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Why Documentation Is Important

By Tracey Halvorsen

Category Project Process

Date Published January 10, 2011

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Today I was reading a post on Basecamp's blog Signal vs. Noise called The Documentation Dilemma. Basecamp proposes that the act of documentation and creation of project artifacts is a symptom of a bottleneck in the value chain.

This post explores the importance of documentation in the interactive strategy and web design world that Fastspot works within.

There have been some who have suggested that documentation is not important - The Documentation Dilemma. This post proposes that the act of documentation and creation of project artifacts is a symptom of a bottleneck in the value chain. The author implies the documentation process can slow down the creative process to the point where you either:

  1. Produce design ideas at the pace of development, or
  2. Freeze ideas in the form of documents, diagrams, and requirements until they are ready to go later on in the process.

I think this is an oversimplification of documentation, and when, where, and why it's important to a project.

I live in the land of client services, where every project involves a new set of stakeholders, participants, audience types, and overall business objectives.

While we can all appreciate an expedited process, it is not a system that can support long-term complex client projects.

This tendency to assume documentation is a waste of time greatly devalues the importance of clarifying important issues and goals in writing.

Just as the design process should seek to create something perfect and useful for the users and the client, so should the documentation. Documentation can be the first set of deliverables within an agency process to become outdated, stale, or redundant—mainly because they are dismissed as unimportant or left to a lackluster team to plod through begrudgingly. This doesn't need to be the case if we throw out what we think documentation means and seek to find more meaningful ways to integrate the process of documentation.

Success Metrics

One of the very first steps in any project should be to clearly define what the success metrics are for the project. For many of our partners, we know that we want to see very specific metrics move in measurable and meaningful ways. Tracking these results following the launch of a project helps us analyze how successful our project was, determine what next steps will be, and understand how valuable our efforts were. Website redesign projects can have hefty price tags, and it's helpful to know if that money was well spent. Documenting your success metrics early on ensures you'll look to monitor the right things as the site is built, launched and sustained over the life span of the project.

Recording Creativity

I find myself interviewing designers and developers these days and spending as much time looking at their writing skills as I do their technical and design skills. I place a tremendous amount of value on someone's appreciation for and ability to conduct strategic thinking.

You can't replace good old fashioned brainstorming, and the results of that kind of thinking must be successfully documented.

Documents can be exciting, inspiring, and creative forms of expression. Documents can be "living" data, intended to be evolving road maps that can empower a client team long after the vendor has left and the project deliverables have been handed over. Documents are often the foundations that survive the longest and inform the next iteration of thinking.

This is why we find sketchbooks so helpful in our general workflow, and why we give them out during client kick-off meetings and during research phases. We want to capture ideas before they float away, and I encourage everyone at Fastspot to keep their notebooks with them day and night. We all know the best ideas will strike us in the shower or just waking up from sleep. If we don't document those ideas, 99% of them are lost forever.

Clarification Improves Efficiency

Some of the most important documentation we create for clients is where we restate recommendations or strategic goals. While one may argue that this is a rehashing of a productive group conversation, what many who are not as familiar with management roles may forget is that important people who have some say in the progression of the project may not have been part of these group collaborative conversations.

Often, teams must move strategic goals and recommendations up the pipeline for approval, sign-off, and budget allocations. These stakeholders often don't have time to sit through the nitty gritty of the conversions and brainstorming exercises, but they do need to see the final documentation.

This paper trail will also serve as reminders to new members of the team who come on board mid-project and need to catch up. It's a reality that teams will shift, and the last thing you want to have to do is backtrack because a new VP of communications is hired.

Documentation, when done successfully, can keep forward momentum in place and keep the team focused.

Trust is Built on Stability

Additionally, documentation creates trust. We've all sat through great meetings only to see good ideas forgotten, see tasks fall to the wayside, and get stuck in those frustrating loops of "well ... we talked about this, so I assumed it was going to happen." Documentation sets expectations, provides clarity, and creates safety nets.

It prevents vendors from talking a great game but playing "dumb" when it comes to the deliverables. It provides a sense of accountability, and it gives teams something to cross check against.

One of our documents is the Creative Brief. One part of this document is a list of keywords describing the tone and style of the design. This document is formed after meetings and is based on collaborative discussions and fact-finding sessions and research. The list of keywords is short and to the point. However, this list is often referenced during the course of the project by the designers, the developers, and the client. If one of the keywords is "friendly," we have documentation (approved and signed off on by the client) which empowers us to make certain decisions and have them backed up. It prevents an outlier from coming in mid-project and saying, "This should be more slick-looking" or "Why are all these colorful icons included?" The documentation sets things in stone. It reminds, reinforces, clarifies, and limits the scope of the project. Without documentation, we often find ourselves in never-ending circles. Even the mere act of writing something down gives it more legitimacy.

Documentation Makes Things More Real

We know that writing is a helpful tool for memory, we have learned that lists help keep us organized, we have even seen studies that suggest the act of writing something down ensures it has a higher likelihood of succeeding. Many of us were told by parents to write down pro and con lists before making big decisions. We often can't see something clearly until it is clearly written out before us. Perhaps the problem with documentation is the tendency toward wasted words and ineffective thinking? I suspect the issue is not with documentation, but with the types of documents being created for the purposes set in place. I also just have to say I find it ironic that someone at 37signals is talking about documentation being a waste of time when their most popular product, Basecamp (which we use and very much like), is essentially an application for better organizing and sharing documentation.

At Fastspot our "throughput" is anything but low, and our productivity is accomplished with a small team that prides itself on efficiency. Yet no one here would argue on the pointlessness of our documentation. Sure, documentation might have gotten a bad rap from all the poorly conceived ones that exist in the world, but that doesn't mean the process of documentation is faulty. When documentation is a recording of a strategic and creative process focused on clearly outlining issues, goals, recommendations, and guidelines, and created in a way that empowers collaboration and revisions in the future, it is one of the most important phases of any project.

How Do You Document?

What do you think? Have you seen documentation derail productivity or the creative process? Do you have a unique process for generating useful documentation? How do you keep clients with bad habits from forcing you to spend time on worthless documentation and instead generate productive documentation? We'd love to hear from you.