It hasn’t always been easy to build an intranet within SharePoint. Microsoft itself has been loath to use the word ‘intranet’ until recently. In response, many Microsoft partners have released ready-made intranet add-ons to SharePoint to fill the gaps. ClearBox has been charting the rapid rise of since 2015. Our first report (free download) looked at 6 products. Our current report covers 26.
For many of these offerings, making SharePoint look less ugly was a major selling point. But Microsoft has now demonstrated its commitment to on-going improvements, with some significant enhancements to the user experience, such as libraries, news, and team sites.
We asked several product vendors just what was left for them.
Overall, product vendors were quick to say that it isn’t all about the UI and UX; these in-a-box products extend the capabilities of SharePoint. As Microsoft develops a wide and shallow suite to be as attractive as possible to as many organisations as possible, in-a-box intranet products ‘go deep’ to align with specific business requirements. There’s much to be said about integration and offering a cohesive experience.
Speed of deployment and ease of use
“The low satisfaction rate of SharePoint projects is not driven by problems with the UI but by the time, cost, and complexity of configuring it and then training users. FLEX and other ‘out-of-the-box’ solutions address this by removing the need for long development projects, complex governance, consulting, and training users.
“Whilst there are always people who prefer to build rather than buy, Office 365 has been a real turning point for many CTOs who do not wish to fund internal development teams who have to keep up with an evergreen SharePoint / Office 365. This situation is further complicated because SharePoint is now just one of four collaboration tools in Office 365 which multiplies the knowledge internal developers need to configure the solution to users’ needs. FLEX and other ‘out-of-the-box’ solutions remove this problem by taking on the responsibility for keeping the solution evergreen in line with Office 365.”
A cohesive interface to Microsoft’s discrete apps
“People have always said ‘Microsoft will provide this sort of thing for free next year’ and it just doesn’t happen. What we understand, from working with Microsoft reps, is that SharePoint is being broken up into separate Office 365 products.
“In Office 365, Microsoft has broken out SharePoint capabilities into discrete products, such as Power BI, Delve, Teams, PowerApps, Flow, etc.
“The effect of this is increased confusion and disjointed experience because customers must go to different applications with different paradigms and user experiences to do what was done in a single SharePoint platform.
“What Prime does is more than put a ‘pretty face’ on SharePoint. Our goal is to make the life of a knowledge worker more productive by bringing all the things they need to do into a single cohesive environment, and making it easy for them to do their job.”
User experience and enhanced capabilities
“For many years, SharePoint users have complained about SharePoint’s poor user experience. Slowly, Microsoft released improvements, starting with enhanced Document Libraries and List experience, followed by the Modern sites experience.
“Meanwhile, many providers, such as OneWindow, have filled the gaps by providing a refined and optimized user experience for SharePoint and Office 365. Turnkey solutions provide more than a better user experience as they should include modern intranet features and capabilities such as news publishing, integrated social experience, and site templates. While some of these might only be about making SharePoint look better, more sophisticated solutions such as OneWindow Workplace extend the user experience and provide ready-to-go functionality tuned to the demand of the business
“Many in-a-box products rely on legacy SharePoint capabilities that will be either deprecated or will require a complete rewrite (think about how the SharePoint Framework will change the way development is done). More importantly, Microsoft is going to provide a better toolkit to build corporate intranets (mostly in the cloud).
“So, turnkey solutions will need to evolve to continue to provide value. For instance, OneWindow Workplace will focus on pre-built integration and functionality to accelerate the deployment of an intranet and our service includes ongoing maintenance.
“The continued value of turnkey solution will be more about the service provided than the feature and provider such as OneWindow will need to stay ahead of Microsoft is doing.
“Microsoft needs to please millions of users, so their solution will always be the lowest common denominator. Turnkey solutions provide functionality that matches business needs and common use-cases. Turnkey solution are about value, deployment speed, and outsourced maintenance and support. As long as the value is there, those solutions are here to stay!”
Integration and innovation
“Unily’s goal is in providing organisations large and small with a simple to use digital workplace platform that helps them connect and integrate with a wide variety of tools and technologies including Office 365 and SharePoint.
“It’s good news all-round that SharePoint is finally growing into a better, easier to use product. Organisations that have document storage and team collaboration needs will be better addressed. Yet that doesn’t mean out-of-the-box products like Unily will have had their day. There will be an even greater need for digital workplace products like Unily to sit above SharePoint and join all the pieces together in a staff friendly manner.
“The key role is to provide the ‘glue’ that integrates these technologies, with a friendly yet simple navigation, news, and a well-designed branded interface that will make work easier.
“Unily, like Microsoft, is in a continual state of innovation, responding with new features driven both from client needs and by leading the market by designing new ways to help staff work with often complex underlying technology and content.”
New, needed, capabilities
“Microsoft will continue to make progress in the UX and UI space but there will always be room for customised solutions that either augment, leverage, or provide additional functionality. This is the reason that the Office 365 partner and product eco-system is so large. Office 365 provides a broad and shallow range of capabilities that appeal to the masses but in many organisations, these will need to be tailored to specific needs.
“Most good Intranet in a box solutions are much more than a pretty face. Bonzai has capabilities that simply don’t exist in out-the-box Office, such as proactive and intelligent content targeting, events management, a people search experience that is actually useful and many other features.”
“Microsoft will release changes to the content editing interface and general UI of SharePoint – does this mean our business model is at risk?
“Well, Microsoft have been developing the UX of SharePoint for 14 years now, and we’ve developed EasySharePoint in parallel since 2010, so we know that there are always gaps in SharePoint to fill. I mean, have you ever used vanilla SharePoint!?
“EasySharePoint, as an add-on to SharePoint, is not just a pretty face. The UI and UX improvements match employee expectations, considering their experience of the modern web.
“The cost / benefit ratio can be very good, if the product extends the capabilities of staff and SharePoint.
“If Microsoft’s improvements over the next few years deliver an exceptional intranet, then it may be that smaller organisations will use SharePoint straight out of the box, but many larger organisations, with enterprise-level requirements, will want custom branding and further capabilities.
“As Microsoft add new (and genuinely excellent) services, the holistic integrity of Office 365 gets better in some areas and more fractured in others. More and more services are appearing with features that overlap other services, yet work slightly differently; it’s very confusing for everyone. EasySharePoint is looking at how we can go beyond EasyShare as an intranet, and make it an Office 365 hub that has the UX and integrity of vision to bring everything together in a way that works great and makes sense to employees.”
Salvo Profita, EasySharePoint
“Microsoft will continue to work with the partner ecosystem needed to provide business context and meaning to the technology and services they deliver.
“We see the need for Wizdom becoming ever greater – as a ready-to-run product that enables organisations to roll out a centrally managed digital workplace, encompassing the many technologies and services they need.”
Seamless integration across the digital workplace
“The issue is really beyond the look and feel of an intranet home page, it’s about how everything integrates into a common user experience (UX) that Microsoft is designing across Office 365. The intranet is one component of a larger digital workplace that includes Office 365 tools and services, operational portals, and Groups. The user interface needs to look seamless with the rest of Office 365, to the point where the lines between components is blurred. If the intranet’s look and feel is different, it will conflict with the common user experience for a digital workplace.
“At SP Marketplace, we see the importance of that common user experience and have designed our intranet, operational portals, and applications to be an integrated part of the Office 365 digital workplace. We focus on providing seamless integration between our department portals and Office 365 Groups with their related OneDrive, Planner, Calendar etc. The days of the standalone intranet user interface is over.”
Good in-a-box products for SharePoint transform SharePoint into a decent intranet that delivers news and apps in an easy to use way, and encourages engagement and involvement.
The many products on the market are each flavoured by the experience of the vendor, in line with their understanding of business needs – and so different products better suit different organisation types. While the choice is growing, it makes sense to select a product that meets your organisation’s actual objectives.
Take a look at our assessment of 26 ready-to-go intranet products for SharePoint; we’ve considered eight common business scenarios to help you match a product to your organisation’s needs and culture.
Are you an intranet product vendor or intranet design agency? Send your comments to us via firstname.lastname@example.org to be included in this article.
Practitioners, by all means leave a comment below!