Careers: Interviews
Expert on web technologies and the Mac...

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Robyn Ness, a widely respected international expert on web technologies.

 

Robyn works as a web developer at Ohio State focusing in usability and content design. She holds a master’s degree with a specialization in judgment and decision making.

 

She is the author or contributor to several books including:
- SAMS Teach Yourself Mac OS X Digital Media, All in One

- SAMS Teach Yourself Mac OS X 10.2, in 24 Hours

 

Discussion:

 

Q: We appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to do this interview—thank you.

 

A: Thank you for inviting me.

 

Q: Has your formal education helped in your current work and if so how?

 

A: I studied English and psychology as an undergraduate and psychology in graduate school. While those areas have little to do with the content I currently work with, the methods -- for both writing and critical thinking -- have carried over to both my day job as a web developer and my freelance book work.

 

Q: Please provide a history and how you got into computing and writing?

 

A: During my years as a graduate student, I took a few elective courses in cognitive engineering and usability. Projects for these courses piqued my interest in web development, and I started to see the web as a medium with a lot of possibility -- where time, effort, and attention to detail could make the difference between a mess and a source of information that was really useful.

 

Along with this interest in the web came an interest in the tools of the web -- computers and operating systems and software. John Ray, a friend who writes technical books, recommended me as a technical editor, which is basically a technical book fact-checker. I did technical editing on a book or two and then was asked to help with a book on the first release of Mac OS X, SAMS Teach Yourself Mac OS X in 24 Hours. Production on that title was behind schedule because the original authors had withdrawn from the project, so the publishing company and John [Ray] came to an agreement to create the book from material he'd co-written for an advanced-level OS X book, Mac OS X Unleashed. I reworked several existing chapters into introductory-level chapters. The project was more a case of heavy editing and content development than writing, but that's how I got my start.

 

Since that time, I've revised SAMS Teach Yourself Mac OS X in 24 Hour once and just finished updating and expanded the material for a more complete book, SAMS Teach Yourself Mac OS X Panther, All in One. Last spring, I worked on SAMS Teach Yourself Mac OS X Digital Media, All in One and helped complete a book on iMovie and iDVD. I have also been the technical editor on other Mac and web-related books, including Macromedia's Dreamweaver MX and Fireworks MX.

 

Q: Please describe the major themes in your books and pass on useful information, best practices and shortcuts.

 

A: I've worked on several books related to Mac OS X. One of OS X's neat tricks is that anything you view on screen can be saved as a PDF document, which can be shared across operating systems and applications. If you're using any application that uses OS X's standard print dialog, you have the option to Save as PDF. This works for word processing documents, web pages, image files, etc. If you want to create a PDF of your entire screen for demonstration purposes, the keyboard shortcut Command-Shift-3 will do that. If you want to capture only a selected area of your screen as a PDF, use Command-Shift-4 and drag your cursor to frame the area of interest.

 

There are several applications from Apple with impressive features; while not exactly secret, I think they are worth mentioning. The Safari web browser allows you to block popup ads as well as view multiple web pages as tabs in a single window, instead of requiring separate windows for each. iChat AV, a free chat program compatible with an AOL Instant Messenger, can do audio and video conferencing. While audio and video chats do require a microphone and compatible web-cam respectively, they are incredibly simple to set up. iTunes for digital music management, iPhoto for digital image management, iMovie for digital video editing, and iDVD for dvd design are great values (iTunes, iPhoto, and iMovie are free!) and great fun to use.

 

On the drier side, I think more OS X users should know about some of system/diagnostic tools located in the Utilities folder inside the Applications folder. Apple System Profiler provides an orderly look at your systems hardware and software, in case you ever need to know exactly what you've got. The Disk Utility application comes in handy for fixing file permissions, which can get out of balance through the course of software installations and result in annoying error messages about insufficient privileges. If you need to perform minor drive repair, Disk Utility can also be run off of your system installation CD; to use it from the CD, insert the disk and restart your computer while holding down the C key. (Also, in OS X 10.3, Disk Utility includes the option to create disk images for easy backups, which you can then burn to CD and even install over the network. Before version 10.3, this function was in a separate utility called Disk Copy, also in the Utilities folder.)

 

Q: What important tips can you provide from your work in usability and content design?

 

A: The cardinal rule of usability is "Know thy user," which is sometimes paired with the corollary "And you are not thy user."  It's so easy to assume what you're saying is what people want to know and to base your information on assumptions you don't even realize you're making. I try to have an actual user in mind when I'm working. I think: "What does this person know, what would this person want to know, what does this person NEED to know, and how can we best provide the information?" Obviously, things turn out even better if you can test your work on live people and make changes according to their responses, but that isn't always an option. In those cases, my advice is to listen to your audience--if they are asking questions you think you've answered, there's a problem and it needs to be addressed.

 

The processes above are also good advice for writers of technical books. In my latest project, my reference points were two long-time Mac users I know who are transitioning to Mac OS X, one of them somewhat reluctantly. Whenever I had to make decisions about how much detail to share, or what tips to offer, I'd ask "What information would benefit them?" And, I admit that I have updated material based on questions from readers about previous editions. (That's one frustrating thing about print versus web -- you can always find something you would have done differently, and the web lets you make changes immediately without waiting for the next edition.)

 

Q: Where do you see yourself in two, five, and ten years?

 

A: I really enjoy what I'm doing right now. In my 9-to-5 job I get to work with new applications, and in my freelance work I get to share what I've learned. If I'm lucky, these roles will continue to complement each other--and I'll keep learning and writing about new things.

 

Q: You must have some favorite stories that you can share with us—perhaps ones with humor and others with lessons?

 

A: When I got my first fan letter, I attempted to forward it to a friend with a comment about how excited I was that someone had read the book -- but I inadvertently replied to the sender instead. The sender wrote a very kind note in reply, expressing surprise that his was the first and, at the time, only fan letter. I was quite embarrassed. Since then, I'm more careful about where I'm sending my messages.

 

Q:  What would be your recommended top references including URLs, other books, magazines, etc?

 

A: I like macrumors.com and macnn.com for news about Apple and their products. The discussion forums on Apple's site (discussions.info.apple.com) are also a good source of information about Apple hardware and software from the perspective of real users. For insightful articles about the state of the web and tips on web development, I read evolt.org and alistapart.org.

 

Q: Robyn, thank you for sharing your considerable knowledge and experiences with our audience.

 

A: You're welcome, Stephen.

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