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How Do You Define the Complexity of a Document?

Posted by BrettDashwood on November 4, 2013

Complex Chinese charactersI was alerted to a recent discussion on the LinkedIn Group Document Composition Professionals.  The discussion was started by Ryan McKinley, a Technical Consultant at Broadridge Financial Solutions, who posed the question, “Has anyone done any research on document complexity by industry?

Several people from around the world responded with some options of where to find any research that may have been done.  They included Scott Bannor from OBRIEN, Fadel Iskander from TPSi, Henrik Nørby from GMC Software Technology, and Joe Pigeon from Paloma Print Products who also gave some of his own insight and opinions.

All shared very valid points, but it got me thinking, “how do you define complexity?

If we define a complex document as having complex data...

  • Is that using a flat export from a complex financial system that has a lot of superfluous information that you need to navigate through?
  • Is that accessing multiple relational, connected, or disconnected databases at run time?
  • Is that having a detailed multiple record type structure?
  • Is that working with the intricacies of another language or character set?

If we define a complex document as having complex business rules...

  • Is that pulling from 1000's of region and/or regulation based forms?
  • Is that completely modifying layout based on combinations of demographic, geographic, socio-economic, or actual usage data rules?

If we define a complex document as having complex document objects...

  • Is that the creation of 1000's of different forms or components that need to be variably pulled based on complex business rules that are equating, comparing, or calculating with complex data?
  • Is that utilising external or host based resources where delivery methodology needs to be heavily analysed?
  • Are they full colour, grey scale or monochrome?

If we define a complex document as having complex document layout...

  • Is that highly complex marketing/educational/promotional components and white space management?
  • Is that determining font and other document object sizes based on page content or data?
  • Is that full colour, grey scale or monochrome?

If we define a complex document as having complex production...

  • Is that determining a process and methodology for pulling different stocks from more trays than you physically have on the machine?
  • Is that sorting and batching in such a way that requires the least movement of paper or the use of mailing machines with not enough insert hoppers?
  • Is that working out a method to effectively and efficiently send a modern data stream to an older printing system?
  • Is that developing the job in such a way that it doesn't clutch the printing system?

Complex WireAnd I'm sure this just the start.  Complexity in all of these areas and more is surely relative to the knowledge and experience of an individual or a group. Many of us can probably recall examples of activities early in our career that seemed extremely complex, yet today we would breeze through them or at least unravel the details with a more calm and measured approach.

We often use telecom bills/statements to show students and customers the complexity of documents.  They typically have large variability on the number of pages, page content, as well as often highly complex multiple record structures and hierarchy, especially when looking at a consolidated bill for more than just a few phones.  They often have good effective use of usage data to drive promotional content (aka real Transpromotional) as well, whether that is for education or up-sell/cross-sell purposes.  That said we've also seen some pretty complex financial and utility statements too.

One of the most complex documents I know of globally is an electricity statement from here in Australia.  It utilises very complex data from multiple sources, it has many different layout complexities, the amount of business rules involved in all manner of things is sometimes a little mind blowing, and added to this it also generates multiple streams of customised XML for ingestion into other systems, all during the main production pass.

What would you add to this list that helps define a document as complex?

What are some examples of the more complex documents you’ve worked on?

What industry do you believe has the most complex documents?

Posted by Elizabeth Gooding on
Hi Brett,
I was contacted with the same inquiry looking for a measurable way of defining the "complexity" of a document. You started a great list, here are a few other things to consider:
Regulatory compliance - how complex are the regulations that apply to the document? Do they vary at multiple governmental levels (Federal, State, County in US)?
How frequently do they change? Do regulatory requirements or product changes cause frequent changes to the document such as for insurance policies?
Are there multiple versions of the document to serve different constituencies as in the case of many US-based financial products where there are investor statements and agent or broker statements?
I'm going to be commenting on some specific examples of complex documents on and will link back to you when I get that done.
Posted by Fadel Iskander on
I am hoping that (as the replies start coming) the contributors would separate the "Tedious" from the "Complex".

A document with 500 regulations and 1,000 business rules while tedious to maintain, is not a complex document in the sense that you could find hundreds if not thousands of developers who can make it happen.

The same document with hodge-podge (Okie talk for "bad") data can be a challenge to some of the best developers.

Just my 2-cents!
Posted by Mike Mulcahy on
Hi Brett,

Great job parsing out these complexities. Each area you describe is complex in its own right, let alone combining all of the points into a single definition. Elizabeth makes some great points here too regarding compliance, versioning, ect. Interestingly enough one of the most complex documents I have worked on in my career was an HR document. It was a document with hundreds of variables, charts and graphs all personalized for each employee. The goal of the doc was to show the total dollar value of the company to the employee. The document combined benefits across salary, medical plan details, life/dental/vision insurance, 401K, stock options, bonuses, vacation time, education/training and more.

Some of the documents were mailed, others posted to employee portals and all were indexed and archived centrally so the outsourced benefit company handling the open enrollment process could reference them.

Needless to say there were a lot of different people and knowledge sets needed to assemble this document. This may be another area of complexity to consider… the number of ‘knowledge sets’ needed to build the document itself. Do you need experts from compliance, benefits, marketing, IT, design, print production and more to build an effective communication? If so, collaborative tools that aid in the assembly process and audit knowledge worker activity are very important aspects that are often overlooked. Without such tools complicated communication projects like ‘Transpromo’ are hard to get off the ground because of the gap between different areas of the enterprise.
Posted by BrettDashwood on
Thanks for the extra thoughts @Elizabeth and look forward to seeing your further thoughts on InsightForums.

@Fadel, great point, in fact as I was writing my list I used Joe's suggestion of the 1000 forms directly, because obviously some people would believe that a sheer number of variables is complex, whereas others would look at its complexity based on the data and rules to get to the 100 variations. If the 1000 forms are simply selected by testing a code in an index or something and pulled up with minimal or no variability, then that's not really complex IMHO, however if every document was selected by a complex range of business rules and had a different layout based on data value or more rules, then I guess that is complex...but of course has someone not done their job right? Should the complexity have been taken out of the document composition phase and actually put into the data design or data extraction programs to create the simpler index approach?

Great example @Mike. Scott Bannor added to the LinkedIn discussion about multi-channel. Your example also highlights this and that is an area that didn't make my quick list when I initially responded and should have been there for the article. But again, just like the form selection, in many most proper document composition products, sending to different outputs isn't the complex part, the rules around how the channel is chosen may be complex...or not ;-)
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