Monday, February 8, 2010

What happens next?

I am a busybody. I am a Nosey Parker. I can’t help it.
No, I am not interested in who goes to lunch with whom, or who takes advantage of the privacy afforded by the server room. I’m intensely interested in what happens next.

When you finish doing your little piece of the great process of keeping your organization going, who receives your work when you hand it off? What happens next?

When I went to work at a company I'll call MumbleCo, I found that none of the writers knew how their work got from their desks to our customers. Not even the manager knew the release process.

Any time you don’t know what happens next after you do your part of a business process, you’re automatically looking at a broken process. In an organization, the thing you deliver is the input to the next person’s part of the process, and as any programmer will tell you, GIGO – garbage in, garbage out. If you don’t know the next person’s part, how do you know you’re not providing garbage input?

The cure for a broken process may be as simple as finding the person who handles the next part and having a conversation about how the process works now, how it would work in the ideal case, and what causes problems.

At MumbleCo, all the manager could tell me about the release process was “We hand it off to someone in operations.” I went to the operations group and introduced myself to the manufacturing engineers, logistics planners, and the change control team, and asked questions about how they worked. How could we writers help to keep them from having to do extra work? They offered very specific observations:
  • Nobody used the right process for getting part numbers.
  • It was hard to draw up the release paperwork for a manual because writers didn't provide enough information in their emails and the file names were all over the map; the change control team usually had to open the file to find out the manual title and the product line to which it belonged.
  • Sometimes we sent them files that they couldn’t even open.
I took this back to my manager. She recognized the value of aligning what we did with what Operations needed, and put me in charge of designing and implementing a release readiness process to include assigning document numbers, setting a file naming convention, and checking finished manuals against a production readiness checklist. The other writers complained about the new process – “Why can’t I just give it the next part number? Why should I have to let you check it? I'm a senior writer! We never had to do this before!” – but the operations team knew who to contact if there were problems, and document release went from a two-week process to a two-day process.

This change didn’t require a decision at the director level, a six-month study, or a task force. It took one writer, in a non-supervisory role, walking to the other side of the building and having a series of conversations with the people whose days she could make or ruin simply by how she did her job.

Do you participate in a broken process? When you finish your piece, what happens next? If you don’t know, go find out. Fixing a broken process starts with a conversation.

Monday, February 1, 2010

How to develop X-ray vision

Standard prerequisites for superheroes include being faster than a speeding bullet, being able to leap over tall buildings at a single bound, and being more powerful than a speeding locomotive. We’ve talked about how technical writers can meet all those qualifications. But real superheroes have X-ray vision, too.

Have you ever looked at a web site, picked up a brochure, or read a manual – and spotted a really dumb mistake? Quick show of hands - who hasn’t? I didn’t expect to see any hands up, and you didn’t disappoint me. Wouldn't you like to hang this AWARD OF EXCELLANCE in the entryway to your business?

After you look at the material long enough, you lose the ability to see your own mistakes. We know this. Quality checks help us see things we would miss otherwise, so that we never publish material that embarrasses the organization.

Things to check include:
  • Formatting – if you control the formatting in the final deliverable, include separate checks for every aspect of this: font usage, text size and spacing, placement of graphics, headers and footers in print-oriented material…you can probably come up with a full page of format checks.
  • Spelling, grammar, and punctuation – did you run a spelling check? Has someone read it through for grammar and punctuation? We are better at grammar checking than automated grammar checkers are, especially if the material is specialized technical information.
  • Table of contents – is it complete and accurate? Was it generated after everything else was done?
  • Index or search – you have this, don’t you?
  • Parallelism in headings – If one topic is called “Creating accounts”, don’t call the next one “How to delete accounts.” Again, we know this. But if you collaborate with others on a work, or if you start a new topic without reviewing other topic headings, it’s easy to end up with headings that don’t follow consistent grammatical structures.
  • Consistent grammatical structure in the text – for example, “To [start a task], click [button or link name].” If your work gets translated, this cuts the cost.
  • Conformance to your organization’s style guide – you have one, don’t you? If not, start one right now. Start with an item about using consistent grammatical structures.
  • Conformance to your organization’s identity standards – check for proper use and placement of the logo, correct color formulations, and whatnot.
  • Links and email addresses – don’t trust them; test them.
  • Conformance to file naming conventions – you have those, don’t you? Consistent file naming helps you find things later on, particularly if you use a version control system. Make file naming a part of your quality checklist so you can enforce it.
If you check your work against your quality checklist before you publish it, you’ll have the X-ray vision to catch things nobody else has spotted in earlier checks, and you’ll always publish material that shows your organization in its best light.

A tip of the hat to Thomas Moore of StorSpeed, who shared his checklist with me ten years ago. The man’s had X-ray vision as long as I’ve known him.