Why do Technical Writers Care About Scope Creep?
Typically, Scope Creep is defined loosely as adding additional features or functionality to a new product, or adding unauthorized work to a project in progress, thus adding to the “scope” of the project that has already been defined – that is, adding to the “scope.” Adding functionality to software will, for example, add additional development hours and while it might make for a better overall product it will increase development time and cost, and it might even be more than the customer asked for or was expecting.
Imagine it this way – you hire a contractor to build you a lovely kitchen. You agree on cherry cabinetry with stainless-steel handles that have been ordered from a warehouse and you have provided the contractor with your drawings for how those should be installed and where. You like your design, and the contractor likes your design, so all is well. A deal is made to finish the installation of those cabinets in two weeks, complete with the hardware. Great. But then you discover these cool undermount lights that would make your countertops look extra cool, and all that needs to happen is that your contractor must drill holes in the back of each cabinet before
installation so that the electrician can wire them seamlessly into your plans. This is a simple task, drilling a hole in each cabinet, and you have not asked the contractor to do any electrical installation whatsoever. But those holes must be measured precisely so that the wiring is exact – which takes time. And math. And a drill.
Your lights will look great, though.
Your cabinetry will now take one and a half weeks to install. And it might cost a little extra.
How badly do you want those lights?
How much does the customer need that extra functionality in the software?
Now, on to why technical writers care.
Each time I have a project laid out in my Agile Calendar, I have planned a certain number of hours for each project. I know roughly how many hours it will take me to learn and understand a software feature, whether I will understand it based on what the developer hands me or if I will have questions about where it goes in the existing documentation set, whether I need to create hyperlinks, whether I need to talk to the QA team to see if that procedure needs testing, and whether I need to revise what the developer gave me to make the text more reader-friendly. I have to scope out not just whether that doc must be placed in one section of the manuals, but whether it should be cross-referenced, whether it should be noted in “New Features,” “Release Notes,” and so on. Do I make an announcement to customers? Do I have to provide notes in any other sections? The current online documentation that I curate would span over 6,000 pages if printed, so I am mindful not to repeat my writing in too many places, hoping to never have the doc reach 7,000 pages – just in case we ever print it!
This fact – that I have a planned set of hours – means that when a developer (or the team of developers) decides that the cabinets could use some really cool undermount lights, I have to readjust my calendar accordingly. I am, in this metaphor, the electrician who is about to find out that her small rewiring job is about to include 20 new lights to install. My calendar shifts quite a bit! When I start out thinking that I have 2 or three documentation changes with one or two hyperlinks and a sentence in the Release Notes, I wind up with a rewrite or an entirely new page, but should I complain? The customer ends up with cool undermount lights!
Well…scope creepers beware. Technical writers can bring about scope creep on a whole new level. Being mindful of a document’s goal, or a document set’s goal, is a big task. In the planning and execution stages, it is my job to make sure that each of the reader’s needs are addressed. When my team creeps, adding new functionality, I tend to creep even further, trying to make sure that my users get ALL of the information relevant to that new function. See where this is going? The developer adds detail, I add detail. It’s like getting a little crazy with the salt shaker.
So, fellow writers, here is my wisdom to you – do your darndest to work on the examples and the metaphors and avoid the creep. Stall the creep at its root. Break your chunks into smaller chunks and help your developers and your project managers do the same. It’s totally fine to put in the undermount lights, but remind them that a whole new manual page needs to be written to tell users how to turn the lights on and off, how to operate the dimmer switch, and where the breaker is located.
Express early and often that if they want to add new functionality, they must write a new story. They should ask whether it is really a new feature. They should approach your time and expertise with more than “it’s a minor doc change/update/addition” each time they add a cool bell or whistle – or undermount light.
If the scope must get broader, we must return to the goal and reevaluate. Consider whether those lights are their own entity, or whether they can brighten up the whole room – or whether they will simply cast a creepy glow all over everything when you come to the kitchen for a glass of water in the middle of the night.