It seems like we in the technology field play this game all too often. We get caught up on the newest technologies only to have that dashed all-to-quickly on the release of the next version. To help expedite the learning process we turn to industry experts who, among other things, write books to help us. That is the case with SharePoint 2013 Branding and User Interface Design by Randy Drisgill, John Ross, and Paul Stubbs.
What follows is a summary of the books content’s and then a critical review of the book highlighting its strengths and weaknesses. I want to say at the outset two things. First, it’s difficult for me to review a book like this because this is one of my specialties professionally so it makes me more critical than it would for other titles. I try to be as fair as possible and not let how “I would’ve written that” get in the way of the review as much as possible. Secondly, the book was provided to me for review. Even though I think highly of Randy and John (I don’t know Paul), I try to also not let that color my review.
The book is broken interestingly into four separate sections (I’m including the introduction in the first section for brevity). The first section is entitled “The Basics,” and this chapter deals with the book’s introduction, purpose, and a bunch of instruction on working with SharePoint’s out-of-the-box (OTB) functionality. In this section we get the book’s stated purpose:
“This book is intended to explain the beginner features but also to provide knowledge of the underlying SharePoint branding technology so that you can build a complete solution for branding your SharePoint site, whether it is an internal intranet site or a public-facing Internet site.” (xiv)
And then we find a stated goal:
“The primary goal is to provide the best source of knowledge for SharePoint 2013 branding no matter what your specific skill level is.” (xiv)
We will evaluate whether these are met at the end of the review. The rest of the introduction and first section deals with important terminology like the type of UI effort (intranet vs. public for example) as well as a lot of helpful information related to the 2013 tools available to UI practitioners. Then we see lots of material on using OTB functionality like creating sites, editing navigation, etc.
The next section is what I would call the “process section.” Here we get an explanation, a very, very high-level explanation of topics like requirements gathering, IA, wireframe, and comps. Then it moves into Design Manager, which is the most publicized feature in 2013. The user is walked through converting a static comp to a SharePoint master page using Design Manager.
Section three is dedicated to “advanced” UI tasks. In this section we get an overview of making master pages and page layouts from scratch, WCM, rollups, and more. The trend also continues of showing off 2013 new functionality related to things like the content by search web part, device channels, and changes to things like my sites.
The fourth and final section is related to emerging UI technologies and SharePoint app fundamentals. Topics like HTML5, CSS3, and responsive web design are mentioned, and the new app model is given an introduction on how to develop for them.
Now we will turn our attention to a critical analysis of the book. What stands out in this book is how strong it is at explaining SharePoint terminology and features to help either beginners or seasoned SharePoint pros. You get the sense it is slanted quite a bit more to the beginner/lower-intermediate than the advanced crowd (perhaps the advanced crowd is out of the scope of the book).
The book does help all skill levels understand at least the technology behind the 2013 advances (although well short on process implications). You’ll come away from the book understanding the basics of design manager, device channels/panels, composed looks, image renditions, and all the OTB options available to you. The authors even take the time to ensure you understand crucial topics like CSS specificity and the cascade since that causes a majority of the headaches when working with SharePoint. As a purely SharePoint 2013 book, this volume has much to commend regardless of your skill level. One glaring omission on the SharePoint side is no discussion given to search UIs and search master pages. This is especially odd given the search emphasis in 2013. Lastly, I do want to say that I appreciate it has more of a visual identity than most technology books.
Where the book falls short, however, is in the process, emerging technologies, and in my mind unnecessary materials. Let’s start with the process section (#2). On the one hand, I’m very glad this material is included at any level in a book like this, but because it’s so high-level and divorced from subsequent material its value is minimized. For example, dedicating only a couple of pages to Taxonomy/IA is simply not enough (94-95). The requirements gathering section needs more granularity than just functional requirements; no discussion is given concretely around user and business requirements as separate from functional. It gives the impression that a UI person is only concerned about SharePoint version choices and screen resolutions. The “usability” section only mentions a few items, also well short of an explanation of the more important topics (such as heuristics and measuring usability with usability testing). In my estimation, the main problem with the SharePoint UI community is not understanding SharePoint’s WCM features but instead understanding UX as a discipline that aids UI design (just look at the talks at SharePoint Saturdays and conferences).
The whole concept of a “UX practitioner” that is involved in ethnography and other research activities as well as setting an overall UX vision for a project is absent. There are opportunities that were missed. An example of this is in the wireframes section: Why did you make the choices that you did on what goes in our layouts? Did it come from user research? Did design patterns help your decisions? We unfortunately will never know. I love that they included the wireframe to master page narrative, but it needed to go further back than the finalized wireframe.
Regarding unnecessary content, I would put the chapters in section 1 related to things like editing navigation, creating sites, etc. as less important to a book like this. I would rather see those chapters axed and much more given to the process section of the book. This lack of UX understanding to me is the weakest part of the book.
The last area of critique is related to the final sections, particularly the emerging technologies section. There are outright errors such as suggesting that geolocation and SVG are a part of HTML5 (333), and the examples of the new technologies are oddly specific. I understand you want to show off some of the capabilities of CSS3 and HTML5 in SharePoint 2013, but instead of one small example each, perhaps a wider view of the technologies and their design process implications would’ve served the reader better.
The section on responsive web design contains old information. Instead of showing off mobile-first media queries, proportional media queries, and true fluid grids (they also show off the non-responsive, fixed width 960 Grid System) we get more of an “adaptive design” showcase. All of these approaches have been around during the writing of this book, so this critique is not anachronistic.
It might strike the reader to see a lot more negative than positive in my critique, but that’s not a fair indication of the amount of great material in this book. The 2013 specific material is really good, and it will help you get up and running very quickly. I think this book is really best for a beginner, since a more intermediate to advanced person can simply watch the Microsoft Ignite materials and get a majority of what’s new in the 2013 UI feature set.
Did it accomplish its stated purpose and goal to provide a foundation for your projects and be a good resource for 2013 UI work? Again, as far as the SharePoint-specific technology I’d say yes, but if you’re looking for a larger vision of UX work that includes SharePoint or more information on how related technologies can affect your 2013 efforts I’d look elsewhere.