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The team I work in are in charge of approving and creating new team document storage/collaboration microsites for business areas within the company. These are currently being offered as SharePoint sites.

Just about every time we get a request for a new SharePoint site that they then instantly want to customise (seemingly before they even consider what they want the site for, or what kind of documents they are going to store/collaborate on).

We could simply say no but I was wondering if that was making more work in the long run. Would it be easier to permit a limited (and ultimately with low real UX impact) range of customisation options that might fulfil this need?

So prevalant is this request that I was wondering if there were studies that had examined this seeming compulsion to customise (the psychological need to 'stamp my mark'?)

And also whether anyone had any advice on what might be permitted (would allowing a personalised image or a border colour change satisfy the 'urges')?

(NB - My boss' preference is to 'Just say no' but I am wondering whether users might have an improved experience and maybe even administer their site better if they were allowed a little customisation to make the site feel more theirs - but still within clear company branding guidelines.)

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Why not adopt the approach that the SE network of sites has taken: one overall design for all sites allowing css styling (including images) on a per site basis. It makes the microsites both recognizable as belonging to "the whole" and inidividual enough to be recognized as a specific microsite in a single glance. –  Marjan Venema Mar 17 at 12:26
    
We plan to do something similar - it's just deciding what (if anything) to allow the users to define themselves. When they get their own designers in they tend to go fairly wild (to the extent they try to build things that range from resembling a Disneyworld map to trying to rebuild the Windows Metro interface, including live tiles). –  Raff3000 Mar 17 at 13:56

3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Let's split the problem: users can ask for

  1. design customization, and
  2. interface elements customization (like MS Word in the late nineties, see what I mean?).

From my point of view, the former is one the most normal and legitimate needs of human beings. People like to have their own look, but this doesn't mean that you should give full customization power to the user. Users are not designers (in most cases).

Giving the user the choice among a set of templates is a fairly suitable solution. Templates give you the ability to keep design clean and consistent without spoiling the UX, and at the same time they give the user the feeling of a unique experience. It has never been proved that templates improve productivity but it's quite obvious that they make interfaces more enjoyable (as long as they are beautiful).

On the opposite, the latter is proven to be evil. Jef Raskin writes in his book "The Humane Interface":

Customization sounds nice, democratic, open-ended, and full of freedom and joy for the user, but I am unaware of any studies that show that it increases productivity or improves objective measures of usability or learnability.

And I totally agree with that. Designing a good interface is your job and it should be user-centered, which means that you should take your decisions based on user feedback, not let the users set up their own interface. Interface design is complex, and users should expect you to solve the problem. Again, from Jef, same page:

[...] if we are competent user interface designers and can make our interfaces nearly optimal, personalizations can only make interfaces worse.

So, my advice is: be strict on UI elements (layouts, toolbars, widgets...) and let the users choose their template for the decorations (and keep consistency among templates).

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Thanks for this answer - very helpful. The Jef Raskin quote illustrates the misconception many of our users seem to have, that immediately customising their microsite is instantly going to make it 'better'. –  Raff3000 Mar 17 at 14:50
    
You're welcome: this book was a complete revelation to me. Jef was so smart. That happens to designers as well: some UI decisions are really difficult to take and often (bad) designers say "no problem, let's give the user the choice!". But we can't expect users to have the time and the skills to take the decision for us. –  xBill Mar 17 at 15:08

I have encountered similar psychology. It seems users have a natural propensity to jump right into designing and customizing to their "needs," without regard to solving the problem or meeting goals. In my experience with doing microsites for internal groups in large organizations, users tend to think they are part of designing a website. However, this is just not the case with platforms (like Sharepoint). I would consult with these users and try to make them understand that the focus should be around workflow, content strategy, and stewarding their site, not the fancy decorations. A classic quote from Jeffrey Zeldman comes to mind:

Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it's decoration.

The main reason to avoid allowing users to customize the UI, is that it's probably the fastest way to break consistency in the platform. Think Myspace, although that is a bit of an extreme example.

I think xBill has the right idea about being strict on UI elements. Customization when peppered in tastefully can be very effective. Finding the balance is tough, but I would recommend looking at popular social media sites like Facebook, Google+, etc... to glean ideas of how you can allow some ability for users to add flavor without compromising consistency and usability.

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Thank you - that is a great quote - it's going straight in my recommendations documentation :) –  Raff3000 Mar 17 at 14:43
    
wow, reminding us of MySpace is rather painful :) but it's the right example! –  xBill Mar 17 at 21:01

Allowing users to customise their site is a great thing. However, they are probably not designers and you should keep control over that. You could offer them to choose between several layout and then set it up by choosing a pair of fonts and a swatch. They would feel in control, customise their site as they want to with a nice result.

Marjan's comment is interesting. I'd suggest to take a look at Zurb as an other example. Actually they provide lots of services which are really different with their own design. However, you still know it's a Zurb's service (thanks to the header, domain, ...).

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Thanks - will have a look. –  Raff3000 Mar 17 at 13:53

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