The importance of listening (in web design and computer class)

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Published on: 9/11/2013
Last modified on: 10/18/2013
by Kevin Duncan @kevinjduncan on Twitter

While I was going to graduate school, I taught high school computer for three years. Towards the end of one school year, I assigned an optional research paper for extra credit. Students did not have to do it, but if they chose to it could really help them. However, I did have a few ground rules:

  1. The paper had to deal with technology.
  2. I had to approve the paper’s topic.
  3. The paper had to be turned in before the beginning of semester finals. Late papers would not be accepted.

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Well, semester finals began and I received only a handful of papers. As was usually the case, students who did not really need the extra credit were the ones to do it. Funny how that is. Anyway, on the last day of finals (also the last day of the school year), I entered my classroom to find a paper had been slid under my door. It was an extra credit paper. It was also five days late.

A regular assignment turned in late, in most cases, would be accepted and points would be taken off the top. Since this was extra credit and I had announced on numerous occasions it could not be turned in late, I knew right away I wasn’t going to be rewarding any points for this paper. Still, out of respect for the supposed time put into writing it, I sat down to give it a read. I knew right away by the paper’s title it was going to be special:

“The History of Ronald McDonald and Hamburgers”

That’s right. In my hands was a four-page paper on McDonald’s hamburgers. It did not mention anything even remotely related to technology. It talked about Ronald McDonald…and hamburgers…and more Ronald McDonald.

When I saw the student who submitted what I could only assume was a love letter meant for Ronald McDonald (but was somehow given to me by mistake), I let him/her know it wasn’t going to earn any credit since it was turned in late. I gave no other reason; although, I was tempted to shout, “why did you write a paper on hamburgers for a computer class?!”

Later that day, after finals were over, students went home for the summer and teachers began preparing for post-planning; I received a phone call from the student’s father. He wanted to know why I had not accepted the research paper.

I tell him about the student’s knowing for several weeks about the submission deadline, but he asks for me to make an exception because his child really needs the extra points. I tell him about the student’s having to have their topic approved by me and that his child’s topic had not been approved. He asks that I overlook the fact his child never bothered to ask for approval and grade the paper as is. I tell him that even if I wanted to do those things I couldn’t because his child’s paper had absolutely nothing to do with computers or technology.

“What do you mean,” he asks. “What was (my daughter’s) paper about?”

“The paper was about hamburgers,” I tell him. “It was about Ronald McDonald and hamburgers.”

(Long pause.)

“Why did you write a paper on hamburgers for a computer class,” I hear the father ask his child.

An excellent question.

It is amazing how a little thing like “listening” can make such a big difference. My theory has always been this student simply handed me a copy of a paper she had previously written for another class, and turned it into me hoping I would give her a break. (What kind of class this could have been is beyond me, though. “Hamburger Appreciation?”) But, it’s entirely possible the above events happen solely because she didn’t listen.

Listening is a big deal. It can help you in your marriage, in your high school computer class, and in a website you are developing. If your client — be it the pastor of a church or the owner of a business — says he or she wants an “uncluttered” website, you need to listen.

If he/she says a majority of their readership accesses their website via smartphones, you need to listen. If he/she says they want a two-month-long project delivered in one week, you need to listen. And if he/she says most of their readership still uses Internet Explorer 6, you need to listen (if for no other reason than so you can buy some antacid at the drug store on the way home).

Don’t listen and you could find yourself delivering a website nothing like what your client envisioned.

In other words, you could be delivering a research paper about hamburgers.

Note: The hamburger story above has appeared previously online at an old blog of mine.

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