by Sherry McMenemy and Margie Yundt
This article originally appeared in TechCom Manager, an online publication for Documentation Managers.
It’s in the numbers. Creating documentation is not an exact science, yet as communication leaders, we are expected to provide real estimates for how long we need to document a project, or what we can produce out given a predetermined timeline.
Using a simple Planning Tool, you can improve the accountability of your team and accurately plan documentation projects to gain:
Another more subtle benefit to be gained in taking this approach to documentation planning may be in strengthening the reputation of your department. If your department is seen to be reliable and deliver on its promises, you retain the faith (and the support) of your stakeholders.
The Science of Doc Metrics – Estimating How Long It Takes
Every team is different, and how long it takes to write a document depends on a variety of – believe it or not – measurable factors. However, weighting those factors can be entirely relative.
The key to creating meaningful metrics is tailoring them to your team, its environment, and lessons learned from previous projects. There is no magic formula – you must create your own solution, then test and retest your “tool” until you have perfected the results. Your goal should be to have measurable and predictable planning metrics that are easy to use (and then use them!).
This article presents a Planning Tool that we’ve developed for our documentation projects. Ours is still a tool in progress, but we’re happy to share what we’ve got so far…
Start With a Purpose
Document metrics can help you to predict (with reasonable accuracy) how long a project should take, and/or determine how much you can get done within a specified timeline. Good planning metrics may also help you determine (and justify) when to bring in a contractor…or even when to say “no” to a project.
Step 1: Determine Important Factors
Unfortunately, there is no “one size fits all” set of factors or weighted values. So when we sat down to come up with a Planning Tool, we determined the factors that impact our projects.
Some background information is important here: our team is specialized in internal documentation and we primarily build small-to-medium sized instructional documents, as well as online documents for training/reference. We decided to build this tool in Microsoft Excel, where we could use basic macros to calculate the totals for us.
The factors we included in our Planning Tool include:
The first factor – Document size – is the number we use as the base value for the rest of the calculations. Within each category, a weighted value is set for the option selected. The total number in the tool is the “number of hours” required to complete the project:
Note: To show you the weights, we’ve selected all options in each category. When using the tool, we select one option only in each category.
From there, it’s pretty easy to convert that number to other useful time estimates such as “number of person days” or “number of person weeks”.
For larger teams or teams with a wide range of experience, you may consider adding “experience level” as an additional factor (or even “familiarity with content” to account for a learning curve).
Step 2: Figure Out the Weights
The easiest way to figure out how to weight the factors you include in your Planning Tool is to set a “base weight” of 1 for the most common option in each category. Then, compare the other options and add or subtract weight based on your experience (we keep it at increments of “.25” to keep things simple).
You will use these “weights” to calculate the totals for each item, so be prepared to adjust them until you get reasonable time estimates for each project factor.
Step 3: Calculate Your Totals
The last step in creating your spreadsheet is calculating the totals from what you have entered into a meaningful, and reasonably accurate, estimate. You don’t need to be a math whiz to play with these numbers—a common sense approach here works best. This exercise does not need to be complicated, so keep it as simple as possible.
Keep in mind the following as you create your formulae:
To test your spreadsheet, use the tool to calculate a time estimate for projects that you’ve already completed. Use projects where you have good information regarding the factors involved and know how long it actually took to complete the project.
Compare the “actual” results with the “predicted” results of your new Planning Tool. The more projects you are able to plug into the tool, the more accurate the tool becomes.
Step 4: Use It and Test It Again
Okay, here’s the crucial part: everyone must use the tool, for every project AND everyone must track projects as they work on them, based on the factors in your tool. Sounds simple enough, right?
How Do I Know When I’ve “Got It”?
Your Planning Tool is good once there is a reasonable level of accuracy in its ability to predict how long a project will take. However, make sure that you update the tool to account for new delivery channels, new types of documents or any other changes that may impact how accurate the tool is. Think of it as a “work in progress”—just as our work environment evolves, so must our Planning Tool.
What we’ve found as we continue to develop this tool is that it encapsulates our experience in a format that is reusable and extendible into the organization. These meaningful metrics are helping us to better serve our customers and better manage resources.
This is only one approach, and specific to our team at Research In Motion, but there are other companies in the area using their own measurement tools, such as Campana Systems. For more information about their methodology for creating documentation estimates, contact Holly Curtis at email@example.com.
Happy number crunching...
About Sherry McMenemy
Sherry McMenemy is a senior STC member and manages RIM's Knowledge Operations team. She spends much of her time on strategic knowledge management, application/web UI and communications. At home, she's all about renovations, reading, and watching anything by Joss Whedon.
About Margie Yundt
Margie is the Editor for The Quill, an active member of the STC council, and since graduating form the University of Waterloo in the early '90s, has been working as a technical communicator and documentation/project manager. When she is not "online", Margie enjoys hanging out with her two children and watching the Amazing Race with her husband.
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