Tools for Creating Sharepoint Experiences

Much of this content has previously been posted on the sharepoint_tech list, however, additional content has been added.

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There are a variety of tools that can be used to work with sharepoint sites and pages. These tools range from easy to use (with limitations inherent in a simple UI) to very hard to use (with lots of potential). This post introduces the standard options that are available today.

The simplest tool you can use with Sharepoint to create sites and modify them is the browser-based UI–or put another way, no tool required. Via the browser, you can create and delete sites. You can modify sites/pages, modify content within sites/pages, and add new functionality–which in the Sharepoint terminology equates to adding webparts. Adding webparts via the browser UI is incredibly easy, requiring only a couple of clicks, plus any configuration required depending on which of the many webparts you choose. Using the browser UI you can configure workflows, add columns, configure permissions, grant access to the site, configure email-based alerts, and on and on. The browser-based UI is so rich, that the overwhelming majority of Sharepoint users will only ever use this. Because the browser UI is so dominant, it’s easy to mistakenly think Sharepoint has the limitations you experience in that browser UI. It’s a very rich experience, but it doesn’t really extend to the html level of editing. So you can “direct” but not really “design”. Which is a nice segue …

Sharepoint Designer 2007 is the replacement for Frontpage 2003. You can use it with sharepoint or with any website (i.e a non-sharepoint website). However, Designer does have a bunch of functionality specific to Sharepoint. Designer is entry-level tool needed to create master pages, site templates, and custom workflow. You can use Designer to associate a new master page with any page, and create new content regions. Designer can also be used to do most of the things the browser UI allows you to do including editing content, adding webparts, etc. Designer has a very busy UI, with menus, toolbars, floating window panes, and tabs within panes. When following step-by-step directions it can be easy to get lost, as many terms you might use for navigation are used in several places within the UI. As with most computing technology, there is plenty of web and sharepoint terminology “baked” into the experience. Fortunately, most of the folks who are going to need to use Designer will be used to this additional level of complexity. But for those folks who aren’t web developers, you may want to provide some level of orientation.

Microsoft also has the Expressions suite for website design/development which is more of a head to head competition with Dreamweaver. But there is no functionality specific to Sharepoint within that tool suite.

Infopath is the tool to create forms (which can be rendered within any browser). Infopath is both a form creation tool and a tool for filling out forms. So you can get confused as to whether you are filling out the form or in design mode. Prior to Infopath 2007, you had to have infopath in order to fill out an infopath form. This limited the audience to clients on the Windows platform. However, with infopath 2007 you can now choose to browser-enable any infopath form. This allows the form to be rendered and filled out in a browser. Infopath has a rich ability to handle user input and work with it. You can include default values, perform function-based manipulations of data (e.g. sum numbers, do string manipulation, etc.), perform data validation (including regex like pattern matching), apply formatting (e.g. currency), create rules which fire off actions based on conditions, and more. If you have MOSS enterprise version you get the Forms Server component as part of that which allows you to collect and work with submitted forms.

And Visual Studio has always been able to work with websites, Sharepoint or IIS or other. Visual Studio provides access to the full set of asp.net framework. In addition, the entire Sharepoint platform has a .net framework behind it (microsoft.sharepoint). So for example, you can create Sharepoint sites from .net code. Or you can extend the existing sharepoint browser UI to expose functionality that’s available but that the sharepoint project team didn’t expose from the default out of the box toolset (this kind of extension is called a “Sharepoint feature”). Visual Studio is required for highly customized workflows, creating your own webparts, and highly customized data control scenarios.

You might also use something like powershell and the sharepoint framework to script common things like site creation. I’ve been told that the Sharepoint framework is not remote-capable, meaning that calls using it must be run from the actual sharepoint server, but I haven’t been able to verify this yet.

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