Workflow Systems and Hair Styles: Best Practices for Designing Either (But Mostly Workflow Systems)


A workflow system is a bit like a hair style. Both take substance (hair or content, a.k.a “work”), and push it through a process (the cut or workflow). The goal is for the system or style to make the substance--and the owner--look good. On the face of it, the comparison seems like a silly metaphor to try and get you to read a blog post, which it is. However, the two actually do have a bit in common:

1. If you have hair, then you need a haircut; for content, a workflow.

2. Everyone's head and every organization is unique, and the haircut or workflow should match.

3. Hair or content, both need to go through a multi-step process before being ready for the public.

4. You have a lot of options for what style haircut to get or for what workflow system you choose, and not all of your options are created equal.

5. An out of box system, such as a Flowbee, *might* work, but you'll likely need some personalized design.

When designing a workflow system, there is a process for personalizing this workflow to your organization; process modeling, interviews, analysis of existing systems, prototyping, and testing are some of the tools you need to design a good workflow system. If your content team is up for it, doing some iterative prototyping will help you dial in the perfect system. It takes more effort to arrive at a good workflow system than a hairstyle (well, probably), but the results are worth it.

That said, there are definitely some things to keep in mind when designing a workflow system that can help make the process easier:

Use the process that's already in place.

Don't design a brand new workflow just because of a new trend; all content production rests on the shape of the organization (like hair on a head). Even the most immature of publishing processes is still a process, so understand what is there before you begin trying to improve it.

Design with the content, not with the tools.

Just because a product or open source solution has an approach or feature, doesn't mean it's a good fit for your organization. (Clippers or product shouldn't determine the cut, the hair should.) For as long as you can, design your system in a technology agnostic way.

Use your requirements.

It's likely that your business has publishing requirements. Find out the legal or business needs that the content serves and identify what the system must do to support those needs from the people that create content. (If the hair needs straightening or a curl, cut to that.)

Align your workflow system with your goals.

If your goal is to get better compliance, just making it a feature of the system isn't going to help. If something needs to happen, put it on the path to users’ goal completion, and design the UI around it. (Don't make users put their hair in curlers every day unless they want to or it's part of their job.)

Don't forget the ends.

Your workflow model, if not the system itself, should include a full content life cycle, from drafting to archiving it. (What will this cut look like when it starts to grow out?) Consider the workflow's extension points, flexible elements, and most importantly how it accommodates retiring content. This will help the content continue to look fresh and help pave the path forward.

Finally, accept that workflows are inevitable and evolving.

If you have content, there is a workflow for it. However, it may not be a designed workflow. Taking the time to design the workflow based on your organization and its content will reap huge benefits for your content team and the content itself (and therefore your site's visitors).

Shawn Mole