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Feature - Business Issues - Teaching Others About What You Do

Educating the Clueless:
How To Be Gods, Goddesses & Gurus Worshipped in the Intranet Work Place

(Or, how to be at least respected, admired, and consulted before 5,000 page web site re-designs are promised in an hour to the company president when Notepad is your web design-coding tool.)

Man with computer screen over his head

by Barbara Burns
TX Dragon (United States)

Designers make choices about text and graphic placements, fixed or liquid page design, navigation, and column widths for on-screen reading every day. We look at our work knowing we are using liquid design within a fixed-pixel space of 700, where the navigation frame takes up 200 pixels, leaving 500 pixels for content. We know the screen captures are 475 pixels wide, the department biography pictures are 200 pixels wide, the file names do not match the Table of Contents names, and that navy blue is hex #000080.

Many times, we take our knowledge for granted, as if the rest of the world knew what we were talking about. It is a very human trait - the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick-maker do the same thing, too. A major difference between us though is they are usually better than computer specialists at using "real people" language to explain their skills, knowledge, and experience.

Educating your boss and co-workers about what we do for them on the company Intranet can be a major headache or it can be a fun-filled, creative exercise. It is our choice.

Personally, I recommend enjoying it, making friends, and being grounded in the "everyday" world instead of locked into only the computer world. People outside our realm have valuable information we need or want access to over the course of our corporate careers. They also know things about our web site design and site we do not know - how they actually use it or why they cannot learn to use it. They have no idea that we need to know these things or how to tell us if we ask them for that information in "computerese."

Examples, analogies and metaphors

The first step is taking a deep breath. The second is forcing yourself to remember that your boss and co-workers do not design or manipulate graphics or write code in their sleep, at company picnics, family birthday parties, or on their vacation. The third is to find real-world analogies that people can understand. They can allow people to connect to what you know after X number of years earning your living doing it.

Frames, for example, can be a difficult concept for a beginning designer let alone a busy "anything-but-web-design" professional. Jigsaw puzzles come in boxes with lots of pieces or a collage picture frame with matting that has holes for pictures are good analogies. The browser window is like that puzzle box holding all the pieces. The corporate navigation frame where the entire Intranet search feature is located is like that collage picture frame. The matting inside where you can put pictures in the empty spaces and write messages is like a department web site in nested frames within a corporate frame.

Want to explain JavaScript? Try talking about it as a recipe - follow the instructions properly and you get a tasty dish at the end. Or maybe your listeners should think of it as the punches on a player piano roll -- only when all the holes in the paper are perfect does the composition play in tune. A browser could be a submarine's sonar, sending out pings in search of places worth exploring. Screen resolution is like binoculars -- different settings make the images look larger or smaller.

Jargon complicates communication

Why is explaining how the site looks on different monitors so difficult?

Boss: "We both have 17' screens but it doesn't look the same on mine as it does on yours."

Me: "The IT department set your monitor resolution to the company standard of 800 x 600, you have not changed it, and I changed mine to 1024 x 768. The front-line people have 15' monitors set to 800 x 600. I have medium fonts chosen and you have large fonts chosen." Etc., etc., etc..

Insert totally glazed look here - or the frown of incomprehension. We have all probably seen these expressions at one time or another.

"Computer people" would see this explanation as perfectly reasonable. But what does it mean to the rest of the world? Educating outsiders could take half an hour to an hour of our day, if we are lucky - or three to five hours over the next few days.

Worse yet, giving an answer that flies over the heads of your audience can mean that they never ask you another question. "Computerese" is technical gobbledygook to them. That kind of answer may have spoken "volumes" to them about your overall conversational skills - do you want to eat lunch alone every day?

"Mine is smaller so I can get more information into the 'Internal Proprietary Software' screen pictures for our web site tutorials" and "The front-line folks have smaller monitors than we do" would work much better.

You should talk resolution and differences only if you are willing to do show-and-tell. Show them how to change their display settings, as you explain the resolutions - and answer their questions again later when they don't remember exactly what they did. Have them change their font sizes in their browser from the smallest to the largest settings. When they see the differences, it is easier for them to understand why people with the same equipment see it differently.

If you are lucky, maybe they will pass the skills learned along to someone else (just like the flu virus we got from them last week). Most people are too busy working or playing or just plain not interested to do the computer things we do for fun and to improve efficiency. Most people learn about computers in bits and pieces, here and there, not as a cohesive whole as we do.

Answering questions and documenting your work

Have a Webmaster/FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) section on your Intranet web site, with detailed step-by-step instructions on how to do things that your "content editors" need to know. Update it regularly when program versions change.

If you leave the position or company, make it easy for your replacement to know what you have done and why in the documentation. Do not expect your content editors to read it, but make it available to them. If they do read it and ask you questions, rewrite it based on the areas where they had trouble knowing what to do. Be grateful someone noticed and appreciated your efforts before you leave the position or company.

A friendly attitude helps

Smile a lot and answer questions in "basic people" language. Always try to remember you did not wake up this morning knowing everything you know today about computers or the Internet via magic overnight. Respect the fact that you may know nothing or very little about their professional specialty for the very same reasons they know nothing about yours - lack of time or opportunity or interest. Concentrate on turning your "reasonable answers" into something your co-workers can understand - give them a frame of reference about the underlying concepts.

Never give up trying to communicate with them. If your first try doesn't work, find another analogy until you get that light bulb - it is worth it for both of you. You will be appreciated as a wonderful co-worker who is admired and respected. They will learn something to make them seem like a Computer God or Goddess or Guru to someone less experienced than they are.

After all, how else did I of all people ever get referred to at work as "The Web Goddess" and "The Web Guru"? The more I learn, the more I know that I know nothing. There is not enough time to know everything about everything every day in today's fast-moving technology world. There are many people I consider Gods, Goddesses, and Gurus in Web Design/Development. Why? They have more or different experience and skills than I have and I wonder if, how, or when they manage to sleep to be so very good at what they do. I always try to remember the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick-maker are Gods, Goddesses, and Gurus, too - in their realm of expertise.

Photo of Barbara Burns

Barbara Burns (aka TX Dragon) became an Intranet Web/Graphic Designer for a local Houston, Texas, area PEO in July 1999 after several years as a freelance Web Designer for small business and personal web sites. Her prior corporate experience includes customer service and mainframe computer programming in Iowa and Texas, as well as phone PC hardware and software tech support in the Austin, Texas, area. She can be reached at txdragon@txdragon.com and her resume portfolio is at www.txdragon.com.

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