A number of my customers have recently presented me with an interesting question. Some CIOs and architects I have been talking to have latched onto the web part capabilities in SPS and are envisioning a solution for structured task workers that makes it easier for them to do their job.
The basic premise is that these people need to perform a number of tasks based on the role that they perform. The Windows UI is application-centric and they contend that this is confusing for these users. Instead they need a UI that is role- and task-centric. These organisations want to see the whole Windows UI (desktop, Start menu, taskbar etc.) removed and replaced with a task-oriented UI and see SharePoint Portal Server as a way to deliver that. They want to get rid of the windowing metaphor altogether arguing that more than one window being open at the same time confuses users. They want to enable users to have access to Word, Excel, Email etc. where appropriate, but want those apps to appear in-place within the portal UI. They want to disable the personalisation features of SharePoint.
My initial gut reaction is to say no way! People are more computer savvy these days. People I know such as teachers, local government workers, bank workers all have PCs at home as well as work these days. If they can cope with multiple windows and applications at home then why not the workplace too?
SharePoint is great for providing aggregation of data from various back-end systems at the UI level, but I firmly believe that shouldn't be the only UI you present to users. One of the problems I find is that end-user requirements aren't being captured, or if they are they aren't being given as high a priority as business requirements. I am seeing frustrated and dissatisfied users. Frustrated at how slow web-based solutions are. Dissatisfied at how limiting the system is. Keep web solutions doing what they do best: browsing, reading, aggregating and linking information plus simple forms. Do more than that and you are risking trouble.
Now, having said that, maybe these people do have a point. Despite them trying to fit a round peg into a square hole by using portals to do this, could the underlying concept be correct? Could it be that all the windowing GUIs out there have only been catering for the high-end users for all this time? I know how difficult it is for my parents to program the VCR. Maybe we do need a better way of customising the Windows UI to tailor it for Structured Task Workers. Maybe we need a personalizable framework for smart client apps akin to the Web Part Infrastructure with a common set of interfaces to link the 'parts' together.
Maybe we need to go further than that and we need a whole new UI metaphor for task-based work that is supported by Windows right in the desktop? I was hoping that the Longhorn sidebar would help here, but with the report that it has been pulled…what next?
I'd be interested in hearing about your experiences.