Earlier this week, I dropped my car off for service because the Check-Engine lamp had come on. The dealer determined that the cause of the problem was related to a mistake made during an earlier service appointment. They fixed the car for free, but I had other service performed during the visit and the dealer wanted to discount those services too. I arrived after the car was done, but before the paperwork had been prepared. I sat and watched as the Service Manager grew more and more frustrated trying to apply the discounts. At one point, he looked over at me and said:
“They have made so many improvements to this system over time that it has started to ruin our productivity.”
The next thing I knew, that guilt-by-association feeling came over me. I could see the kind of hoops he had to jump through and although he was able to do everything he wanted to do, it was an arduous process to cut $7 off the cost of an oil change. The low point came when he had to call the Parts department to ask them to look up a price for an item.
The next day, one of my coworkers stopped in to ask me about a solution I had built around a series of related custom lists in SharePoint. The solution tracks activities that carry a status. One list serves as a master list, and two other lists are used to record two different types of updates to the original entry. I built this a while ago, but he had just started using it. Since the master list item is always created for new items, he was wondering if I could default the status to ‘New.’ “Wow, that was dumb not to do that” was my response and we agreed that I would change that pretty quickly.
Then he gave me a better description of the update and review process, and he asked me: “how do you envision this flowing?” In the conversation that ensued, I realized that different people approach this task differently and he was asking me what I thought the preferred way should be. I explained that, unless the process demanded a certain order among the steps involved, there shouldn’t be a preferred way. Then I explained some of the options that we have for making the process easier for everyone.
Glean Metadata from Context – Just as we agreed that we should default new items to a status of ‘new’, we can also assume that an update will never have a status of ‘new’ and that certain metadata selections will not change during the lifespan of the activity. Taking those choices off the table will eliminate potential errors and make the forms cleaner and less intimidating. Also, we can set some metadata from a workflow that executes after the items are entered or changed.
Act Anytime from Anywhere – As we explored the various places from which the list(s) content can be viewed, we started to discuss when and from where we might like to be able to edit the master item, add an update, edit an update, etc. My answer was “we can start just about any action from wherever you think it makes sense.” This got straight to the issue of “preferred process” – again, if it doesn’t interfere with the underlying process, links, buttons, and data view web parts can provide access to content that some people might like to find on the page. One objection to adding multiple ways to begin a process is that it’s hard to train people. I don’t agree. You can train people in a “standard” way, and you can point out that “we have included convenient options to make it easier for you to do [something] in batches or to update your own records, or [whatever].”
Divide and Conquer – Fortunately, one of the things we got right from the start was to use three lists instead of one massively complicated list. We also skipped past the idea to have one master list and one list for both types of updates. Data entry should be easy; people shouldn’t have to understand rules like “leave this blank for these types of updates” – that’s just crazy. Providing a composite view based on content in three lists required a little bit of work with a few data view web parts, but that’s why we have them.
I can’t do anything to make life easier for my service manager, but I can make sure that my coworkers can enter data easily and that others can find that data when they need it, wherever they might be.