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Inside Iowa State
Gold bar
February 9, 2001

She'll unravel any riddle, for any individ'l

by Debra Gibson
Think of her as Iowa State's Wizard of DOS. Like the enigmatic czar who doled out proclamations throughout Munchkin Land, Diana Pounds sits at the helm of the university's most comprehensive information distribution center -- the official Iowa State Web site. Her clearinghouse for the sanctioned institutional word garners 5 million hits weekly, with users accessing factoids from more than 125,000 departmental home pages.

A peek behind the curtain reveals, as in Oz, a leader both wise and likeable. And in the case of Pounds, a 19-year ISU employee, a favorite among colleagues for both high-profile search committee assignments and noontime jogs around the State Gym track.

The former newspaper reporter and editor brings to the ISU Web site a keen appreciation for clear, concise writing and a love for computers. A self-professed "tech nerd," Pounds played a lead role in 1993 when the Office of University Relations launched a "Gopher" site for fledgling Internet users. The pages offered text-only updates on campus happenings, the result of "people at the ISU Computation Center who were very far-sighted in realizing the potential of, first Gopher, and then the Web," Pounds recalled.

Launched in October '93, the first university site received about 2,600 "hits" per week. ("But that also might have been me clicking in 2,000 times each week to see if the site looked OK," Pounds said, displaying her characteristic droll wit.) Within 18 months, with the advent of increasingly sophisticated technology, Pounds and Computation Center (now, Academic Information Technologies) programmers had launched a site complete with art, pulling in 28,000 hits monthly.

Though the site continued to be tweaked for the next few years, it recently underwent a major redesign that debuted Jan. 15. Early reactions are running 2 to 1 in favor of the new look, Pounds said, but all reactions are given serious consideration (even the ones that refer to webmasters as "morons").

"It's actually very useful for us, especially with the new design, when people tell us they can't find something," Pounds said. "That tells us something is holding them up in getting where they need to go."

Her commitment to customer service goes beyond her conscientious nature. As the Office of University Relation's manager of internal communications, Pounds understands the value of honest and immediate feedback. And she's well acquainted with plodding her way through unfamiliar cyberspace, being totally self-educated in the ways of the Web.

"Lots of us are self-taught, because we had to be," Pounds explained. "The technology sprang up, and we all had to learn to do HTML." Pounds' curriculum included a variety of online "how-to" manuals, as well as "20 to 25" books on programming and Web design.

"I've loved it," Pounds said, "because it was something new, and something that combined the things I love -- writing clearly, computers and immediacy. You can get the news out there almost instantly."

And get the questions back almost as rapidly. Pounds' files bulge with hard copies of inquiries and suggestions, both professional and profane. Via the site's e-mail function, she and other office staff have been asked to diagnose canine ailments, settle Cyclone trivia arguments, thank former professors and track down old roommates. For example:
  • "I was reading your 'nutritional values of insects' page, and noticed that the serving size wasn't listed. I would like to know if these nutrients are per serving or per bug."
  • "How much radiation do you absorb while playing video games? I need a radiation tester that has a reader... do you have one I could borrow? My science fair is March 7, but I would kind of like it between Jan. 29 and Feb. 2&..."
  • "I'm just wondering when Homecoming 2001 is...I am trying to plan a wedding...if I plan it on Homecoming some people might kill me."
  • "Make tuition free, BABY!"
Life as a perpetual "Whad' Ya Know" center requires major time commitments. Pounds estimates she spends 75 percent of her workday gathering information for the "Today's News" section and maintaining the overall site.

And though she expresses concerns that the ever-growing site may become too unwieldy for satisfactory use, she marvels at technology's ability to connect Iowa State with its many constituents.

"What has surprised me the most about the Web is how much closer it has brought us to many of our audiences," Pounds said. "Every day, we talk, via e-mail, to students, parents, alumni and prospective students, and I like that."

So she continues to tweak the site, with its most recent look designed to improve accessibility (hence the alphabetized index across the top of the home page), provide the most up-to-date news on the home page and allow people with physical limitations to better use the site (e.g. to enlarge font size for better readability).

Although the university's history and image are closely tied to the creation of the first digital computer, Pounds doesn't feel pressured to dazzle the masses via the ISU Web site.

"In the earlier days of our designs, we did have some complaints that our site wasn't glitzy enough," Pounds explained. "But over the years, those comments have really dropped off, because I think Iowa Staters ultimately want you to give them a nice clean page, get them where they want to go, and then move out of their way."

In keeping an eye out for the next big technological push, Pounds predicts that in time, most users will maintain their own personalized Web pages, or portal pages, tailored specifically for individual interests. Those pages will link to favorite sites that cater to the user's job, area of study and lifestyle -- in other words, a custom-built cyberspace.

Looks like we're not in Kansas anymore.

Diana Pounds is the energy and hours behind Iowa States main Web site. Photo illustration by Michael Haynes.

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Published by: University Relations,
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