Tips & Tricks: Small Teams and Documenting a Changing UI

A user interface can change as quickly as the sand that shifts under your feet when you’re on a beach close to the shoreline and a strong wave rolls in. The feeling can be quite similar, too. One moment you’re standing firmly on your own two feet. The next, you’re losing your balance and scrambling to find better footing. Let me share with you a few of my tips for staying in the documentation loop in a fast-moving smaller shop.

  1. Know your deadline—and it’s sooner than you think. The first question I ask is, “What’s the deadline?” This is a simple yet deceiving question. People can write down a date, but not realize what it means, such as October 7, 2011. That’s the first Friday in October. If that were your deadline, you might think, Wow, I have until October to get this done! Plenty of time. We’re still in September, and next month can seem further away than it really is, until you write it down. Whatever calendar you use, be it paper or digital, be sure to enter these dates.
  2.  Confirm your deliverables. Hard on the heels of the when is the what. If someone wants a piece in Word, PDF, or Web format, I know I can do that, and chances are you do, too. Every once in a while, a client will throw you a curve by asking for an end product you know little about, perhaps MP3 or Flash. Decide whether you can study up on the deliverable fast enough to give the client what they asked for. You might even want to ask them why they want a particular format, and if it makes sense, suggest an alternative.
  3. Make contact with your point of contact. Sometimes my manager will be my contact person, but the busier he becomes, the more he delegates. So I’m not always sure who my contact is for any project until I ask. This is especially important to know during vacation season, when your primary contact might be out of the office when your deliverable is due. Make sure you ask who your secondary contact is, too.
  4. Never sell bribery short. Programmers are human, too, and most all humans can be moved with the right kind of compensation. You’ll run into developers with a sweet tooth or a caffeine addiction. A jar of sweets sitting on your desk is an open invitation. Randomly visit their cubes with a Starbucks daily special or a six-pack of Jolt cola. Whatever the vice, make sure you personally offer the developer some, and urge them to stop by for a chat about what’s coming up. It’ll come in handy when you’re on deadline and need a fast answer.
  5. The customer—your boss—is always right. Your manager is your most important contact and client. If your manager asks you to do something, do your best to finish early. Then ask if she’s happy with what you did, and what you can do to improve. Finally, ask what else is coming up that you can help with, and you’ll start building a rapport that will keep you in the loop. Treat your manager like your most important client, because she is.

A special thank you to Adobe Systems, Inc. for sponsoring our Tips & Tricks column. You can learn more about Adobe’s industry-leading technical communication tools by going to their website.

What else could help the small team or lone writer?  Let’s discuss in the comments …

Craig Cardimon

Craig Cardimon wears many hats and loves all of them -- technical communicator, content curator, and freelance copywriter. In his not-so-copious spare time, he reads, writes, runs on the local trail, and watches way too much "retro" TV.

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