Never use template files for a workflow

Report writing season is coming soon, and it’s also the season when I want to point out something about what an effective report-writing workflow looks like.

I once worked in a school that tried its damn-dest to make a fool-proof Word template file, and give that to the teachers to use to write the school reports. As long as you got the template file right the first time, it would all work out just fine. The teachers would hand in the documents, and head straight to the printer (after someone edited it for clarity and grammar).

Nice theory.

The problem, though, is that you simply cannot trust the fact that any template is fool-proof. The user will find a way to challenge your assumptions, break the mold, or, perhaps more likely, the guy who put the template file together didn’t think it all the way through. Twice now I witnessed someone deciding to use an Excel file for the template, and locked various things like editing the size of fields and whatnot with a password, only to be forced to give out the password that promised to make the workflow better… because the template file wasn’t working out well.

The way that any report-writing workflow for a school is that the teachers should just input the damn report content into some blankety-blank form. Not to worry about the formatting at all, just put the information into something, somewhere, that simply swallows up the details about what the teacher wants to say about the kid.

Then, using that raw data, a template can be created that brings in that stuff into whatever desired format.

The best part about this is that there are two steps to it. Step 1: Input the info; Step 2: Format the info. Because, between the first and second step, there is the half-step of having some administrator or editor look over the raw data and look for patterns that might affect the formatting stage. This one student has more classes, making the items misalign or something, and so the font sizes need to be smaller, or whatever.

The other nice thing is that if you screw up the formatting stage (which is likely, by the way, since formatting needs a human touch, and anything can go wrong with that!) you can simply go back and try it again. Just take the raw data and run it again.

In tech speak, this is known as “separate the content from the layout“.

And that’s exactly how web sites are designed, too.

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