Department of Agricultural Communication
|An electronic newsletter with communication tips and information
We have a scary story to tell. It involves word processing programs and confidentiality.
Your storytellers are Purdue's Laura Hoelscher, editor of the Journal of Extension (JOE), and Ohio State's Jim Lemon, JOE Web site manager. (This isn't the scary part -- honest.)
As a refereed journal, JOE uses a blind review process. That is, JOE reviewers don't know the identity of the authors whose submissions they review.
JOE is a Web-only journal. So all submissions arrive in electronic form, and they're sent to reviewers in electronic form, too.
The last thing you need to know is that we recently changed JOE's submission policy. Instead of asking for submissions embedded in email messages, we ask for them as Microsoft Word or WordPerfect attachments.
Before Laura sent the first round of attached submissions to JOE reviewers, she did a "Save As" on her Mac to make copies of the files and then, very carefully, deleted the author identification. She then sent these Word files as email attachments. Laura heard no initial complaints about the new policy and even got a few encouraging words.
But then -- then -- she got a call from a puzzled reviewer asking when and why JOE had dropped the blind review policy.
Laura's first thought was that she'd sent the wrong files, the ones with the author identification. She checked. Nope. The right files had gone out. But the reviewer nonetheless correctly named all of the authors of both submissions he'd received.
Big, BIG problem.
Laura immediately called Jim. When he could breathe again, he suggested she send him copies of the offending files.
Here's where things get even scarier.
Not only was Jim able to retrieve the deleted author identification, but, using a binary editor, he also unearthed passages where the authors communicated with each other and questioned the validity of some of their data.
We figure that the problem was caused by Microsoft Word's tendency to become increasingly "foolproof," to do more and more for users' "own good" -- whether they want it or not. We also suspect that this tendency is probably not exclusive to Microsoft Word. (Microsoft calls this feature "fast save," and one step you might want to take is to turn it or its equivalent off.)
While only one JOE reviewer out of 24 innocently uncovered information he wasn't supposed to see, that's one too many. And what about people who might not be so innocent?
We're not nuts about our solution, but, for now, Laura will do a cut and paste of the title of each submission into a new file and then swing back and do a cut and paste of everything in the file that comes after the author info. That captures only the "surface" of the file -- not the layers of history behind it.
You might consider doing likewise when you're sending an electronic file and confidentiality counts.
If anyone has a simpler and/or safer solution, please share.
Editor's Note: This story will also appear in the October issue of "enVision," a monthly newspaper for the faculty and staff of Ohio State University's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
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Last month I talked about building a user-centered Web site. "Great!" you may have thought, "Get my users into the development process early on with this 'participatory design' stuff. Okay, so now what?"
This month I describe some ways that you can actually "take the pulse" of your users, learn more about them and what they want.
My dad always told me that a smart person doesn't necessarily have to know a lot of information, but instead know where to find information. Fortunately for us, there are some sites out there that survey the general Web user. Georgia Tech's Graphics Visualization and Usability Center has conducted 10 surveys of Web users. You can find them at http://www.cc.gatech.edu/gvu/user_surveys/. Go to http://www.cc.gatech.edu/gvu/user_surveys/others/ for a list of other Internet statistics and demographics reports.
If your Web project doesn't have the budget to hire a firm to do market research, a focus group may be just the thing you're looking for to give you feedback and test your site.
Putting one together isn't really that difficult. Some people may be flattered that you would ask for their input in putting something together so savvy as a Web site. And, chances are, the people who aren't interested in participating are probably not in your target audience anyway.
Focus groups don't necessarily have to meet face to face, either. Free online survey tools like Zoomerang http://www.zoomerang.com will allow you to receive responses to specific questions quickly and to share that information with others.
If you don't have time for a focus group, at least ask one member of your target audience to participate in the development of your site.
If you have a Web site already, looking at the server statistics for your site is a good way to take your users' pulse. Your Web server is what serves your pages to the world. When you type in the URL for a Web page, the computer that page is served from keeps track of some general information.
You can use that information to understand where visitors are coming from (commercial, educational, or government, for instance); how many "hits" your pages are getting; which pages are getting the most hits; how many pages each visitor visits with their web browser, etc. Get to know the server administrator where your site is hosted. Ask for reports from the Web log (and for help understanding them, too).
These are a few ways you can get to know your audience better. Next month I'll talk about the Web development cycle.