Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Excel Hacks for Help Writers

Project management with Excel ...

"One of my earlier careers was in manufacturing management, and it grounded me in the principles of project planning and management. When I moved into technical communication, I brought my project management disciplines with me, and I embraced the prevailing tools of my new profession. I dutifully produced documentation plans in Microsoft Word and supported them with detailed project plans in Microsoft Project. However, the problem is that—like bad relationships—these artifacts never gave back results that were sufficient to reward the effort I put into creating them.

Excel: A Minimalist Tool

Looking for a better way, I discovered Excel and the power of managing by task inventories and check-off lists. Project management boils down to just three essential requirements:

* scoping the size of the project
* bundling the tasks into manageable and assignable chunks, or components
* tracking progress

I have found that working with a simple Excel spreadsheet gives me everything I need. Knowing just a few tricks makes Excel a versatile tool that meets my needs over the life of a project. Unfortunately, Excel is not a tool most technical communicators learn in school. So, we tend to fall back into our comfort zone, producing documents—with their own overhead of creating templates and styles and writing lots of words that no one seems to read—and working with project planning tools that seem to ask us the hard questions we were hoping they would answer for us. For example, task duration is an input in Microsoft Project, not an output. It’s like having my doctor ask me what I think is wrong with me.

The Information Model

In discussing this different approach to project management, let’s start at the end, with an information model that shows what work we need to do, who to assign the different task components to, when the components are due, and what the current status of each component is. Figure 1 shows an example of an information model for a simple Help project. On this project, multiple writers are working separately on their own topics, and the manager wants all topics to go through editing before including the Help in the Quality Assurance build. To avoid creating a bottleneck at the end of the project, the manager wants the editing to keep pace with the information development.

On real projects I’ve helped manage, the actual tables I’ve created have had more rows to accommodate more components than this example shows, but otherwise, this is a realistic example."    (Continued via UXmatters)    [Usability Resources]

Information model for a Help project. - Usability, User Interface Design

Information model for a Help project.

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