SharePoint Designer for Office 365: How to Use the Tool & It’s Alternatives

SharePoint Designer for Office 365

Using SharePoint Designer for Office 365? Read below to see why learning some alternate tools will help you get geared up in case a patch renders SharePoint Designer 2013 ‘obsolete’ and ‘non-compatible’ – who knows..

The Journey of SharePoint Designer

SharePoint Designer (SPD) is an HTML editor freeware that helped businesses and professional developers build business applications, create and modify Microsoft SharePoint sites, workflows and web pages. It was released as a part of the MS Office 2007 package but was made available as a freeware in 2009 as SharePoint Designer 2007 Service Pack 2. This could be used independently as a generic HTML editor and had more features from the FrontPage sister product than other successors like Expression Web. Users of SPD could create workflows that automated processes with objects like list item, content type and list column within the SharePoint Server.

However, the later versions i.e. SPD 2010 and SPD 2013 do not operate in the absence of Microsoft SharePoint Server or Microsoft SharePoint Foundation, and hence cannot be used as a generic HTML editor.

With the release of SharePoint Server 2016, Microsoft has announced that there will not be a SharePoint Designer 2016 and that SharePoint Designer 2013 will be the last version of this product, which will continue to be supported for all custom-built workflows.

The good news is that SharePoint Designer 2013 will continue to work with SharePoint 2016 although there isn’t going to a new version of SPD.

SharePoint 2016 / Office 365 and SharePoint Designer 2013 Compatibility

I tested this out myself to make sure, and found that when I connect SharePoint Designer 2013 to my SharePoint 2016 site, I could do ALL of the tasks I could with a SharePoint 2013 site. The only feature I did not test was creating an external content type. I also tested this with my Office 365 SharePoint Online site and had the same result, see below. I tried just about every option so it seems it still all will work with SharePoint 2016 and SharePoint Online.

Office 365 SharePoint Designer

 

Below is the same options I saw with SharePoint 2016. Office 365 SharePoint sites look to work fine with SharePoint Designer.

Also, when I tried to create a ‘quick step’ workflow on SharePoint 2016, it still points to the SharePoint Designer 2013 download page. I was also able to connect to different SharePoint 2016 on-premise sites (Team Sites and Publishing Sites) as well as Office 365 sites as I did for SharePoint 2013.

In order to use SharePoint Designer with SharePoint 2016 or Office 365, users need to install the tool from here: https://www.microsoft.com/en-US/download/details.aspx?id=35491 and should update to SPD Service Pack 1 from here https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/download/details.aspx?id=42015.

SharePoint 2019 and SharePoint Designer 2013 Compatibility

Coming soon…

Features of SharePoint Designer 2013

SharePoint Designer offers many features and it’s user-friendly interface makes it an popular choice for creating solutions for various business needs like web publishing, branding, connecting external sources, creating sub sites or creating workflows. Here are some of the popular SPD features you can still find when used. SharePoint Designer in Office 365 and SharePoint Online/SharePoint 2016:

  • Get General Site Information such as SharePoint build/version, total storage space used by the site, list of the users and groups given direct access to the site, list of all the sub sites (for the site you connect to), etc.
  • View and Edit all Site Lists, Workflows, External Content Types, Master Pages, Style Sheets and List Items, and provides other information about your SharePoint site and lists not available when browsing your SharePoint site through the web browser (such as hidden items or folders, or List GUIDs, which is useful for developers).
  • Create and Manage Data Sources – With SPD, you can create and manage internal as well as external data sources, manage sites and lists, link multiple data sources,
  • Basic Copy Functions – You can also use SPD to copy list items and export sites. Often you cannot properly copy SharePoint web pages, files or items using explorer view without losing  metadata and often the web pages will break and not render, SharePoint Designer is able to copy pages more effectively.
  • Create Views and Forms – You can create highly customized interfaces for your business data by using forms, which help you to collect user data. These views and forms can be created for different data sources including database connections, XML documents, SharePoint Lists and Libraries etc.
  • Workflows – You can manage business processes by creating workflows through SPD. Add application logic to your site without writing a single line of code. Activities such as document review, approval, archiving etc. can be automated using SharePoint Designer workflows.
  • Branding – With SPD, you can customize the way your site looks, the message that it conveys, change the styles or content of the master page, create and modify pages etc. to suit your overall branding strategy. The SharePoint Designer is a good option for users without programming experience to enhance the appearance of your SharePoint site. (https://support.office.com/en-us/article/Customize-a-master-page-to-brand-your-site-0a57b837-4c97-4af9-a088-fedf3dfd1dd5). However, this can become challenging and cause further issues for more complex branding requirements.

Alternatives to SharePoint Designer

It seems that since there may no longer be a future version of SharePoint Designer to be released, developers may need to get comfortable with and start finding alternatives to this tool to complete day-to-day tasks (just in case a Service Pack or new version of SharePoint renders SPD obsolete). Below are some alternate options that could be used in its place, however, some will prove to be more technical and require a greater learning curve than SPD, which I noted in the details and marked ‘(technical)’:

 

Visual Studio (technical)
This is typically used for developers and would generally require programming knowledge to use effectively, but is a much more powerful utility (than SPD) that can be used to build customizations. Visual Studio has built-in “SharePoint templates” that can be used to create Lists, Content Types, External Content Types, Workflows, Web Parts, etc. The downside is that building customized components for SharePoint using Visual Studio will then produce a need for SharePoint developers or consultants to then maintain the code.

2016-08-10_21-59-59

PowerShell (technical)

SharePoint Management Shell (PowerShell) can be used to do many of the tasks SPD can. For example, retrieving the Site or List GUID can be done with a single line of PowerShell code, creating new sites, lists, site columns and content types can also be done. In many ways, some tasks will be streamlined with PowerShell as it can be scheduled or ‘copy and pasted’ to perform tasks against multiple sites or lists in a loop, which cannot be done using SharePoint Designer. The drawback is that this is not for the average SharePoint business user, and also requires access to the SharePoint Farm (if using SharePoint on-premise), SharePoint Online has a remote shell (PowerShell) that can be used so will not have this drawback, see our blog here on PowerShell for Office 365/SPO:  http://www.qipoint.com/blog/office-365-share…using-powershell/

2016-08-10_22-04-36

Design Manager (technical)

In SharePoint 2016 (and SharePoint 2013) there is a utility called Design Manager that uses an HTML-based approach to turn your static HTML templates into SharePoint master pages and page layouts. You may need to be aware of complex techniques to implement custom user experiences in SharePoint, but overall the Design Manager comes in handy to edit documents, map the Master Page Gallery to use the web editor of your choice for branding etc. This is the Microsoft recommended approach to modifying your master pages, styles and adding custom branding to your SharePoint sites.
https://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/office/jj822363.aspx

2016-08-10_22-05-26.png

NotePad++

Text editors like NotePad++ can be used for all your branding work that you carried out with the help of SharePoint Designer. You can edit CSS, JS, HTML and ASPX pages using this tool. (https://stackoverflow.com/questions/452113/sharepoint-designer-reformatting-html-on-the-fly-able-to-disable ). This tool however will only be able to do markup changes and not be able to do more complex “SharePoint specific” tasks such as creating lists and libraries, it is mainly a tool that can be used for updating your html, aspx, css, JavaScript types of pages and files. Nonetheless, for those tasks, this tool is great. https://notepad-plus-plus.org/download/v6.9.2.html

2016-08-10_22-07-40.png

PowerApps

Although PowerApps doesn’t replace SharePoint Designer, and is not a SharePoint product, but it offers new capabilities in building business applications without code. Forms-like applications can be created, which connect to not only Microsoft products like Office 365 or SharePoint Online but also third-party applications like Twitter, Dropbox etc. Logic flow can be used with PowerApps to create automated workflows, synchronize files, collect data and other functions. You can add business logic and intelligence in your apps using ‘Excel-like expressions’. There are also built-in templates you can use to get started quickly. I found this tool to be ‘business user’ friendly, so that’s a good thing to look forward to.

You will need to have a Windows 8.1 or higher (such as Windows 10) machine, and a Microsoft account to get the app. It doesn’t work on Windows 7.. time to upgrade!
https://powerapps.microsoft.com/en-us/
https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/store/p/powerapps/9nblggh5z8f3
https://blog.devoworx.net/2016/05/06/did-you-consider-powerapps-is-a-replacement-for-sharepoint-designer-and-infopath-in-sharepoint/.

2016-08-10_21-59-12.png

Is this a good thing?

Although SharePoint Designer was an effective tool, it came with its set of problems. For example, it was difficult to deploy certain workflows to multiple sites, difficult or impossible to copy a set of permissions from one site to another, also, when modifying master pages directly from SPD is not recommended by Microsoft but people would do it often and come across issues such as overwriting other’s changes, or if certain control or tag IDs change due to a Microsoft patch, some styling attributes or JavaScript can break. Hence, it makes better sense to use Design Manager to modify Master Pages or update the HTML file. However, with all tools, we need to understand their boundaries before using them.

To conclude, although I am disappointed of the shelving of SharePoint Designer by Microsoft, we still have tools and resources like Visual Studio, Design Manager, PowerShell and the improvements to SharePoint UI and functionality to work with – and perhaps do a better job of designing with them!

Another Alternative: the SharePoint Essentials Toolkit

If you are looking for a client application to help you manage your SharePoint Sites and pages, check out our SharePoint Essentials Toolkit. See why Microsoft, NASA, DARPA and the US Army are using the SharePoint Essentials Toolkit to help manage their SharePoint sites.

 

Do you use SharePoint? Try our toolkit
Download SharePoint Essentials Toolkit Now
Download the SharePoint Essentials Toolkit
Chris Ang

Chris Ang

Solution Architect at Cognillo (formerly QiPoint)
Chris Ang (New York, NY USA) is a SharePoint Architect with 20 years experience in programming and network infrastructure.

Currently working at Cognillo (https://www.cognillo.com), he has helped architect and develop SharePoint Enterprise products for customers such as the U.S. Navy, U.S. Army, U.N. Security Council of Netherlands, Australian Government, U.S. Dept of Treasury, U.S. Dept of Justice, Canadian Dept of Defense, Scotiabank, JPMorgan CHASE Bank, Intel, Ford Motors, Microsoft, NASA, DARPA, SNC Lavalin, Penguin Books, and more.

He is a proud father of 2, and when he has any spare time, he loves to paint portraits of his kids.
Chris Ang

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