How to be a digital collaborator

A small business owner needs a website. She hires one of my students to build it. They have a conversation or two about what should be included. It’s not a large website — just five or six pages, with no e-commerce.

It breaks down here: The Web designer asks the business owner to send the content and information for the site. The business owner sends nothing at all, or sends very little, maybe a business card and a logo—printed, of course. My student expresses surprise that the business owner apparently expects “website design” to include writing all the copy, taking original photos and creating artwork. There isn’t even a Photoshop file for the business’s logo.

You want me to do … what?

Collaboration requires some understanding of what all the parties can and should contribute. It’s hard to collaborate if you have no idea what your teammates do and how they do it.

This is why I advocate coding for everyone, especially communications students. I’m deliberately not saying “journalism students,” because I want to include all the advertising and public relations students as well. All communication efforts today require digital components. We are never producing only print or only video nowadays.

Everything is made with code.

“You don’t need to know how a car’s engine works to drive a car.” This argument—commonly offered against teaching code in a communications curriculum—ignores the difference between the act of communicating a message and simply using a device. Everyone can get messages from a phone, but communications practitioners must know how to make the messages.

A coding class in a communications curriculum does not aim to make every student a computer programmer. Far from it! Maybe a few students will go on to become expert coders, but that’s just a happy byproduct. The primary objective of coding for journalism, p.r. and advertising students is to make them better team members for collaborative work.

Contributing to success

To be a good collaborator in producing digital media, you need to have some understanding of:

Audience: Who they are and why they should care about the story, message or application. It’s not at all true that “they will come” simply because you built it. What is the value for them?

Think about which audience wants this, and why.

Code: Proper use of Web standards in HTML and CSS, making sites and apps accessible for users with disabilities, and making sites responsive for mobile devices can all affect whether people find and receive the message—including placement in search results. A lot of people “build websites,” but not all of them use best practices.

Design: Color, fonts, image composition, proximity and white space can make a message attractive or downright ugly, depending on how they are used. A user’s experience depends on good design.

Performance: Facebook’s Instant Articles and Google’s AMP address the market reality that users don’t want to wait around for content that takes several seconds to load. Technical issues related to this include the size of image files (is that photo 3MB or 30KB?) and video file compression. Nasty, dull, technical stuff—but so important to the success of digital messages.

No one likes waiting for content to load. No one.

Platforms: How do people use the platform where you’re putting your message—and is this the right platform for this message? Platforms are continually changing, and new ones eventually supersede formerly popular ones. Don’t just talk about “social media.” Learn what people do (and why, and when) on the various platforms they choose to use.

Writing: Clarity as well as correct use of grammar and punctuation improve the effectiveness of a message. Empty sentences, boilerplate copy and/or clichés have little impact. Whether it’s scripted and voiced or presented as text, writing will often determine whether a message reaches an audience—or makes a lasting impression.

Today’s communications professionals need to understand and appreciate all of these to function as a valuable part of a digital team. You can’t simply hand the project off as if it were a product on a factory assembly line, moving down the conveyor belt to the next station.

Learning curve

How can someone learn to be a collaborator? The best way is to practice. Work in teams and share responsibility for the outcome.

Learn all the things.

You also need to get schooled on all the components of communication. Again, it doesn’t mean that everyone needs to try to be an expert in everything. That’s never going to happen. It’s important to choose a specialty and focus on honing your skills in that specialization.

You also need to examine and think critically about the other components. Understand where your specialty fits into the larger whole and how you can contribute to the overall success. One common example in journalism is the timing for involvement of designers and coders in a project.

No way can I build that for you by tomorrow. Just. Can’t.

If the reporters have been working for weeks on an investigative project—an important story about corruption, perhaps—the whole project is diminished if the reporters fail to communicate with designers and coders early in the process. Why? Because just like investigating, digging for facts and interviewing, the designing and coding require time. Involve those team members as close to the start as possible, and everything about the public-facing final product will be better and more engaging.

This post was inspired in part by this article in Nieman Reports (Feb. 16, 2016).

Mindy McAdams teaches code to communications students at the University of Florida. Here are links to her syllabuses.