Ask a Stranger, and a Co-worker

You can learn a lot from a TV show. No really. Silicon Valley on HBO is a favorite show–mostly because it is hilarious, but also because it really hits the reality of the tech world, and the world in general. Last week’s episode was a particularly brilliant example of reminding me to think about who I ask to review my work.

The premise: the characters in Silicon Valley have built an amazing platform that compresses videos and other large files. It works better than anything in existence, and all their tech friends LOVE it. It works flawlessly, but no one is using it. Why? The interface. They had only their tech friends review the way it functioned and, because they were all tech nerds, they understood it perfectly.

The solution: don’t turn to those who are in the same industry as you are for review. It is a great idea to include co-workers and people with insider knowledge. There is nothing like a fresh pair of eyes and a fresh brain from someone who understands what you are trying to accomplish. But when that perspective is the only one you get, you make a huge error.

Working on an identification poster for birds in Alabama for a project called the Alabama Birding Trails over the last month, I’ve turned to some of my close friends at the Birmingham Audubon Society for review and comment. We worked carefully through bird lists and photos to come up with the best of both worlds in terms of what birds you might be able to see here most readily and the best photos to showcase them.

And it has been fantastic working with such knowledgeable birders who give so freely of their time. But to rely solely on these expert birders would be to miss the point. We headed quickly down a rabbit hole by trying to include whether the birds were birds that breed in Alabama, when they arrive and when they depart. Throw into the mix a couple of birds that spend their summers here but do not breed here and others that only visit a small section of the state and confusion started to set in.

At that point, I backed away and rethought the end-user. After tracking down a librarian who doesn’t have any background in bird-watching, we got the project back on track.

In interpretation, as in everything else, remember who you are trying to reach. If all you need to reach is other interpreters, that is the opinion you need most. But, if, like most of us, you are trying to reach a larger audience, make your review team a larger audience as well. For the poster project (see below for an unfinished draft of the poster), I divided the review team into 3 categories:

  1. Birders
  2. Graphic Designers
  3. End Users

This way, we had the expert backing of the birding community, confirmation that the project was readable and attractive and, most important of all, filled a need with the end-user community.


I live with my wife Ann, three Burmese cats and one adopted tabby Siamese mix cat in one of the historic neighborhoods of Birmingham, Alabama. I’ve worked in several fields, including a reasonable stint in the publishing industry, working for Southern Progress as a food editor and general writer for several magazines. I’ve been a non-profit executive director and I’ve worked for myself as a web developer, graphic designer, writer, tourism consultant and occasional freelance photographer since 2000. I’ve been a birder since the late 1990’s and I’m the incoming president of the Birmingham Audubon Society. I became a Certified Interpretive Guide in 2013.



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