The Perils of InfoPath

PerilsInfoPathOur Business Solutions team has not used InfoPath very often. It is really a very cool tool, and I love its transparency, but people often experienced an access denied or other annoying error message that prevented them from working with it. It may have had to do with our customization.
Next to that, some forms can be very complex, especially when you need different views for different people, of  if they take data from other lists or even from other systems.

We have had to refuse support when a customer support form broke down. It had tons of clever functionality built in: conditional notifications, different views and it imported the customer’s name from SAP when the SAP number was entered. The person who had created the form had left the company without any documentation on the setup, so it would have taken a specialist (which we did not have at that time) many hours to figure out how the form worked.

Identical icons.
But there is another danger in InfoPath forms, or rather in the libraries they live in, and especially in SP2003 and SP2007.  Those libraries have  identical icons…and I guess you can tell how this story will unfold. It’s tagged with “Bloopers”…but also with “Lessons”. 🙂

My colleague-who-wanted-to-investigate-the-boundaries-of-Sharepoint (I mentioned him earlier) had a challenging project: creating a quiz in InfoPath format. We could not think of another way to do this 60-question quiz, which had an extensive score calculation built-in that resulted in your preferred Learning Style. The whole Quiz was a manual exercise, and our Learning & Development team could no longer calculate the score by hand because of resource restrictions  They did not want to leave the scoring to the user, so we wanted to see if we could automate it.
All completed forms would be collected in the library, but everyone could only see their own form.
My colleague spent about 10 full days on this form, and after enthusiastic and extensive testing by both parties we could finally mark the project as completed.

A few weeks after sign-off we received an anguished call from the owner. Her intern, who was on a cleaning spree, had deleted the library because it contained no documents. Could we restore it?

Unfortunately we could not, since my colleague had not kept a copy. So he could do it all over again…

What have we learned?
These are the preventive measures we took from that day onwards:

  • We added the text “System List-Do not delete!” or similar text to the description field of every custom-configured or otherwise important list or library we created from that time on.
  • We saved a template of every library or list with complex configuration in the List Template Gallery of the site, and also in our own Team Site
  • At the moment of handover, we created a backup of every site that we  configured (and sometimes also saved the template in our Team Site).

In SharePoint 2010 Microsoft has finally addressed this library icon issue. But if you are working with an older version, be careful!

Form and Document Library with identical icons – SP2007
Forms and Document Library with different icons – SP2010

Interns and Intranet? No, thanks!

internCreating a new site or page  on your intranet is often considered to be a great job for an intern or other temporary employee. It’s  a well-defined project with clear deliverables; a young trainee is often thought to be computer-savvy; and most regular employees have no time to be focusing on something out of their comfort zone.
I have always found it remarkable that the most interesting and important work is so  often outsourced!

But…an intern does not know about your specific business processes and culture; he or she will not always be familiar with your intranet platform (especially not if it has been heavily customized) and they do not think about long-term maintenance because they will leave when they have finished their project.
Oh, and let us not forget that creating a good site is a learned skill that does not come naturally to everyone!

I have been lucky to work with many excellent trainees, but of course the not-so-good ones provide better stories and more lessons 🙂 !

  • One intern knew absolutely nothing about online content or online working, and was unable to learn it. We showed her our online help, sat with her for an hour to explain, and answered the phone several times a day. At a given time, we did not want to pick up the phone anymore, because we knew it would be something that we had already explained several times. We offered to do it for her (it would have saved us a lot of time), but both her manager and herself did not want that. And at that time, we were still too nice…
  • Another trainee managed to destroy his SharePoint Team Site within 10 minutes of creation.  His first action was to edit the site in FrontPage and remove some essential elements that were not to his liking. He should have hidden them via the normal Site Management methods, as we had told him, but he “had experience with editing in FrontPage and that was how he worked”. After he had killed his second Team Site in the same way we had a good discussion with him, showed him again how to manage the site properly, and threatened to remove his Site Owner rights if he would do it again. As I said, you learn from these experiences :-).
  • When setting up a global “online  university” we had an intern who had lots of experience with creating and managing sites in html. This was both comforting and disconcerting. Unfortunately we were right to be apprehensive: instead of using SharePoint’s standard functionalities, she had built the site in hard-coded html which was difficult to maintain and did not fit at all with our strategy. Her Newsletter was below the fold, pushed there by a static picture + welcome text of the project sponsor.
    We then talked to her manager and re-created the site in a way that allowed for easy maintenance and support. Recreating the site was more work than creating it 😦

In any case, the advantage of these experiences is that you have opportunities for improvement!

What have we learned and what did we do?

We created guidelines for interns and other temporary employees, who are working on intranet:

A good intern or temporary employee:

  • is not afraid of web technology and has proven experience in setting up a site or creating online content
  • understands that every employee should be able to work with the site (finding content, completing forms, downloading documents etc.) with little support
  • asks timely expertise to check the initial design. This ensures that the design is feasible, meets usability criteria and is easy to maintain over time (by someone else)
  • accepts the consequences of the expert review for the design

In addition we adjusted our internal procedures:

  • Each intern (that will create a site) must enroll in a mandatory Team Site training, where do’s and dont’s are discussed as well as the more functional aspects.
  • ŸA trainee will only be given Site Owner rights for sites that have low visibility, such as secure temporary project sites. They will always receive rights to add, edit or delete content.
  • The intranet team will review the design before configuration and only then give Site Owner rights, if at all.
  • For global sites and/or sites with high visibility, the intranet team will do the configuration,  applying all known good practices.
  • The intranet team creates a backup of the site before it is being transferred.
  • The trainee must create  a manual for maintaining the site over time.

ŸWhat are your experiences with other interns, trainees and temporary employees? Do you have special rules or similar anecdotes? Please share!

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic at