blog.frederique.harmsze.nl my world of work and user experiences

July 31, 2014

Invisible documents: a feature or a bug?

Filed under: ECM,Usability — frederique @ 23:56

I see this time and time again. Or actually, I do not see them: invisible documents in SharePoint. Confused users ask why nobody else can see the documents that they have uploaded. So why are their documents invisible to their colleagues, while they can see their own documents just fine?

Usually these documents are invisible for one of two reasons, which have been haunting SharePoint for many years and many versions: the documents have not been checked in, or they are secured more tightly than the contributor thought.

These are features that make documents invisible to keep SharePoint clean and clear. Except that they turn into bugs when the users don’t expect them and either miss important information or start littering SharePoint with redundant copies of invisible documents.

Documents that have not been checked in

It is becoming easier and easier to upload multiple documents at the same time: you can now drag and drop them into the library.

Drag and drop multiple documents into a SharePoint document library

Drag and drop multiple documents into a SharePoint document library

But doing so, you by-pass the required fields that you are forced to fill in before you can save a document that has been uploaded individually. And when the required metadata fields are empty, the document cannot be published. So it remains in a draft state: checked-out. This is of course a feature to protect the integrity of the document collection. But it is perceived as a bug by the users…

This document that has been uploaded and left checked-out is only visible to the user who has uploaded the document. Nobody else can see it in the library, not even the site owner and not even an administrator. The uploader can see that his document is still checked-out: it has a green arrow at the file icon. But that arrow is quite subtle and user do not see it, unless they know about this. In this case, it would be more user-friendly if the system shouted a bit louder that you are the only person who can see the document.

Documents that are checked out can be recognized by their green arrow icon

Documents that are checked out can be recognized by their green arrow icon

For me, a clue that this problem has arisen is when I see in the site content that there are more items in the library than the number I can actually see in the unfiltered views as a site owner or administrator.

Fortunately, the site owner can check in the library settings if there are any invisible documents that have not been checked in: In the ribbon go to Library > Library settings > Permissions and Management: Manage files which have no checked in version.

Here you can see which files have been left checked-out when by whom.
And as a site owner, you can take ownership of these files. For example, when the uploader cannot be contacted and a colleague needs this document, the site owner can check it in to make it visible.

Documents-CheckedOut-TakeOwnership

Manage files which have no checked in version

But it is better minimize this invisibility problem, so:

  • Explain to your colleagues that they need to make sure their documents are checked in.
  • If this happens a lot, the site owner may have to change the fields so that they are no longer required. It is bad to have documents that are not tagged with the correct metadata. But it is often worse to have documents that are invisible. It is easier to reprimand contributors who have left fields visibly empty than people who have added invisible documents.

Documents that are not accessible

SharePoint has security trimming: you only see the names of files and other items that you are actually allowed to open and read. Of course this is a great feature, because it would be really unfriendly to let users click on a name only to find out that they are not allowed to open the item.

However, this is perceived as a bug when the users expect their colleagues to have permission to see the document and it turns out they don’t.

As a site owner, you can check if the invisibility users complain about is caused by security. For a specific document you (or the uploader himself) can check who the document is shared with:

Check who the document is shared with.

Check who the document is shared with.

To look at it in more detail, especially if the document is shared with many people: Click Share > Shared With > Advanced. There you can open the group to see who is in there, or click Check permissions to check if a particular user has access to this item.

Check in more detail if a particular user has access to a document is accessible to many people

Check in more detail if a particular user has access to a document is accessible to many people

But it is better minimize this invisibility problem, so keep the security structure as simple and as clear as possible:

  • Avoid using item-level security, because you cannot see easily from the outside who has permissions to do what with the document (you have to click into the item menu to find out) and that increases the risk of mistakes and unexpected invisibility
  • Add people to groups like Visitors and Members rather than giving them read or contribute permission individually. Then it is easy to remove an entire group from a document library called ‘confidential documents’, for example.
  • Give “secret” libraries and sites a name that clearly indicates that not everybody has access to it.

So they are features, but users may perceive them as bugs and the invisible documents as ghosts. But fortunately it is possible to do some ghostbusting and make the documents as visible as they should be.

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