Dawn Stevens, Comtech Services, Inc.

It’s a quintessential catch-22: you’ve been given an aggressive deadline and need to get started right away. There’s no time for design; you barely have time to write. But you need a solid design to know what and how to write. Can you afford to take the time to design? Can you afford not to?

If you were taking a road trip to a place you’d never been before, you’d probably leave home with a map or a GPS to ensure you didn’t get lost. Without these directions, you might travel in the general right direction, but waste time wandering and backtracking to get to your specific destination. Similarly, solid design work provides a road map to your project. It helps you identify the necessary content to include and the approach to take. Without design, you might head in the general right direction, but waste time in development creating content you don’t need or rewriting to meet expectations. And as demands and opportunity for reuse increase, the need for solid design also increases in order to create truly reusable content and then to find and reuse it appropriately later.

Unfortunately, the pressures for showing “real” progress tempt many away from taking the time to truly design their project. Frequently viewed as a time waster, design, if done, is frequently folded into or hidden in writing metrics. Doing so, however, contributes to the “no time to design” mindset. It downplays the real time required to research, strategize, and plan before writing can begin. Planning for and tracking actual design activities elevates the importance of these activities and acknowledges the critical role they play in your projects.

What to Include

A thorough design phase includes the following activities:

  • Project analysis—A good design must be built on the corporate goals for the project. For example, among car manufacturers there is a big difference between designing cars that get you from point A to point B and designing cars that get you from point A to point B in luxury. The design must capture and take into account the positioning of the product, the competition, and the initial budget and scope allocated.
  • User and task analysis—In the long run, the success of your project is defined by its acceptance by the customers it’s intended for. Therefore, the design needs to take into account the needs and expectations of customers. Ideally, an analysis involves direct contact with your customers to gather their requirements. However, designers must often settle for second-hand information from others in the organization who have direct contact, such as marketing, sales, and support. Regardless of how this information is captured, design must take into account the experience and background of your audience, the biases they might bring, the environment in which they will use your information product, and the skills and knowledge they need to gain. In addition to defining the content you need to provide, this information helps to define the most effective strategies for communicating with your audience.
  • Subject matter research—Obviously, the design must take into account the subject matter covered. Designers must do enough research to outline and describe the content to be included. However, it’s important to note that the individual writers will continue this research once they dig into their specific assignments. In design, you have only touched the surface of the content. You’ve identified that you do need to discuss a topic and listed the main points to include in that discussion, but the details about those points still need to be researched by the writer.
  • Design document—Called by many names, including Information Plan, Content Plan, or Training Plan, the design document records the research and analysis completed and the decisions made. It is the blueprint for the deliverables, defining the information you intend to produce, the strategies you will use to create that information, and the reasons behind these decisions. The design document makes sure all team members are on the same page and serves as a starting point for new team members who might join after the project begins. At its best, the document helps guide its readers to the same conclusions that it offers, so that each reader is convinced that he or she would have taken the same approach.
  • Validation—There’s no point in doing a design exercise if it’s just a checkmark in a box—completed and then ignored. The design needs to be followed and deviations taken through change management processes. The realities of scope creep suggest that it’s a good idea to plan for validation points in your content development to ensure you are still on track with your design to deliver what you promised, and only what you promised.

Dependency Factors

The majority of design time is spent gathering information—about the project, its users, the subject matter, and so on. The factors that affect how quickly it can be completed relate primarily to the availability of that information, whether from people or documents:

  • Audience availability—Whether the designers have direct or indirect contact with audience members, the availability of those audience members will impact the time it takes to complete your design phase. Since most audience members are volunteers when it comes to providing information, you are unlikely to be their top priority and you might find scheduling time with audience members challenging. Keep in mind, however, that forgoing this part of design could mean late changes in development. Without audience input, writers tend to think of the audience as being exactly like them, which frequently results in more explanation than the audience needs or in critical information being left out.
  • Subject matter availability—By definition, information design occurs at the beginning of a project, typically while the product you are supporting is under development. Subject matter experts (SMEs) might still be creating their own design and requirements documents. There might be no information written down yet, and it might be very difficult to negotiate time from the SMEs. In such cases, plan for larger than normal change management to modify the design as the product itself changes. Depending on your corporate history, you might find that it’s best to delay information development until critical project artifacts, such as a requirements document, are available and signed off.
  • Design template—A good design document template can help to reduce the time spent in design. In addition to defining the specific content to include in the final documents, you might find that sections such as audience descriptions or content strategies might be the same in many of your designs. Having a database of information that designers can draw on will reduce the time spent developing the design document.
  • Reusability—Although reusability promises a reduction in the overall time required to complete an entire project, do not expect reusability to reduce your design phase. In fact, you might find the design phase increasing for projects that include reusability because your designers will need to spend additional time researching content that might apply to the project and referring to that content in the overall design document.
  • Size of total project—A good rule of thumb when starting to track design metrics is to allocate 10% of your estimated total project time for design. You will likely find that this percentage is higher for small projects and lower for large ones. The research required to identify the need for a specific piece of content is about the same, whether the details of that content will take a paragraph or an entire chapter to fully explain.

Interpreting Your Design Metrics

Design metrics can provide good information about your conformity to project scope. Be sure to examine your metrics as part of the design-document review process so that you are prepared to alert the approvers of impacts on the overall project budget. If metrics are high compared to expectations, compare the final design document to your original page count or lesson time estimates. If content has grown, research why. Did the designer uncover needed content that was overlooked in the initial project estimates? You might need to negotiate a scope change. On the other hand, perhaps your designer did not factor in corporate goals and designed a top-line sports car when a more practical minivan would do. Frequently, corporate goals can seem at odds with audience expectations, and designers will want to please your customers. Their justifications might be sound, and you might choose to point these options out to the stakeholders for additional funding; however, you should also be prepared to scale back the design to meet the original budget. These factors should all come out in the design-document review and signoff before actual development work begins.

High design metrics may not have anything to do with the overall scope of the project, however. Make sure you research the reasons behind the increased time to determine the potential impact on the rest of the process. For example, high design metrics might point to overdesign. A common tendency among designers is to overdesign content to the point that the content is virtually written before the design document is done. Rather than providing a simple outline of topics, for example, the designer writes paragraphs in the descriptions that, with only minor rewriting, can be used in the final document. If you suspect your design time is high due to overdesign, carefully watch your initial writing time. Writing time will likely be correspondingly low. In these cases, you need to look at the overall design and writing time to determine how well your project is progressing against budget. If you have dedicated designers who are not the writers, you also need to determine what is more economical and appropriate for your staff distribution—to have your designers writing or your writers writing.

High design metrics might also indicate difficulty in obtaining information. Ask your designers if they anticipate this trend during the development stage. Information might be scarce for the designers because the product was also in design, but there are now solid specifications or prototypes that the writers can use and your estimates can be expected to hold. Or your designers might report that the product team seems very disorganized or shorthanded, and they anticipate difficulty throughout the project.

New strategies or approaches to content might also increase design time. For example, a new screen type for an online tutorial would require more explanation than known screen types. However, this does not necessarily translate into more development time; the writing for that new screen type might not take any more than any other screen type.

Similarly, explore the reasons behind lower design metrics than expected. Two specific areas that low design metrics might expose are

  • A pressure to “get on with it”—as discussed earlier, many people think that design simply holds up the final deliverable date. The project would be done sooner if you didn’t set aside design time. Especially when there are writers and other development team members waiting downstream for the design, there will be high pressure on the designers to throw something together so that people can start. Watch out for a tendency to hand off the design to the development team without a formal signoff. If you have set aside the time for design, make sure it’s respected and used, and ensure the design is signed off before you continue.
  • Cookie cutter designs—While there’s certainly nothing wrong with consistency and predictability, lower than expected design metrics could point to a lack of innovation and improvements in your projects. Look for design documents that are simply cut and pasted from previous documents with minor changes. Ensure that designers take the opportunity to refresh information about users and explore the latest industry trends and technology advancements.

Tracking Pitfalls

As I suggested earlier, the biggest tracking pitfall for design is hiding it somewhere else. Even if your writer is doing the design, it is useful to track the activities separately. For example, your editing metrics are likely dependent on writing time, but not design time. Because there should be a hard stop between design and development, at which time the design is signed off, it is also easy for the same person to know when to switch from reporting design hours to reporting writing hours.

Another pitfall in tracking can be redesign issues such as the following:

  • The product itself may go through a redesign requiring you to rethink the corresponding documentation or training.
  • Although a specific approach sounded good on paper, when the development team actually tries to implement the strategy, it just doesn’t work.
  • As the writers dig into the subject matter, new content is found that was overlooked in the design.

Although you hope to avoid redesign, at some point in some projects, you are likely to encounter it. And you’ll need to decide how to track it. Even if there is design time planned for up front, redesign tends to be considered part of the development time and might be done on the fly without thinking about the impact on other seemingly unaffected areas. However, just as it’s a mistake to hide design in the writing time, you should not hesitate to reopen the design phase, or better yet, open a new redesign metric, to ensure that the entire design remains consistent and appropriate.

Dawn is a Senior Consultant at Comtech Services, Inc.