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July 18, 2004

Interactivity Wishlist

Posted by Mike on July 18, 2004 1:23 PM

Chatting with Michael a few days ago, we got into questions of how I put my (work) sites together. The site of primary interest involves a bullpen of three fairly steady contributors plus a few others who have something now and then.

Though it isn't happening yet, at some point they'll all be coordinated enough for me to pull off themed weeks, with my "big picture" people working in concert with my hands-on people to hit topics vertically instead of in a grab-bag fashion. So as we get them all coordinated, the reader will hopefully read a "big picture" piece on a certain trend on Monday, and get a reminder at the end of the article that on Wednesday or Thursday, he/she should come back for the implementation piece. Since newsletters are a big part of the site's overall draw, they'll benefit by taking on a more thematically unified approach.

As I described how all that works, how I keep track of it, who knows what when, and how the information moves around, Michael, who's got professional and academic interests in how work flows go together, said "it seems quite a bit of your job is information brokering," which is about right.

I do spend a lot of time editing content, and talking to my writers. I also spend some time writing since I've got a pair of columns that go out each week. And I spend a lot of time reading just so I can get a sense of what's going on for each of the columns. But the real work flow issue is pretty much about information. I'm either taking it in or passing it along, or relating it in selected snippets in assorted contexts (the weekly edit plan that goes up to my executive editor, the quick summary that goes out during the weekly teleconference with the rest of my group, or the really quick overview of which way I want the site to go when I talk to my writers).

Since macifying the home, it's been a lot easier to contemplate workflow issues, simply because I've got a lot of tools that are available in both mobile and home-based contexts (so there are no concerns about porting data back and forth), and there are no issues about differing formats.

The inner Linux nerd in me flips out over that. "Lock-in!" it hisses. Then I think "well, yeah. Locked in," because I'm not a developer, and because there have been plenty of applications I've used under Linux that stored their data in no more end user friendly a fashion that Apple, which is at least sticking to using recognized standards for its calendar, addressbook, and mail applications.

Anyhow, long and short:

Up to now, I've never really thought about work flow issues in any depth, which is sort of weird because starting with the second half of my tour in Korea in '94-'95, I've worked in nothing but information management positions, which are pretty workflow intensive. I've always just taken work as it comes, shuffled it along, or held it long enough to munge it into shape for other recipients. I tend to have huge stacks of paper laying around, and offices under my supervision have usually ended up being ad-hocracies with a light layer of organization on the outward-facing parts of the operation.

That approach has worked fine when the amount of time I've had has been closer to "as much as I need" and my energy levels have been higher and more focused. It drives people around me crazy, but I've also usually been pretty reliable, if disorganized, so that part has balanced out.

But now there's more to contend with on a daily basis. If I miss something during the period I think of as "the work day" (which is sort of amorphous, since I work at home, but usually starts around 6:30 and ends around 4:00), it's getting harder and harder to deal with it later because Ben's in the picture and I hate shorting him and Alison any of the time that's not part of the work day.

Which brings us to the title of the entry: "Interactivity Wishlist"

I wish I knew of a mailing list where people got into workflow stuff in the way Whole Earth Review used to get into the generic concept of "tools." Every issue was a great repository of either tools or books about how to use tools. I think I learned about the Leatherman in an issue of WER some time around '91 or '92, for instance, in the form of a tiny blurb and a picture.

It's part of the whole "Clean and orderly thing," but I'd rather avoid the insane specificity of stuff like The Good Easy, which spends too much time on the high level stuff (have this app, make this thing be called this, move these things here, make your buttons look like this, use this font) and too little time explaining its conceptual underpinnings (data should be portable, for instance).

Naturally, I'd like it to have a technology focus, only because my work interactions and the information I deal with must cross the computer at some point, but I'd be open to discussion about any sort of workflow management tools, whether it's in the form of "here are the best pens" to "here are some cool pads that have this interesting ruling on them so you can..." And I'd also like to talk about workflow management proper, or books related to that. For instance, "Time Management for Dummies" was surprisingly revelatory to me when I picked up to pull myself out of the quagmire of a work backlog at Ft. Bragg.


Update: I think I'll move my musings on this over to flooooow