Re: Creating a consistent look and feel for docs

Subject: Re: Creating a consistent look and feel for docs
From: Mark Magennis <markmagennis -at- yahoo -dot- com>
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com
Date: Thu, 7 Oct 1999 07:01:43 -0700 (PDT)


I recently did pretty much what you describe. My company is at a
stage where we want to standardise the look and feel of
documents that go outside (this includes letters and faxes).
However, we are still at a stage where those documents will be
written and printed by individuals in management, marketing,
software development, etc.

Be under no illusion, it will be challenging, time consuming,
but very worthwhile. After a lot of work, my managers are very
pleased with the standardisation. Also, I am told by my
colleagues that my templates take a lot of the pain out of
producing documents.

The basic problem is that Microsoft Word is criminally
over-complicated for the average user. Most of the staff in my
company find it unfathomable and unpredictable. I would say,
quite seriously, that they would find it virtually impossible to
use it to create documents to the company standard without the
automation that is provided by the templates. Apart from the
problems they have using the software, most users simply do not
notice, or sometimes do not care about, differences between
standard and non-standard documents.

Your main criteria for a successful set of tools should be that
creating documents to the company standard becomes easier for
users than before. If it is more difficult to use your
templates, if it requires more understanding of Microsoft Word
features, if users have to read a 50 page style guide and stick
to it, then things are going to be very tough for you.

As Tom Murrell has said, it will be important to explain the
benefits to users right at the outset. Tell them that things
will be a lot easier for them with the new templates. Tell them
why. Get management to tell them that the standardisation
project is important to the company and has their full backing.
It will be much easier to implement new practices with people
who believe in their worth and are enthusiastic about them.

I agree with what Dianne Blake says about the value of thorough
training. However, you have to ask yourself some questions. How
much training, realistically, will you be able to give? Will
users attend the training? Will they take it in? What about new
staff? What are the on-going training requirements and can you
meet them? In my case, I organised introductory sessions for
every member of staff. About half of management never turned up,
despite being rescheduled up to half a dozen times. It just
didn't work in practice. I was unable to provide the kind of
training that Dianne recommends, although if I were to do it all
again I'd give it a much higher priority.

Whether you train people or not, you should carry out a review
after a couple of months. You will need to find out how
successful your materials are. This may require you collecting
documents and checking them to see if they match the standard.
You'd be amazed at how people will do things which you hadn't
anticipated. Maybe it's the way the interpret the requirements.
Maybe they need to be clarified. Be sensitive. The emphasis
should be on judging your materials, not judging the users. If
users can't use them, the materials are essentially unusable, no
matter what you may think of the users.

I would recommend very strongly that you create a draft version
of all the materials and carry out a usability study and update
them before release. If you test them out on a few willing
people (try to include diverse user types), you should find most
of the problems and bugs without alienating your users. The
worst thing you can do is unveil your master plan only to find
that it is immediately derided as unsuitable and full of bugs.
Getting users to accept a 'fixed' version will then be extremely
difficult and your reputation will be in tatters. If you have
the time and willingness to learn a bit of usability testing,
then great. Look at Jeffrey Rubin's Handbook of Usability
Testing, published by Wiley. It's a very good practical guide. I
used it myself and I discovered serious usability problems. I
shudder to think what would have happened if I had released the
first version, which I actually thought at the time was quite

I would recommend you steer away from the styleguide approach.
Many users will be unable or unwilling to follow it. Maybe a
short guide explaining the purpose of the templates and the
basic concepts - what is a template, how do you use one, in what
way is the new method different to what they are used to, etc.
It would be better to rely on training for this though. Make as
few "rules" as possible. You will almost certainly have to tell
people a coupe of basic rules, such as:

Use the styles provided, don't format manually.
Don't insert blank spaces between paragraphs (styles control
Don't put two spaces after a period (or should that be "Do"?)
Capitalise all section headings and don't number sections

Even so, you'll find it difficult to get users to go against
their judgement or the way they've always done things.

The automation approach I have taken is to use field codes for
all elements in the headers, footers, and title page (title,
subtitle, brand logo, date, copyright notice). These field codes
reference custom document properties that are set in a specially
created dialog box. For example, the user enters the header text
into the dialog box and it is inserted automatically on all
pages except the title page (Most users wouldn't know how to do

You can make some elements optional. For example, my template
allows you to select one of our three brands. The macro that
runs when you OK the dialog inserts the appropriate logo and
copyright notice for the selected brand and resizes the page to
align with the graphics on the pre-printed stationery. The
dialog also allows you to choose A4 or US Letter paper. Then the
macro repositions the title page elements so that the title and
subtitle fit in the window of the document cover (it's more
complicated than just changing the paper size in the Page
Setup). Another benefit of using a dialog box is that it shows
explicitly al the elements that are allowed which are optional,
and what are the choices. It even explains things like how you
should capitalise titles.

The dialog box opens when you create a new document. It can also
be accessed at any time from a command I have put on the Edit
menu, allowing modifications. Users no longer have to work with
the title page, headers or footers, page numbering, etc. In
fact, they are not allowed to. Neither are they allowed to use
Page Setup.

A technical problem: With Microsoft Word you can protect a
section so that no changes can be made. The macro can unprotect
it temporarily to make updates. It is useful to do this because
if you don't, sooner or later someone is going to come along and
replace the field codes with their own text. Disaster! Also,
users sometimes accidentally reposition things with disastrous
effect. However, a nasty side effect of protecting sections of a
document against editing is that quite a few menu commands
become disabled, even for the unprotected sections. These
include useful things like "Insert Cross Reference" and "Format
Borders and Shading". I don't believe there is anything you can
do about that (except maybe replace them all with your own

My experience has been that, even without protection, things are
better than they were when everyone had to battle with all these
features of Word on their own. Yes, they sometimes replace field
codes. Yes, they sometimes delete section brakes and everything
goes haywire. And yes, the macros aren't as robust as they could
be. But it's much better than it was.

Good luck to you. You'll learn a lot from this. And you'll
become unofficial tech support for Microsoft Word :-)


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