Checklists are Your Friends (surgery, photography, testing, coding, marketing)

The headline of the local Seattle Newspaper yesterday caught my eye. It was about how surgeons at the UW (my Alma Mater) are now using aviation-inspired checklists to make sure they don’t, you know, leave stuff inside of people. This resonated with me, because I had resolved to making checklists for photo gear packing after a near-fiasco last weekend.

I was taking wedding reception photos as a favor for an old friend. For the most part, I hate the entire idea of doing wedding photography. The risk/stress/reward/effort ratios don’t work out right.  This one actually worked out really well, as the couple and wedding party were all great. They also had a “real” photographer working (who had more invested in one lens than I have in my entire setup, alas) which freed me up to take some more experimental pictures, such as HDR still lifes of the venue, controlled motion blur shots of people dancing, and grainy black and white candids (I love tmax 3200 because of the grain, not in spite of it).

I took special care to make sure that all of my camera and flash batteries were charged before the event, but I didn’t spend a lot of time packing the bag before I left. I just threw everything into the camera bag and ran out the door. When I got to the venue and started putting all of the things together, I found I was missing a small but vital piece, the caddy that holds two batteries and slides into my battery grip. Without it, my DSLR wouldn’t work. Panic!

After calling home 15 times, I finally got in touch with my wife, who graciously drove across town with a small piece of plastic so I could actually turn the camera on. Fortunately, I brought a film SLR as a backup, and had just finished my last roll when she pulled up.

If I had made a simple packing checklist, much pain and fear would have been avoided.

And while I’m not a fan of oppressive standards, heavyweight processes, or detailed artifacts in software development (my thinking is that if you’re constrained by your conventions, the best you’ll ever be is conventional) simple “have I forgotten this” checklists are insanely valuable.  Based on what I’ve seen, they’re also underused. 

My first job in software was split between testing and support for a small company making technical graphics software. The testing department was pretty unstructured. We had reasonable automated test coverage (horrible by today’s standards, but OK for the time) but all manual testing was, “Hey Martin, I just fixed this bug, go poke at it!” and “We’re realeasing a beta next week, test everything!” and “We’ve got a release candidate, get the people from sales and marketing to play with it!”

So, for no other benefit than my own confidence, I made a some checklists, just to keep from forgetting to test specific features/permutations.  Eventually the company adopted my checklists and handed them around when we did our “all-hands” pre-release testing.  Just asking people (including me) to be mindful of the feature list when they were doing their exploratory testing helped us find many problems as well as places where we could improve the user experience.

I saw this again a few days ago when I was looking at a web application that made a lot of pretty common security mistakes (no SSL for login, emailing passwords in cleartext, etc.). “These are all essentially solved problems,”  I thought, “Shouldn’t there be a checklist for this sort of thing?” 

Many experienced folks have a sort of mental checklist. Things they know instinctively to look for. Like my old mentor who would always enter “O’Brien” into name fields to catch inappropriatley escaped SQL input. This is one of the reasons why domain knowledge is so valuable. How do we get people to capture and share this domain knowledge? Couldn’t a development group be able to use a set of mature “don’t forget to think about thing X” checklists as a competitive advantage for design/development/testing?

While writing this, I’m reminded of my favorite marketing professor at the UW. After spending a whole quarter discussing different theories, reading case studies, and pulling examples from real-life companies, the last day of class she said (and I’m paraphrasing here, because that was some time ago).

In the real world, when you start in marketing professionally, it’s just checklists: Have I identified the market for my product or service? Have I explained my offering to someone who doesn’t understand it? Have I underpriced? Have I overpriced? Am I saying something stupid or offensive in this ad? How will my competitors react to this change? How will my customers react to this change?  The answers are all easy, but bad marketers forget to ask the questions.

Sure, that doesn’t get you to greatness (or even guarantee goodness), but it at least keeps you from forgetting about the obvious.

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