Have you seen a picture of singer Kenny Rogers (“The Gambler”) in the last few years? He is almost unrecognizable. How about Barry Manilow? Or I could go right to the poster child of plastic surgery, Joan Rivers, to make the point: Take a look at these high-profile stars, and it’s clear that the too much work done on their exteriors.
Can we talk? Because there is a parallel to be made when we look at our website’s exterior. How much work has been done? Has the site been architected through many iterations and now you no longer recognize its face, the brand? Many times I walk into a customer’s business and they are so close to the site they don’t recognize that the site has lost its focus or become too complicated. Other times, that is exactly why I am brought in.
How can you tell if your site is over-architected? Before you answer that question, my definition of over-architecting goes deeper than what the site looks like. I look at three components and then make a determination if the site is over-architected. This is only a guideline as space limitations restrict me from providing a comprehensive guide.
On the surface, this component is deceptively simple. I first review the sites and determine if they have a uniform look. Does the site make use of a branded master page or pages? Are subsites allowed to use themes to further the brand? I am not a fan of letting subsites use their own themes as things can quickly get out of hand, and quickly you will find your site has become a mishmosh (that is the technical term) of colors and text.
I determine who is allowed SharePoint Designer access. As a free component, it is a great tool to use to do a variety of things such as page layouts, workflows and master page branding. But things can go wrong very quickly if many folks have this tool. The term “governance” comes to mind. I look at the SharePoint Designer options in Central Administration and in the sites and subsites (under Site Settings) if applicable.
I then look at how branding is being applied. Are there modifications to the hive? Is the publishing feature being utilized? Are site pages being employed along with publishing pages?
Finally I look at the home page and some other pages and determine if there are Web Parts that are hidden. The way to do this is by typing ?contents=1 after the URL. While this is not branding per se, it is a component on the pages, and it leads me to my next topic.
From a technology standpoint, I love to look at what Web Parts are being utilized. There are three categories: out-of-the-box, custom and third-party. Each has a significant role to play in how a site is architected and how it performs.
There are two out-of-the-box Web Parts I immediately look for: Content Editor and Content Query (CQWP). Utilizing the Content Editor is analogous to hard-coding as a developer. I immediately home in to determine if the Content Link is being utilized (I hope so!) or if all code/HTML is embedded.
The CQWP is more insidious. What many folks don’t realize is that every time this Web Part renders, it is a query being run on the SharePoint SQL Server instance. Therefore it is important to understand the data source. How many lists is the CQWP querying? How many fields (columns) are being utilized? The number of columns in a list multiplied by the number of lists will give you an idea of the amount of data being returned. If you export the CQWP and open it in a text file, you will see there are many overrides that can be utilized to reduce data returned. I look to see if these are populated.
Lastly, I like to see if third-party solutions are in place. I start by looking at the Web Parts: Are free ones being employed (not a huge fan, but they have their place)? How many? What is the support from the vendor?
By far the best way to determine if your sites are over-architected is talking to the folks who are using the site. But before I talk to these folks, I ask for a taxonomy plan. If there is none, a flag is raised. If there is one, I immediately know that there has been some thought into the design of the site. The best-architected sites have card sorts and usability testing. These test are not taken by the folks who are creating the site, but by the intended audience.
When I am with users, I ask them to show me how they navigate to their sites. I look at how they put information into their sites. I look at what other technologies they are using (i.e. Excel) and if they are trying to integrate it with SharePoint in some manner.
Inevitably I will hear things like SharePoint is not user friendly or, worse, SharePoint sucks. The majority of these opinions are not based on SharePoint but are based on usability. SharePoint has the capability 95% of the time, but time must be put into properly architecting the user experience. Many times, in our haste to just get something out there, we forget that it is the user that will make the site a success or not.
As a culture, we could see Michael Jackson have his plastic surgery done incrementally. He changed over time. That is how we work on our sites. We are too close, and it is helpful to take a step back and review the three areas on which I have elaborated. Only then can you make a determination if your site has been over-architected.
Peter Serzo is a published author of the “SharePoint 2010 Administration Cookbook,” a founder of the SouthEastern SharePoint group, a speaker, and SharePoint Architect for High Monkey Consulting. Peter has been in the IT industry for 20 years. He has extensive experience with SharePoint implementing business solutions for several enterprise organizations over the past seven years.