Oct 24, 2017 by Emily Bradley Writing

Perfecting Our Process

You know that feeling you get when you go on a trip you didn’t properly prepare for? You pack the day of, forget to account for traffic getting to the airport, and the whole day feels like a game of catch-up.

That’s kinda what it used to feel like sometimes at MailChimp. When we were small, we didn’t have a clear framework for development. Our product team built and released features, and then we produced documentation afterward. But as we grew, so did our customer support needs, and it became clear that this spontaneous method of production wasn’t sustainable.

For our part, it became more important to have information sooner, so we could make sure thorough documentation was available as soon as a feature was released. We just didn’t have the planning structure in place to coordinate the cross-functional pieces that are so important to user education and experience.

Enter planning week.

What is planning week?

Planning week is now a sacred, beautiful thing here at MailChimp. Every 3 months or so, we push pause and take a full week to plan what we’ll build over the next production cycle. Our process is a modified scrum framework for software development, with work efforts broken up into 2-week sprints.

Before planning week begins, our Product Senior Leadership Team (PSLT) staffs each project with designers and engineers, as well as cross-functional team members like technical writers and researchers. Each team spends the week in a room together, talking out the feature and putting a plan in place for execution.

So, what does that mean for us?

To sum up: It means we know what’s going on.

We’ve grown enormously as a company. In fact, we’ve almost tripled in size over the past 4 years or so. We went from smaller groups of people doing many jobs to a large company with dedicated teams. That’s a great problem to have, but growing pains are inevitable.

It took time for our current processes to evolve, and part of that was figuring out the hard way that cross-functional contributors like technical writers need to be involved early in the development process.

Early involvement means we can plan for the documentation we’ll produce. If we weren’t there, that responsibility would land on someone else’s to-do list or fall through the cracks. Just being there as a feature begins to take shape makes our jobs easier and gives us time to ask the right questions so our documentation can best serve our users.

Another key benefit to early involvement is that we sometimes discover usability issues. It can be challenging to write about a complex feature, and we enjoy that challenge. But if at the end of it you can’t explain how something works, it may mean there’s a problem good documentation can’t fix. If we can recognize that prior to a release, there’s an opportunity to fix it. In this way, we can actually act as a safety net in the production cycle.

What planning week is like for us

We’re often assigned to multiple product teams, so we float between team rooms. The number of teams a writer is on depends heavily on the scope of each project, but we’ve found it works well for each writer to be on 2 projects per production cycle—one major and one smaller.

Here are our main responsibilities to our product teams during planning week:

  • Assess documentation needs
  • Assess in-app copy needs
  • Estimate work efforts and timing
    For example, are we looking at the addition of one new tutorial, or a large-scale audit that involves heavy content revisions throughout the Knowledge Base?
  • Set expectations
    Everyone has their own tasks to worry about, so we try to use this time to set realistic expectations around the timing and complexity of our work.

Of course, all plans are fluid, and they evolve as the project moves along. Throughout the production cycle, teams have stand-ups, as well as sprint planning and retrospective meetings. This ensures everyone remains on the same page and the project moves forward on schedule.

Why planning week is awesome

Everyone will tell you planning week is exhausting, and it’s true. We’re at the end of it right now and my brain feels like it’s run a marathon. It’s draining to think through all the facets of a project, try to foresee roadblocks, account for dependencies, and just look at and think about all the work you have ahead of you.

But it’s also one of the best things we do as a company. Everyone is on the same page, we have a plan (and backup plan) in place, and we cultivate a sense of camaraderie that carries through the production cycle.

The best part is we emerge from planning week ready to hit the ground running!