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Archive: 6 November 2014

A New Chapter

Last Wednesday, I stood on the stage at An Event Apart for the first time in almost fifteen months, in front of an audience for the first time in just over a year, and delivered the most important talk of my life.  It wasn’t about CSS, or coding, or even standards.  It was about design and empathy and user experience and my own personal experience and what it taught me.  It was a talk about designing for users who are in the midst of crisis, no matter what kind of content you have, no matter whether you think your users will ever be in crisis when they come to your site.  It was the opening of a new chapter in my career.

To say this is a radical departure is an understatement.  But after the turns my life has taken, it was almost impossible that this would have been anything less.

I don’t know if the audience sensed my anxiety and fear in the moments before I spoke.  I wasn’t afraid of speaking in front of the audience, nor of their reaction to my points.  I was afraid of making my points badly, so that the message was lost in hesitation and stumbling.  I was afraid of fumbling and failing, not because of how I would look in public, but because it would mean doing a disservice to the message I was trying to convey.  And I was a little bit afraid of letting down the team at AEA, who have stood by me and done so much for me.

In the past, I haven’t really rehearsed my talks.  They were all technical, covering territory I knew very well.  The cliché is “Don’t prepare a talk, prepare yourself.”  In other words, know your subject so well that you can just talk about it for an hour.  That’s how I approached all my presentations.  I had high points to hit, slides (or demos) in a certain order, but no actual script.  I didn’t need one.  CSS was so familiar to me, I could mostly improvise what I said.

But this new talk is entirely about territory new to me.  In some cases, it involves things that are new to everyone—ideas I’ve come up with, and techniques I’ve devised, that I’ve never seen before, and nobody I’ve talked to has seen before.  It took no particular act of genius to do this; I just tried to simulate certain frames of mind with software.  The only insight there was to realize that it should be tried at all.

Beyond the topic area, everything about this talk is unusual for me.  I wrote it out as if composing an article, and read the text aloud several times to figure out what had to change.  Once the text was set, I rehearsed more than a dozen times, which partly explains the complete blogging silence of the past month.  I memorized the opening and closing sections of the talk verbatim, going over them in my head before bed, sitting on the plane to Florida, pacing in my hotel room.  On Sunday afternoon before the show opened, I went into the ballroom and essentially gave the talk to myself and the techs putting the lighting and AV together, getting reacquainted with being on stage and throwing my thoughts into the world.

And then, Wednesday morning, after Jeffrey introduced me, I stood center stage, looked out into the audience that held hundreds of my colleagues as well as my sister and parents, paused for a moment… and started talking.

Several people told me they were holding their breath in that pause, wondering if I’d be able to start.  That wasn’t my concern.  My concern was that I would lock up a few minutes in—that I’d stumble, lose my place, and go tharn.  Once I got through the opening and the first screenshots came up, I knew that danger was past.  Whatever else, I’d be able to carry it to the end.  And I did.

As I said before, that talk marked the opening of a new chapter for me.  I’m not abandoning CSS by any stretch, and in fact I’m moving forward on that front as well, but a goodly portion of my energies will be devoted to this new topic.  I think it’s not just important, but vital, and very much overlooked.  I have research to do, ideas to test and further develop, and a lot of thinking ahead of me.  I have this talk to give at An Event Apart throughout 2015.  There will probably be articles, and possibly a book.  Perhaps even more.  I don’t know yet.

What I know is that I’m on a new path now, one I wish I hadn’t come to by this route, but one that I’m determined to follow.  I hope to take what I’ve suffered and forge it into positive, lasting change—not just for me, but for the profession and medium I still love after all these years.

November 2014
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