When the “right” tool isn’t the “best” tool

Not too long ago, generic I found myself stuck between a rock and a hard place. I work for a large organization (30k+ world wide workforce), purchase and I’m just one tiny fish in a very large lake.

I was asked to provide help content in the form of a getting started guide for a piece of software that was going to be released world-wide.

I started working on the project using my tool of choice, capsule a help authoring tool called MadCap Flare. This is a tool I really like, and have been using for several years. I’m something of an expert on Flare, so it is my first choice for pretty much any authoring project.

I started working within my group, however, and found that Flare wasn’t going to be the right solution for this project because of project constraints outside of my control. We have an in-house translation group that does all our content translation. They have their tools in place and are not interested in obtaining and learning to use a new tool (MadCap’s Lingo tool). There are certain strings in the project (specifically surrounding variables and master pages) that wouldn’t get sent to translation if they didn’t use Lingo. This project is going to go out in 24 languages, so simplifying the process is essential.

I ended up creating a site using JavaScript and HTML. Translation can handle HTML files, so this project is easy for them to manage on their side.

The moral of this story is that I ended up picking an inferior (in my opinion) tool, HTML and JavaScript because it was the right tool for this project. While I think Flare is a better tool overall, in this case, it wasn’t the right fit. Now I could have gone through a bunch of hoops to output HTML files and then re-import them into the Flare project, and then try to re-generate the project in the new language, but that was more work, with more room for error, even though it would have given me more options for designing and creating my output.

Sometimes you have to pick the right tool, even if it isn’t the best tool.

You may remember the old WordPerfect days. Those were the days of Reveal Codes (Alt F3) when changing the formatting of your document was easy. In fact, in the late 80s and early 90s, WordPerfect was the de facto standard word processor.

Now, twenty years later, Microsft Word has taken over as the market leader and standard word processor. Word Perfect is still out there, but you’re hard pressed to find any company (outside of Corel, the current owners and developers of WordPerfect) that uses WordPerfect.

Most former WordPerfect users have been forced to learn to use Microsoft Word, and many complain that they are lost without Reveal Codes, and are unable to format the document the way that they want. They believe that WordPerfect was a better word processor. However, just because WordPerfect may be the better tool, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is the right tool to use. It turns out that if you can’t share documents with other people who don’t use the same word processor then you have a harder time communicating with them. Or, if your organization doesn’t support WordPerfect, you can’t use it at work.

(Now, I will point out that current versions of WordPerfect are able to read and write MS Word files, so this isn’t a perfect comparison, yet there have been many people who, due to work requirements, have been forced to make the switch to Word, regardless of WordPerfect’s ability to read/write MS Word files.)

The trick, it seems, is knowing when the right tool IS the best tool, and knowing when the right tool is something else. As technical communicators, we need to be more focused on getting the project done the right way for our organization, while focusing less on whether or not we get to use our favorite tools.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with giving up on tools you loved for the sake of a project. Share your story in the comments, below.

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3 Responses to When the “right” tool isn’t the “best” tool

  1. Kim August 3, 2010 at 5:18 am #

    Well it’s always like that , you are exceptionally good at something but you have to work in balance with others where you can’t work the way you want to to work .
    I don’t have any such experience !

  2. Leigh September 6, 2010 at 8:27 pm #

    Paul, thank you so much for the advice in your article. It is definitely true that I also find that there has been many times where I wanted something to work a certain way only to have to conform to company protocol so it would be more accessible to a wide variety of people. Sometimes it seems hard to give up things that we like using, especially when we like to consider ourselves experts on how to use them. I’m not exactly sure what Flare is, but it sounds pretty awesome and you seem to have a passion for using it which is always refreshing to hear. I can totally relate to giving something up for the greater good when the right tool may not always be the best and having to adjust your work style for the best interest of the company at large.
    The company I used to work at had some of the worst web editing software I have ever seen. In efforts to redesign my team’s section of the website, several plans had to be scaled back or implemented differently than we had originally hoped. We wanted to have several pretty buttons going across the screen to make the visitors be able to find things easier – such as our FAQs, Contact Information, Catalog of Courses offered, Calendar, and our new ‘In the News’ section. The pages are also still very text heavy and in very small type as well (it’s probably equivalent to an 8pt font which makes it very hard to read for those who already have trouble seeing!) so you can imagine my frustration when I heard there was nothing we could do to change this. This is the sad reality of working for nonprofits where you sort of have to take things as is, this software was gifted to us and there was not much wiggle room to do anything fancy with our website. Still, it was definitely an upgrade from what was there originally. Now users can read bios about the instructors and find out what other classes they are teaching/have taught, view a slightly more interactive calendar, and much more.
    In the grand scheme of things we constantly find ourselves having to adjust what we know and do best to fit within the parameters we are given to work with. You had to give up a tool that you love working with and are familiar with in order for the page as a whole to make sense when being translated out in several languages. I had to adjust things that I wanted to do with our website so that we could work within the means given to us. Sometimes while unable to express how we feel about something of this nature to our colleagues and I find solace in knowing that you can reach out into cyber space and find that you are not alone and that others have faced similar situations. It is interesting that you mentioned Microsoft Word and WordPerfect as a comparison to your situation. WordPerfect was around before my time but I’m pretty sure I caught your drift about having to give up something you’re used to and have come to appreciate for something else. So Paul, you are not alone either! Thanks for sharing and opening up the floor to others!

  3. Ruth August 22, 2012 at 10:16 am #

    An ironic twist… back in the 90s, Corel had to use MS Word to write the user documentation for WordPerfect. My memory is a bit fuzzy as to why, but I think it was because of the MS help compiler.

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