Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Info and some thoughts on Office 365 “NextGen” portals – Microsites, Boards and the Knowledge Management portal

Microsoft made some pretty big announcements at the Ignite conference I spoke at last week, which I think may change how intranets will be built in Office 365 (and maybe on-premises SharePoint too in the future?). I don’t normally try to be a “news blogger”, but for things that have a big impact on me/my team I like to make the occasional exception. Microsoft’s moves on “NextGen portals” and in particular the new Knowledge Management portal (codename “Infopedia”) are definitely in that category - there are several new CMS-like concepts here for Office 365/SharePoint. Some new “ready-to-go portals” will be made available to Office 365 users, and these come with a philosophy of “use more, build less”. As well as the KM portal, we can expect to see some kind of blogging capability soon, which may or may not be known as “stories”. These tools should work well for organizations who aren’t strongly tied to their own (often carefully-crafted!) list of requirements. If you’re already wondering about what happens when this isn’t the case, Microsoft *are* thinking about the customization strategy for NextGen portals. In the future it sounds like it will be possible to use various bits of what I’ll describe here as building blocks for custom portals – but that’s further down the line, and the “ready-to-go” offerings are likely to be around for a while first.

The impact

Immediately, a couple of things jump out at me:

  • If using the new portals, organizations will need to decide where they fit in the user experience with any existing intranet sites (just as they already do with Delve, Yammer and so on)
    • Notably, the NextGen portals come with their own look and feel. It’s not yet clear whether some level of branding can be inherited – but in the end, you’re kinda getting something for free here, so.. :)
  • The Knowledge Management portal could be seen as an “intranet-in-a-box”. There’s been a certain trend towards 3rd party SharePoint products of this type in recent years, but thinking as a client/user, I’m not sure why now you just wouldn’t use Microsoft’s. After all:
    • It’s free (i.e. part of your existing Office 365 licensing)
    • It’s got the development muscle of Microsoft behind it
    • It will be enhanced continually
    • It will be 100% supported by Microsoft
    • Whilst it might not match the precise functionality of a particular example product, you can probably get close enough to what you were trying to achieve. And it’s free ;)

Understanding how Boards, Microsites and portals relate to each other

The Knowledge Management portal is an example of a “ready-to-go” portal – just like Delve and the existing Office 365 video portal. You can immediately start creating sites and pages, but you won’t have much control over the functionality or look and feel. You get what you’re given, and if it works, great. If it doesn’t, well you don’t have to use it – ultimately it’s just another tool in the toolbox. I see it almost as a cross between a team site and a publishing site. Before we go into detail on different aspects, to help you frame things here’s what a page looks like:

Article page

The image shown above is an article page. As you’d expect, other page types exist such as a landing/front page – but implementers do not create custom page templates or page layouts.

The Knowledge Management portal isn’t the only thing to consider here though - Boards are another concept (which we see already in Delve), which can be used to present information and Microsites provide another layer. I think of it like this:

Concept

Notes

Good for

Boards

Some similarities to a board in Pinterest. Add links to documents and pages.

Lightweight/informal knowledge management – a relatively small amount of information around a topic.

Microsites

A simple website, with a landing page and some navigation. Can contain boards, pages and documents.

More structured/larger amounts of information. Something more organised and perhaps with a more formal approach to contributions.

Knowledge Management portal

Contains microsites, SharePoint sites and boards. Adds other tools such as personalisation, simple analytics and use of Office Graph for a level of “intelligence” (e.g. content you might like).

A central area to sit above microsites – likely to become a big part of your intranet (maybe used as the home page, maybe not).

So, the KM portal contains microsites (amongst other containers, such as “regular” SharePoint sites), which in turn contain boards (and pages and documents):

Relationships between NextGen concepts

I’d imagine boards might be able to exist outside of a microsite too.

Boards

Boards can be used right now to collect information together – they are surfaced already in Delve, but will be used in other places such as microsites in the future. They are intended to be fairly simple to use, and have the following characteristics:

  • Boards show a collection of cards
  • Cards are currently *always* shown in date descending order (of when they were added to the Board) – there is no other control over which content is shown where
  • Anyone can create a new board
  • Anyone can add an item to a board
  • Boards are always public

For example, here’s a board I recently created here at Content and Code:

Our Development board

In the future, we can probably expect to see other hooks into boards – the image below was badged as “Ideas in the pipeline”, but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t something like it:

Add to board in doc lib

Microsites

Microsites are pretty much what you’d expect – relatively simple websites, where lots of things are taken care of for you. Whilst it’s really the parent portal (e.g. Knowledge Management) that’s providing the “intranet-in-a-box” capability, some of the aspects are effectively provided by microsites:

  • More functionality and control than a board – i.e. not just cards, but pages too
  • Landing page
  • Article pages
  • Auto-generated navigation
  • Simple permissions model
  • Some social features
  • Responsive design – good mobile experience
  • Easy to create/contribute to

Here’s what the experience might look like down at the article page:

Microsite article page

The Knowledge Management portal (“InfoPedia”)

Whilst you’ll create many microsites, there is only one KM portal in the Office 365 tenant. It is effectively a container for microsites, but it’s more than that too:

  • Also bring in existing (or new) SharePoint sites and boards
  • Some extra top-level constructs to help users find what is valuable – navigation to different microsites, search tools and so on
  • An enhanced article page – with some additions focused on presenting knowledge
  • Tagging – to group together content in different sites
  • Personalised recommendations via Delve – both for consuming (“see related content”) and creating (“suggested content you might want to link to from this page”)
  • Analytics
  • A great mobile experience – potentially even for light content creation

Here are some screenshots:

The landing page:

Landing page

Showing sections within a microsite:

Sections

An article page within the KM portal:

Notably, this isn’t quite the same as an article within a regular microsite – there’s a greater focus on design (with the banner image), and some automatic in-page navigation (TOC style):

KM portal article

Some of the authoring experience:

Microsite authoring

A particularly rich article page (long vertical scroll in this case):

Microsite article - long

Responsive design/adaptive design: 

Providing a great mobile experience is a fundamental pillar to the NextGen portals vision. As you’d expect, pages scale down well and adapt well to the screen size of the device:

clip_image023

As you can see, it’s something like a publishing site with a specific look and feel. I think it could probably be used for any intranet site which focuses somewhat on presenting information – potentially even team sites which don’t feature heavy collaboration. Like other ready-to-go-portals, it’s a “railed experience” – meaning authors focus on the content, and how it gets presented to consumers is largely taken care of and not super-customisable.

Page creation/editing

Whether in the KM portal or any microsite, there is a streamlined experience to creating pages – this is great news because SharePoint was never the best or simplest CMS in this respect. Authors often found the ribbon complex, and the whole “navigate to a specific place, use the Site Actions menu, select a page layout” experience left a lot to be desired. Here are some notes I made on the new page editing experience:

  • No selection of a page template – just start authoring content
  • Simple formatting controls – bold, italics, font colour and size etc.
  • Easy to add text/images/documents/video
  • Auto-save
  • Auto table of contents style navigation for long pages
  • Simple picker for choosing images
  • Documents can be embedded in pages – this uses the Office Online rendering, just like the hover panel in search results or a document library. This means a PowerPoint deck can be browsed within the page, a Word document can be paged through and read within the page, and so on

The authoring experience:

Authoring in KM portal

How portals are implemented

There’s a whole layer of technical implementation detail to understand around all these concepts, and I look forward to digging around when they become available. Here are some of the notes I made:

  • Portals are effectively built as an extra layer above SharePoint. This layer encompasses a couple of things, including:
    • A Single Page App which supports portals and the specific things they do – this has various page controls (e.g. table of contents control, page rollup control etc.) and calls into the REST APIs underneath
    • The page rendering layer – all implemented as client-side code
  • They use site collection storage, but in a specific way – for example:
    • Pages are stored as BLOBS of JSON in the Pages library
    • Images are stored in the Assets library
    • Permissions are managed across the page and related assets (they are treated as one unit effectively)
    • Some other libraries are used e.g. a new “Settings” library

Here’s an image which depicts the railed experience (of the page template):

Article - railed 1

Article - railed 2

There’s a difference in how page data is stored too. Whilst we’re used to content types with various fields storing different data types, here it looks like the data will be stored in a larger JSON structure (still within the Pages library, but perhaps “fields” will only be represented in the JSON rather than physically exist on the content type):

clip_image033

Other Office 365 platform services such as Azure (for Video) and Office Graph (for suggestions) are used in the implementation too.

What customization might look like

As I mentioned earlier, it feels like Microsoft are (understandably) a lap ahead in terms of the end-user functionality compared to the extensibility story. However, the kind of things that were suggested in the Ignite talks were:

  • A future ability to build custom portals using the same building blocks used in the ready-to-go portals (I’m guessing the page rendering, data storage, page controls for roll-ups etc.)
  • Potentially some form of extensibility of the ready-to-go portals
  • A framework (e.g. APIs) for re-using JavaScript and CSS used in Microsoft’s portals
  • It should be possible to host custom portals in SharePoint Online – you wouldn’t need to provide your own hosting

I was interested to hear Dan Kogan (long-time Microsoft product manager) also hint they might even look at open-sourcing the entire front-end layer of NextGen portals.

Summary

It feels to me like this is a fairly big evolution of Office 365/SharePoint as a tool for managing information. The past few SharePoint releases have seen incremental improvements to publishing sites and team sites, but they still required a reasonable amount of experience for business users to get the most out of them. By providing tools at a higher level, it seems Microsoft are making a departure here – and technical implementers will need to “understand product” well if they are to make the right decisions and provide the right guidance. This is something I’ve been telling my team, and I think it applies whether you’re a developer, IT Pro, consultant or just about any other implementer.

As I mentioned earlier, it will also be interesting to see the impact on parts of the product industry which surrounds SharePoint and Office 365. As any product company surely knows, building around a stack from a company with deep pockets like Microsoft can be risky – as we saw with Microsoft’s backing of Yammer and the corresponding impact on other companies selling social products.

But personally I’m looking forward to getting deep with the new stuff when it arrives, and the challenge of continuing to provide expert guidance to clients as changes in the landscape continue to accelerate.

Sources (talks at the Ignite conference):

4 comments:

Lee Dale said...

Hey Chris, the links to the session videos don't work as you need an ignite login.

However they are on Channel9 at

https://channel9.msdn.com/Events/Ignite/2015?sort=sequential&direction=desc&term=portals#theSessions

Chris O'Brien said...

Ah gotcha. Thanks for that Lee!

COB.

Jasper said...

Very useful post Chris, thanks. It's interesting to see things progressing and I have the feeling Microsoft too is still looking for the right ways.

What's your take on this all being built on top of SharePoint? Storing JSON blobs in the pages library, sounds a bit like a workaround? Would they do the same if they would build these portals from the ground up? Not sure if it's a bad thing though.

The biggest challenge I see is getting companies to drop their urge for customizing things. Whether it's branding, lay-out, features or apps, the companies I visit almost all love to customize :S

Chris O'Brien said...

@Jasper,

Whilst there's definitely an element of weirdness about the implementation (e.g. the JSON BLOBs in the Pages library, perhaps some aspects of the page rendering framework) - in the end, I think I'd *much* rather the NextGen portals were effectively standard SharePoint underneath. I think this allows them to take advantage of lots of things we're used to - security, tagging, check-in/check-out (if appropriate), maybe workflow and so on. I also welcome the fact that I'll most likely be able to troubleshoot any issues or things I'm not expecting - so overall, I'm happy with the architecture decisions and the way things are going.

And yes, I hear you about customization. I think there's always a balance though - I definitely find that the OOTB tools don't always provide the best solutions to my clients, but it's understanding what is likely to be a good and sensible investment and what isn't. I think this should usually be a dialogue with both business and technical people in the room - so that both benefits and costs are understood, and to validate that the company isn't just blindly putting a "not invented here" stamp on things without checking it really should be top of the list for putting energy into.

Good discussion points ;)

Cheers,

COB.