Last week was really exciting for me and my colleagues here at Black Marble as the work we’ve been doing with a partner came to fruition. Words and Pictures are a communications agency based not far from us, and we’ve been working together on a great product that builds upon SharePoint 2010 to greatly improve content publishing.
I’ll come to the product in a little while, but I’d like to talk about how we created it first, as it’s a great example of how working together within the Microsoft space can help companies build upon their strengths and overcome their weaknesses.
A tale of two specialisms
I first encountered Words and Pictures at one of a series of events Black Marble ran to explain the Microsoft offerings that exist in the creative space, targeted at design and creative agencies. In the event we talked about a range of technologies, including Silverlight, web technologies and SharePoint, and how creative agencies could use those technologies to deliver the kind of vibrant material their clients were looking for. It was a good example of the evangelism we spend a fair amount of our time engaged in, and it was an interesting way for us to explore how we might use our technical skills to fill the gaps experienced by creative agencies.
Black Marble are, as I’m sure you know as readers of the blogs on this site, technical specialist. We are extremely good at delivering solutions to business problems by tailoring or even creating IT systems to meet our customers’ needs.
Words and Pictures have turned out to be a kind of creative analogue of Black Marble. They are a well respected organisation that specialise in delivering great services for businesses centred around communications. Be it for an internal or external audience, Words and Pictures write, design and deliver a range of communication channels for their customers. Historically, this had been predominantly printed content of one form or another, but in today’s fast changing world their customers are starting to shift to digital delivery.
A meeting of minds; clarity of vision
Words and Pictures got in touch with us directly because they thought that SharePoint 2010 might be a good content delivery platform for them to focus on as their customers shifted towards digital delivery. They had already had feedback from the organisations they supported that SharePoint was becoming an almost ubiquitous system across the panoply of Words and Pictures’ customers. This awareness, couple with the demonstrations we had given at our design event around what SharePoint could do for content publishing, had led them to believe that SharePoint was the right choice. Now they had lots of questions about whether it would do what they wanted.
In situations like this, where a client believes SharePoint is the right choice but is unsure how to proceed with implementation, I like to run a Vision Workshop with them. The idea is that we forget they ever mentioned SharePoint and instead talk about what they do as a business – their operations, problems, aims and aspirations. I can then reflect that back at them, matching SharePoint’s capabilities to their needs in the short, medium and long term.
The workshop at Words and Pictures was an eye-opener for me!
I arrived at their very nice offices in a very nice part of Yorkshire and found myself in a room with the biggest whiteboard I’d ever seen. Over the course of the day, that whiteboard was filled, erased and re-filled with ideas, drawings and diagrams to illustrate the ideas, concepts and desire that Words and Pictures had. During that day a small number of very passionate specialists in journalism and content creation emptied their collective experience onto the wall and as I took more and more notes and thought more and more about how SharePoint might help, I became more and more convinced that something great could come out of this.
A panoply of features
The vision workshop threw up a huge amount of information about how Words and Pictures needed to create, manage and publish digital content in the same manner as they currently managed their printed content. We quickly realised that if we extended SharePoint to match these needs, the solution we created would be useful to more than simply Words and Pictures. As we talked it through the idea of a content publishing framework that would sit on top of and extend the capabilities of SharePoint was born. Such a framework would bring SharePoint’s publishing model more in line with the processes used by both an agency like Words and Pictures and the Internal Communications teams within their client organisations. It could also greatly improve the services Black Marble were increasingly finding ourselves working on for customers in both intranet and external web publishing scenarios.
A product is born
Working closely together, building on all of our expertise, Words and Pictures and Black Marble have created Avviso. It was launched last week at events at Black Marble’s offices and Microsoft’s London offices. I was really enthused by the reception we received from the audience at both events. Avviso was met with a great deal of interest and enthusiasm which really made the development journey worthwhile.
Words and Pictures came up with the name. For those who are curious:
An Avviso was a hand-written newsletter used to convey political, military, and economic news quickly and efficiently throughout Europe, and more specifically Italy, during the early modern era (1500-1700). In the beginning avvisi were very similar to letters written from one dignitary to another, but diverged from such letters in the sixteenth century with more standardized practices.
I think it’s a great name. It’s both catchy and memorable, whilst at the same time meaningful and relevant to what the product does.
So what does it do?
Avviso contains a wealth of extensions to the SharePoint platform that enables better creation of rich, impactful published content: Crisp template-based pages as well as the ability to produce unique, vibrant designs; the ability to create features and article series; better categorisation and aggregation of content; richer content management for published pages. Importantly, we’ve only begun to tackle the list of ideas that came out of that original vision workshop, so there is a solid roadmap for new features that will be delivered through regular version updates.
I’m not going to detail features here. There is a product website at avvisosharepoint.co.uk and if you want to know more, get in touch with us. We have more events planned for the new year, both in the north and south of the UK so we can offer you a chance to see it in the flesh.
Here are some examples of the kind of pages Avviso can help you build, using some sample content from Words and Pictures.
An intranet home page with aggregated content and rich multimedia.
An article with bespoke design applied
A feature splash page, with links to articles in the feature
An article built using a standard template
The London launch
The London launch event was at the Microsoft offices in Cardinal Place. Andy Holt, Creative Director of Words and Pictures, and myself were the presenters, ably assisted by Jon Eland, also from Words and Pictures. It was a great room and it was good to see so many enthusiastic attendees. We were lucky that it didn’t snow until the evening! Words and Pictures had designed some great bags and pamphlets for the guests and Black Marble made sure that chocolates were close at hand!
I really enjoy presenting with Andy. We have a similar dynamic to how Andy Dawson and I present at Black Marble events, but at the same time our differing backgrounds of creativity and technology allow us to bounce off each other and really explain how Avviso works and what we’re trying to deliver.
I’ve learned a great deal from my experiences during the conception and creation of Avviso. I think one of the most important things has been to reinforce my thoughts about approaching SharePoint solutions. By ignoring SharePoint and focusing on what Words and Pictures needed as an organisation in terms of their process we were able to generate a rich wish-list of functionality that could then be matched against existing SharePoint features and inform what we would need to develop from scratch. The things that Words and Pictures described added so much to my understanding of the needs of content publishing that I can help other customers deliver better intranets, extranets and internet sites (hopefully using Avviso!).
- Ignore the technology. Talk about process, business needs, problems and goals.
- Teach and learn. Understand each other’s specialism and explain domain terminology.
- Concentrate on your area of expertise. Don’t try to second-guess each other’s approach to a problem.
- Draw lots of pictures and diagrams. Write lots of notes.
- Relationships are important. Build the team with individuals who can work well together. Time invested in getting to know each other is time well spent.