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Planning creatively for documentation projects

Richard Kennedy
by Richard Kennedy

Technical writing is consistent, unambiguous, and uses graphics and videos to complement words. Meeting this standard requires a lot of creativity – it’s just behind the scenes.

This is the first in a series of three articles about ways creativity can be employed during a documentation project.

This article looks at creativity employed during the planning stage of documentation projects including:

  • defining the scope of the project
  • communicating with subject matter experts
  • managing risks.

Defining the project scope

Defining the scope for a documentation project isn’t simply a case of creating a table of contents with topics for each product feature. You need to think creatively to fully consider the practical needs of users.

Answering the following questions will help define details such as file format, the importance of graphical elements, and whether additional “How to” topics are required. This will in turn clarify the project scope and help you avoid stressful last-minute changes.

How will the documentation be viewed?

Documents can be viewed in a variety of formats. Is the documentation printed or viewed electronically using a desktop PC or mobile device? Mobile formats typically have more graphics and fewer words.

What is the documentation used for?

The practical use of the documentation will determine whether specific “How to” topics are required and the level of detail needed. For example, training documentation can be detailed and include “How to” topics to expand on features, but emergency instructions must be straight to the point.

Where will the documentation be used?

Environments can greatly affect how documentation is prepared. For example, a help file loaded onto a cash register might require a graphical approach to help the user quickly navigate topics while facing pressure from waiting customers.

Communicating with subject matter experts

Subject matter experts (SMEs) provide feedback and review drafts, but they generally have additional internal roles and responsibilities. Thinking creatively means anticipating the needs of SMEs to ensure the feedback and review process runs smoothly.

When will the SME experience a high volume of internal work?

The job title can give an indication of their responsibilities and when they are likely to experience the highest workload. For example, a software trainer will have more work immediately following a release as users enrol in courses to learn about new features.

What is the best way to communicate with the SME?

This question should be asked as a courtesy. Sometimes it is simply easier to reach someone with a particular form of communication. For instance, someone that is frequently on the move might prefer that you call their mobile phone.

Also consider the perception created by each form of communication. As a general rule you should call when you need a quick answer and email when the question is more detailed, but there are additional considerations.

For instance, calling is an excellent option during busy periods because you can personally thank the SME for taking the time out from their schedule to answer your questions. Gestures like this can go a long way in working relationships.

Also, emails can seem like demands if they are not carefully phrased. Take your time writing the email and seek a second opinion if you are still concerned that the language and tone is inappropriate.

Managing risks

Risk management is an important factor in every documentation project and it takes creativity to identify potential risks.

Generally speaking, there are two types of risk:

  • common risks
  • unexpected risks.

Common risks are expected and easily managed. For example, hard drive failure is such a common risk that every company has a management system involving backup drives, additional servers or automated cloud backups.

  • budgetary constraints applied to an existing client by a new owner looking to cut costs
  • sudden illness
  • catastrophic risks such as natural disasters.

By taking time to consider risks that might affect a documentation project you can take actions such as increasing reporting to clearly indicate ongoing costs, establishing delegations to allow projects to continue when key staff fall ill, and ensuring staff understand evacuation procedures to prevent injury during an emergency.

These are just some of the ways that thinking creatively can help during the planning stage of a documentation project. In my next article I will explore methods for employing creativity during the writing stage of a documentation project.

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