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Flow Office 365 SharePoint Workflows

The User Experience of Microsoft Flow with SharePoint: A Bumpy Ride on a Winter Road

Microsoft Flow is a great tool for Office 365, but the User Experience pain is real.

If you have ever been frustrated using Microsoft Flow to perform functions inside SharePoint, you’re not alone.The User Experience can be better, and here’s where you’ll notice it.

Living in a northern climate at a higher altitude in a northern country, there are some harsh daily realities we tend to deal with frequently – cracked skin from extremely dry air, formidable snowstorms that can happen eight months a year on a whim, and blowing, cold winds that streak down the east side of the Rocky Mountains and straight into your vulnerable pores, crushing your spirits along the way.

But the bane of my existence, and one that provides no shortage of anxiety, is driving in unforgiving and hostile road conditions. Getting behind the wheel when the weather wants to go full Canada is an exercise in caution. I know, I’ve been riding in cars and driving long distances for 35 years.

Image result for pothole snow
The dreaded and maligned pothole. Commonly found in Canada and feeds on unsuspecting sedans.

When I hit a mound of snow, a patch of black ice, or (god forbid) a huge – yet unavoidable – pothole (a Canadian special), I wince and bite my tongue, hoping that my journey doesn’t end with a broken down car and a damaged ego.

So you’ll have to forgive me when I say I can’t help but get the same feeling of dread when I set out on the open road of Microsoft Flow when I’m trying to migrate workflows or build processes in SharePoint.

Here’s another analogy: if doing SharePoint things in SharePoint Designer is a summer road in July, then doing SharePoint things in Microsoft Flow is a Canadian highway in February: you cross your fingers and hope for the best.

Don’t get me wrong; Microsoft Flow is a wonderful tool. It is the proverbial ‘glue’ of the Office 365 world when it comes to having Office apps and the larger connected app community speak to each other and pass data around in the Office 365 platform. It can do amazing things. And I use it critically with clients regularly, whether it is setting up new team sites, migrating workflows, or finding new ways to enhance the User Experience (UX).

But here’s the rub – pretending that it is friendly for users to casually use and that it does the same thing as SharePoint Designer (SPD) in all faucets of site, IA and workflow is a fool’s errand. It does not.

Just because a user can, doesn’t mean a user actually can.

Here are three common potholes …. er, scenarios in Microsoft Flow .

Flow Cannot Trigger when an Item or Document is Exclusively Modified

Well actually it can . . . But also when the item is created. The trigger action involved is “only when an item/file is created or modified”. This is a significant gap in multiple use cases, especially considering that some items need to be handled differently upon creation (e.g. an approval item, for example, may require different handling procedures). One might argue that items and documents are modified more often than they are created, especially in collaborative or team-based team sites that have working documents.

Workaround: If you’re cool to let the trigger handle the same workflow every time with no difference when an item is created or modified, then go for it. Otherwise you might consider using a Switch Case action to handle different procedures based on conditions that are checked right after the trigger action. That condition may include comparing the Created and Modified dates, and look something like this:

if(equals(triggerBody()?['Created'], triggerBody()?['Modified'],"Yes","No")

And in the Graphical User Interface (GUI), it might look something like this:

Some users have also had gripes about items not being modified until a second item is modified, which is just a straight-up bug.

That expression you see above – get used to it . . .

Flow makes Expression Writing as Easy as Rocket Science

I recently had to build a Flow that sent reminders on the first and fifth days of the month. Seems like a simple procedure, right? Well to perform such a simple procedure, you need to compose outputs that can handle such requests. Easy you say? ehhhhh …..

As a casual user, you’ll quickly find that in building a functional workflow that can pass information around and manipulate data, you’ll soon find yourself dabbling with Data Operations, Scheduling, or Variable handling actions (trial and error, of course). This inevitably leads you to performing some serious Google Fu just to see if you can find anything remotely accurate that resembles the exact expression you’re looking for. What you’ll find is piecemeal examples of Workflow Definition Language on discussion boards and tech communities that may have solutions (a hit or miss expectation). But it’s really a game of roulette; you’re not going to win every time.

Even the Microsoft help documentation is ironically unhelpful. Just look at the expression needed to replace a character in a string that can “easily be accomplished”:

replace(triggerOutputs()['headers']['x-ms-file-name'],'/','_')

Expecting average users to know Workflow Definition Language is a non-starter. It’s basically gibberish to anyone who doesn’t care that much, and expecting them to know this language – much like Excel formulas – is not really understanding the larger business audience that needs to use and support these flows. And the format just gets more complicated the more you have to manipulate the data:

Nested(nested(nested(obnoxiously nested(so nested its a bird egg))))

Even just using today’s date and time means you have to use “utcNow()” and have a basic understanding of ISO 8601 standards for date string formats . This is terribly inefficient for casual Jane and once-in-a-while Joe, especially with a GUI that promotes a “no-code” solution.

Workaround: Sadly, this is an unavoidable pitfall with Flow that probably won’t be going away for a while. One could minimize the use of expressions by handling data inside SharePoint list or library columns (calculated or otherwise), but having to blow out your list or library just to handle expression alternatives seems counter-intuitive. I recommend identifying and training a Flow champion internal to your company that is familiar with Workflow Definition Language and general expression assembly, at least until Flow comes around with a better GUI and UX for expression building. In the meantime, try to use Dynamic content fields where possible.

Flow Does Not Handle the Check-in/Check-out Process Very Well

Checking-in or checking-out items is a very common scenario with SharePoint. The point of it is to reserve rights to editing to one person so others have to wait their turn. This is usually true with working documents, such as proposals, statements of work, or accounting spreadsheets.

Flow does not have an overt action to check-in or check-out. Rather, one would have to utilize the SharePoint REST API and the Send an HTTP Request to SharePoint action in order to get what you need.

You can see where I’m going with this – it is already far more convoluted than this needs to be:

Again, the UX behind this procedure is already beyond what most regularly-skilled people could handle or want to try.

Workaround: Either get familiar with HTTP requests, have your SharePoint developer handle this Flow build (and maintain it), or go back to a workflow designed in SPD. There just is no pretty way to handle this, especially if your workflow has multiple different stages where check-in and check-outs are required multiple times.

Verdict

Microsoft Flow will continue to grow in use, and does have avenues for submitting idea requests. Microsoft also provides a Roadmap for developments and improvements which is very handy to follow. However until multiple features get implemented (an ongoing that takes time and user feedback) I recommend having Flow champions or specialists who can help arbitrate your Flow needs into some thing functional (or have an Office 365 guy like myself show you the ropes).

Unless you want more potholes. But no one wants that. I hope.

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