A variety of screens displaying Power Platform capabilities
Microsoft recently released a lot of new capabilities in their business applications, including the Microsoft Power Platform, which combines Flow, Power BI, Power Apps, the Common Data Service for apps, and Dynamics 365. To help people gain insights into the power of these applications, the Microsoft Technology Center in Reston, VA offered a Microsoft Business Applications Workshop for Federal Government, which I attended with two AIS colleagues.

As a User Experience (UX) Researcher who joined AIS earlier this year, I am new to Microsoft business applications. In addition, code writing is not my job responsibility and expertise, unlike my two colleagues. However, I found the workshop intriguing and registered for it right away because it was designed to:

  • Help people gain an understanding of the business applications
  • Be “interactive,” with hands-on opportunity for attendees to build a working application
  • Include topics like “solution envisioning and planning” and “no-code business workflow deployment” (Note that the workshop did offer coding exercises for developers on the last day of the workshop, which I did not attend.)

Indeed, attending the workshop allowed me to see the possibilities of these Microsoft applications, which is very relevant to what I do as a UX Researcher. It motivated me to further explore resources on this topic to better meet the needs of our current and future clients.

The User-Centered Design Process

The first project that I worked on after joining AIS was to help a client understand their employees’ needs and collect user requirements for a new intranet to be built on Office 365. In addition, the key stakeholders wanted to:

  • Streamline and automate their business processes, workflows, and document management
  • Drive overall collaboration and communication within the organization

I had extensive experience conducting user research for websites and web applications. To collect employee insights for this new intranet, we followed a user-centered design process:

  1. We started by interviewing stakeholders, content owners, and general employees to understand:
    • Their existing intranet use, areas that worked well, and areas that needed to improve
    • Intranet content that is important to them
    • Existing business processes, workflows, document management, internal collaboration, and communication
  2. Based on the interview findings, we then:
    • Compiled a list of important content pieces that the new intranet should include
    • Set up an online card sorting study for the employees to participate to inform the information architecture (IA) of the new intranet
    • Documented employees’ needs and expectations in other business areas
  3. Proposed a draft IA for the new intranet based on card sorting findings
  4. Developed a wireframe intranet prototype (using Axure), which reflected the draft IA, contained employee desired content, and mimicked the Office 365 structure and capabilities
  5. Conducted remote usability testing sessions with stakeholders and general employees to evaluate the wireframe prototype
  6. Finalized the intranet prototype and documented UX findings and recommendations to help developers build the new intranet using Office 365 in the next phase

As shown above, we made sure that the Intranet would meet the needs and expectations of the stakeholders and general employees, before it was coded and developed. However, as a UX researcher who does not code, I did not develop our solutions using the Microsoft business applications. I was curious to see how my technical colleagues would apply the capabilities of these applications to improve, streamline, and automate business processes and workflows.

Our user research showed that employees experienced a lot of frustration and pain points during their daily work. For example, both managers and general employees complained that their business processes heavily relied on emails, email attachments, and even hand-written notes, which were easy to miss or misplace and hard to locate. They described how difficult it was for them to keep track of project progresses and updates, especially when people from multiple departments were involved. Some of them also mentioned they had to manually enter or re-enter data during a workflow, which was error-prone. All these were real and common business process problems.

The Power of the Power Platform

This workshop provided me with a starting point and a glimpse into the power of the business applications. I’m still learning about their full power, the technical descriptions or details, and the rationale or logic behind each step that we went through when we built the model-driven app during the workshop. However, I was excited to walk away knowing about:

  • The use of a single, connected, and secure application platform to help organizations break down silos and improve their business outcomes
  • The availability of hundreds of out-of-box templates, connectors, and apps, including those that our client can take advantage of and easily customize, such as for onboarding tasks, leave requests, expense reimbursements, and shout-outs to co-workers
  • Building solutions and applications quickly and easily with simple drag-and-drop user interface, without the need to write a single line of code
  • Higher work efficiency of business people and non-developers to achieve what they want to do independently, relying less on IT support or developers, reducing overall cost, and saving time

After the workshop, I found a wealth of online resources and videos on Microsoft Business Applications. Below are some Microsoft webpages that describe the similar content or steps that we went through during the workshop:

I look forward to more in-depth learning about this topic to better understand the power of Microsoft business applications. With this knowledge and together with my colleagues, we will propose and build the best business solutions based on user research, helping our clients achieve desired outcomes by improving their employee experience.

If you didn’t catch the first part of this series, you can read that here.  In this part, things should get a little more interesting as we set up a PowerApp and our SharePoint site.

Objectives

  1. Create SharePoint Online Team Site.
  2. Create a PowerApp for team members to collect data with.
  3. Embed this PowerApp into a SharePoint page so we can do more work in a single environment.

Creating Our SharePoint Team Site

Using our existing SharePoint Online instance, I’m going to create a new Team site off of the root site collection.

  1. From the home page of the root site collection, click the “Create site” button.

Create site screenshot

2. Select Team site on the panel that opens.

Create a Site screen with Team Site hightlighted3. Fill in the information on the next page and click Next.

Team Site information input page

4. Add any additional users and click Finish.

Add additional users screenshot

If all went well, you should be redirected to the new site.

Screenshot of new Team Site

Creating the PowerApp

To be clear, we are going to create a “canvas” PowerApp as opposed to a model-driven PowerApp.  To get this going I’ll navigate to my PowerApps environment and create a new app.

Screenshot of PowerApps environment

    1. From your PowerApps home page, click Create.
    2. On this page you can see various templates for making both model-driven and canvas apps. We’re going to use the “Start from data” Canvas app.Screenshot with Start From Data option highlighted
    3. On the next page we see multiple choices for apps that start with our data. I’m going to use the Common Data Service here.Screenshot with Common Data Service hightlighted
    4. With my Common Data Service account instance selected under “Connections,” I scroll to find and select the “Patches” table, then click “Connect.”

Screenshot of Connections

PRO TIP:  If you get to this point and you still don’t see your data, make sure to check the “Environment” at the top right of the window.  You may not have the correct environment selected where your data is stored.  You can read more about Environments in PowerApps here.
Screenshot with Environments highlighted

        1. Once PowerApps is done creating the new app, the app designer will appear.

      Screenshot of App Designer

Let’s pause and look at this screen for a minute.  On the right, we have our properties and some other items, in the middle we have our design canvas, and on the left we have our Screens Explorer.  In our Screens Explorer we see three screens already created for us: the browse, detail, and edit screens.

If you look under each of those screens you’ll see a primary user interface object that is collapsed (meaning it has content/child nodes underneath it), along with some other user interface elements that usually provide some other functionality or a label.  When you select an element in the Screens Explorer it will also be selected on the design canvas.  In the previous screen shot, the Search Icon is selected under the Browse Screen 1 item.  Consequently, the search hourglass on the design canvas is also selected.

We don’t want to change this up much, but I think we can all agree that it would be a lot more helpful to have something other than the created-on date and item id as our main fields for each row.

PRO TIP:  PowerApps provides us with a super fast way of spinning up apps by automatically building things into our apps like navigation and search controls.  Be careful about changing or removing these unless you plan to replace them with a control of your own that provides the same functionality.  Oftentimes if you remove one of these you render a portion of the app unusable or difficult to access.  To see what a given user interface item does, select it in the designer and check out the “OnSelect” Action in the Advanced tab on the right.

Screenshot with OnSelect option highlighted

      1. Select the bolded date field on the row item on the design canvas and make sure the Advanced tab is selected on the right.
      2. In the Data section under the Advanced tab, we can use the Text field to change what we want displayed in each of these user interface elements. I’m going to change the first to name, the second to city, and the last one to state.Screenshot of text field

Once we’re done tweaking the browser display we’ll want to work on the detail and edit forms.  These work a bit differently.

      1. Select the Detail Form under the Detail Screen node. In the right pane under Properties, select the Fields link that indicates the number of fields currently selected.
      2. Check any fields you would like that aren’t currently on the form. Similarly uncheck any fields the system put on the form that you want to remove.  You can also reorder the fields to your liking.

After a little bit of tweaking to both our detail and edit forms we’re ready to publish this PowerApp.  You can preview the app with the “Play” arrow icon near the top right, or just switch over to your File menu to wrap things up.

      1. Click the File menu and under App Settings give your app a name and feel free to play around with the icon and background color. There are other settings you can explore too but for now we’ll just cover the basics.
      2. Click “Save” to save your app to your gallery.

Screenshot of gallery

In this next screen shot I’ve captured our three screens from left to right: display, detail, and edit. Screenshot of app screens.
You might be wondering what the Generate Advertisement switch is for on the edit screen.  We’ll use that to toggle that specific functionality later in our Flow.

Finally, if you click on the ellipsis for the new app in our PowerApps app gallery, you can click “Details” and get additional helpful information for the app such as the app URL.  This will come in handy for what we do next.

Here are some screen shots from my mobile phone as I helped gather inventory for this massive side project!

Screenshots of app data

Embedding the PowerApp in SharePoint

As mentioned, we don’t want to find ourselves jumping back and forth between application instances for managing inventory.  Thankfully we’re able to embed our PowerApp into the SharePoint page we want so we can do a lot of our common work from that one screen.

      1. Open the SharePoint site we created earlier and edit the home page. I’ve tweaked mine so we only have the Documents Library web part and some empty columns.
      2. Click the plus button in the right column to add a new web part. Find the Microsoft PowerApps web part and select it.Screenshot
      3. Paste the link from your PowerApp into the “App web link or ID” field in the right pane that opens. The app should come up in the new web part.Screenshot
      4. Publish the page.

We can now use the same PowerApp that everyone else will be using on their mobile devices, right here in SharePoint.

Screenshot of PowerApp in SharePoint

Tune in next time, when we’ll use Microsoft Flow to move some data around, automatically generate advertisements, and notify team members of important events.

With the wide variety of updated features available through Office 365, organizations can now create robust, beautiful intranets right out-of-the-box. In contrast to SharePoint classic sites, SharePoint modern sites have a clean interface, are responsive and adaptive to mobile devices, and offer significant performance improvements.

Read part one of this three-part blog series here. 

Read part two here.

Now that you set up your SharePoint libraries to use custom content types, you can add content. Go to the Documents library and upload a few documents to the library. For each document, edit the properties and choose any appropriate values for your custom site columns.

In the example below, All isselected for the AIS Office Location field, Human Resources is selected for the AIS Support Team (department) field, and the value for Show on AIS Connect Home is set to Yes.

Adding content to SharePoint

Read More…

Calling all SharePoint users and Office 365 developers! AIS is sponsoring this month’s Meetup for the Triangle SharePoint User Group in Morrisville, North Carolina. It’s shaping up to be a great one, so RSVP today to claim your spot.

About the Session:

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are the new buzzwords in the industry. In this session, we will cover Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Services for Office 365 developers.

About the Speaker:

Prashant G. Bhoyar is a Microsoft Office Server & Services MVP and Microsoft Certified Professional. He currently works as a Solution Architect at WithumSmith+Brown, P.C. (formerly Portal Solutions), one of the top 30 accounting and advisory firms in the country. He is a trusted advisor and Subject Matter Expert and specializes in the development and post-implementation adoption of complex custom solutions in Azure, Office 365, and SharePoint. Prashant has supported many government agencies and non-profit organizations in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. Prashant was the co-author of the book PowerShell for Office 365 and was the technical reviewer of the book Pro SharePoint 2013 Administration.

He serves on the leadership committee for the Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning User Group, and D.C. Metro Office 365 User Group, and SharePoint Saturday Baltimore event and SharePoint Saturday Washington DC event. He actively speaks at technical conferences across the country, most recently in Chicago, Seattle, New Orleans, Baltimore, Philadelphia, as well as, at many events throughout North America. Prashant is a recipient of the “Antarctic Service Medal of the United States of America” for his outstanding service in Antarctica.

Click here for the event’s agenda, location and to claim your spot! Space is limited so RSVP today!

Microsoft PowerApps and Flow have been generally available since late 2016. They’re both tools that allow business users to streamline business processes without the use of code. Microsoft positioned PowerApps as their recommended replacement for InfoPath as the business user’s forms designer, and Flow as their replacement for SharePoint Workflow.

While these are welcomed replacements, both solutions also provide a broader level of support to the Microsoft stack and across a wide array of third-party applications.  I’ve recently been working with PowerApps and Flow to replace some internal applications, as well as to build proof-of-concepts for our existing clients. Here’s what I think of each, both separately and when putting them together… Read More…

2017 was another great year overall here at AIS, and also marked the fifth anniversary of our blog! We hope you enjoyed reading and found our posts helpful and interesting. We’re all pretty passionate about what we do here, and look forward to sharing more thoughts, insights and solutions in 2018 and beyond!

As we close out the year, here are the top 10 most read and shared blog posts of 2017:

1) Office 365 Groups vs. Microsoft Teams by Jason Storch

2) Lift & Shift: Migrating Legacy Applications to Azure Cloud by Nasir Mirza

3) Dockerization of Azure PaaS (Beyond Azure Container) by Vishwas Lele

4) Managed Images in Azure (Create & Deploy) by Justin Baca

5) Building Stateless Microservice Using Microsoft Service Fabric Series by Kasi Srinivasan

6) Azure PaaS Options: When to Use What? by Vishwas Lele

7) A three-way tie (!) for Parts One, Two & Three of Automated Deployments with Azure Resource Manager Templates, Azure Automation, & Octopus Deploy by Harun Davood

8) It’s Time to Review the Failure Modes of Your #cloud App(s) by Vishwas Lele

9) Pattern Matching vs. Deep Learning by Vishwas Lele

10) A Fix for the SharePoint Search Query/Result Mismatch by Clint Richardson

Happy New Year to all our readers and bloggers! Be sure to follow AIS on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn so you’ll never miss a post.

With the recent release of Microsoft Teams, you may be wondering what the differences between Teams and Office 365 Groups are. At AIS, we’re always on the forefront of the latest Office 365 services, and given our long-time partnership with Microsoft, we’ve actually been using both Microsoft Teams and Office 365 Groups for while now. We’ve gotten a solid sense of what both services are good at and what they’re…not so good at. At least not yet. Read More…
Like every business that’s dependent on consumer sales to fuel growth, you and your team members are probably constantly thinking about how you can make your organization’s sales processes fast and efficient enough to support the growth and customer retention that your executive team desires.

Well, we’ve figured out a way to do just that – our client organization is in the highly competitive insurance industry, and needed a way to increase sales volumes. Enter AIS; we were able to provide our client with an automated method of providing customers with a quote for insurance rates via a self-service web portal solution…resulting in the higher sales volumes they were seeking, while also reducing costs. Read More…

Consolidating multiple intranets across an organization is quite simple, when done correctly. Did you know that SharePoint is just the tool to help your organization accomplish such a feat? Well if not, then read on, because our work with Chemonics proves exactly what a global SharePoint application can do to promote better management of company information, assets and global resources.

Our client, Chemonics, provides project management support for international aid projects. With a staff of 500, and a network of partners that reaches 3,500 individuals across the globe – from metropolitan areas to remote village, the organization required an efficient, scalable and globally-accessible knowledge management system. Read More…

In the world of SharePoint upgrades and migrations, a number of terms are thrown around and often used interchangeably. This post outlines several key terms that will be surfaced throughout a three-part series on upgrade/migration strategies for SharePoint 2013. If you would like to jump to another post, use the links below:

  • Part 1 – Definitions (this post)
  • Part 2 – Considerations Outside of SharePoint (Coming soon)
  • Part 3 – Diving into Database Attach (Coming soon)

In past revisions of SharePoint, we had multiple ways to upgrade our farms (and the content within them) to the latest version using the tooling Microsoft provides. Over the years, Microsoft used a number of terms related to the types of upgrade available:

  • In-place upgrade – Often considered the easiest approach, but the most risky. The setup of the new system is performed on existing hardware and servers.
  • Gradual upgrade – Allows for a side-by-side installation of the old and new versions of SharePoint.
  • Database attach/migration – Allows for the installation and configuration of an entirely new environment where content is first migrated, and then upgraded to the desired state.

As SharePoint matured, the number of available upgrade options dwindled. For instance, in an upgrade from SharePoint Portal Server 2003 to Office SharePoint Server 2007, we could follow any one of the three upgrade paths noted above to reach our desired end state. In an upgrade of Office SharePoint Server 2007 to SharePoint Server 2010 we still had two paths available: the in-place upgrade and the database attach approach. For SharePoint 2013, we’re left with just the database attach approach.

Before we dive further into the database attach upgrade scenario, it’s helpful to take a step back and establish a common language as we discuss the upgrade process. Read More…