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Best Practices for Online Review
2009, Q2 (July 21, 2009)
By Terry Smith, Carolina Chapter Member

Terry Smith
Terry Smith
Marking up paper is still the most common way to review documents, but online review is critical if you work as part of a distributed team. There are advantages to online review even if you sit only a cubicle away from your reviewer. Here are few tips for making your online reviews go smoothly.

The tool I have used most often for online review is Adobe Acrobat. The person initiating the review (usually the writer) needs the full version of Adobe Acrobat, but the reviewers only need the free Adobe Reader. The commenting tools are similar to the tools you would use for marking up paper, such as a highlighter or a sticky note. The PDF file looks identical to a printout, so it's easy for reviewers to transfer their reviewing practices from paper to online. Reviewers can add voice markups or attach files to the PDF file. You can set up the review so reviewers can see and respond to each other's comments or use the older method of having one reviewer at a time review the PDF file.

One method for online review that has been tried frequently in the last few years is to place the documentation online, perhaps in a wiki. Typically, the reviewers add their comments and then the writer incorporates those comments back into the source document. Sometimes the process has been automated by a programmer so that the wiki comments are automatically brought back into the source document. The advantage of a wiki is that everyone who can access the network can see the document being reviewed. One of the biggest disadvantages to using a wiki for online review is that marking up the documentation may be less intuitive than marking up a paper-like PDF file. As with all wikis, it can be difficult to get people to use it after you set it up.

Personalizing the online review is a surprisingly effective way to get reviewers to participate.
Personalizing the online review is a surprisingly effective way to get reviewers to participate. In Adobe Acrobat, for example, I have often requested that each reviewer use a different color for markups. Although Adobe Reader already includes the reviewer's login name as part of the comment, the added visual cue is helpful. Some reviewers are interested in scanning the document for certain other people's comments, perhaps to see what the lead developer has said or to check the comments made by someone the reviewer often disagrees with.

Another way to personalize the review is to use pictures of the reviewers. In an online forum, the postings usually include an avatar for each person. Some online review topics have a similar capability. For example, in Adobe Acrobat, you can create custom stamps that show a picture of the reviewer. Suppose you want the reviewers to indicate that they have finished adding updates to a weekly project plan. Each reviewer could add a custom stamp to the first page of the project plan PDF file after marking it up. Anyone who opens the project plan can instantly see who has already reviewed the plan. It's fun (especially if the reviewers choose their own stamps) and it's also motivating to the reviewers to see that others have already finished their part of the work.

Just as reviewers can do a bad review on paper, they can do a bad review online. Make a few rules, write down these tips, and share them with your reviewers. Amazingly, many reviewers who were initially resistant to online reviews will focus on your new rules and not only will they do a better review in general but they will often accept online review more easily after you spell out your tips. Here are a few examples I always share with my reviewers:

  • Be specific with your comments. The meaning of any of the following may be clear to the reviewer: a blank sticky note, a highlighted word with no further explanation, or the all-too-frequent comment "???". In Adobe Acrobat, all comments can have associated text and they should.
  • For Adobe Acrobat only, select Ctrl+K and make sure the text box opens for all comments, not just notes. Since Acrobat 3, the note has been available and it's the only type of comment that automatically opens a text box for reviewers to type in. As a result, most reviewers don't realize that they can type text with highlights, rectangles, and so on.
  • No questions. If a reviewer asks a question (a common question is "Is this right?), then the reviewer must either 1) tell you in the comment when he will get back to you with the answer, or 2) tell you who to ask to get the answer.

Take the time to train your reviewers so they know what you expect from a review.
Take the time to train your reviewers so they know what you expect from a review. Yes, setting up formal training and having everyone participate in a sample review is worth the effort. It's the single best way to ensure that your reviewers accept the new process and are excited about participating. The training should include not only the rules the reviewers should follow but should also show them what you are going to do to help them. For example, when I change the status of a comment in Adobe Acrobat, the date and time when I made the change becomes part of the PDF file. The reviewers can see how many of their comments have been incorporated even before you distribute an updated copy of the document. If you have to stop to work on something else (which often happens), then your reviewers can be confident that you will be able to see where you stopped and they will know when you start working on the original document again.

The advantages of online reviewbetter tracking, concurrent review across the Internet, easier multi-taskingmake it the best choice for many reviews. However, there are times that a paper review makes sense. Don't force online review when your local reviewers are extremely resistant or paper markup is easier.

Terry can be reached at terry dot smith at pobox dot com. End of article.

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