SharePoint drives EFIC’s Web 2.0 makeover

SharePoint is often assumed to be strictly a collaboration platform, and not suitable for sophisticated public-facing web sites. This is a wrong assumption according to Australia’s Export Finance and Insurance Corporation (EFIC), which is using SharePoint to completely rebrand its Internet presence.

Australia’s export credit agency, (EFIC), operates under the umbrella of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and is responsible for helping eligible Australian exporters get the export finance or insurance they need to compete in the world market. In 2009 the agency was given the challenge of a complete rebranding, including a redevelopment of its Internet and Intranet sites with a tight deadline of nine weeks for a Ministerial launch.

The agency was already using SharePoint 2007 as a document repository and without a huge budget or the time to consider new tools, elected to go ahead with the initiative within SharePoint. Melbourne’s Sputnik Agency was engaged to coordinate the design and development, while Synergy Corporate Technologies was brought on board to provide SharePoint development expertise.

Jennifer Whittle, EFIC’s Associate Director, Marketing Communications, said that collaboration was a major driver behind the intranet project, as all of the content had previously been channelled purely through the marketing team.

“We wanted to take it out of our hands and give all of the users within EFIC the ability to update content,” said Whittle.

“We needed distributed authoring which SharePoint was able to provide, but just because we were using SharePoint we did not want EFIC’s brand identity to be compromised.

“People said you could not design a great looking Web site with SharePoint, but if you look at we did not find that at all. We replaced a fairly staid, government looking Web site with something that is pleasant to look at, easy to navigate and provides straightforward access to tools to help people who are looking for finance.”

Nicole Dixon, Chief Operating Officer of Sputnik Agency, said the site provides a great example of how SharePoint can be implemented to support a complex user experience and design in line with government and industry standards.

“Our main challenge was speed to market,” said Dixon.

“We had a very detailed strategy and a tight timeline to launch. This required real collaboration and clever use of hosted environments to fast track deployments, testing and edits. It also required us to facilitate many stakeholders and a geographically distributed implementation team.”

The intranet site integrates with EFIC’s Saleslogix CRM system and the Web site employs Google Analytics and Eyeblaster AdServing Technology.

Sputnik began the design process by developing “mood boards” in Photoshop to establish the colour scheme and fonts for the site, then developed wireframes of the navigation structure and relationships between pages.

It aimed to add an emotional message to the often detailed and technical content through typography, images and layout.

“We didn’t compromise a single thing for SharePoint, whether it was styling, SEO or page design,” said Dixon.

With a tight deadline and a strict creative brief, the project was also undertaken with a mission to employ as much out-of-the-box SharePoint functionality as possible. Dixon estimates that around 80% of the development task was able to be accomplished natively within SharePoint.

The approved Photoshop designs were converted into HTML mock-ups then delivered to Synergy Corporate Technologies with accompanying CSS styles.

Synergy Principal Milan Gross said the development process began with melding these HTML mock-ups into a custom SharePoint Master Page.

“We used alternate page layouts and custom CSS to render the unique styling of the site. The ability to leverage built-in functionality of SharePoint such as Data View Web Parts and Reusable Content was invaluable.

“The site looks nothing like a SharePoint site.”

Microsoft’s SharePoint Designer was used extensively for development and user acceptance testing, then subsequent edits and amendments to page designs. This enabled rapid turnaround of design changes and updates, while a central ticketing tool enabled the distributed team to collaborate on issues.

The highly-styled custom navigation was a big challenge for the team, and something that could not be encompassed within out-of-the-box SharePoint.

Synergy turned to custom development for the complex flyout menus and created a custom .Net control to generate the menus based on visitor interaction. The custom navigation control dynamically generates HTML tags and CSS classes based on the site and page taxonomy stored in SharePoint.

To support visitor information requests and contact enquiries, Synergy developed several custom .Net web forms that store the posted data in SharePoint lists for easy search and retrieval by EFIC staff.

As a federal government agency, compliance was an important aspect of design and development. The EFIC site meets WCAG 2.0 standards and industry best practice for contrast, browser support, text only version, etc.

The previous EFIC was ranked poorly for search engine optimisation (SEO) and the inability to regularly edit and optimise content was a key issue.

SEO for the new site was designed at three levels with a custom metatag control that populates the keywords and descriptions for each page based on a set of global keywords for the site and page keywords that are defined in the page metadata.

“The new Web site launched within a very aggressive timeframe with a well-branded and rich design,” said Whittle.

“We have significantly improved our SEO and we have leveraged the project for two additional SharePoint solutions.

“The intranet site has provided a positive change for collaboration within EFIC. All areas of the business are now engaged and empowered to participate in our digital strategy and assist as communicators.”