CIPS CONNECTIONSINTERVIEWS by STEPHEN IBARAKI, I.S.P.
Widely Regarded Author, Journalist/Columnist, Editor, Consultant, Web Expert
This week, Stephen Ibaraki has an exclusive interview with widely regarded author, journalist/columnist, editor, and Web expert, Kate Chase.
Kate has more than 13 book credits in Web design, PC hardware, operating systems, and Windows applications. She is an avid FrontPage user and expert having managed online communities for American Online, MSN, and ZD-net. Her latest book credit is the “Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Microsoft Office FrontPage 2003”.
Q: Kate, as a well-respected Web authority, we are fortunate to have you with us to do this interview—thank you!
A: Thank you!
Q: Can you give us a history of how you got into this field?
A: I’ve used computers since mainframes were king back when I was a child in school. From the start, I found them an extraordinarily powerful tool for all of us to get the information we needed. However, my online adventure dates back to the late 1980s, when someone finally convinced me to try a modem to reach beyond my own system. My first night with it, and my love of the online knowledge experience was born. I quickly became involved with bulletin board systems (the precursors to today’s Web sites) and quickly got onto the Internet before most of the world seemed to know it existed.
Q: Can you describe your work with America Online and one surprising story?
A: America Online, when I started there, was a company no one knew. It was filled with bright people trying to lay claim to an online world dominated by CompuServe, Genie, and Prodigy, all names that have today been eclipsed by AOL. I had the pleasure of working with some truly grand online visionaries. At AOL, I ran technical support forums in a number of different areas, and built communities of users who were not just there to ask questions but to share their expertise. The power of the user community was a delightful surprise.
My biggest surprise there? AOL’s growth was in large part due to a committed roster of volunteers who donated a great deal of time to the service to make it better. They created the sense of community that people still talk about today. The sad surprise came with how little AOL appreciated their work – well-paid staffers would climb over the bodies of volunteers to demand larger pay raises and benefits for themselves.
Q: What lessons did you learn from your work with MSN?
A: That Microsoft, the parent company, is a marvelous place filled with some of the best and the brightest people, but they don’t always understand what the true online user is looking for. As such, you’ve seen MSN go through a number of different revisions.
But Microsoft and MSN taught me so much: they had the tools, the people, and the drive to make an online community great – even if the reality was sometimes a little less sterling.
Q: What valuable expertise can you share from your work with ZDNet and can you share another story?
A: ZDNet was a little bit different, because they largely bought our crew at MSN to literally put us out of business and end the phenomenon of professionally managed technical communities online. This is because ZDNet was acquired by CNET, another online giant, who was doing massive restructuring. CNET is still a tremendous resource, but I think its online communities, as they exist today, are nowhere near as strong and helpful as they were.
If there’s a story to share here, it’s that people will tend to notice that there are cycles in all online service businesses: the idea that is successful today won’t be successful tomorrow, yet a few years down the road, that same idea will be picked up and expanded as if it’s brand new. So while you see few professionally managed support communities online today, I suspect you’ll find them again in a year or two years.
Q: Can you detail your current work and favorite projects?
A: I’m extraordinarily fortunate because I get to work with a number of different editors and publishers around the country – and even around the world – while sitting in my mountaintop compound in north central Vermont. The FrontPage for Beginners book was extraordinarily fun – both because of my co-author, Jenn Kettell, who came from the same online background I had, and because it allowed me to recapture the newness of starting one’s own Web site, something I’ve been doing since the Web was first born in the early mid-1990s. I just watched a friend who had been discussing having a site for several years take FrontPage and turn out a dazzling site that is visited by tens of thousands of people each week.
But my favorite project is almost always the one I’m working on currently – and that’s a book to prepare people for A+ hardware technical certification.
Q: What five tips can you provide from your web experiences?
A: 1) Don’t underestimate or assume anything about your audience. They’ll surprise you every time.
2) A sense of community can aid any Web site, regardless of the topic. So plan to have something community based, such as message board discussion areas, a blog, user testimonials, or anything else that ties you back to the real people using your product or services.
3) Never sacrifice the user friendly elements for “coolness”. People tire of ultra-cool rather quickly.
4) Solicit feedback from your audience: constantly reassess what they want and need.
5) A person with little experience can turn a brand-new Web site into something extraordinarily with just a bit of patience and vision.
Q: Regarding your latest book, what makes it different from the others?
A: I think approach is the best difference. Too many books either reduce the subject to “dummy” status or assume you have more knowledge than a beginner typically would. The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to FrontPage assumes nothing, while respecting your intelligence and your sense of design.
Q: Can you give us your top five tips from the book?
A: 1) That the sooner you can develop your skills in cascading style sheets (CSS) for site layout, the more usable, more flexible, and more accessibly a site can become.
2) That FrontPage 2003 gives you a wonderful set of tools to start – but that you can take it far beyond just those basic tools.
3) How to design forms and interactive tools to engage your audience.
4) That site navigation is all-important, and that you must see your site from your visitor’s perspective to make the navigation fit their needs.
5) That graphics, used wisely, can truly enliven a site and capture your visitor’s imagination.
Q: Do you have any humorous stories to share?
A: One of my favorite “there’s a lesson in this” stories is working for one of the major online services that was constantly soliciting feedback from its audience to “improve the user experience”. One day, I went to my boss and asked to see the results of some of this feedback so we could actually use it to improve our services. The response I got? They didn’t actually record the information solicited from users; they just made it seem like they wanted user feedback. The moral of this story: if you ask a question, accept the answer... and use it.
Q: What are your top recommended resources?
Many of these are ones I’ve listed in one place or another in the book and the book itself is an excellent resource to the beginning FrontPage webmaster.
A: 1) Microsoft Office Online – columnists and users regularly share great ideas for things they’re doing with FrontPage to increase traffic, increase functionality, and increase results from their web.
2) http://www.w3schools.com – you can learn so much by using their code testing examples
3) http://www.diveintoaccessibility.org, where you can get a look at the things you need to do to make your site accessible to everyone
4) The various scripts sharing sites because they offer code you can adapt and include in your FP or other Web site
5) Other good sites – look at the sites you really like and determine how they did it – either by looking at the Source beneath it or by asking the webmaster questions.
Q: What kind of computer setup do you have?
A: Actually, I have several since I tend to work on several different projects at once. My main workhorse is a badly abused Celeron 1.8 MHz system with every USB device you can imagine attached to it, and it’s networked to several other machines, ranging from a lowly Pentium 133 to an Athlon XP system. My Internet setup comes from a satellite feed because I live outside of traditional broadband connectivity.
Q: If you were doing this interview, what three questions would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answers?
A: Q1) With so many studies showing people are reading less today, how valid is it to be writing computer tech books?
A1) It’s very relevant. Nothing yet exists to replace the written, easily consult-able format of a book on your shelf. When I want to learn, I use a number of different methods, but one of them is always the best book(s) on the topic.
Q2) What are the three most important jobs a new Webmaster must tackle?
A2) Research, advanced planning, and developing good site navigation to make sure the wealth of content on your site can be found.
Q3) Do you always follow your own technical advice?
A3) Usually! Sometimes, I even go back to consult my own books because the answers I need are often found there.
Q: Kate, we appreciate the time you spent in doing this interview—thank you!
A: And thank you, too, Stephen.