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The Truth about SharePoint Designer - The Key to Success
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Nicholas Miller profile photo
April 05, 2017

The Truth about SharePoint Designer - The Key to Success

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Overall Satisfaction with SharePoint Designer

SharePoint Designer is only used by the SharePoint and Business Intelligence teams. Since this program is a very difficult to learn to use, and give the ability, depending on permission access in SharePoint, a typical end-user, or even power-user can make great and terrible changes with just a couple clicks of the mouse. As the SharePoint architect and developer, I am the primary user of SharePoint Designer (SPD) and I use it mainly for developing 2010 (client-based) and 2013 (server-based) platform workflows. I pride myself as being a "no-code developer" meaning, my highest priority is NOT to write any custom code (C#, .NET, PowerShell, etc.) to automate business processes and applications. There is a lot of POWER in the SPD Workflows, especially the 2013 workflows to allow for error checking, reminder systems, data automation, access to external data via REST HTTP Calls from the workflow itself, which opens a whole new world to build and develop, as you can now use the REST API to do various actions in SharePoint without having to write a custom action.
  • 2013 Workflows - Loops: You can build loops to work while a value (not) equals something, or N number of times. You can insert Parallel Blocks to do multiple things at once, or to watch for multiple things, and when 1 thing finishes, cancels the others and moves to the next step or stage.
  • 2013 Workflows - Stages: Previously all we had were steps, which worked sequentially. With the Concept of Stages, we can create blocks of steps and based on the data collected during those functions, we can tell the workflow to go to a different Stage in the workflow based on a set of 1, or multiple, Conditionals in a transition area after each Stage. Giving you the power to develop multiple entire processes and skipping to the correct part of the workflow, rather than going through 20 conditionals to find out you needed to do action 31.
  • 2013 Workflows - REST API: the "Call HTTP Web Service" is a very powerful tool, but hard to understand if you have never seen it done, or have a guideline. It works very similar to the requirements in PowerShell to connect and get and post data to SharePoint using the Rest API. You can also use this to manage permissions on List Items, Lists, Sites, and Site Collections. Best part is when developed correctly, it is SUPER FAST!
  • Intentionally Building Infinite Loops: I have built multiple review process from Managing Certifications to Updating Published Documentation, that monitors when an Item, based on provided approved metadata, when the "Author" needs to review the document within the given amount of time. They will get e-mails with links asking if changes are needed. If not, it is routed to the Approving Executive, and the Workflow Automatically updates the Metadata to push out the review dates to the next date, based on metadata provided on how how often the document should be reviews. By using conditionals in the transition of stages, it basically starts over, and goes into a parallel block to allow the monitoring of multiple values of metadata to move to the next stage. Very Powerful when you want to automate these types of process. It truly is a "Set It and Forget It" process.
  • If you have never used SharePoint Designer, everything about this program is very hard. It looks like a cross between the old Microsoft FrontPage, Notepad, Visual Studio, and Visio. All of you know how to use right? No. Most people now days, do not know what FrontPage is, but it was an HTML WebPage editor, and SharePoint Designer 2010 had a GUI (Drag and Drop to build) interface, but they did away with it in the 2013 version, which made making Page Layouts, Custom WebParts, and editing Master Pages nearly impossible without knowing HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and .Net.
  • How to build the workflows is not apparent. Even the books out there published on SharePoint Development or Administration using SharePoint Designer tell you minor things; how to start, how to stop, how pause, etc., but nothing really defined as a Standard Best Practice to build (Insert Business Process Here) workflow. For example, a detailed explanation of how to use the action "Start an approval process". There are 3 different states in this workflow, and there are so many options in each state, and there is not a clear path. That is just one out of the box action that has 3-4 Levels of detail, without any direction. Your only hope is Google Searches, YouTube Videos, and if you are luck, there is a local college or university with Computer Education Training that focus on specific specific programs and teach you the in's and out's of the program, such as the University of Missouri - St. Louis. They have an entire division dedicated to the use of these types of applications such as SharePoint Designer, with actual Certificate Programs, of which I obtained (http://www.cetc.umsl.edu/). The classes there on SharePoint Designer gave me the knowledge to become the Architect and Designer I am today.
  • The number of actions available out of the box are limited. Granted the 2013 platform workflows do have a larger number of actions available, but still they are limited. One of the things I have done is develop custom workflow actions for SharePoint Designer. Sadly this only works with SharePoint on Premise Systems and you have to develop it in Visual Studio, and that program is as intuitive as learning a new language. The workaround I have used to add nearly 40 additional actions, with AMAZINGLY DETAILED INSTRUCTIONS with examples is the Workflow Actions Pack by Plumsail.com. This $500 annual investment has elevated the level of development with SharePoint Designer to outer space. The best part, it is not difficult to use, and makes creating workflows exciting.
  • The absolute worst thing about SharePoint Designer is that Microsoft is not releasing another version after the 2013 version. Microsoft will support SharePoint Designer 2013 for SharePoint 2013 & 2016 on Premise systems until 2026 (https://blogs.office.com/2016/01/20/sharepoint-server-2016-and-project-server-2016-release-candidate-available/). However, for the SharePoint Online (Office 365) environment may not support it for that amount of time. Microsoft may cut the time shorter due to SharePoint Online being a Multi-Tenant Environment.
  • SharePoint Designer has been key in the success of our multiple business objects. Without SharePoint Designer (and InfoPath in most cases to customize list forms) SharePoint would be nothing more than a large collection of sites to store files. SharePoint is at the core of Holiday Retirement's corporate business from the Hiring of new Talent, Rendering Business Intelligence Reports, to Corporate Communications. The first question from the majority of managers who have a business objective, schedule a meeting with my team to inquire if SharePoint is the answer. 95% of the time, it is, and I'm very proud to be the Architect and Developer to build these solutions.
Both Nintex and K2 Blackpearl are great products in their own way, but they are expensive. The pricing models for the SharePoint Online environment is very expensive for how Holiday uses workflows. Nintex's pricing model is by the number of workflows in your tenant, and I have well over 200 workflows in my environment, and the cost would be thousands of dollars per year, compared to SharePoint Designer's price of Free. K2 Blackpearl would not fit our business model directly. It would take a good bit of customization to integrate, and the price for it did not compare to the price of SharePoint Designer, Free. Since Microsoft has stated they are not coming out with a new version of SharePoint Designer, and have not stated what the replacement is, I am currently speechless as the direction. Microsoft Flow is, in my opinion, a very sad attempt to replace SharePoint Designer Workflows. Flow is open to anyone with a Microsoft Live ID, without any security trimming from Office 365 Admins. Flow is going to cause more trouble than solve problems. Currently it is free, but will more than likely follow a similar pricing model to Nintex.
Well Suited - WORKFLOWS!
To a SharePoint Developer, workflows are like a hammer to a carpenter. If there is a business process that needs automation, the first thing I look to is what are we automating? What/where is the data? How can we minimize the number of keystrokes by end-users to get from the start to finish? The answer to all of these is "build a workflow". With the introduction of "Call HTTP Web Service" action, you can now access data anywhere in a site collection and consume it in any site, on any list, for any form. SharePoint Designer Workflows makes the SharePoint world go round.

Less Appropriate - Building SharePoint Pages
I have attempted to use SharePoint Designer to build custom pages, but it just is the worst tool to use. There are many other tools to use to develop customized pages. The techniques of designing custom page layouts, CSS files to populate in pages, JavaScript Snippets for pages have changed so much over the years, and SharePoint Designer did not change with them. In fact, it is my opinion the 2013 version made it 100 times more difficult than the 2010 Version.