A tale of two files (or how technical drawing saved me from mistakes in Sketch)

December 18th, 2017

post : Design

“Hey, Ross,” said the client, “would you mind casting an eye over these designs?”

Attached to the email was a Sketch file. Dutifully I opened and started to look through, noting a few comments.

As I went to send the file back I saw a new email from the UI designer working with the client.

“Hey, Ross,” they wrote, “[Client] said you wanted to have a look at the latest designs.”

Attached to the email was a Sketch file with the same filename as the one the client had sent me. A little confused I opened it and saw there were some subtle differences. Queue a back and forth that revealed client and designer were a touch out of step.

We’ve all been victim to this break in version control.

In theory document management systems should solve this problem, but we know that doesn’t always happen. Someone somewhere manages to break the process and all hell breaks loose as versions drop out of step and “the wrong presentation” is put before a decision maker. Then we waste time trying to bring everything back together again.

It’s annoying, frustrating, wasteful and yet we seem to accept it as if that’s the price for sharing our work.

I went back to school.

I’m old enough to have done O-Levels and the one I’m probably most proud of is “Craft, Design & Technology”. Before CAD systems I had to draw my designs out using something called a pencil on a medium called paper with only a ruler and protractor as a guide. One of the first things I was taught (by an aviation company called ARV – long story) was to put a change log on my drawings. Usually top-left corner you’d find a table that set out what I did and when and which version of the drawing it was. If I made a change the old version would have this table crossed out so you knew to go look for another one.

It was a simple system and it worked. Then I got involved in computers and forgot it.

CDT revisited.

A few years back one of my clients ran into problems after they sent the wrong version of my document to their client. The version that was sent over had placeholders for charts and comments such as “[Doug], need that table in here”. The Account Manager, perhaps a little flustered, had simply dug the first document they could find out of their email and forwarded it on. They’d completely ignored the careful version management I’d built up in Confluence.

After that I went back to basics. I don’t care if there’s a carefully controlled content management system in place that everyone commits to and uses like a religion. Pretty much every document since then has had a change log attached to it. It doesn’t matter if it’s PowerPoint, Word, Visio, Sketch or Excel, you’re likely to find a table somewhere that sets out which version you’re looking at and what status it’s in.

Harking back to those early lessons in Technical Drawing, I manage my versions carefully as well. Anything with a decimal is NOT an approved version. If you see version 0.9 or 1.4 you should know this has not been approved, so don’t treat it as such! When approval comes the drafts are archived and the new and approved version is issued as 1.0 or 2.0 or whatever the next whole number increment is.

Version control in Sketch

How I use symbols in Sketch to create configurable on-page version control

It may seem draconian, but it works

In an agile environment, where iteration is the name of the game and speed is of the essence this can seem a little “waterfall”. It’s also been suggested I “waste time” by keeping on top of documents in this way and that I should trust the version control inside whatever package I’m using. Perhaps, but I’ve been around long enough to see plenty of bad decisions being made because the wrong version of something has been picked up. And it’s far more effective to ask the precise question “are you working from version 2.0?” than a more general “are you sure you’ve got the latest version?”

Let’s also not forget that Agile can make version control more important, particularly when teams and clients are spread across geographies.

I fixed my client’s problem.

Once we worked out what THE version was I added my template version control symbols to the Sketch file and spent five minutes explaining how it all worked. A couple of weeks later I was asked to review a file again and my first question was, “I’ve got version 3.8 – is this the latest version?”

“Of course it is,” came the reply in stereo.

And my client added, “wish I’d done technical drawing at school.”

Sometimes I wish more people had too.

My name is Ross Hall. I create words and pictures.

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