Developer Tools for SharePoint 2013 : Understanding SharePoint Designer 2013

9/26/2013 4:07:12 AM

SharePoint Designer (SPD) can be a powerful tool for developers and power users offering the ability to upgrade solutions to Visual Studio and the ability to export work directly from your site. SharePoint Designer 2013 has become the tool of choice for power users, especially with the additional workflow and BCS additions it received in SharePoint 2010. The design community now has other options for HTML editors, but none of them are as integrated to SharePoint as SharePoint Design. Even with the addition of SharePoint Design Manager in the SharePoint user interface, SharePoint Designer has improvements and will continue to be a useful tool for power users. One of the key goals for page layout and design by the SharePoint team was to make it easier to modify the key aspects. This means there will be alternatives to SharePoint Designer, but tight integration for designers and power users will still be SharePoint Designer for their tool of choice. For users building workflows, SharePoint Designer will be the primary tool of choice. When choosing the tool you will use for development, keep in mind that every tool has its purpose, and if you use the right tool for the job, it will make your SharePoint development easier.

Improved Workflow Experience

SharePoint Designer has become the one-stop shop for building, packaging, and installing workflows to SharePoint sites. This section covers the improvements within SharePoint Designer around workflow.

Two types of workflow platforms are available in SharePoint Designer: the SharePoint 2010 workflows and now the SharePoint 2013 workflows. The workflow enhancements in SharePoint Design 2010 and the SharePoint 2010 workflow framework still work in SharePoint Designer 2013, but there is now the ability to create SharePoint 2013 workflows with the same level of support in the product. This enables users to maintain work already done with previous versions of SharePoint and the workflows that already are in place today, while creating new workflows that are maintainable and upgradeable in the future. Any time you select to create a new workflow, you will be prompted for the workflow platform type, as shown in Figure 1.



The new SharePoint 2013 workflow platform type is built using Windows Azure Workflow services. This requires that the SharePoint site that you connect SharePoint Designer with must have Windows Azure Workflow services installed prior to creating SharePoint 2013 workflows. The reason you need to have the new workflow service installed is because the underlying actions in SharePoint Designer must be able to communicate to the service for details on how the action will work. If you use Microsoft Office 365, you have integrated Windows Azure Workflow without needing to install any additional software, but you need to install the service locally if you use the On Premise installation.

New shapes and control of workflow is provided with the Windows Azure Workflows. These new shapes available in SharePoint Designer are Stages, Loops, and Steps. These new shapes enable branching and looping logic that was provided by the new SharePoint 2013 workflows. No longer is it required to use Visual Studio Workflow Designer for support of looping. The new shapes can be added to the designer surface within SharePoint Designer by either dragging and dropping them or using the workflow Ribbon bar to add them in the selected location. When using SharePoint Designer to build your workflows, the required elements of the new shapes are added for you when they are placed on the design surfaces.

The Visual Designer view in SharePoint Designer extends the ability of business users and developers to work on workflows with Visio 2013 and SharePoint Designer. The layout of the Visual Designer provides the same rich representation as Visio with a graphical design surface and sets of shapes for use on the designer surface. To get the built-in functionality of Visual Designer, you must have Visio 2013 installed on the same machine as SharePoint Designer. You can see how quickly a workflow can be started by using this Workflow Visual Designer, as shown in Figure 2.



In addition to using the Visual Designer you can still switch the view back to the Text Based Designer that many users are accustomed to using with previous versions of SharePoint Designer. The changes that are made in the text-based designer are translated into the visual designer as well as the other way, too. If you need a high-level view of the stages, you now switch to the Stages view. The option still exists if you want to export to Visio and allow your business users to modify the workflow in a tool they commonly use.

Performing the same task multiple times in the workflow was difficult, especially if you wanted to quickly reuse some of the conditions or actions that had already been configured. The new Copy and Paste feature can help when designing large workflows that have some repeating information. Workflow designers can now use the same shortcut keys for copy and paste or the Ribbon bar to select a single action or an entire stage with all the contained actions. There are few limitations to this new feature such as no ability to use CTNL+Z to undo the last command. The copy and paste functionality is not like Excel or Word, and you cannot use control to select multiple objects or drag and drop items on the workflow. You can use this Copy and Paste feature in either the SharePoint 2013 Workflow type or the SharePoint 2010 Workflow type.

To make it easier to pass data around a workflow, the Dictionary type variable has been introduced into SharePoint 2013 Workflows. A Dictionary type has a collection of Name/Value pairs, and the value has a type. You can now create complex types that are stored in memory for use within the workflow. There are a number of actions that use the Dictionary type such as Build Dictionary, Count Items in a Dictionary, and Get an Item from a Dictionary, as well as actions such as Call HTTP Web Service. Some of the new actions create the dictionary object, whereas others use it to define the action.

New Workflow Actions

With the addition of Windows Azure Workflow, SharePoint Designer has added a number of new workflow actions that resolve a lot of the difficulties in the previous release. Workflows are composed of conditions and actions. Actions perform the functions you want, and you can customize workflows by writing custom actions. The new actions are designed for integration with SharePoint 2010 workflows and implement a similar custom action that was available on CodePlex for SharePoint 2010 workflows.

A new action that enables designers to call REST services and OData web services is called the Call Web Service Action. This action is designed to make an HTTP web service call and return the data in the JSON format. This action could be used to call any website that exposes web-based APIs, in addition to frameworks such as ASP.NET Web API endpoints. The importance of directly calling these services using the basic authentication supported in the RequestHeader is that you can now connect to data with dynamic structures. This action is available when you select the SharePoint 2013 workflows and can be added to the design surface using the new Shapes or the Actions drop down.

The Start Workflow Action has been added to allow SharePoint 2013 workflows to start SharePoint 2010 workflows’ direction from the workflow. This provides an easy way to use the new workflow platform, but still use the investments that have been made in built and tested works using the SharePoint 2010 version. Just like all the other actions, you can add it directly from the Shapes or workflow Actions menu. When configured, your existing workflows are ready to use again without any modifications until you are ready to modify them.

Navigating the User Interface

SharePoint Designer provides a consistent user interface with the common Ribbon UI to help discover the tasks you can perform in SPD against your SharePoint sites. The navigation of SPD uses grouping of logical SharePoint artifacts for users to quickly navigate to the actions needed. This interface makes navigation and discovery of your SharePoint site and information architecture easier. Figure 3 shows SharePoint Designer in action.



SharePoint Designer is tightly integrated to the SharePoint sites you are editing, and you must be connected to a SharePoint site to use the features of SharePoint Designer. After you connect to a site, the details display along with the permissions and settings. Connecting to a site is required for the information that is displayed and to allow for the direct changes to be made to the site. SharePoint Designer does not store the data locally but always makes the changes directly to the site after the Save and/or Publish buttons are pressed.

The navigation for SharePoint Designer 2013 has remained the same as the previous version with the site objects grouped in the navigation pane, which makes it easy to find what you are looking for. The site objects are grouped into common actions by the following categories: Site Information, Lists and Libraries, Workflows, Site Pages, Site Assets, Content Types, Site Columns, External Content Types, Data Sources, Master Pages, Site Groups, Subsites, and All Files. From the Navigation menu you can begin changing the content of the site as needed. Select the site objects you would like to change, and the Summary menu shows a list of all the items on that site. For example, if you select Site Page, you see a list of all the site pages with actions on the Ribbon to make modifications.

The Ribbon was introduced in SharePoint Designer 2010 and is used to perform actions in SharePoint Designer just like in Microsoft Office products. The Ribbon user interface makes it easier for you to work with site objects by showing contextual tabs based on the selected objects that you click. The Ribbon interface makes it simple to manage your site with all the options available in a single interface and grouped together.

Workflow developers new to SharePoint Designer can find the full and rich capabilities wanted for any development, testing, and quick changes. New workflows that can be created for a site are based on the list, reusable, or site workflow. In addition to the new features added, you still have the capabilities around the existing actions and conditions. Management of the workflows can be done directly in SharePoint Designer as well as publishing the new workflows created.

Having the ability to create, design, and work with Business Connectivity Services (BCS) in SharePoint 2013 allows users to quickly manage their external content types. Using SharePoint Designer you can view your external content types and make new ones. The external content types can connect to databases, .NET types, or web services, and you can have SharePoint Designer auto-generate the methods needed to perform your create, read, update, and delete (CRUD) changes, and finder/query operations against the back ends. Finally, you can create the external lists associated with your external content type in SharePoint Designer.

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