5th September 2013:
I hate templates.
I’m not talking about the sort of template you get from within a word processing package or the header that sits on top of your letter to a client. I’m also not talking about forms given to clients (although an argument could be made about them too).
On the contrary, I’m talking about the local authority template with boxes to complete, vague headings and italic writing that explains what is meant to go into each box.
There are three reasons that I hate templates:
1) People complete them
There is no template in the world that can be accurately deployed for every situation. Nonetheless, as soon as you ask someone to complete a template you can guarantee that they will try their best to find something to write into every box. This is just one example of the ‘compliance culture’ that can often be a real problem for local authorities.
2) The sum of a template is definitely less than the sum of its parts
The idea of a template is to ensure comprehensiveness. We don’t want to miss anything and therefore we design an approach that ensures that every officer completing it can’t miss the things we expect them to tell us.
However, what usually happens is that by asking officers to complete a number of sections independently you get answers to each of your questions but no overall sense of what is trying to be achieved. The template encourages managers to not think about what they want to communicate but instead to focus on answering a series of, usually fairly general, questions.
What you end up with is usually fairly incomprehensible.
3) Templates are always badly formatted
I know this sounds a little petty and compared to complaints 1 and 2 it really is. However, how many times have you been asked to complete a template only to find out that the word boxes don’t work when spread over more than one page, the document won’t let you write in some sections and the fonts are unusable? I find filling in templates incredibly frustrating.
So, what would I do to replace the templates?
I work from the theory that a template is provided to officers for one of three reasons;
1) Because we don’t trust them to provide all of the necessary information.
2) To give people an aide memoir of information required so they don’t forget anything and
3) Because we’re not sure managers know what to do.
My solution is fairly simple; stop designing templates. Instead, send the officer who needs to complete the template a blank sheet of paper (well, maybe an e-mail or IM) asking them to detail whatever it is they need, to do so simply so that everyone can understand and to include all relevant information they think we might need.
And then trust them to deliver.
Without the template people would not be constrained by the well-meaning text boxes of cleverly worded italics and instead would be able to provide the information they think is most relevant for the requester. If they need any help to do this then you have all that free time from not designing templates to sit down with them and give them some help.
I hate templates; the sooner we can do away with them the better.