It seems that one of the first things people want to do with a new Microsoft SharePoint installation is to brand it. Branding public-facing SharePoint sites is considered practically mandatory.
Branding internal corporate portals to reinforce the company image might also make sense. But the most common use of SharePoint within an organization is for departmental sites, team-collaboration sites, and document-management sites. Should you brand these internal sites?
There are two kinds of SharePoint branding for internal sites. One preserves the full SharePoint UI and feature set. This type of simple branding modifies graphics, colors, and font types. It uses features that are built in to SharePoint to let site owners update site navigation and Web Parts.
This branding might involve changes to Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) or edits to the SharePoint master pages, but it leaves the UI completely predictable to the average SharePoint user and can be supported without help from an outside branding expert or the person or department that performed the branding.
Anything more complex than this falls into the second category of branding. This type of branding often involves an outside branding consultant and hours upon hours of planning, design, and implementation to match the external company website or an older, custom internal site. This type of branding changes how SharePoint and its UI work.
Before you decide to brand internal sites by using this second category of customizations, ask yourself the following 10 questions. (If you still insist on branding your SharePoint installation after reading this article, see the sidebar "If You Must Brand SharePoint.")
#1: Would you pay to brand Windows Explorer or Microsoft Excel?
Have you branded your word processor or your email client? Of course not! These are tools. They should have a consistent and predictable UI, such as an obvious start button. After learning how to use a tool one time, you should be able to figure how to use the same kind of tool the next time.
SharePoint is also a tool, especially when used for team collaboration and document management. Branding sites that are used for those purposes-especially when users might access more than one site-should be treated as such.
#2: Do you want to increase your per-user costs?
The per-user cost of a SharePoint installation is fairly reasonable. That is, until you start spending $10,000 to $30,000 per department-or even per site-to pay for a graphics design firm or branding consultant to customize your internal sites. The real-world branding costs can easily be in the hundreds of dollars per user and provide only a cosmetic benefit.
#3: How fast do you want users to get to work?
Customizing UIs takes time and often delays the start of a new SharePoint installation. Then, when branding has been approved, teams are put together to get the sites branded.
These teams must interview consultants, review designs, wait for delivery, and test the result before the sites can be deployed to users. And then, if each site looks different, with a different and unpredictable UI, users will be wasting time figuring out how to navigate the site and how to find content.
#4: How much do you want to spend on training?
Out of the box, SharePoint has a wealth of available training and support resources, including instructor-led classes, books, online videos, and endless web resources.
All these resources are affordable (or even free) but are useful only for uncustomized sites. Custom UIs require custom training; without it, users are less productive.
#5: How much do you want to spend on support?
If each site is different, will your support groups be able to help your site users? Will your Help desk be able to answer questions such as, "In the HR site, I click on a green duck to get to the employee manuals, but I just went to the IT site to find software manuals, and there's no green duck. There are just two trucks, a race car, and a go-cart. Which should I click?"
(If you think the duck-and-cars example is ridiculous, I'm not just being silly. I've seen many branded SharePoint sites that can be described only as "unique" and can be explored only by clicking everything you see until you find what you're looking for. You've probably seen sites like these, too-although, to be fair, site owners are sometimes the ones who insist on these odd designs.)
This brings up a related issue: Graphic designers aren't always good SharePoint designers. Graphic designers tend to think of SharePoint as just another custom website and often break or remove the most basic features, such as Quick Launch or the ability to add or change a Web Part.
After the consultant, designer, or brander has finished with the site, who will pay for fixing such issues, or even updating the site later? If you want to add just one more link to their custom-designed navigation, will you need to pay to redesign the site?
#6: How much time do you want to waste?
Of course, much too often, the site owner is the one doing the branding. SharePoint Designer is free, easy to download, and talked about everywhere on the web. And it's so easy to use that site owners often become self-taught site web designers, spending much of their time playing with SharePoint Designer.
This problem isn't new. Remember the early spreadsheet days, when managers switched from managing teams to spending all day playing with spreadsheets? Now, in the age of SharePoint, we have managers and team leaders spending too much time as web designers. Most of these site owners have no design training and no governance.
#7: Do you know who's in charge?
When every department is doing its own thing with SharePoint, is any department doing the right thing with corporate assets? Are site owners following corporate standards for site content and content governance, or are they simply creating cool-looking sites with random links and storage?
If you lose control of SharePoint and the content that's stored there, you might never get it back (short of starting over from scratch). And when the legal or R&D departments ask, "Can you find X?" or "Can you tell me who did Y?" are your SharePoint sites organized and structured enough to actually perform an audit?
#8: How difficult will sites be to audit?
If each department and team feels free to create custom UIs as a means of branding, then they also might feel free to store their content any way they like. If they have their own branding, then they will surely have their own custom content types, list types, and metadata.
How will a researcher or auditor find anything in such a system? Imagine being an auditor who must visit a hundred sites, each with a different UI, to find a document about a customer or a product. This Wild West approach is expensive and difficult to maintain.
#9: Are there better places to invest your money?
How much sense does it make to try to reduce costs by licensing SharePoint Foundation or SharePoint Server Standard Edition, only to spend a lot of money on custom (and cosmetic) branding, and then more money on custom training and lost productivity because of the branding? For the same price, you can stay with out-of-the-box SharePoint and spend the extra money on SharePoint Enterprise Edition, Microsoft FAST Search Server, and some powerful business intelligence (BI) tools.
You might even have enough to invest in faster hardware, the next level of SharePoint, or more user training. If you're interested in doing things the right way, right from the start, then invest in a governance plan and an ongoing governance team.
#10: Do you really want to do this all over again?
Your branding costs don't end with the current installation of SharePoint. Sooner or later, along comes the next generation of SharePoint with a whole shopping cart full of new features that you want and need.
Branded sites almost never upgrade cleanly. Over the past few years, I've seen how the migration from SharePoint 2003 to SharePoint 2007-and more recently from SharePoint 2007 to SharePoint 2010-has worked for branded sites.
Typically, it hasn't been a good experience and has required paying branders to rebrand all the sites to work in the new version. Are you willing to bet on the effort and cost of moving your branded sites to the next version of SharePoint?
The Bottom Line
Before you make the decision to brand internal sites, make sure you have a real business need to do so. Remember, SharePoint is a tool, like Microsoft Word or Excel. You don't brand those programs, do you?
Talk to other companies that use SharePoint, and find out what it's really costing them to brand sites, including the ongoing costs to support branded sites. Will new hires be able to figure out all the custom UIs and site designs? Will you need to upgrade customized sites to a new version of SharePoint (or even to another product)?
Look at your budget. Can you afford the up-front costs, ongoing support costs, end-user training costs, and eventual upgrade costs of branding?
And what about legal and business accessibility requirements (e.g., support for screen readers, high-contrast text, nonmouse navigation, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines--WCAG-2.0). How might branding affect these requirements?
In a nutshell, do you really need to brand?
[If you're still not convinced, see the sidebar to Michael's article: "If You Must Brand SharePoint." We're curious to know what you think.]