Do’s and Don’ts Building SharePoint Applications

SharePoint is a great platform for building quick LOB applications. Simple things from employee time trackers to server and software inventory to full blown Help Desks can be crafted up using SharePoint from just customizing Lists. No programming necessary. However there are a few tricks I’ve painfully learned over the years that you can use for your own solutions.


What’s In A Name?

When you create a new list, column, or view you’ll commonly name it something like “Expense Reports”. However this has the ugly effect of creating a url to the list as “Expense%20Reports”. Or worse, an internal field name of “Expense_x0x0020_Reports” which is not only cryptic but hard to remember when you’re trying to find the column by internal name.

While “Expense Reports 2011” is user friendly, “ExpenseReports2011” is not (unless you’re a programmer). So that’s not the solution. Well, not entirely.

Instead when you create your column or list or view use the scrunched up name (I can’t think of the technical term for it right now) of “ExpenseReports2011”, “WomenAtTheOfficeThatAreMen” or “KoalaMeatIsGoodWhenBroiled”. After you’ve created it, go back and change the name to the more friendly “Silly Expense Reports That Nobody Reads”. The original internal name will be the url and code friendly one without spaces while the one used on data entry forms and view headers will be the human version.

Smart Columns

When building a view include columns that make sense. By default when you add a column the “Add to default view” is checked. Resist the urge to be lazy and leave it checked. Uncheck that puppy and decide consciously what columns should be included in the view.

Pick columns that make sense to what the user is trying to do. This means you have to talk to the user. Yes, I know. That can be trying at times and even painful. Go ahead, talk to them. You might learn something.

Find out what’s important to them and why. If they’re doing something repetitively as part of their job, try to make their life easier by including what’s most important to them. Do they really need to see the Created *and* Modified date of a document or do they just need the title and author? You’ll only find out after talking to them (or getting them drunk in a bar and leaving them in the back alley handcuffed to a garbage bin, don’t ask).

Gotta Keep it Separated

Hey, views are there for a reason. Use them. While “All Items” is a fine way to present a list of well, all items, it’s hardly sufficient to present a list of servers built before the Y2K bug hit. You’ll be scrolling the list for hours finally arriving at Page 387 of 12,591 and cursing that SharePoint guy for convincing you that putting your hardware into a list would be of any use to anyone.

Next to collecting the data, presenting it is just as important. Views are often overlooked and many times ignored or misused. They’re the way you can slice and dice the data up so that you’re not trying to consume 3,000 years of human evolution on a single web page.

Remember views can be filtered so feel free to create a view for each status or one for each operating system or one for each species of Information Worker you might be putting in that list or document library. Not only will it reduce the number of items someone sees at one time, it’ll also make the information that much more relevant.

Also remember that each view is a separate page. Use it in navigation by creating a menu on the Quick Launch to each view. The discoverability of the Views menu isn’t overly obvious and if you violate the rule of columns (see Horizontally Scrolling below) the view menu doesn’t even show up until you shuffle the scroll bar to the left. Navigation links, big giant buttons, a screaming flashing “CLICK ME NOW” will help your users find their way.

Sort It!

Views are great so we’re building nice, rich views for the user. Awesomesauce. However sort is not very discoverable by the user. For example when you’re looking at a view how do you know if it’s ascending or descending and what is it sorted on. Maybe it’s sorted using two fields so what’s that all about?

Help your users by letting them know the information they’re looking at is sorted. Maybe you name the view something appropriate like “Bogus Expense Claims Sorted By Deadbeats”. If you use the naming strategy just make sure you keep the name consistent with the description. In the previous example their better be a Deadbeat column so I can see the sort in action. Having a “Loser” column, while equally correct, is a little obtuse to the average Information Worker. Remember, they usually don’t use synonyms and even if they knew how to, it’s not immediately obvious to them that’s what you’re trying to convey.

Another option is to simply drop a Content Editor Web Part above the list and explain exactly the view they’re looking at. Each view is it’s own page so one CEWP won’t be used across the board. Be descriptive in what the user is seeing but try to keep it brief. Dumping the first chapter of I, Claudius might be informative to the data but can gobble up screen real estate and miss the point of having the list.


Useless Attachments

The attachments column is, in a word, useless. For the most part. Sure it indicates there’s an attachment on the list item but in the grand scheme of things that’s not overly informative. Maybe it is and by all means, if it makes sense to you include it. Colour it. Make it shine and stand like the Return of Clippy on every SharePoint list.

Without it being functional it can be boring. has an article to make the son of Clippy that much more useful so feel free to head over and check out this blog post by Paul Grenier on the task (Warning code ahead! Danger Will Robinson!)

In any case, I would suggest you remove it from your views. Again if it’s important then include it but consider the jQuery solution above to make it functional. It’s added by default to views and one of things that people forget to clean up.

Horizontal Scrolling

Screen real estate is premium so building a list that contains 8,000 columns and stretches horizontally across 15 screens probably isn’t the most user friendly experience. Most users can’t figure out how to scroll vertically let alone horizontally so don’t make it even that more confusing for them. Take the Steve Krug approach in your view designs and try not to make the user think.

Again views are your friend. Consider splitting up the data into views where one view contains 10 columns and other view contains the other 10. Okay, maybe your information doesn’t work that way but humans can only process 7 pieces of data at a time, 10 at most (then their heads explode and you don’t want to clean that mess up, especially on a Friday night before the big dance).

It drives me batshit crazy when I see a view with 80 columns of data. I often ask the user “So what do you do with all this information”. The response is usually “With this data [the first 10 columns] I decide if I’m going to fire everyone, and with this data [the next 10 columns] I decide if I’m going to set the building on fire and collect the insurance”. It’s at that point I show them how to create two new views “People Who Are About To Get The Axe” and “Beach Time For The Executives”. Again, talk to your users and try to reason with them on cutting down the number of columns they see at once.

Vertical Scrolling

Another big faux pas I find is the use of multi-line comment fields in views. It’s not so bad when you have a statement like this in your view:

“I really like, oh my god, thought I was going to scream when I saw this turtle then I decided what I was going to have for dinner and frankly I hate having to work late so when I was talking to the customer I thought, oh my god, what if the customer has turtles and then it appeared to me that I really was hungry so I'm going to have lunch now.”

It’s fine if that’s the only column along with two or three others, but once you slap those 20 columns of data into the list, the comment field wraps and forms a new multi-page novel that takes up your entire screen.

Do everyone a favour and just avoid adding the column to views. Train the user to just click through to the item if they need to see the contents.

Duplicate Information

Duplication is never good. Views and great as you can group data together. For example create a view of project status reports grouped by author. Then you can see what project manager is being a dip and not submitting their report. However if you group by author do you really need the Created By field as well in the view? Or if the view is grouped by Project then Author do you need both.

Horizontal real estate is always at a premium so try not to clutter up the view with duplicate data like this. Oh  yeah, if you’re scratching your head saying “But Bil, if I don’t include the Project name in the view and I have a lot of items then how do I know which one I’m looking at”. That’s a hint that your grouping is too vague or you have too much data in the view based on that criteria. Filter it down a notch, create some views, and try to keep the group down to a single screen where you can see the group header at the top of the page. Again it’s just managing the information you have.

Redundant, See Redundant

This partially relates to duplicate information and smart columns but basically remember to not include the obvious in a view. Remember, don’t make me think. If you’ve gone to the trouble (and it was a lot of trouble wasn’t it?) to create separate views of your data by creating a “September Zombie Brain Sales”, “October Zombie Brain Sales”, etc. then please for the love of all that is holy do not include the Month and Product columns in your view. Similarly if you create a “My” view of anything (“My Favourite Brands of Spandex”, “My Co-Workers I Find The Urge To Disinfect”) then again, do not include the owner or author field (or whatever field you use to identify “My”). That’s just silly.

Hope that helps! Happy customizing!


  • These are great tips. Specifically the one about vertical scrolling. With SP2010, "clicking through" to the item doesn't even involve leaving the page (by default) so the user doesn't even have to wait for a page load before they see the information; no point in having long bits of text in the view.

    One thing about adding CEWB to a library or list, it makes accessing "the ribbon" in 2010 difficult. You lose some of the basic functionality of the ribbon unless you select one or all items via checkbox; at least that has been the experience our organization has had.

  • @Jesse: Sure, you don't leave the page, but still you need to wait for a full page load (the one in the modal window).
    There are a couple solutions for multi-line fields. For example, you can use a "Newsletter" style (think announcement lists), or "Preview Pane" style. Or if you're building an application, you can add a touch of JavaScript to get a dynamic expand/collapse or more/less behavior.

    @Bil: to your last point, keeping the redundant column may be necessary to allow editing in datasheet.

  • Can't agree more. Great tips. Specially 1st one. I always try and give each column a friendly name as most users find that annoying from day one.

  • Speaking of friendly names, a recurring question is what to do with the "Title" column in lists. Keep it as is? Rename it, knowing that the internal name will remain "Title"? Or just leave it empty (or with a dummy value) and hide it from the users?

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