site Settings. This, out of the box, feature provides useful information such as the average number of site views per day, the average number of unique visitors per day, trends, as well as a listing by user names of the top visitors and the number of their page views. It’s a great way to see if a site is being used.

The default date range for Site Web Analytics is the past 30 days but the settings can be changed to the last day, week, month, quarter, half-year or year. Custom dates can also be set, and these reports can be exported to a spreadsheet for further analysis, including through scheduled reporting sent by email.

So, what does this have to do with the subject – is your SharePoint team site a ghost town?

Simply, Site Web Analytics tells you if your team site is being used – by your team. If it’s not used, then it’s a ghost town – and you need to understand why and consider changing or deleting it.

In many cases, the reason a SharePoint site becomes a ghost town is because users simply neither want nor know how to use it.

What makes a document management system popular?

My experience implementing and using many other document management systems (TRIM, Documentum, iManage, Alfresco) over the years, along with considerable anecdotal evidence, suggests that, unless there are legal or regulatory requirements mandating it, end users tend to baulk at using a document (and records) management system, especially if it:

  • Requires more than 20 minutes to learn. Some EDMS systems require hours of training – for end users!
  • Duplicates what they do already with network drives. More often than not it requires ‘saving’ an existing born-digital record to the recordkeeping system (AND leaving the original where it was stored).
  • Stores records of a business activity away from other, potentially rich, related records that are not documents.
  • Provides no obvious or little tangible business value for the user – it’s a ‘compliance overhead’.

A popular document management system is one that:

  • Users can start using the system with very little training. It should be intuitive and make sense at first glance. I often use the example of Facebook – no-one ever got training to use it and yet a billion people registered to use it.
  • Reduces (not necessarily eliminates) duplication of effort. Network drives can still exist to create and manage ‘working documents’ instead of final versions.
  • Can keep records in context with other related records such as calendars, lists, tasks, announcements, social networking messages, and so on.
  • Provides tangible business value for the user, with minimal effort. It’s hard to break the network drive habit but simple things like unique document IDs, versioning, hyperlinks, and the ability to email a link instead of a document help to break that habit.

What can turn a SharePoint team site into a ‘ghost town’?

Microsoft clearly put a lot of human-computer interaction (HCI) effort into the user interface design of SharePoint team sites (along with all their other products). Team sites in SharePoint 2013 are a design improvement over SharePoint 2010 but still maintain the same essential look and feel, which is:

  • Document libraries and lists on the left hand side navigation. It’s no coincidence that this is exactly where network drives and email folders are accessed from.
  • An editable main page that can be modifed as required to present additional information or options, including via webparts.
  • Default and modifiable views of documents and lists.
  • A simple search option on the top right.

Over 25 years of network drive use has conditioned users to navigating for documents from the left hand side, searching from the top right hand side, and seeing information presented in the middle of the page. Change this paradigm and you start to lose users.

I believe there are two main reasons why users don’t or stop using team sites (described further below):

  • The ‘plain vanilla’ out of the box functionality in a brand new team site.
  • Site pages that have been customised to the point where end users cannot work out how to navigate or access their information.

Out of the box generic functionality

Out of the box team sites include the two features which, if not addressed or re-configured (a 2 minute job), can negatively affect take up rates:

  • ‘Shared documents’ under ‘Libraries’. This to me is a ‘bookmark’ library that should be removed almost immediately and replaced with a library that has a name that makes sense, ideally named after a business activity. Otherwise, ‘shared’ is like ‘general’ in a network drive. If users have only one, generically-named library to choose from, they are unlikely to use it (compared to the rich tapestry of their network drives).
  • Folders. Unfortunately, while SharePoint folders look like network drive folders they don’t work the same way. They create unnecessarily long URLs and are often impossible to navigate. It’s not uncommon to hear users say they cannot find documents in a site because they cannot work out how to navigate folders (as they don’t include a + to guide navigation). My recommendation is to turn them off under Advanced Settings after the library is created. However, users inevitably want a way to categorise or group documents in a document library. Document Sets generally make sense to users and get quick take up but you can only have one level. A good site has a reasonable number of smartly-named document libraries – perhaps no more than 10, grouped as required by Headings – using Document Sets instead of folders. Another form of categorisation is using categories in the document metadata and then creating a view that groups the documents by those categories.

Customisation

Too much customisation of site pages can also turn users off. As noted above, it’s worth keeping in mind that Microsoft spent a lot of effort (and probably dollars) on designing their standard team site user interface. Some of the common modifications I have seen on ‘ghost town’ sites include:

  • Using themes that make the site look completely different from all other sites. It’s important to maintain consistency in themes.
  • Using unnecessarily large font sizes on the page.
  • Using too many images or graphics on the front page.
  • Assuming the text or content on the page is actually of interest to the target audience. I usually suggest that Site Owners (note, there should never be just one) agree among themselves; if this is not possible, test the proposed page design on a user who has never seen it.

Avoid ghost town sites – keep users coming back

Remember, most users are familiar with using network drives and folders. Use document libraries with sensible names that are obvious to users, don’t use folders, and keep the front page content simple and easy to view, and you are more likely to attract users back again and again.

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2 Responses to “Is your SharePoint team site a ghost town?”

  1. Guy Says:

    Great insights. Thanks for sharing.

  2. 68881 Says:

    Great article, Saved to bookmarks – I have to link it to my
    friend

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