Monday, April 21, 2008

Computing for Non-Technologists

What can we technologists reasonably expect from people who use our stuff but have no particular expertise in how these gizmos work?

That's a hard question to answer generally. The answer, I think, depends on eleventy billion (give or take) specifics.

The specifics of computer technology, for example, typically need not be understood by users. Even people who depend utterly on them—bloggers, for example—no longer need to know much of anything about how computers work, or even how text is encoded or handled by computers. Just a few years ago, publishing online meant understanding at least some basics of the HyperText Markup Language (HTML) that defines how text is displayed by Web browsers. Those fortunate enough to do their writing within an organization with support staff could at least count on others to take care of such technical details, much like writers for printed publications can let specialists deal with the technicalities of typesetting. With the proliferation of What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get editors built in to sites like Google's Blogger, no longer need writers think about HTML to publish for themselves.

I know more than one person who went into a career field like law supposing that the lack of need to deal with technology was a bonus. Only now are people learning that no matter what your chosen profession, you need to have some understanding of what you're working with. Law in particular has undergone massive changes as it attempts to work with information that has gone from a time when it was “encoded” on paper to being encoded in an arrangement of electrons.

To help my clients get their jobs done, I make it a point of understanding not just the details of the technology—an absolute must in my work as an expert witness who explains how computers work in court—but what parts of the technology attorneys need to care about and what they need to know about those parts. As it turns out, with just a few guiding principles and some examples to drive the points home, an attorney can go from a technical illiterate to someone able to practice with confidence even when the information needed for adjudication is electronic. I'll be presenting a three-hour continuing legal education (CLE) seminar on electronic information for the Columbus Bar Association on Thursday morning.

What do you find that your clients, customers, partners, and coworkers need to understand about your technology? How do you help them to know what they need without having them get bogged down with details that are irrelevant to them?

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