Creating a web site makes for all sorts of strange working relationships. Usability experts, clients, copywriters, graphic designers, content experts and programmers all sharing the same proverbial bed. And then there are those people who pull it all together. Some call them information designers, a breed of generalists skilled at juggling tasks and becoming proficient in whatever field necessary.
Over the years, I’ve found different ways to describe what I do as an information designer. I explain that my job is to make content experts look good, make their voices smoother, their words come alive with technology. I connect the dots they forgot to. I’m tofu. I’ll take on whatever flavor they cook me in. I’m a guide, sometimes a muse. I learn enough about their subject to fake it. Like a bathtub, I fill up with whatever facts I need to get the job done. Then I drain, leaving a soap-ring of knowledge.
I work in academia where, as on the rest of the web, content is king. As the leader of our web team, it’s my role to mentor the newbie information designers in the art of content expert management.
The other day, I found myself giving counsel to Molly, a talented recent graduate of our university’s Media Arts department.
“Content experts are special,” I told her. “They need to feel as though they have control. Make him happy, listen to him, let him be creative, compliment him, and then rein him in. Make him feel important, let him know you like his ideas. You’re there to support him. I know you don’t like it. Fake it if you have to.”
Awkward silence filled the room. We were both thinking the same thing.
Give that content expert a lap dance, for God’s sake.
Molly and I have a difference of opinion when it comes to topless dancing. She’s offended by it, saddened to see women sell their dignity like that. Me, I wonder who’s taking advantage of whom. Is the dancer being oppressed, or is she just using whatever skills necessary to get as much money as she can out of some poor schmuck? Who’s really in control?
A more direct approach wasn’t working for Molly. She wasn’t getting the content she needed; her content expert wasn’t happy, was feeling pushed around and under-appreciated. As Molly’s boss, I was asking her to play a game that went against her moral fiber.
She doesn’t like to be subservient. I assured her that if she does it well, she could actually have more control and get better content by manipulating the situation a little. And, I emphasized, we need good content.
Content experts, like johns who frequent topless bars, come in all varieties. Short ones, tall ones, fat ones, small ones, rich ones, poor ones, picky ones, easy ones, and yes, even creepy ones. The best dancers are those who customize their style to the individual. I think there’s a lot that information designers can learn from our tassled comrades.
So, here we go. In the spirit of a good show, I’ll be using a stage name for the rest of this article.
Davina’s Six Steps to Managing Content Experts
1. Figure out what turns them on.
Some are motivated by money, some fame, some by the pure academic spirit of sharing knowledge. Others keep their agendas annoyingly hidden. Uncover their agendas, and the sooner, the better.
As you talk with him about his area of expertise, watch his eyes. When they light up, those are the topics he’ll give you best content on. Give him an assignment he’s passionate about. You’ll both be happier in the end.
2. Find their strengths and play to them.
Some are good writers, others are better at editing or revising existing text. Some have great ideas on their own, others need a good idea to start from. Some are responsive, others need to be frequently reminded of deadlines. Some are creative, others prefer to be told what to do.
Design your web site to show off his best features. If he’s got great photos, make them the centerpiece. If he can tell an engaging story, weave it through the user experience. Let the strongest content determine the format; don’t flatten his most brilliant ideas by forcing them into your template.
3. Make them feel good about themselves.
Some are prima donnas, like actors who demand the fanciest trailer with the finest champagne. If possible, give them what they want. Others are easygoing, like good friends. Be friends with them. Whatever you do, always begin and end your interactions with praise for a job well done. Be enthusiastic and let your enthusiasm rub off on them like cheap perfume.
4. Discretely cover up their weaknesses.
Expert can’t write? Edit it for him before the text ever hits the web page. Or, even better, interview him, take notes, and write it yourself.
Expert can’t meet a deadline? Give him a fake due date, then, when he misses it, give him an extension. Offer to help.
Expert overwhelmed? Don’t put him on the spot. Speak softly, calmly and assure him everything’s going to work out beautifully. Remind him that you’ve done this a thousand times before. Whisper “Trust me” into his ear.
5. Establish the rules, with a smile.
Deadlines are real. So are the overall objectives of the web site. And so is your audience. These comprise the rules of the web design dance. Content needs to be on time, on topic, and appropriate to the audience. (And no touching the dancers, please.)
6. Know when to call the bouncer over.
Some experts are straightforward and respectful. Others are passive aggressive and challenging. And some are just plain aggressive. They’re always breaking the rules, but just barely, just enough to make your work life miserable. Their content requires a lot of fixing and your dignity suffers as you work hard to make this jackass look good. That’s when it’s time to call it quits and kick him out. It’s not worth it. There are always other content experts who’ll behave themselves.
The final tip
The trick is to do whatever it takes to make content experts feel like they’re VIPs, while maintaining your dignity and controlling the situation with charm and grace.
And if you have to wave tassles in their faces, then so be it.