Writing Assistance, Inc.

It’s In the Numbers: Using Metrics to Plan Documentation Projects

by Margie Yundt and Sherry McMenemy

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It’s in the numbers. Creating documentation is not an exact science, yet as communication leaders, we are expected to provide real estimates for how much time we need to document a project, or what we can produce given a predetermined timeline.

Using a simple Planning Tool, you can improve the accountability of your team and accurately plan documentation projects to gain:

  • More accurate project estimates. With time, you should be able to estimate when your team can deliver on a particular project and better allocate resources for each project.
  • A clear and specific explanation when things take longer than they “should have.”Provided that you update the Planning Tool for a project if any of the factors change, you’ll know which factors changed the delivery time. As best practice, it’s best to retain the original calculations so that you can compare your estimate against actual results during the course of the project.
  • A great way to justify new resources, budget for contractors, or to just say “no.”Conversations about money and resources are so much easier when you know exactly how long something will take and can factor that into the time/resources available to you.
  • The ability to make strategic decisions. Using the Planning Tool, you’ll have the ability to compare different delivery channels (print versus online, for example) along with other factors such as templates, edit levels and so on. Where you have room to adjust the scope of the project, you can do so based on reasonably accurate metrics.

Another more subtle benefit to gain by taking this approach to documentation planning may be in strengthening your department’s reputation. If your department is considered reliable and delivers on its promises, you retain the faith and support of your stakeholders.

The Science of Documentation Metrics – Estimating How Long it Takes

Every team is different. How long it takes to write a document depends on a variety of – believe it or not – measurable factors. However, weighting those factors can be entirely relative.

The key to creating meaningful metrics is to tailor them to your team, its environment, and lessons learned from previous projects. There is no magic formula – you must create your own solution, then test and retest your “tool” until you have perfected the results. Your goal should be to have measurable and predictable planning metrics that are easy to use. Then use them!

This article presents a Planning Tool we’ve developed for our documentation projects. Although our tool is still a work-in-progress, we’re happy to share what we’ve got so far.

Start With a Purpose

Document metrics can help you predict, with reasonable accuracy, how long a project should take and/or determine how much you can get done within a specified timeline. Good planning metrics may also help you determine and justify when to bring in a contractor — or even when to say “no” to a project.

Build It

Step 1 : Determine Important Factors

Unfortunately, there is no “one size fits all” set of factors or weighted values. So when we sat down to come up with a Planning Tool, we determined the factors that impact our projects.

Some background information is important here: our team is specialized in internal documentation and we primarily build small-to-medium sized instructional documents, as well as online documents for training/reference. We decided to build this tool in Microsoft Excel, where we could use basic macros to calculate the totals for us.

The factors we included in our Planning Tool include:

Document size
  • Print: # of pages
  • Online: # of topics
Production level
  • New: create content, edit, format
  • New: content provided, edit, format
  • Update: add some new content; edit, format
  • Update: edit, format only
  • Low, medium or high
  • Microsoft Word, Microsoft Visio, HTML, Other
Template Requirements
  • New template
  • Existing template
  • Revise template with document
  • No template
  • None
  • < 5
  • 5-10
  • > 10
Delivery channel
  • Print/PDF
  • Online (HTML, CBT)
  • Word document
  • Multiple formats
Review cycle
  • # reviewers/stakeholders
  • Full reviews required (content/structure/proof)
  • Content reviews only
  • Proof only (spelling, grammar)

The first factor – Document size – is the number we use as the base value for the rest of the calculations. Within each category, a weighted value is set for the option selected. The total number in the tool is the “number of hours” required to complete the project:

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Note: To show you the weights, we’ve selected all options in each category. When using the tool, we select one option only in each category.

From there, it’s pretty easy to convert that number to other useful time estimates, such as “number of person days” or “number of person weeks.”

For larger teams or teams with a wide range of experience, you may consider adding “experience level” as an additional factor (or even “familiarity with content” to account for a learning curve).

Step 2 : Figure Out the Weights

The easiest way to figure out how to weight the factors you include in your Planning Tool is to set a “base weight” of 1 for the most common option in each category. Then, compare the other options and add or subtract weight based on your experience (we keep it at increments of “.25” to keep things simple).

You will use these “weights” to calculate the totals for each item, so be prepared to adjust them until you get reasonable time estimates for each project factor.

Step 3 : Calculate Your Totals

The last step in creating your spreadsheet is to calculate your totals from what you have entered – yielding a meaningful, reasonably accurate estimate. You don’t need to be a math whiz to play with these numbers—a common sense approach works best here. Also, this exercise does not need to be complicated, so keep it as simple as possible.

Keep in mind the following as you create your formulae:

  • Have all your totals related to only one factor: page and/or topic count; don’t overcomplicate the formula by adding in other relationships or factors.
  • If you have to “fudge” totals or apply a “fudge” factor to attain more reasonable totals, something is wrong with your weights. So, adjust the weights, not the totals.

To test your spreadsheet, use the tool to calculate a time estimate for projects that you’ve already completed. Use projects where you have good information regarding the factors involved and know how long it actually took to complete the project.

Compare the “actual” results with the “predicted” results of your new Planning Tool. The more projects you are able to plug into the tool, the more accurate the tool becomes.

Step 4 : Use it and Test it Again

Okay, here’s the crucial part: everyone must use the tool for every project AND everyone must track projects as they work on them, based on the factors in your tool. Sounds simple enough, right?

How Do I Know When I’ve Got It?

Your Planning Tool is good once there is a reasonable level of accuracy in its ability to predict how long a project will take.

However, make sure that you update the tool to account for new delivery channels, new types of documents, or any other changes that may impact how accurate the tool is. Think of it as a “work in progress”—just as our work environment evolves, so must our Planning Tool.

What we’ve found as we continue to develop this tool is that it encapsulates our experience in a format that is reusable and extendible into the organization. These meaningful metrics are helping us to better serve our customers and better manage resources.

Try It!

If you would like to try our Excel-based tool. Happy number crunching!

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