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November, 2014:

Is the Future of UI Customizations for Office 365 Doomed?

With the recent TechEd Europe conference being over it has now become public that the official recommendation from Microsoft is to not use Custom Master Pages, Custom Site Templates or Sandboxed Solutions for Office 365 sites anymore.  This was announced in the session given by Vesa Juvonen and Steve Walker: Transforming Your SharePoint Full Trust Code to the SharePoint App Model

In this session they outlined many of the issues we have lamented over in the past months; the fast paced changes and feature roll outs in SharePoint Online are making it difficult for maintenance and consistency.  The changes to the Suite Bar and the new App Launcher are just one example of the frustration that many in the customization world have complained about in the past months.

With this presentation the recommendation to no longer customize SharePoint Online comes again to the forefront, and our dreams of an easy way to perform this task with the Design Manager and other tools seem to have come crashing down to reality.

Oh yes, you read that correctly. No more custom Master Pages in SharePoint Online.

But what about Design Manager, Device Channels, Composed Looks and more Customization awesomeness???

What are the common customizations that you do? Answer this brief survey to help us understand what you customize. (Thanks Randy Drisgill for the survey creation and watching)

So what exactly does this mean for not only us as User Experience Designers and Developers, but for every company that needs and wants a custom brand applied consistently to their SharePoint environment?

Because let’s be honest, one of the top requests from everyone who works with SharePoint is how do we make it look like us and not like SharePoint.  Implementing a custom look and feel for your sites is a popular item and many people are willing to invest the time and money in developing this customization. Sometimes the simple act of adding in a custom header, footer and color scheme can resonate with our end users and give them a sense of trust for the content and items in the sites.

Is the end near?? No way.  At least in my opinion. Let’s talk strategy, options and a potential solution.

First let me start by saying that it is recommended currently that you not develop and implement custom master pages, but it is not strictly forbidden.  You can in fact still develop and apply custom master pages in Office 365.  There are however several factors that you will need to consider and plan for if you choose this approach:

  1. There will be changes required frequently to your brand assets (CSS, JavaScript, Master Page) to incorporate the new features and components of Office 365. A few examples
    1. Sample Suite Bar changes seen in the past 6 months: New links, removal of existing links, height increase, user profile picture display, new CSS classes inserted via JavaScript injection, logo additions and more
    2. Changes to themes: Introduction of new tenant themeing to include the Suite Bar and link color changes; additional composed looks introduced
    3. Delve and Groups – do not use custom master pages or CSS so no branding customizations applied
  2. Much as today, things will appear and change that are outside of your control, so you should educate your users of this possibility and be prepared to make rapid changes if necessary.
  3. Branding development is moving just that direction… development, so be prepared to spend more time with JavaScript, CSS and even the app model.

What other options do we have?

Composed Looks are still a reliable option as well as Alternate CSS (although you will need the publishing infrastructure to apply it or JavaScript injection)

Another option and requesting your feedback on a proposed interim solution.  While we all hope that Microsoft will begin to offer a new method of customizing the UI of SharePoint, how do we bridge the gap of what we have now out of the box and the no custom master page announcement?

Well, I have crafted a potential solution and I’d love to hear feedback from you on it too.  I have already run this idea past quite a few people and have been encouraged that they too think this could work for the majority of our needs.

The plan:

Microsoft maintains control of a set of master pages allowing them to update as they needed but giving us some tools to work with that we can use for branding.

  1. Master Page with Bootstrap framework built in and navigation controls wrapped with responsive needs; 6 – 8 additional blank content placeholders with set IDs that we can use for JavaScript Injection to customize and add in additional components.
  2. Master Page without responsive; 6 – 8 additional blank content placeholders with set IDs that we can use for JavaScript injection to customize and add in additional components.

This gives them the ability to add and edit, but giving us something that we can target for the customizations we want to make in our sites (headers, footers, additional logos, alerts, and more).

So what do you think?  Might this work for you? You will need to use JavaScript injection to fill these placeholders and CSS to position them. But if you knew that they would exist and it allowed the control needed to continue innovation would you use it?

Leave your comments on this blog, tweet me @catpaint1 or reach out on Yammer.

And to hear more thoughts on this idea and more listen to Episode 056 of the Microsoft Cloud Show where I joined Randy Drisgill, Marc Anderson, Jasper Oosterveld and host Andrew Connell to talk about Challenges facing UX Designers in the Cloud.