Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Tactics for being more powerful than a speeding locomotive

We’ve been talking about how to be a technical writing superhero – get the right information to the right people in the right way; be able to show your management that your project is on track. But if you’ve ever waited for a train that was late, you know that on track isn’t the same as on time.

Time management means being able to say no. Whenever someone comes running to you saying “I need your help,” it’s automatically an emergency. You’re a team player, so you may say “Sure, I can help you with that” without thinking.
That emergency has the momentum of a speeding locomotive, and it will derail you if you’re not strong enough to stand against it. Is it really is more important and urgent than your project? Are you really the only one who can do it? Estimate what it will do to your schedule. If you aren’t completely in charge of your assignment list, ask your manager to make the decision. You don’t take the blame for schedule changes when your boss is in charge of signaling and switching the tracks. If you work on the emergency project, notify the rest of the project team – don’t wait for your boss to do it.

Speaking of locomotives, training can also derail you. My own time management epiphany came when I went to the office to put in a few hours after a full-day seminar at a nearby hotel. Then it hit me: “I just piddled away an entire DAY on a time management seminar that my boss sent me to, and my deadline’s Friday.” I think I bent the needle on my irony-meter. My boss (evil man!) smiled knowingly when I confronted him the next day and asked him never again to schedule me for training near a deadline.

Less obvious but more common is the failure to prioritize tasks. How many times have you worked on a diagram, tweaking and tuning and rearranging until you realize you’ve spent half a day on a picture that only reinforces existing text? Was that critical to the project? Hardly.

Remember the project spreadsheet I described in the last post? It prevents train wrecks. With two more columns, it becomes the train schedule. On your master list of information changes, add a column for prioritizing each item and a column showing anything that blocks you from getting it done. (Yes, it’s getting to be a great big spreadsheet with lots of columns. Hide the ones you’re not using at any given time.) Now you’ve got a system. Whatever you’re working on, you should be done with all the higher-priority items except those on which you’re blocked.

To review: your spreadsheet includes a master list of changes, with separate tabs to show the changes to each of your deliverables. Columns on these tabs are:
  • Information change
  • Work required
  • Priority
  • Blockers
  • Subject matter expert
  • Questions
  • Date completed
  • Date sent to review
  • Date corrections received
With your spreadsheet superpowers, you’ll be able to stand firm against other people’s speeding locomotives and avoid derailing yourself.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Tactics for leaping over tall buildings

We've talked about how you, the superhero technical writer, can be faster than a speeding bullet through effective audience analysis and information design. “Sure you’re faster than a speeding bullet,” says the boss, “but what else can you do?” It’s time to leap over a tall building or two.

Leaping over tall buildings would be easier if we had a Shrink-o-Matic ray that scaled the buildings down to the size of things made with Lego® blocks. So let's build one, and let your boss keep thinking of you as a superhero. Key components of the Shrink-o-Matic ray gun: Project management and technical review management.

How do you keep track of project requirements? How do you stay informed of all the new features under development? How do you determine what parts of the documentation are affected by each change or new feature? How do you ensure the material is updated?

Start with a project plan that shows the reason for the project (such as a new software release), the schedule, your subject-matter experts and other project stakeholders, your deliverables and the scope of changes to them, your assumptions, and possible risks. Distribute this to all the project stakeholders. Publish it on your intranet. Update it weekly.

When your first draft of the project plan is done, start building your project tracking spreadsheet. Include each new or modified product feature on its own row. Identify which subject-matter expert owns each feature and which of your deliverables will cover it.

Create additional tabs in the spreadsheet file, one for each of your deliverables. For each one, pop in the topic outline that you created in the design phase – one row per topic. Start with these columns:
  • Topic - this is the first or second column, depending on whether you want to show the topics by chapter or help book.
  • Work required – specifies whether the topic is to be created, updated, or left alone.
  • Subject-matter expert – who owns this information?
  • Questions – anything you need the subject-matter expert to answer; any unresolved issues.
  • Blockers – anything outside of your control that's keeping you from finishing the topic.
  • Updated – check off each topic as you finish it.
As the project moves along, you can use the Questions column to create lists of questions for each subject-matter expert, so you can schedule short appointments with each of them to get the information you need.

When you encounter a blocker, bring it up in the next project meeting if it's not a well-known situation already - and mention it even if it is well-known. For example, "I still have a couple topics on feature X, which hasn't been coded yet, so I'm dealing with other features that are further along."

Now here’s the power-booster for your Shrink-o-Matic ray. For each deliverable, add two more tabs:
  • To review - the date when you hand the topic to the subject-matter expert who owns it.
  • Corrections received - the date that you get the topic back with corrections.
If you send out a whole manual to a whole team for review, they’ll hate you – and they won’t review it thoroughly. If you send topics out one at a time, as you complete them, and send each topic only to the developer who knows it best, you may get corrections back the same day. What’s more, there won’t be a big review backlog near the end of the project. Your organization may not be agile, but there’s no reason you can’t be. Working this way shrinks those tall buildings to something you can leap over, with your superhero cape billowing behind you quite convincingly.

A tip of the hat goes to John Hedtke, who introduced me to a stripped-down version of project management by spreadsheet several years ago.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tactics for being faster than a speeding bullet

In my last post, I described a situation in which one technical writer (yours truly) delivered a huge volume of customer information every four months and made it look easy. What did it take to be a superhero?
  • Audience analysis
  • Information design
  • Project management
  • Review management
  • Time management
  • Quality checks
Let’s talk about the first two tactical considerations – audience analysis and design.

Who are your customers?
What do they need to know?
What do they already know?
Do they know more than you do?
How can you make them happier with your organization than they are now?
Who are your competitors and what can you learn from them?
You can’t make rational choices about how to select, organize, and present information unless you know who will receive it and how they will use it. This is bedrock basic technical writing theory, and some writers still ignore it. Don’t. If you skip the audience analysis, you’ll do extra work and you won’t have time to outrun that speeding bullet. You’ll also fail to deliver what your customers need. They’ll call technical support to ask questions that start with “How do I…?” If you let that happen, the aforementioned speeding bullet will come from the help desk.

Information design flows naturally from knowing your audiences and understanding what they need. If you write about a product that people use in different ways depending on their roles, you know to segment the information based on roles. The person checking their own work into and out of a repository doesn’t need to know how to do database administration. Chronology may also provide a good criterion for sorting information: for hardware, you’ll often need an installation guide. Anything that happens after it’s installed can be documented somewhere else. How do you decide where? Try an outline. It’s old-fashioned but it works. Start by throwing everything you can think of into one outline; you can decide later how finely you need to slice and dice it up into manuals, tip sheets, tutorials, and whatnot.

When you start with an outline, things are packaged into tidy little headings. It’s orderly, with clear boundaries, almost like a coloring book. Why not keep it that way? Think and write in topics rather than sections. What’s the difference? Sections can ramble and sprawl sometimes, because they may start with one topic and digress to another. A topic is everything you need to know in one context about one thing – for example, how to change your password. It stays focused, and you only write it once. When it’s time to update the information, you can quickly identify which topics are affected, and leave the rest alone. When you don’t have to go through every word, updates are a lot faster – maybe even faster than a speeding bullet.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Faster than a speeding bullet

Two products that work together, customer information delivered on a CD as printable manuals and HTML help branded for the company and unbranded for its OEM partners, a four-month software development cycle, one technical writer.

One technical writer who does not pull late-nighters or work from home on weekends. One technical writer who meets deadlines and wins awards for the material.

How does that work?

Pretty well. Thanks for asking.
It’s all about strategy and tactics. The strategy is pretty simple: Do only the things that move you forward, but do whatever it takes to keep moving. The tactics are familiar, in principle at least, to most technical writers:
  • Audience analysis – who are your customers? What do they need to know? How do they find out now, and how would they like to find out?
  • Design from meta to micro – what are your largest units of documentation, and how do you decide what belongs in each one? What are your smallest units? How do you assemble the small units into the big units? How do you integrate new pieces of information? How do you make sure you'll never be caught flat-footed by a new requirement, such as translation?
  • Project management – how do you keep track of all the project requirements? How do you ensure that you are aware of all the new features under development? How do you determine what parts of the documentation are affected by each change or new feature? How do you ensure all the material is updated?
  • Time management – how do you make sure the important things get done and the project stays on schedule?
  • Technical review management – how do you persuade your technical experts to give up some of their precious time to check your work? How do you ensure they’ll be willing to do it again?
  • Quality checks – how do you make sure that you publish material that won’t embarrass the organization?
Tune in next week for some answers.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Check your work

Think back to grade school. Think back to math tests. Remember what the teacher said at the start of every exam? "Check your work." The teacher knew that although you may know the heck out of long division or fractions, it's still easy to make really dumb mistakes - and the dumber the mistake, the easier it is to make. Worse, the smarter students are more confident of their ability to do error-free work, so they're less likely to catch their own really dumb mistakes. Sad but true: In my fifth-grade class, the class brain misspelled his own name on an exam. The teacher docked him three points for it, so he scored 97%.

We don't magically get over this when we finish school. What was true in grade school is still true, and it's more complex in the workplace because we aren't just answerable to ourselves; we rely on other people to do their work accurately, too.

You should be able to trust your teammates, but we all make mistakes. You won't make any friends by compulsively checking everyone else's work - and you'll run out of time to do your own work if you try - but if your organization doesn't already have a formal mechanism in place, you can set an example by asking your teammates to check your own work. "Do you mind checking this section for accuracy? If you like, I'll check whatever you have ready while you're looking at my material."

A couple things seem to cause a lot of trouble in technical writing and marketing collateral: company URLs and email addresses. I have seen far too many tech-savvy businesses (including IT service providers and multinational telecoms companies) publish contact email addresses that did not exist on their mail servers. They instructed their customers to contact them via email addresses that returned error messages. How smart would that make your company look? Although the warranty card may have always included the email address and the URL, that doesn't necessarily mean they work.

Take a few seconds to see what happens when you follow that link. Take a few seconds to send a test message to that email address, with an explanation and request for reply. Check your work.