February 10, 2008

Digital Reviewing

For the 3+ years I've been at NI, I have been reviewing documents by printing out hard copies and distributing them to reviewers. However, now that I am doing more reviewing than writing, I've fallen in love with the commenting features of Adobe Reader. The process works like this:
  1. Create CHM or PDF files.
  2. Print CHM file to a PDF file. We can do this because we have Acrobat installed.
  3. Enable PDF for commenting in Adobe Reader, so developers who do not have Acrobat can enter comments.
  4. Initiate review.
In my eyes, using Adobe Reader for reviewing has the following advantages over using printed material.
  • Reviews take up hard drive space instead of desk space. I have much more of the former than the latter, so this arrangement makes sense. I'd also wager that disk space is cheaper and more environmentally-friendly than desk space.
  • I can archive reviews digitally by using source control instead of in a box under my desk. Boxes take up space and are heavy. As the company grows and we move desks, I don't have to lug around boxes of old documentation. They're all available for me on the server.
  • Similarly, when I return to Austin from Shanghai, I'll have instant access to all my old reviews without involving FedEx or DHL.
  • While I'm here in Shanghai, I can pass documents to reviewers/writers in Austin just as easily as I can pass documents to people in Mumbai, Cleveland, or any of our other offices.
  • Electronic reviewing enables me to write pages and pages of edits (theoretically) under a tiny little note icon. This way if I have a long or detailed comment, I don't run out of room on the page, my comments don't jam together, and I avoid writing sideways or upside-down or things like that. Also, I type much faster and more efficiently than I write. And no one has to struggle to read my typing like they might have to do with my handwriting.
  • If the reviewer/writer disagrees with an edit I made, they can state their reasons why in the comment itself. In this way we can have a sort of conversation about the edit itself. This conversation takes up no more space than the note icon itself, even though the discussion could theoretically be pages long. And the discussion is archived along with the PDF itself.
  • Reviewers/writers can mark edits as Completed or Rejected. Similar to a bug-tracking database, actually. I then can print out (in either hard-copy or PDF form) an easy-to-read list of the edits I made and the writers' replies to these edits. This view also lets me see which edits the writer may have missed in their pass through the document. (It would be helpful to have some sort of function/command that immediately highlighted all reviews that didn't have a reply.)
  • I can highlight important comments by altering the color and/or opacity of the marker. So I've developed a color-coded system for which edits are normal priority, which ones are really important, which ones are left-over from the last review, etc.
  • If I need to work from home, I don't have to worry about printing out a review copy and taking it with me. I can just VPN into the office and continue reviewing normally.
The only limitations I could see are if I wanted to draw a figure, such as an equation, graph, or chart, directly onto the document. I don't know how I could do that without attaching a .JPG or something like that. But so far I haven't run across this situation. The Drawing tools have been sufficient. I wonder if there's a way to attach image files to a PDF or something like that.

It also might be helpful to have a mode where you could edit the PDF directly, along the lines of MS Word's "Track Changes" feature. There may be a way to do this that I haven't yet discovered. But in our reviewing model at NI, we don't do that too much.

Kudos to Adobe for making the commenting feature not only robust, but also available in their free Reader program.