Software User Feedback: Seeing outside of the technical writer’s cube

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Jay Wisnosky – Technical Writer

Rock Island Arsenal is on the Mississippi River between the cities of Rock Island, IL and Davenport, IA.  It was first established as a government site in 1816, served as a Civil War prison camp to over 12,000 Confederate prisoners, and now provides manufacturing, logistics and base support for the Armed Forces.

From 15 January through 18 January 2013, Rock Island Arsenal was the training location for ProModel’s Decision Support Tool – Sourcing Module (DST-SM), with the focus trainees being a group from the United States Army Materiel Command (AMC). AMC is the primary provider of materiel to the United States Army. DST-SM is a web-based software application developed by ProModel and designed to assist AMC and other logisticians in the Army to plan the best possible decisions for materiel distribution across the world. As the technical documentation specialist for DST-SM, it is a collaboration with which I am very proud to be associated, so I welcomed the opportunity to attend these training sessions.

It’s not every day that I get the opportunity to interact with the customers of one of our products. If you are a technical writer, you know that much of the interaction and feedback from customers comes filtered through your company’s support team, consultants or other subject matter experts. It sometimes takes a journalist’s tenacity, a quality assurance analyst’s patience, and a politician’s handshake to get information about the technical details of your product. The end result is typically a user manual, which if done well, is quietly referenced and met with very little acclaim.

So on the first day of training at Rock Island Arsenal, I sat as a quiet observer in the back of the training room with notepad in hand, ready for class to begin. By 8:30 a.m., a blend of enlisted soldier and civilian trainees had taken their places behind secure computer monitors. The DST-SM trainer introduced the guests, a mixture of contractors and ProModel employees, to the classroom.

When he introduced me, I felt a rush of fear and pride swell in my chest. He stated my name and title and then added a note, informing the class that I was the author of the previous bound copy of the user manual that was distributed to many of them with the summer release of DST-SM. He added that with this new release the user manual was now online as a new feature and view-able at any given moment from the Help option in the main menu. I felt their staring eyes turn in my direction for a moment, before the trainer continued to his first segment of the session.

Whatever fear of scrutiny I had slowly disappeared as I watched several students reference the online help throughout the course of the training session.  In addition, the trainees regularly turned to me to ask questions about a certain function or screen. Their questions ranged from process-related questions to inquiries about the tool’s usability and performance. Though I couldn’t explain to them how to perform their job, I felt confident helping the trainees navigate the application.  I saw new users of the tool gain confidence and experienced users pick up on the new features with relative ease.

Perhaps one the most beneficial aspects to being a technical writer in the presence of users during a training session was hearing their suggestions, concerns and obstacles. I took this unique chance to interact with the AMC trainees as a golden opportunity to absorb as much as I possibly could about the usability of DST-SM, as well as the effectiveness of my help documentation. Often, a major oversight in developing, testing, and documenting any application is how close we grow to our own process and application. However, through the fresh eyes of a new user, using the tool in a manner familiar to their specific job, you get to see where gaps in the documentation exist and where room for usability can improve. So as we were helping them do their jobs, they were helping us do ours. As the morning progressed, I saw the many hours of hard work by DST-SM developers, product managers, program directors, and testers, finally coming to fruition.

I considered the experience both gratifying and inspiring. The AMC trainees used the help in accordance with the trainer’s instructions and in conjunction with the practical exercises at the end of each session.

The inspiring part is about moving forward with an added perspective and incentive. There’s no doubt having that kind of experience will lend to a stronger, more useful product on the page and in the application. Observing how investments in money, time, and effort are manifest in real world scenarios outside the walls of my cubicle is something that every technical writer imagines, but rarely gets a chance to witness.

Strengthening the Innovation Value Chain

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Cathy Liggett – Sales Director, PPM Solutions

Our Customers can connect strategic planning with market and business opportunity definitions. 

When Innovation Teams fail to deliver on their promises, the most frequent explanation is that the strategy was wrong. But the strategy by itself is not often the cause. Strategies most often fail because they aren’t executed well. Either the team isn’t capable of making them happen, or the leaders of the organization misjudge the challenges their teams face in the market place, or both.

The right portfolio and capacity planning tool will allow strategic planners to examine multiple scenarios and predict the probability of success within a set of given budgets, constraints and thresholds. Typically, strategic planners throw these guidelines over the fence to those responsible for identifying and defining market and business opportunities within their portfolio. If the strategic planning team shares the executable model developed while creating the strategy with the portfolio management team, the strategic vision can become “our” vision instead of “their” vision.

The benefits of empowerment are realized as Portfolio Managers redistribute and balance the opportunity portfolio. Opportunities can be selected based on the budgets, thresholds, and constraints of the strategic model. Ways for opportunities to compensate for one another can be identified while maintaining strategic alignment. The unified team (Strategic Planners and Portfolio Managers)―with its synergy of effort―offers greater knowledge than if the Portfolio Managers of opportunity definition and the Capacity Planners of strategic planning work separately. The shared, executable model is key to a common vision, and required to truly join capacity planning and portfolio management.

ProModel customers build executable models driven by a discrete event simulator to determine potentials, define competency requirements, and establish portfolio budgets. They use this same model for portfolio management to balance opportunities, and minimize risk. This connection helps establish a common language between strategy and opportunity planning.

Our Customers can align product roadmaps to these market opportunities.

Power is the rate at which work is accomplished. Roadmaps control that rate. We like to think of it as the throttle of execution. This is where the day-to-day activities of the project meet strategy. Yes, it’s true that the roadmap should be seen as a portfolio. The Roadmapping Team must balance opportunity with capability while maintaining strategic alignment.

A shared, executable model helps our customers bridge the gap between the potential and realized returns of the enterprise roadmap, while optimizing the execution rates of the individual projects on that roadmap. Of course risk and reward are balanced, but perhaps the greatest advantage the executable model brings to roadmapping is change impact analysis. For this task, automated reports just can’t address the bursty nature of enterprise change. The averages and estimates of traditional Gantt charts, and strategic plans don’t address the issues of resource availability or future capability needed for roadmapping.

Our Customer’s day-to-day decisions required in Market Sensing, Problem, Feature, Requirement, and Launch definition receive direction and focus from these roadmaps.

A common executable model, used for strategic planning, capacity planning, portfolio management, and roadmapping helps build a common language, focus, and almost frictionless execution. The model helps everyone on the Innovation Team understand where the constraints came from. The final result is empowerment to the front lines, where decisions are being made. The model, which is connected to the roadmap, opportunities, and strategy can now be used for “What if” analysis.

The day-to-day decisions of members on the Innovation Team can be strengthened by the executable model. This executable model is used to gain insight into trends and forces that impact our decisions. By studying the behavior of the model, good decisions can be made without formal analysis. The goal is to empower their Innovation Team with reliable instincts, formulated with facts and modeled experiences, so that when the time comes, good decisions can be made in a timely manner.

Members of the Innovation Team gathering market evidence, analyzing the evidence to define problem statements, constructing innovative feature definitions, specifying market requirements, or planning the launch, use the executable model to conduct what if analyses, and change impact analysis to be sure the maximum competitive advantage is delivered within the current business constraints.

This three-tier coordination between Strategy, Opportunities, Roadmaps, day-to-day  market sensing, problem, feature, requirement, and launch definition can be accomplished through the right type of capacity planning and portfolio management capabilities.

Win a FREE ProModel Deluxe Student Package

Big data and analytics are definitely hot topics in the Tech world these days.  University and college masters programs are springing up all over the place.  These programs are hoping to gear up business analytics, machine learning and other data analysis programs to train today’s undergrads.

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