This is the third in a short series of articles describing some of the crucial changes for success that SSP has uncovered in development of our custom work management system, Workforce Management. All of the functionality described in the series was derived from real requirements and brainstorming sessions with actual utilities, and all is currently available in the WFM software. You can learn more about this tool here.
Confession: I'm a grammar nerd.
I'm one of those weird people who can't stand poor punctuation. It bugs me. The same goes for spelling. I try to hide it under a cool, indifferent demeanor, but the itch remains.
The fact that "irregardless" has become an acceptable word in the English language infuriates my subconscious. Also, "alot" is not a word, people. And if you've ever written the phrase "for all intensive purposes," a small part of me wants to put you in intensive care.
This article is not for grammar nerds. This article is for everyone else - the normal people. It's for the people who might not notice that they've misspelled something, used a "fat finger" or otherwise entered invalid data. The fact is, everybody does this from time to time, and if you're going to build a work management system, you might as well plan on accounting for it.
So, we look for opportunities to validate data (and limit typing in general) everywhere we can think of. Here are a few ideas:
1. Require cross-referencing at the point of work-order (WO) creation. In most utilities, there exist a few key attributes that every WO must have, for each of which there is a finite, relatively short list (ie., drop-down) of possible entries. For example, these could include Job Type (Street Light Repair, Meter Set, Line Locate, etc.,) Department (Transmission, Distribution or Substation) and Budget Classification (Capital or Maintenance.) The point is, every WO must have an entry for those fields.
Make this data required before anything else can happen to that WO. Why? Because, the combination of these three entries can then be used to automatically limit the available entries for other key fields - like Charge Code (some call this a Costing Number or similar; it is the unique identifier of the internal fund to bill this work against.)
Let me explain: say you want to create a new WO for an Overhead Line Replacement job to be performed on distribution line. So at the point of WO creation, you select the most applicable phrase - "Overhead Construction-Capital" from the Job Type dropdown:
Select "Distribution" from the Department dropdown:
And select "Capital" from the Budget Classification dropdown:
A new dropdown displays - for Charge Code, and the available entries are based on the unique combination of "cross-reference entries" submitted before (Overhead Constructon-Capital, Distribution, Capital.)
Using a clever-yet-simple table for reference, you then have a list of only those charge codes that may be used for that specific type of work, greatly limiting the potential for error. Perhaps for your utility, cross-reference combinations will produce only one available charge code, essentially eliminating the threat. It's particularly nice to require this entry prior to everything else, so that you ensure you are getting started on the right foot.
2. Utilize type-ahead controls. We all (hopefully) know that dropdown lists are great for data validation. It's obvious enough that I don't think I need to include it as a bullet. But if the list of possible entries is just too long for a dropdown list, what do you do then? There's another way to skin this cat.
Utilizing "type-ahead controls" allows you to produce a usable dropdown list even when there are hundreds or thousands of records. Basically, the functionality takes what you've entered already into the text box and supplies you with a list of possible records with that beginning. It's really simple. This system works much better for numbered-code fields than for text fields, because with text-based fields, users can often forget which word starts the phrase. But for numeric entries, it's a big help.
3. Provide descriptions, not just codes. A couple of the above screenshots give away the surprise here, but I wanted to single this out anyway. Whenever codes are involved in dropdown lists, provide textual detail as well - on the record options themselves. It can do wonders for the validity of your data.
The above example includes not only the Charge Code (EC-...), but the description of the work to be done, so that there is far smaller chance of an incorrect choice.
Again, the same can be done for a materials/inventory list.
4. Simple search. For non-dropdown lists, allow for a basic search using keyword. Have a late night at the bar/game/show/movie? Or maybe you're a new engineer to this utility. Whatever the reason, people can be forgetful, especially when there's a lot going on. Toss in a simple search function for the number-heavy fields and you'll be saving yourself a headache.
Clicking the above search button for "New Standard" will bring up a search text box. Enter the word "conductor" and this will display:
An article like this could be extremely long, so in the efforts of sanity, I'll stop here and let you run with it. I hope I've gotten your creative juices flowing with regards to data validity. Now I'll go back to griping about "they're" vs. "their"...