A New Chapter

Published 9 years, 7 months past

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.

Comments (29)

  1. I didn’t get a chance to tell you at the conference, but I think you gave one of the, if not the, best talks. You took a topic that was hard to discuss and did a great job; you also made us aware of the circumstances we don’t really think of as use cases for when we are designing a website. It will definitely be something I think about moving forward. Thank you!

  2. I’m proud to see you back on the horse, Eric. Though I don’t think you ever really left.

    I wish I could have been there.

  3. Huge changes are rarely sought. They are, more often, foisted on us. How could they not be? It’s what one does when confronted by these continental shifts which set us apart. Some retreat and some keep moving. Thanks for moving forward.

  4. I’m kvelling.

  5. That’s fantastic to hear. As a community we have an endless number of brilliant technical minds coming up with really fantastic things — but if we’re not looking at how design and empathy plays a role in how we’re using these tools then what’s the point?

  6. Eric,

    Once again thank you for your talk, I am sharing it with my coworkers at our Children and Adult Hospitals, I hope one day it can be online so more people can see it and learn.
    At the hospital I find my self advocating for our patients, I have been saying for 5 years that no one comes to a hospital website in their right mind, its unnerving, I have had plenty of experience been the frustrated user, dying to find out where there ER (or ED like the hospital insist in calling it) Is, signage its terrible on hospitals all over too, I have tried to find out if they could save my father, my sister etc… I have been there, we need to do a better job, I would LOVE to hear more from you and learn more from what you learn. Thank you .

  7. I was very happy to see your face in an AEA picture that someone posted recently and hoped that this marked your return to the stage. I wish I could have been there to see/hear your presentation. I just read LukeW’s notes on it and am very interested in learning more. It’s clear to me that we as developers rarely consider the full spectrum of personas of those who experience our work. I look forward to hearing more about this.

  8. Congratulations Eric on once again showing how to live and learn and grow.
    I am sorry to miss this talk so hope it will be in forms I have access to.

  9. Eric,
    Your parents are so very proud of you in so many ways. You will continue to be a positive force, because it is who you are – kind, loving and unbelievably insightful.
    Your willingness to share your pain, your struggles, and what you have learned from them is remarkable.
    With love,

  10. So proud. Can’t wait to see you give the talk! :)


  11. Eric,
    Your talk was amazing, inspiring, thought provoking and emotionally moving. Your story brought me in. I felt like I was with you, in the car searching the site, walking down the hallway, in the elevator, hearing the doors closing. It made me remember that we,as a design community, can make changes for good. UX On the web and in real life. I am sorry that the path was painful. My heart goes out to you.

    You edited my perceptions and I am sure that your new ideas will cascade to help people in crisis across all industries.

    Thank you.

  12. Any video available, for those of us living on the other side of the ocean?

  13. There isn’t any video available right now, Youri. I expect there will be at some point down the road, but I don’t know whether it will be of that first talk or of a later, more refined version.

  14. Joe, Andrea, and Thomas: thank you all so much for being there. I’m really glad the talk was meaningful for you.

    Warren, Jeff, Jeffrey, robot, Bob, Lydia, Dad, and Angela: thank for you kind words.

    (Sorry to mass-answer, but it scales a lot better than doing one reply comment per person…)

  15. Empathy, humanness, connectedness – these were the overwhelming themes of the Web Directions conference in Sydney. Not be design, it’s just where the focus is going. You’re still in the vanguard, Eric. I look forward to catching the content of your talk somewhere along the line.

  16. I wasn’t at the talk, but this post made me think of something. You should ping Daniel Szuc (@dszuc) and Annie Valdes (@annievaldes) for your research. Not sure what you’ll find, but it might be worth letting them know what you are up to and seeing how they might provide some guidance.

    Something might come of it, might not. Just my brain putting a few disparate items together and thinking there might be something there.

  17. Thanks for opening my eyes, I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t been thinking about designing for users in crisis when I really should have been. I run a directory of roadside repair services for commercial drivers. People using it are not experiencing a crisis on the level you went through over the past 18 months, but to them being stuck is a big deal – not only is it frustrating but it affects their income, and potentially their job security.

    I wasn’t at the conference in Florida, but I am looking forward to whatever you produce on the subject. From now on I will be focusing more on what I can do to resolve my users crises quickly when possible, and make them easier to deal with when not.

    If there’s anything I can do to help let me know.

  18. Eric,

    Thank you for all your work over the years. While I don’t think my recent journey has been at the same level of yours, I too have spent the last ~18 months learning to live life in a new way. Recently at MidwestUX, I gave a similar heartfelt talk hoping to get designers to look at use cases they normally don’t consider. It was my first time on stage in a couple years and I know the nerves you felt. I’m excited to see what you produce and if I can be any help, please let me know.

  19. Eric, I wish you and your wife all the strength you need to get through this time in your life. I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a child, I have 3 boys and can’t even fathom the despair you and your family must have gone through.

    I pray the Lord to shine his light on you and your family.
    Be blessed.

  20. I came upon this post randomly. My daughter who was 17months old passed away suddenly early December. We are broken and life seems impossible. But what has made it harder is the simple things. We have been flying around europe visiting family over the holidays. Of course we had planned to travel with Sophie. But now it’s not possible to cancel infant plane tickets online or over the phone. We tried, people on the phone told my sister it was all done and cancelled but when we got to the airport yesterday they asked where she was. Everytime it’s painful. We fly again on Friday and I’m already dreading it. It’s a tiny detail for these airlines but surely it wouldn’t be so complicated for the web designers. Anyway, delighted to hear someone is working on this.

  21. Thank you for this important insight, though I would never wish for the accompanying pain. Would love to hear your presentation with gathered leaders at the nonprofit where I serve. If you ever consider outside presentations, let me know.

  22. Thank you for writing and thank you for proceeding as you have. And I want to offer special thanks for your framing of this new experience as a “new chapter.” I have had a catharsis, an epiphany, if you will, and I am going to steal your term and call my situation a New Chapter because I was at a loss as to how to mentally file the whole thing. I am so glad to have come across your Facebook post and pursued the full story. And Happy New Year!

  23. I admire everything about this article and its comments. Life requires humanity.

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  26. Eric,
    You have been my inspiration since the ’90s. I am the coder I am in great part because of you.
    And now in my weariness, you inspire again.
    Thank you. A thousand times. Thank you.

  27. I went back to my hotel room and cried after this. Way to use what you went through in the most positive way possible!

  28. Stumbled upon this randomly…Quick thoughts.
    When my son passed, I remember a few things that blew me away.
    1) It was a beautiful day. (How is that possible? Why isn’t the world in anguish?)
    (2) “I feel your pain quotes” – (No, no you don’t)
    (3) Ceremonies are for other people, so they feel helpful. You don’t want ceremonies…you want to curl up in a cave and screamcry until you starve.
    (4) Life goes on….And no matter if it was last week or ten years ago, you’ll miss him just the same. It won’t stop you from learning, laughing, and loving, but he’s still there, in the corner of your heart and memory.
    (5) People (when they do find out, if ever) are always surprised, my reply “Well, I don’t start the conversation with ‘Hi, I buried my son..’
    (6) society can’t handle it. If your parents die, you’re an orphan. If your spouse? A widow. But what am I? There’s no word for it, because it is NEVER supposed to happen, it’s too cruel to imagine.
    In closing, while I can share my experience & grief, I know better than to say I know how You feel. Only YOU know that.

    I wish love upon you and yours.

  29. I wasn’t there, but I wish I had been. To me your life’s work has inspired me for over 20 plus years of designing, coding, and just generally trying my best to emulate you! If ever you’re in the Las Vegas area, I’ll be sure to attend one of your presentations.

    I thank you for all your work. It, and you, have been an inspiration!


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