Suggestion boxes are useful tools for a business practice that wants to be sensitive to the needs and desires of its staff or clients. SharePoint features support allowing individuals to provide feedback and facilitate discussion on various topics while maintaining confidentiality.
A suggestion box allows individuals to provide feedback on various topics, and SharePoint lets users submit anonymous suggestions or ideas. This article discusses how to create both anonymous and "signed" suggestion boxes that you can customize to fit your business needs.
SharePoint provides several different ways right out of the box by which you can implement a suggestion box feature without having to write custom code. You can expose the suggestion box in both pages and web parts; however, using the suggestion box in web parts is outside of the scope of this article.
There are three ways to implement suggestion boxes in a SharePoint page: using the discussion board feature, the survey feature, or custom lists. In the rest of this article, you'll see a demonstration of how to use each feature to create a basic anonymous suggestion box. Additionally, at the end of each feature section, you'll see how you can take the underlying feature to the next level.
Building a Suggestion Box using a Discussion Board
Using the discussion board page, users may post topics—both to request answers and promote discussion. Originally, the discussion board page was intended to provide a way for team members to collaborate collectively about business topics. However, for purposes of this article, the discussion board will be used as a suggestion box, to pinpoint one area of discussion and request feedback for it.
The discussion board attributes enable users to discuss their answers about a topic openly, similar to a wiki, but by adjusting a few of the discussion board page's permissions and attributes, you can change the functionality so that posters' names remain private. In the following example, posters will be able to see only their own posts, maintaining a one-way means of communication.
To create the discussion board suggestion box:
- Go to the Site Actions menu and click the Create button. You'll see the SharePoint layouts screen. The selections you make here determine which type of tool will be created.
- Locate the Discussion Board item under the Communications label. Click the discussion board link, which takes you to the discussion board creation page (see Figure 1).
- Type a name that clearly and concisely represents the type of suggestion information you want to receive. You may also type in a brief description that further defines the purpose of the suggestion box. This is a great place for the creator to specify how he wants the question answered or state exactly what he is looking for in more detail.
- Click the create button. You'll see a Discussion Board page.
- Click Discussion Board Settings, which takes you to the SharePoint List settings page for the Discussion Board.
- In the General Settings area, click Advanced Settings (see Figure 2). This section lets you manage the
Edit access settings for the Discussion Board. Selecting the "All Items" settings makes the Discussion Board public (everyone may see and edit what others post). To make this Discussion Board anonymous, the read and edit access should be set to "Only their own." In this case, make sure that "Only their own" is selected for both
Edit access. Click ok to apply your settings.
- Finally, to make the posts anonymous, you need to modify the views on the Discussion board page, removing the "Modified by" and "Created by" columns. Even though you previously selected
Edit settings to ensure that users may see only their own posts, you need to remove the columns; otherwise, administrators will be able to see who posted each item.
When you complete these final modifications, users will be able to create and post discussions/questions to the page anonymously (see Figure 3), giving them the privacy to communicate without worrying about being identified.
Taking it to the next level
The best time to implement a discussion board as a suggestion box feature is when you need collective collaboration on a topic. You can expand upon this suggestion box so that it maintains the spirit of the discussion board by allowing collaborative, but anonymous discussions of the topic. Compare this to a situation where you need to have a group of people having a conversation on a topic while blindfolding their eyes (or, more practically, a blind focus group). You receive the collaborative feedback using two-way communication while maintaining confidentiality.
Building a Suggestion Box using a Survey
Using the survey page feature, you can post a question to all users of a SharePoint site for feedback. Similar to the discussion board option discussed in the preceding section, the survey page's main purpose is to distribute multiple questions across a business team. You can use this as a way to create a suggestion box with a single question. Making the question available to everyone means you can receive a wide range of feedback. A creator can post an open-ended question, such as one that continually solicits ways to improve the business. Such a page exposes a continuous method of feedback without the need to set time limitations. Because this is a survey, all participants will be able to provide their feedback without fear of identity exposure for their (perhaps controversial) opinions.
Creating the survey suggestion box is just as simple as creating the discussion board—and the process is nearly the same:
- Begin by finding the Site Actions menu, and then click the Create button. You will be relocated to the SharePoint layout page.
- Locate the Tracking header and find the Survey button. On the survey creation page (see Figure 4), provide a name for the survey. Remember to keep the name short and simple to minimize confusion for end users. Again, in the description area you may add a thorough write-up to give details to those who will later use the survey.
- Select "No" for the option to "Show user names in survey results." This will hide the names of those providing the feedback, then click OK.
- You'll see the "New Question" page (see Figure 5), where you can post your question and set appropriate attributes. Because this survey is intended as an anonymous suggestion box, you need to create only one question.
- Make sure you choose "Multiple lines of text" for the answer type. This ensures that people answering the question will have room to provide sufficient feedback. From this screen you can also go into more detail about the type of answer you are expecting. You may choose to allow a specific number of lines for the answer, and the type of text to allow (plain text, rich text, or rich text and pictures. Plain text is usually fine; however, it does limit the amount of detail a user can enter. When you're ready to proceed, click the Finish button.
Because you already elected not to include participants' names in the creation page (see step 3), you don't have to go to the Advanced settings to adjust read and edit settings. When you click Finish, you'll see the main survey screen where you can post questions and look at responses. The survey page (see Figure 6) displays all the responses to the posted question. You can also see the number of responses and choose to see graphical displays of your data. In some cases that's helpful, but it may or may not be relevant when using the survey feature as a suggestion box with free-text responses.
Taking It to the Next Level
You can expand the survey feature by taking advantage of its question-customization features. For example, you might implement a voting system by setting the answer to the question to a choice list (see Figure 5). If you do that, the page will reload and then give you the options to add all the possible choices. Anonymity is baked in to the survey tool, so you don't have to remove identifying fields.
Building a Suggestion Box using Custom Lists
Custom lists are exactly what the name implies; "custom" means that you can customize the list to suit your exact needs. In fact, custom lists are the underlying technology for the discussion boards and surveys you've already seen. You can use them directly to create a suggestion box quickly without relying on SharePoint's custom tools. Custom lists provide a fast and simple way to automate the process of collecting information from users.
Although similar to the Survey and Discussion board tools, the custom list is the simplest and easiest way to implement a suggestion box.
- Again, start at the Site Actions menu and click the Create button.
- On the SharePoint Layout page, locate the Custom Lists area and click the Custom List button. SharePoint will redirect you to the Custom List creation page (see Figure 7).
- Specify the name of the list and write a detailed description if desired, and then click the OK button. You'll see the Custom List page.
- Click "List Settings." From the settings page locate the General Settings area and click Advanced Settings. That directs you to the SharePoint Advanced Settings page for the custom list (see Figure 8).
- To create an anonymous suggestion box, make sure that the Read and Edit access settings are set to "Only their own." Users will only be able to see their own posts, but the site owner will be able to see all responses. Click the OK button to finish the Custom List suggestion box. To see all the collected feedback, go to the new Custom List page you just created (see Figure 9).
Taking It to the Next Level
The custom list is a very basic SharePoint type; you can customize it using various features. One interesting way to expand on this feature would be to add another column to the custom list representing a choice list column so that users can classify how important or what type of priority the item should receive (high, medium, or low). Letting users control the priority is particularly useful when users submit more than one feedback item; they can rank each item's importance. Later, administrators looking at all the responses can sort them by priority. Being able to view the most important suggestions first and the least important later lets decision makers implement or improve the business in a timely manner.
In addition to SharePoint pages, you can expose all three of these features via the Quick Launch navigation system within SharePoint, through content editor web parts, and so forth.
The suggestion box feature is a great way to receive feedback on specified topics. Each of the three methods described here for implementing a suggestion box in SharePoint are provided out-of-the-box. However, you can use their different features to make the feedback collection mechanism suit the situation. Suggestion boxes let users submit useful feedback on controversial issues even when they may be reluctant to discuss the issues openly with their colleagues or managers.