Communications Development Office 365 SharePoint

Customizing Modern SharePoint: Don’t Forget About the Low Coders!

The move towards the SPFx tool chain is good news for web development standards, but can be a headache for casual users expected to learn, implement, and handle the supporting business activities in its’ use. The client malaise – and frustration – is real.

For better or for worse, Microsoft has maligned the casual front-end developer. The advisor on the communications team, the marketing coordinator, the social media manager, the brand specialist, the technical analyst, and the summer intern doubling as an all-knowing web guru. While not always full-time developers or with a rich coding background, these “low coders” are among the target users of Office 365 – a marketing push to the casual resources that they, too, can user SharePoint, Forms, PowerApps, Flow, and other tools in the platform to build purpose-driven and valuable solutions. As a resource who helps clients adopt and use the power of Office 365, I try and identify the capabilities of client resources ability to deliver “low code” solutions in their workplaces, and it can vary dramatically based on budget, in-house skills, company size, and willingness to change.

Often, it is not just developers and trained User Experience (UX) designers that customize the branding of websites, intranets, portals and team sites. It is common in organizations large and small for resources to wear many hats, including web developer when convenient. And with that comes varying levels of developer skill sets, each approaching their code, UX and branding needs with various levels of expertise in CSS, Sass, Less, Bootstrap and other web frameworks. These folks have had various levels of development education, from formal post-secondary training to self-taught on the job because of circumstance.

Whether their skills in code are novice or advanced, one thing is for certain – the new modern sites on SharePoint require much more technical prowess than classic sites if they must be customized. This is simply because the technology has moved away from the master pages and page layouts that ruled the roost of SharePoint yester-years. SharePoint – and more specifically the SharePoint Framework (SPFx), has moved to an open-source tool chain that is more in line with modern web development standards.

And that’s all well and good – for developers.

But if I am a marketing or I.T. resource where updating styles and functions is one of my many daily tasks, it’s not an easy ask to suddenly and quickly switch to knowing the tool chain of SPFx and expect to continue development with client-side web parts and extensions. This is especially true in an area where Hub Sites are rising the ranks to tenant kings and all other sites are the spokes, where site proliferation – and maintaining corporate branding and functionality – doesn’t necessarily slow down.

Microsoft has done this before. In the last two years, they have advertised both Flow and PowerApps as “no code” solutions. But this just simply isn’t true (and have since moved to “low code” solutions that still require considerable training to be familiar with). To have any meaningful custom solution for workflows or apps for your organization, you really have to know Workflow Definition Language, Excel logic, JSON, XML, and other supporting languages. Without knowing at least some of these, it’s an uphill learning curve to become familiar with these tools and to drive true value for your organization, and make the most out of your subscription to Office 365.

Why Would I Need to Edit Modern Sites Anyways?

Modern SharePoint sites, both team sites and Communication Sites – are not really intended to be branded. Microsoft encourages the customization of their SharePoint environment by following open-source standards, but without the proper change management and training strategies available (for free), they’re assuming client organizations can sort themselves out and/or should have an advanced resource on site to manage all of this. Having to run – and know how to use – node.js, npm, Yeoman, and the rest of the SPFx tool chain – is a stacked request for regular people who need to do casual branding and functional activities, especially with people such as small business owners who need to wear many hats and have precious little available time. Customizations have been a staple part of SharePoint projects and consulting over the course of my career, and they don’t seem to be subsiding, nor can we ignore specific functionality that match the unique requirements that change from client to client.

Microsoft is doing great things putting new web parts into SharePoint Online and allowing strong APIs to grab data and feed it into intranets and team sites, but it doesn’t account for everything that a client needs. Even the absence of a Script Editor web part has caused may inconveniences and frustration among clients, something they have been able to quickly build, test, and release in previous versions of SharePoint.

Real-World Frustrations

Recently I worked with a client where I performed consulting services that included custom branding, business analysis, migrations, workflow design, etc. The client had a technical resource on their Communications team, a resource that was technically skilled but had more pressing duties as a communicator committed to other projects. While familiar with some web development, he was not necessarily an experienced developer, but rather a go-to for the rest of the Communications team to implement technical solutions when needed.

One of the requests was to inject Google Analytics onto a new Communications site. Previously, they had done this on classic sites using SharePoint Designer, and could easily handle this request for other business units so that they could track users click paths and engagement.

With the introduction of modern sites and SPFx, the technical resource now needed to implement an entire business process with the Communications and I.T. services team just to inject the necessary code they were easily able to do before. They just did not have the cycles to perform this, and would likely have to employ consultants and take time away from other projects just to handle this request. Because of these constraints, and with little time to spare for training (and being understaffed to begin with), it just simply wasn’t a priority any more to put it on sites. Not because they didn’t want it or wouldn’t use the metrics, but because it was too much of a hassle to install it and adopt a new tool chain. The client was frustrated, including not being able to inject code or custom solutions without outside help and with little time to put together a new business process and governance strategy to manage such activities.

One could blame the client for not “changing with the times” or having the right resources in place, but this story is not unlike many companies of various sizes with limited time and budget. Not every client has the cycles to devote to technical training, and the “low code” advertising provides a false sense of security when the technology changes and comes with business workflow design, additional training, change management, and other related activities. The client felt as if they had been “blindsided” amid all of the changes that are constantly pushed to SharePoint and Office 365.

Don’t Forget the Low Coders

Microsoft is doing the right thing by moving SharePoint customizations to the world of open-source tools to manage client-side projects. It is in line with modern web development standards, and keeps the focus at the client-side level. But they cannot lose sight the folks they are sending into the trenches to perform the down-and-dirty of SharePoint development. It’s just as much the UX designer, brander, communicator, social media coordinator, marketing manager, and small business owner as much as it is a trained and knowledgeable developer. And SharePoint is not at a level of sophistication (yet) where all client requirements no longer need a customized solution. There just isn’t a Web Part for all of that. And for all of the great things they pack into SharePoint and Office 365, it would be great if they could wrap up the tool chain into one, all-encompassing and easy-to-use code deployment tool that makes it easy for the “low coders” to jump in and out from.

I am definitely interested in hearing your opinion on this matter. Feel free to leave comments or reach out on Twitter to continue the conversation.

Flow Office 365 SharePoint Workflows

Common Filters for Microsoft Flow: A Reference Chart for Users of all Kinds

Recently I have been helping clients migrate workflows from on-premise SharePoint sites to Office 365. Quite often I find myself re-building these workflows in Microsoft Flow, the successor in many ways to SharePoint Designer. The tool itself has been a great solution for many types of workflows, particularly for re-creating Site workflows that need to query multiple items in a list and perform actions on them

In order to do this, you use the Get Files (Properties Only) or Get Items actions quite frequently, which means you have to instruct Flow what to grab from the list.

The last thing you want to do is retrieve every item in a SharePoint list or library, especially if those lists and libraries are quite large and you only need to grab a few items with specific metadata conditions. In order to do this, you will need to use ODATA filters in your query (not the most friendly way for business users but something we’ll just have to live with for now).

Below is a chart of ODATA commands that you can use to help build your queries with the Get Items or Get Files actions.

Basic Operators

EqualseqDepartment eq ‘Human Resources’
Not EqualsneDepartment ne ‘Accounting’
Less ThanltItemStock lt ‘500’
Greater ThangtReserveFund gt ‘10000’
Less Than or Equal Tole Due_x00200_Date le ‘2019-03-01’
Greater Than or Equal TogeWidgetCount ge ’50’


And (ensuring both values have to be true)andDepartment eq ‘Human Resources’ and
Country ne ‘Canada’
Or (either value could be true)orDirector/EMail eq ‘’ or
Accountant/Email eq ‘’

Note – you can use multiple and and or conditions in the same query.

String Adjustments

The below filters can be used to find and/or adjust values (strings) in a column. While not a complete list, these are commonly-used operators I have used in the past.

Starts Withstartswith(column,’string’)

Example: startswith(Department,’A’)
– this produces a result that returns any item where the Department field has a value that starts with “A”.

Ends Withstartswith(column,’string’)

Example: endswith(Accountant/DislayName,’Jones’)
– this produces a result that returns any item where the Display Name value of a People Picker field named “Accountant” has a value that ends with “Jones”.

Contains (also known as substring) substringof(column,’string’)

Example: substringof(ProjectPhase,’Test’)
– this produces a result of getting any items where “Test” is somewhere in the ProjectPhase field of the item.

Note: You can also be more specific in where the string lies using targeted positions. See section of the ODATA URL Conventions to find out more about index positions.

Index Of indexof(column,’string’) operator ‘value’

Example: indexof(Title, ‘Red’) eq 0
– this produces a result to grab items in the Title field that contain the value “red” and look at the first position in the string (the beginning). If you set the eq to 1, it will find “ed” from the “Red” value.

Concatenateconcat(concat(Column1,’, ‘), Column2)

Example: concat(concat(LastName,’,’), FirstName)
– this produces “Chomik, Andrew”.

Note: You can use any character as you see fit to concatenate with (I happen to use the comma in the above example).

Dates and Time

Secondsecond(‘Column’) eq valueday(‘Created’) eq 12
Minuteminute(‘Column’) eq value minute(‘Modified’) eq 31
Hourhour(‘Column’) eq value hour(‘ApprovedDate’) eq 3
Dayday(‘Column’) eq value day(‘ReviewDate’) eq 12
Monthmonth(‘Column’) eq value month(‘SubmissionDate’) eq 8
Yearyear(‘Column’) eq value year(‘Birthday’) eq 2019

Note: Numeric (integer) values do not require any delimiting punctuation (e.g. the single quotations). And you must use the military time format.

Additionally, you can use the full string provided in a Date/Time column (depending on the format of your Date and Time column in SharePoint). You can just use the format provided in the basic operators section (e.g. DateField eq ‘2018-03-02’).


Sometimes you may need to do a bit of math on a SharePoint column. The Math operators can help you find specific values. Combine the following operators with your required result using the basic operators.

AdditionaddWidgetCount add 10 eq 50
SubtractionsubWidgetCount sub 15 lt 30
MultiplicationmulPrice mul 2 gt 5.50
DivisiondivWidgetCount div 4 gt 5
Modulo (use this to specific the remainder amounts you may want). The example shows when you want to divide a column value by 5 and have no remainder left over.modWidgetCount mod 5 eq 0

Other ODATA Filter Things to Know when using Flow

  • Flow will only recognize the Internal column names to be used in the ODATA Filters. You might have a Column with the Display Name called “Department” but the Internal name may have been created as “Company Department”. You will have to use the latter value, and ensure that your reference is encoded correctly when using it because of the space. Best thing to do is go to the SharePoint list settings, click on the column you want to use, and grab the Internal Name from the end of the URL.
  • Use the “null” value if you want to operate with items have an empty field. For example, you could input “Department eq null”. This is retrievable command from the Expressions area in Dynamic Content.
  • If you have already fetched items, you can use Dynamic Content in between the single quotes for your filter values (see picture below)
  • When returning some values, there may be more than one value you need in the item. For example, filtering on a People column will mean you need to target a particular piece of the profile. In this case, use the “column/value”. If you want the email of an Accountant, you would create the filter “Accountant/EMail eq ‘”.

In the future, Ion Works will show you how to use common expressions in your Get Items actions that can be useful to get the data through the workflow and give you targeted results for your data (which also applies for usage across Flow actions, including Compose, Variables, Conditions, etc.)

Stay tuned!