Modern Microsoft SharePoint Design: Overcoming Common Challenges – Part 1

Microsoft is investing heavily in SharePoint, which has brought a whirlwind of game-changer type updates in the past couple of years! This is great news for SharePoint customers; however, it can also be perplexing. There are now two different experiences for SharePoint Online (“modern” and “classic”) that have differing features and use cases. On top of this, Microsoft is releasing updates on a feverish pace, sometimes making it difficult for customers to keep up.

Did you know that Dell EMC has a full practice around implementing Microsoft products? Well we do, and if you’re like most people, that may come as a surprise. I live and breathe SharePoint, Project Online, and related services every day and have spent the last 10 years designing and implementing solutions for customers of all sizes and verticals. In doing so, my teammates and I have overcome a number of common challenges.

This blog is part 1 of a 3-part series where I’ll explain some of these common obstacles when implementing modern SharePoint design in a “greenfield” environment (part 1 – this blog), one with classic SharePoint sites (part 2), or one that includes migration from an on-premises SharePoint farm (part 3).

Site Collection Hierarchy

In previous versions, Microsoft has recommended an approach of grouping similar sites together in site collections (with a site/sub-site hierarchy) – but, in the modern landscape, Microsoft is promoting use of SharePoint in tandem with other Office 365 services (as part of an Office 365 Group), including Teams, Planner, Yammer, and Stream. This means that every SharePoint site should now be a single site collection (no more sub-sites).

End users have the ability to create new site collections right out of the box; however, if you’ve been around SharePoint long enough, you’ve surely heard horror stories of ungoverned environments that have expanded out of control.

Below are some things to consider before allowing users to begin creating sites:

  • You’ll need to develop a solid navigation model to ensure users can find content when it is spread across many site collections (and services) – more in “Global Navigation” section below
  • To prevent confusion, a plan for standard branding and site structure should be developed to provide a consistent experience for end users
  • As the number of sites go from the tens to the thousands (and content from GBs to TBs), you’ll need to ensure there is a retention, deletion and archival plan in place to remove sites/content that are no longer relevant

Site Provisioning

In classic SharePoint, the typical approach to provisioning new sites was to create a sub-site using a customized template that was created from an existing site (“Save site as template”). This functionality is no longer available in modern SharePoint, so you’ll need to use a new approach. Some options available as well as items to consider prior to using modern sites are:

  • If you have limited requirements for a standardization of sites, you can probably get away with using the out-of-box “site designs,” which allows you to do some basic updates like apply a theme, add site to Hub, set external sharing, and a few others
  • If you have more stringent requirements, you’ll want to consider using site designs paired with PnP remote provisioning, which enables almost endless possibilities (but requires PowerShell, Azure storage queue, Azure functions, Flow, and potentially some code)
  • You’ll also want to determine if site creation is an administrator-only action (potentially causing bottlenecks), limited to a sub-set of users (maybe those who have appropriate training), or open to all users

Global Navigation

Modern SharePoint sites are currently limited in terms of navigation which means that site owners are required to manually setup navigation links for each site. I fully expect Microsoft will continue to release improvements in this area, but for now, you need to consider the following options as part of your SharePoint design:

  • For sites with a common purpose (the finance department, for example), you can use the newly released Hub sites to share a common navigation. However, keep in mind that there are limitations to Hub sites, so they should be planned carefully.
  • For global navigation, you’ll need to create and deploy a SharePoint Framework extension (SPFx) to apply a header (ideally paired with term store navigation) and/or footer across modern SharePoint sites

Permissions and Security

Permissions for Communication sites work very similarly to classic SharePoint, but modern Team Sites are paired with Office 365 Groups, which introduces some new wrinkles. Office 365 Groups can be “public” or “private” and the associated SharePoint site can be shared with non-Group members. This can be confusing for users to understand how to manage permissions (as a site owner) or access content (as an end user).

  • Ensure you have a training and communication plan in place to help users understand how to use the new tools and minimize confusion. This program should be ongoing as the environment is constantly changing with newly released features from Microsoft.
  • Consider security for external users (“guests”) as SharePoint Online is very open by default. We generally recommend that you setup sites for internal-only sharing and enable external sharing only on approved sites (and OneDrive for Business accounts) to minimize risk of data loss.

Custom Branding

A typical request from customers that I work with is “we want SharePoint, but we don’t want it to look like SharePoint.” This typically means that they want to have a customized user experience that includes colors, layouts, fonts, icons, etc. that are unique to the organization. In general, modern SharePoint sites do not like look your “classic SharePoint,” so that may be enough for some organizations. However, many will still require some custom branding to be applied across the organization for a standard look-and-feel and experience across sites. Below are some general principles that you should consider as part of your strategy:

  • Modern sites don’t use master pages, so you’ll need to deploy customizations through use of SharePoint Framework extensions (SPFx)
  • If you choose to deploy custom branding, ensure that you have a set of users on “targeted release” to monitor for issues in the ever-evolving SharePoint Online environment. Being on targeted release will provide an opportunity for them to resolve an issue before it is released to the general masses

Lot’s to Consider….

As you can see, there are a lot of things to consider when planning a modern SharePoint design – and we haven’t even talked about other important topics, including: search, content management, publishing, forms/workflow, security & compliance, governance, etc.

Dell EMC is a gold-certified Microsoft partner and Dell EMC consulting services team is responsible for all things Office 365 (including Teams, Yammer, Groups, Stream, etc.), SharePoint, Project Server/Project Online, Exchange, and Identity. We also work closely with Microsoft MVPs and the Patterns and Practice (PnP) community to leverage and improve the latest product features.

Any Questions or Thoughts?

If you have any questions or happen to need assistance with any of these services, either contact your Dell EMC representative or comment below and I will respond back to you.

About the Author: Mike Shea

Mike Shea has been with Consulting Services for over 10 years, primarily focused on Microsoft collaboration services. During this time, Mike has engaged in multiple roles, including project management, business analysis, technical consulting, and pre-sales. Leading projects with organizations of all sizes and industries, Mike is passionate about helping customers achieve their workforce transformation objectives and helping to deliver personalized experiences for end users. He applies his deep knowledge and experience to approach projects from many perspectives and guide a customer engagement through the entire process from envisioning, solution assessment, design, implementation and training. In his free time, Mike enjoys spending time with his family and is an avid sports fan, including continuing to play in both football (flag) and soccer leagues.