Creating the “Big Picture”

Posted on: March 15, 2009

In order to write a document that meets your business objectives and successfully furthers your company’s interests, you need to establish the “big picture” for that document.

To create the “big picture,” you must  know your product (or subject, or process, or service): the parts, the name of each part, the function(s) of each part, and how all the parts physically and logically relate.

Here is one approach to acquiring that information. Our example product is a software application:

First, learn each part, or module, and its name. Ask for structure diagrams, which help to reveal the product’s “skeleton” — which parts are present, and how they fit together. Get fact sheets, which list features and capabilities. Get printouts of screens, including Help, Error, and Glossary pages.

This “parts” information will directly affect the sort of outline you build, and how you present content in the document.

Next, get an overview of what each part does. At this moment you don’t need all the operational details. Rather, talk with your subject and product experts to find out the basic role of each part: What is its purpose? What assumptions underlie its function? Why would a user select a particular part?

Last, learn how all the parts logically relate to one another. It is essential that you understand the product as a “system” made up of individual parts. Use the structure diagrams or other schematics to discuss the dynamics of how the parts work together. When would a user select a certain feature? Is there an optimal order of selection for each task? Is that order consistent? If not, what does the user need to know to use the product successfully? Could features be grouped by task or other categories?

Here is some more useful information to acquire about a product:

  • What are the most important features of this product?
  • What are the limitations?
  • Does the product have any potential competition in the marketplace? If so, get comparative descriptions of all would-be competitors.
  • Why would someone choose this product over all other methods of getting the job done?

Having answered these and similar questions, you are ready to assemble the “big picture” — that is, to begin building the outline, which is the logical structure of your document.

At this point, you should have enough material for the foundational level of your design work, which is the thinking and planning that must precede all else.

Once you have established the “big picture” in concept, you will be ready to express it in writing. After several drafts and review cycles, you should have a solid outline. The “big picture” is now in place and ready to be used for all further work on the document.

From this point forward, use the outline to collect operational and procedural details from your subject and product experts, to organize your filing system for all the detailed information you gather and, finally, to launch the writing of the first draft of the document.


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