Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Information Model

Continuing our discussion of using Excel rather than Word or Project to manage an information project.

A simple spreadsheet that I get a lot of use out of is one I call the Information Model. I use it first to plan my information content, then to estimate the development time for each topic (or group of topics) track who is responsible for each, the due date, and its status. It is a simple, flat table in Excel that has columns labeled Topics, Info Developer, Status, Estimate, Due Date, and Comments (for starters).

If you are revising an existing document, the topics in the spreadsheet can be taken directly from the existing document. If the application you are documenting has a UI already, you can list the UI pages themselves as the topics. If you are using use cases, you can add a column to help organize your topics by the use cases or scenario names that describe the user tasks you intend to support.

You can now use the same spreadsheet to assign different topics to different information developers.

You can also use the spreadsheet to size the project. For example, in one project the general scope of a screen could be described by the number of tabs it had. So I created a column called tabs and we inventoried how many tabs were on each screen. We then estimated that each tab would take a half-day to document, so we wrote a simple formula in Excel to estimate the days each topic would take by multiplying the number of tabs by .5. We then summed that column to see the total project estimate.

  • Tip: Put the estimation variable (in this case we started with .5) in its own cell and point to it in the estimation formulas. For example, if the estimation variable was in cell H3, and the number of tabs for a particular topic was in B5, the estimation formula for that topic would be "=$H$3*B5" Note: The $ makes that an absolute address, so if you copy that formula for all the topics, B5 will automatically change to the appropriate cell that contains that topic's number of tabs (e.g., C5, D5, E5, etc.), but the estimation variable will always come from H3. This way you can play some easy "what if" scenarios by changing the estimation variable in H3 and instantly seeing the impact it has on the project time.
Once the topics have been sized and assigned to information developers, you can ask each info developer to schedule their assigned topics. For example, if an info developer thinks she can devote an effective 3 days a week to the project, then she could group topics into weekly chunks by assigning the same weekly due date to 3 days' worth of topics. Or if a topic would take 6 days, she could make sure she allocated two weeks to get it done.
  • Tip: Have info developers make all topics due on Fridays. That way the project manager or department manager can filter by a given date to see everything due that week.

And that last tip brings up a really useful feature of Excel, the ability to apply filters. Once you have your table built, do the following:

  1. Highlight the heading row for the data columns.
  2. Click Data > Filter > Autofilter on the menu.

You now get drop lists at the top of each column that let you filter and sort the table by the data in that column. This lets you do things like see only the topics that Mike is working on, or only the topics that are due this Friday. You can apply multiple filters, e.g., see Mike's topics that are due this Friday or see Mike's topics where status is blank.

Of course this approach needs to be modified for what make sense in your world, e.g., I like weekly scheduling units, you might prefer monthly. But the point is, if you put your plan in a spreadsheet instead of a document, you get a more powerful database and calculator tool to help you plan and track the project.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Plan vs. Planning

[Duh! after almost two years on Blogger I figured out that there is a "title" block that is not turned on by default. I looked for it when I started transferring my rss reads from NewsGator to Google Reader. All of my blogs said "No title" and everybody else's had titles. It's the cyber equivalent to spinach in the teeth-it leaves you wondering why no one tells you :-0 ]

Documentation Plans: One out of Three Rs

We have a couple of overlapping projects going on at work these days. One is to establish ourselves at Level 3 on the Information Process Maturity Model. Another is to be more compliant with IBM's Information Development Standards. The upshot of this is that I am reflecting on the planning process a lot these days, since both of these efforts deal with planning.

My second career (after being an electronics technician--so long ago I know how vacuum tube circuits work) was in Manufacturing Management, so I have a natural fondness for project planning and tracking which I carried forth into a later career of documentation management. In my current career as Information Architect I find my need for project planning and tracking tools are still welded to my genetic structure. But I have noticed my tool of choice has changed over the years and that my reverence for "the plan" has diminished a bit. But not my respect for "planning," which is what this blog is about.

In short, a lot of mature departments and those striving to be mature place a lot of importance on a written documentation plan, often produced in MS Word and sometimes accompanied by a formal project plan done in MS Project. If I had a nickel for every such plan I've done--well, I'd have about $1.35, which rhetorically doesn't sound too impressive after having done the math, but you get the idea; I've done it a lot.

I think documentation plans have some serious flaws:

  • We do them when we are the stupidest about what the project is about and whom it is for.
  • Although we write them (one R), I'm not sure anyone reads them (second R).
  • Lastly, they lack detail and the underlying engine to do the estimation math (the third R 'rithmatic).

I think project plans done in a project planning tool also have some serious limitations:

  • They treat the project as if it is progressive (it keeps moving forward in discrete chunks) and linear (it moves in a straight line). In reality a project is expansive (we learn more about the product, the users, and our production tool sets the further into it we get into the project) and recursive (this expanded knowledge we get by the time we're on chapter three makes us need to rewrite chapter one).
  • The critical piece of information we are all after, task duration, is an input and not the result of anything the tool helps us with.
  • Whereas just about everybody has Word, Project is not as ubiquitous and distributing the project plan is not as easy as distributing a Word document.

My Tool of Choice

I find I'm getting much better results by using Excel as my planning and tracking tool.

  • I spend more time thinking and noodling and less time on writing a document. The subtle difference is that I have shifted my emphasis from "making a plan" (where the plan is an artifact to be distributed and checked off) to "planning."
  • Excel is great for making and manipulating lists. Once I have identified topics, assigned writers, categorized topics, set dates, whatever, I can filter and sort by any of those classifications.
  • Once the list of topics is created in Excel, I can use its calculation capabilities to help me estimate the project.
  • Everybody has Excel and the plan, schedule, and tracking file for a project (a single workbook with multiple worksheets) can be placed on a shared drive and be viewed and updated by anyone on the project.

The problem is that Excel is not usually considered a technical communicator's tool and so we do not get exposed to it in school or at the conferences. I'd like to see that change, since it is uniquely capable (by "it" I really mean a spreadsheet tool) of letting a project plan mature from broad, static statements to detailed inventories of information topics to be developed and then let you calculate estimates for those topics and create realistic schedules that can be monitored at a weekly granularity.

For the next few blogs, I will discuss in more detail how a spreadsheet can be used to plan and monitor information development projects. Even if you do not throw away your conventional documents about documents approach to planning, maybe you will find it worthwhile to stick a couple of more Rs into the process.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Moving on up...

I am officially moving from the world of paying for services I can get for free. At the end of this month I will be shutting down my Mindspring account. This means I lose my old e-mail address and my web page. New email is michaelhughesua@gmail.com I will be using this blog space to replace my old web page.

I will also be dealing with the gas crisis by working from home two days a week. This has meant putting in a high speed connection that lets me get into my Lotus Notes and the IBM Intranet. What a pain that was--but it's all done. Things I didn't know: Fiber optic DSL does not use a modem, and my company's VPN apparently needs the IP address a modem attaches. So one week of doodling with fiber optic down the drain. So I now have cable Internet access which comes with a modem. Another lesson learned: If the cable installer uses your desktop computer to test the modem (while you're at work) the modem will not work on your laptop that night unless you power down the modem and start it up again, after you connect it to the laptop. As a technical communicator I was ticked that such a simple requirement took me two hours to learn (and learn eventually from a tech support call). Add to this that the first time they came to install the modem they didn't come prepared to install the cable (duh!) and when I called tech support and waited on hold to get a human, they disconnected me when they tried to transfer me the the right tech.

Enough whining, but I do wonder how we make money off of technology when the usability barriers to entry are so high. The latter problem was not a technology issue, it was a UX one. The modem was beautifully designed--IT DID EVERYTHING! The breakdown was that the installer tested it on one computer, disconnected it from that computer and left it powered up, looking "ready to plug and play." I did the natural thing and plugged it into my laptop. The user experience failed because the installer should have (1) Turned power off to the modem and (2) left instructions.

Lesson learned, user experience is a process that crosses all kinds of disciplines. The doc is just one element in the system and the critical channels often have nothing to do with the technology.

Friday, June 06, 2008

STC Summit

The original title was supposed to be "I Rolled Holly Harkness" after I gave Holly my dinner roll at the Honors Banquet, but that seems too indecorous now that I am in a more sober mood (well, actually, now that I am sober). It's not so much the improper innuendo, mind you; it's the use of a noun as a verb that I find most problematic.

I would be just lying through my teeth not to admit what a great time I had at the Honors Banquet being inducted as a Fellow in the society. I can only say that it is a thrill mainly because I hold my fellow STC members in such high regard and consider our profession to be truly important. Barrie Byron was kind enough to send me a picture of my special moment.

The conference was great, Philadelphia was a delight, and I am exhausted after 2 days of board meeting, a leadership day, and three days of conference. Atlanta folks, be sure to attend our next chapter meeting when conference attendees will report on the conference.

I am also proud of how visible the Atlanta chapter was at this year's conference--Robert Armstrong was Track Manager and Coordinator for the Producing and Publishing Information Track, our chapter won a Community of Excellence award, and Al Hood has taken on a significant volunteer role with the Leadership Community Resource. Holly, Robert, and Al attended Leadership Day on Sunday along with our president, Howard Speck, and our 2nd VP, Jen Collier. Margaret Cekis, Holly Harkness, Al Hood, and I were presenters--I'm sure I missed someone in that list, sorry.

AND, we are the host chapter next year and will get cranking up on that real soon.

So I am back home, both exhausted and rejuvenated at the same time. We live in an exciting time where our profession can have a real impact on what's happening in the world and in the marketplace, and where we can have a real impact on our profession. Go STC!