Business Process Writing

Making New Programs Easier: A Case Approach

It is often difficult to know what the priorities are when creating a successful new program. As a project manager for Shoap Technical Services, I have a fair amount of experience initiating new projects. Over the years, I have developed a few key “rules” for every project. While I could just go through my list and explain why I think each rule is important, I think it is easiest to learn through experience, so I have illustrated them through a case study of a recent project.

In October 2008, I was placed on a small project team at one of our clients to begin work on creating a training initiative for Work Management. Our client represents one of the largest energy-traders in the nation, with many of its power plants in the northeast. Each of these plants operates by a Work Management Process, which is a way of detecting and successfully resolving problems or repairs. Before today, plants would conduct training solely from a paper document that describes the entire process, supplemented by instructor-led training with a PowerPoint presentation. I have highlighted some key points that have helped me through the process of creating this new training initiative.

Understand your objective.

Our client wanted my assistance in converting a 180-page document into an interactive, web-based training application that would be used by hundreds of employees within the company. The existing standard for online training at this company was a static and linear approach, using HTML with limited CSS to essentially place the contents of the document into web-based slides.

Because of this, the client was very open to pursuing alternative options for delivering the training and suggested doing something more interactive. Interactive web-based training creates a win-win scenario by increasing retention rates since the employees are more engaged in the content, and by providing a fun and memorable learning experience for the user.

While revamping the training program it was tempting to create new product guide videos or flash applications, but the interactive training program online was the objective. It was important to remember to accomplish that first, and only add the other things at a later time if these additions genuinely helped making the interactive web-based applications more useful for the learners.

Know your strengths.

I began working on this project with the understanding that I would be working with a very small team and was the designated “expert” since I had to simultaneously fill the roles of graphic designer, web designer, interaction designer, and lead developer.

There was much to be done on this project – there wasn’t a single piece of existing or reusable code anywhere. All of the graphics, web components, and interactive elements had to be created from scratch, and I was the one doing it. Though challenging, these job responsibilities were easy for me to handle because of my strengths in both technical and creative fields, and I was able to offer many ideas due to my previous experience in IT training. I doubt that without my help the client would have been able to accomplish this type of initiative. The lesson here is simple: Know what you can do on your own and what to outsource to someone with greater knowledge in the field.

Plan your approach.

First, I identified Adobe Photoshop CS4, Adobe Flash CS4, Microsoft Office 2007, and Microsoft Sharepoint Portal Designer 2007 as essential programs. Next, I generated a series of storyboards to allow me to quickly mock up different methods I could use while designing this project. I had numerous mockups of the website design, user interface, and even some of the interactive elements of the training. This made conveying ideas and approaches very simple and effective, and these materials gave me a better sense of where to begin. Finally, I established a reasonable timeline for producing a working proof of concept.

Work around problems.

Even though I had named the Adobe programs as essential, I only was approved for the Microsoft products. I had to settle for Photoshop CS2 and Macromedia Flash MX 2004. Although I was disappointed because these programs are less effective for what I wanted to accomplish, I simply reworked some of my ideas to fit with the programs I had been given.

Execute your plan.

The project started off very smoothly thanks to the plan I had created. I created a Collaboration Team Site on a server running Windows Sharepoint Services, which would be the home for the training site. Using the document’s outline, as well as Sharepoint Designer and Photoshop, I created sub-sites and a persistent left-navigational menu, providing employees with constant access to all levels of the site. Essentially, just get to work on what is in your plan and don’t worry about new things that may be harder than you intended. Until you run into a problem, don’t concern yourself with the possibility. That doesn’t mean to ignore foresight, but rather to only worry about things as they arise.

Be innovative.

A goal of this project was create a memorable experience in terms of user interface design and interactivity. Presenting creative solutions to challenges can really go a long way to accomplishing this goal.

After reviewing the source document many times, my team and I realized that we should try to bring life to the many process flow diagrams within it. These black-and-white diagrams contained the standard boxes, diamonds, and ovals connected by a mess of spaghetti-like arrows. Diagrams such as these can be useful to an employee who is very familiar with the process, but to a new hire, there is always some degree of ambiguity or confusion.

Using my experience as a video game interface designer, I created a very innovative method of reinventing the process flow and making it completely interactive. My initial approach was taking the employee on a step-by-step walk-through of the process. Presented and completely custom scripted in a Flash movie, users see a low-level view of each step in the process on the left and, on the right see a high-level view of the entire flow, effectively a mini-map. The low-level view illustrates the progression through the process by showing a directional arrow going from one step to another. Users have the ability to dig as deep as they wish to learn about each step.

I essentially took something that was always assumed to be static and made it dynamic and responsive to user input. I successfully placed the learning experience in the hands of the learner, making for an interactive and engaging process. My innovation had transformed a previously marginally useful guide into something that was integral to training.

Make your work easy to adapt.

Recently, our project team decided we should make some changes to the interactive process flows, and this sent me into a panic. However, I developed the first set of process flows in such a way that many of the elements could be reused with little need for additional work. The process of constantly evaluating your work and adapting to the changing needs of the client really helps in driving your overall level of quality. Having the foresight to develop your code or graphics in such a way that would allow them to be easily readapted in the future is a great strategy. Incorporating principles of flexibility allows me to continuously be productive and still generate quality products in the end.

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