If there’s one thing at the heart of everything Tuts+ does, it’s people. We currently have ten editors and course producers who in turn team with a pool of managers, copy editors, assistants and analysts. Some of these editors work with as many as a hundred different instructors in a given year and from every corner of the globe. When you start multiplying those numbers together, it equates to a very large group of people, all working together to create tutorials and courses that are consistent in approach and quality. In concept, this is fairly simple. In execution, it’s no small feat.
We use a number of communication and project management tools at Tuts+, but we recently rolled out a new and very specific workflow for planning, commissioning and revising our content. The goal—to make life better for everyone involved in the editorial side of Tuts+, so that we can make even more great things for you to learn.
The Consistency vs. Autonomy Tradeoff
Our editorial team is almost entirely remote (from HQ in Melbourne), scattered all over the globe in different timezones. The freedom to choose when and how to work is built into the job. It’s a significant perk and is a large part of why working for Tuts+ is so great. However, as the team grew and diversified over the years, workflows became more and more disparate and consequently so did the end product. It became obvious that if we wanted a more consistent and unified content strategy we needed to start operating more like a team.
Once the need for change was recognised we spent months trying to find a balance between autonomy and consistency. Since then we’ve updated our processes and guidelines across the board and completely overhauled how we approach content planning and creation. A key part of this process was an in-depth examination and redefinition of our editorial commissioning workflow.
A Unified Editorial Workflow
It became apparent that if we wanted to get everyone on the same page and provide a greater level of transparency for the content planning workflows of our entire team, we’d have to implement a consistent workflow across every topic and category.
Inherently, that approach comes with some lofty goals. To be truly useful, it would have to track the status of every single tutorial and course published across the network, while also serving as an important documentation process for the major points of communication behind each individual piece of content. A fair amount of conversation and decision-making between editors and instructors goes into everything we publish, and it’s important to pull as much of this communication out of private email as possible, so that other team members can be involved.
Planning the Process Before Choosing a Tool
With such a wealth of project management, collaboration and editorial applications available these days, choosing a platform to take our team forward was more difficult than you’d imagine.
The best advice in this situation is: forget the software. Instead of looking for tools on which to base the new workflow, we instead built the workflow independent of any application, then looked around to see what fit.
At this stage it was necessary to distill the universal aspects of the editorial process down into clear steps. Each Tuts+ Editor has their own preferred methods and workflows. We had to ask ourselves: what steps does a tutorial or course typically take through its journey from conception to completion?
Eventually, we arrived at a simple diagram which outlined the entire process. Regardless of how personalized and unique any editor’s workflow was, odds are, it included these basic steps.
Process of Elimination
Armed with a clarified understanding of exactly how the system would work, we could now proceed to find a tool to facilitate the process.
Collaborative writing apps were out (we already have a CMS). We needed a communication tool, not a writing tool. Scalability and flexibility, however, were key. If we were to add over one hundred instructors, all working independently and having conversations with their editor, would the amount of content make the app difficult to use?
After applying these ideas and keeping the desired workflow in mind, one app stood out as the clear winner.
Right back when we embarked on improving our editorial process we looked at Trello, but dismissed it quickly because of its simplistic approach. The more we compared it with the diagram, however, the more it made sense to have each individual piece of content moving horizontally, back and forth through the workflow. If each tutorial were a card, and each step in the process were a list, participants could easily drag tutorials from one step to the next and track their progress as they moved through the system.
It turns out that Trello only appears simplistic. Under the hood it’s hiding a truly impressive feature set. Here are some of the organizational features that help you cut through the clutter in Trello:
- Due dates (and missed due date highlighting)
- Robust search
- Username @ tagging (like on Twitter)
- An all-inclusive activity feed
- Calendar (organizes content by due date)
- Visible card aging (makes cards fade after a period of inactivity)
Like most project management tools, Trello allows you to assign specific people to a task (as many as you want) and apply due dates, which then serve to trigger reminders and notifications.
The visual nature of each task is an important aspect of Trello. Assigned users’ avatars appear on cards, along with coloured labels for easy reference and attachment thumbnails for immediate identification. Lack of activity on a card will reduce its opacity, so anything which isn’t getting the attention it deserves will visibly begin to fade away. There’s even a colour-blind friendly mode which, when activated, distinguishes coloured areas by adding patterned backgrounds.
Lastly, and importantly for us, the volume of cards on a busy “board” can quickly be thinned by filtering based on person, subject, keyword and so on.
In short, Trello fits very well with our desired editorial process.
It Isn’t Perfect
An important part of this entire process was in realizing that there wouldn’t be one single application built to our precise needs.
The key area we’ve found to be lacking in Trello is the ability to facilitate group discussions. In processes where group discussions take center stage, Basecamp is a far better solution that makes it much easier to kick off and keep track of a team conversation.
That said, Trello does cultivate a sense of community. All members of a board, be they editors, managers or instructors, are made to feel that they’re welcome to engage on any task or conversation. Avatars put faces to names, discussions ensue and teams bonds are formed.
In 2013, there was no single place where we could quickly and easily take the pulse of our entire body of upcoming content. Nor was there a quick way to hand off a topic area (including all in-progress content, all the relevant instructors, and future content plans) to a new editor, temporarily or permanently.
Now we have all of this and more, though implementing our new workflow was definitely a learning curve. Here are some of the most important lessons we came across along the way:
- In larger remote teams, there can be a significant tradeoff between autonomy and consistency. Finding the unique balance for your team and task is important, but not easy.
- In creating workflows for the entire team, it’s important to remove personal biases where possible and consider what works best for a diverse group of people performing a variety of tasks.
- Don’t find apps that you like and then use them to shape your team’s workflows. Build workflows that serve your purpose and then look for a tool that you can use to facilitate that process.
- No single existing tool will fit your needs perfectly; either build your own or be prepared to compromise by selecting the one that fits your primary purpose best.
- Don’t attach yourself to a process just because you’ve put a lot of work into it. Get feedback from the people who will actually use it every day and respond to their concerns. Sometimes this means defending an important pillar of the workflow, but more often it means admitting that you were wrong about something and being willing to make a change.