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Designing for Crisis, Design for Real Life

Back in October of 2014, at An Event Apart Orlando, I returned to public speaking with “Designing for Crisis”, my first steps toward illuminating how and why design needs to consider more than just the usual use cases.  I continued refining and delivering that talk throughout 2015, and it was recorded in October 2015 at An Event Apart Austin.  As of late last week, you can see the entire talk for free.

Vimeo: Designing for Crisis by Eric Meyer

There were a lot of strange confluences that went into that talk, some of them horrific, others just remarkable.  One that stands out for me, as I look at that screenshot, is how a few years ago, Jared Spool gave a talk at AEA where he discussed the GE Adventure Series, in a segment that never failed to choke me up (and often choked up Jared).  I remember being completely floored by that example, and at one point, based solely on what he’d said about the GE Adventure Series, I remarked to Jared that I occasionally thought about switching career tracks to become an experience designer.

Less than two years later, I stood in one of the first Adventure Series rooms at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, standing in the middle of a design I’d only ever seen on a projector screen, the same room you can see in the screenshot above, as my daughter’s head was scanned to see if the experimental medicine we’d been giving her had slowed her tumors.

Six months after that, I was talking about it on stage in Orlando, as an example of how designing for crisis can have spectacularly positive results.  The video we released last week came a year later, and is a much better version of that first talk.  I’m very happy that we can now share it with the world.

As I’ve said before, I came to realize that “Designing for Crisis” was just one piece of a larger puzzle.  To start exploring and understanding the whole puzzle, I recently finished co-authoring Design for Real Life with Sara Wachter-Boettcher, to be published by A Book Apart, possibly as soon as March (but there’s not an official date yet, so that could change).  In it, Sara and I explore a small set of principles to use in approaching design work, and talk about how to incorporate those principles into your existing design practice.  The book is the foundation for a new talk I’ll be presenting at every An Event Apart in 2016—including this year’s Special Edition show in Orlando.

As soon as the book is available for order, we’ll let everyone know—but for now, I hope you’ll find last year’s talk useful and enlightening.  Several people have told me it changed the way they approach their work, and it serves as a pretty good introduction to the ideas and themes I’ve built on it for the book and this year’s talk, so I hope it will be an hour well spent.

A “Year in Review” Review

A year ago today, I went onto Facebook and was shocked by what I saw.  After a few moments, I started thinking through what had happened, and why, and decided to quickly blog about it.  Before a week had gone by, that post had become a news story covered around the world, showing up in newsprint and on web sites, leading to interviews and more.  There was a moment where I was sitting in my office with my daughter when she looked over, took in my expression, and asked me if I was okay.  I couldn’t speak for a minute.  The story had just hit TIME Magazine and the New York Times.  It was a truly surreal experience.

From out of that experience, a lot of things grew.  I realized that “Designing for Crisis” was one piece of a larger topic, started to get a handle on that topic, and teamed up with Sara Wachter-Boettcher to create a book which we just finished writing, title to be announced shortly, and expect to be on shelves within a few months.

In parallel to that, I was asked to talk with the design and content teams at Facebook, which I did in the spring of 2015.  It was an incredibly productive and honest discussion, entirely because the team at Facebook was truly concerned and open to change.  You can see how this has evolved over time in On This Day, whose messaging has become more human and sensitive to the possibility of harm.  And you can especially see it in the 2015 edition of Year in Review.

Year in Review’s timeline ad for 2015.

Whereas last year, the YiR feature was clearly designed around awesome years and happy people, this year’s is a lot more respectful and careful.  It isn’t as dynamic, but when it comes to memories, this seems entirely appropriate.  As Sara and I say in our book, this is “what it looks like when an organization embeds caring into its product, and is willing to own up to mistakes”.

I know the Facebook copy “we care about you and the memories you share” has been derided in some quarters, because people reflexively assume that no company (least of all Facebook) actually cares about you as anything more than a sales unit.  Maybe that’s true of some parts of Facebook—it’s a very large company, after all, with a lot of competing fiefdoms—but the design and content teams were writing from the heart.  They honestly do care about the people who use their products, and they care very much about how their work affects people.  They know they’ll stumble sometimes, but they’re committed to trying anyway and learning from their stumbles.  For that alone, they have my deepest respect.  To forge ahead in front of an audience of well over a billion people takes an incredible amount of courage.

Year in Review will be a part of the talk I’ll be giving in 2016 at An Event Apart, just as it was of Sara’s and my forthcoming book.  In brief, the assessment that you’ll find in both places: Year in Review 2015 is a significant step forward, a great example of compassionate design at scale.  I applaud Facebook for forging a path forward.

The Stages of Fear

How many talks have I given over the years?  How many times have I stood at the front of a room, on a stage or in front of a chalkboard or otherwise before an audience, and talked at them for an hour or so?

Lanyrd says 72 as I write this, with two more coming this year.  But Lanyrd only goes back to 2003, so I already know it’s missing some of my past appearances.  Everything from 1995 (or was it 1996?) through 2003, for example.  The talks I’ve done for college classes and user groups in Cleveland.  Probably others as well.  So let’s round it off to an even one hundred, and pretend like that’s a meaningful milestone or something.

I used to talk about code, style, standards, all that stuff.  It was all, as the cliché goes, subjects for which I had prepared not my talk, but myself.  I knew the subject so thoroughly, I pretty much never wrote out a script.  I wrote an outline, assembled slides or demos or whatever to support that outline, and then mostly improvised my way through the talk.  The closest I got to rehearsal was back in 2007, I think, when my talk was two slides in Keynote and then a bunch of pre-created style snippets that I dropped into a live web page, saving and reloading, talking about the changes as I went.  Live-coding, except without relying on my sloppy typing skills.

(That one was called “Secrets of the CSS Jedi”, where I took a table of data, marked up as such, and turned it into a bar graph live on stage, the summary line of which I still remember: “CSS does not care what you think an element should look or act like.  You have far more power than you realize.”  That was a revolutionary thing to say back then.  We were coders once, and young.)

These days, my talks are nearly or entirely code-free, as I explore topics like compassion in design, and the ways that our coding has a profound influence on society now and into the future.  The talks generally start life as 9,000-word essays that I edit, rearrange, patch up, re-edit, polish, and then rehearse.  After the first two rehearsals, I re-re-edit and re-polish.  Then I rehearse several more times.

The point of all this being:

I stumble through my rehearsals, getting more and more incoherent, getting more frustrated every time I have to start over, certain I’ll never get the words to work, increasingly convinced it means the ideas behind them have no merit at all, until I want to curl up in a cushion fort and never come out.  I grapple with the fear that even if by some miracle I do have one or two worthwhile things to say, they’ll be buried in a flood of stuttered half-sentences and self-protective rhetorical tricks.

So I get nervous before my talks.  Adrenaline surges through me, elevating my pulse and making my palms sweat as they get prickly, the cold fire washing up my arms and into my cheeks.  I pace and fidget, concentrating on my breathing so I don’t hyperventilate.  Or hypoventilate, for that matter.

I do this before every talk I give at An Event Apart, even when I’ve given the talk half a dozen times previously.  I did it before I hit the stage at XOXO 2015.  I did it before I started my talks at Rustbelt Refresh.

A hundred public talks or more, and it’s still not easy.  I’m not sure it ever will be easy.  I’m not sure it ever should be easy.

The further point being:

Every speaker I know feels pretty much exactly the same.  We don’t all get the same nervous tics, but we all get nervous.  We struggle with our fears and doubts.  We all feel like we have no idea what we’re doing.

So if you’re afraid to get up in front of people and share what you know: you’re in very, very good company.  I know this, because I am too.

If you have something to share—and you do—try not to let the fear stop you.

We’re all afraid up there.

This article was originally published at The Pastry Box Project on 2 October 2015.

Heard and Received

A week ago today, I stood on a stage in San Francisco and told a couple thousand developers they were doing it wrong.  I mean, I got up there at O’Reilly’s Fluent, The Web Platfom conference, and gave a talk with a slide that literally said, “The Web is NOT a Platform”.  You can see it here, all fifteen minutes of it, in which I borrowed liberally from Jeremy Keith, added a splash of Mike Monteiro, and mixed it all together with things I’ve been saying and thinking for the past, oh, decade or more.

As it turned out, and a little bit to my surprise, a fair number of people completely agreed with what I had to say, judging by the reactions I got both online and in person.  Only a few people disagreed with me in person, which was fine; I actually hoped that there would be some pushback, since I’m not the smartest person in the world by any stretch.  The best part was, our disagreements were friendly, well-sourced, and collegial.  I love having conversations like that.  I don’t know that any of us changed our minds, but we were able to test our assumptions and viewpoints against each other.  In one case, I shook hands on a friendly, no-stakes bet over which of us would prove to be right, five or ten years down the line.

What made it really fun is that not twenty minutes after I stepped off the stage at the end of that talk, I stepped back on to accept a 2015 Web Platform Award alongside Sara Soueidan, Mark Nottingham, and Mikeal Rogers.  Those are some amazing people to stand with, and that it came from O’Reilly made it even more humbling.  In fact, Sara said it best: “This is my first time ever winning a web award, and I feel privileged to have won it from such a prestigious company.”  To which I would only add, and in such prestigious company.

I do want to note that what I said at the very end of my acceptance remarks was woefully insufficient.  What I should have said, and would have said if I hadn’t suddenly felt completely overwhelmed, is that the web has meant more to me, done more for me, and given more to me in the past two years than any one person could ever have any right to expect.  The web and what it makes possible, the ability to reach out and share and hear from you and stay in touch—that kept me sane, and may very well have kept me alive.

Thank you all.

Talk Talk

If you prefer hearing voice to reading text, I was on a couple of podcasts recently and would like to share; also, I have some live appearances coming up soon.

The first podcast is a 16-minute segment on the eHealth Radio Network, talking about designing for crisis.  This was recorded shortly before AEA Seattle and HxRefactored, which is why I talk about HxRefactored in the future tense.  Much as was the case with my talk at HxRefactored, this concentrates on the topic of designing for crisis in a medical/health care context, and as it turns out, it’s only slightly shorter than was my HxR talk.

The second is both longer and a bit more recent: I talked for an hour with Chris and Dave at Shop Talk Show about flexbox, inline layout, the difficulties of the past two years, and how I’ve changed professionally.  It doesn’t shy away from the emotional side, and some listeners have described it as “heart-rending” and “sobering”.  So, you know, fair warning.  On the other hand, I call Chris Coyier a “newb” about a minute in, so there’s that.

In the Shop Talk episode, we talk briefly about Facebook’s On This Day feature, which had just launched but I hadn’t seen at that point.  Yesterday, it finally popped up in my Facebook timeline.  I had observations, and will probably write about them soon.  First, though, I need to finish up my slides for Fluent, where I’ll be giving my talk “This Web App Best Viewed By Someone Else”.  I get 13 minutes to tell the audience that they… well, I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.  (Plus there’s another slide deck I need to finish up for next week, but that’s for a private engagement, so never mind that now.)

In May, I’ll once again be presenting the hour-long version of “Designing for Crisis” at An Event Apart Boston.  There are still some seats left if you’d care to join us; it’s a pretty great lineup, and as usual I’m feeling a wee bit intimidated by the brilliance.  Attendees have been telling us that this year’s lineup is one of the best they’ve seen, making AEA worth every penny and then some, so you’d get way more out of the show than just hearing me.

In case you’re wondering (and I also mentioned this on ShopTalk), I won’t be at AEA San Diego in June.  Part of me very much wants to be, but an accident of scheduling made it inadvisable: the show starts June 8th, the day after the first anniversary of Rebecca’s death and what would have been her seventh birthday.  I don’t know that I’ll be in any shape to hold brief conversation, let alone stand on stage in front of a few hundred people and give an hour-long talk, in the days immediately following.  Rather than risk it, we (the AEA team and I) decided to have someone else take my place at the San Diego show, and that show only.  I intend to be at all our other shows this year.

Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to write about attending not-web-design conferences in the near future.  I find such experiences entertainingly, and in some ways refreshingly, different.  I recommend it.

Media Queries

Thanks to a combination of my slow process of re-integrating into the web community and the Year in Review explosion at the end of 2014, I actually have some media appearances to tell you about.  (This is at least four times as weird for me as it is for you.)

Since I love the written word, I’ll start with the fact that I’ve been published at Slate Magazine.  As the whole Year in Review thing was going crazy viral, an editor at Slate emailed to ask if I’d consider republishing “Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty” with them.  I said I’d love to as long as I could revise the piece a bit, to which they readily agreed.  So I reworked the opening to be extra-clear about what had actually happened, gave it a closing that was better attuned to a wider audience than the few hundred web designers I assumed would read the original post, and they ran it.  (The headline was, I have to say, not my idea, but that’s how it goes in most magazines: editors write headlines.  I was at least able to suggest some tweaks.)

Shortly after that piece went live, I was asked to be part of a piece on Huffington Post Live about Year in Review (of course).  I was still in Tennessee when the segment aired, and our hotel’s wifi wasn’t up to the task of streaming video, but thankfully they were willing to have me on by phone.

I saved what I consider to be the best for last.  Jen Simmons just recently had me as a guest on The Web Ahead, where we talked for two hours about what my family has been through in the past two years, designing for crisis, Year in Review, what it’s like to have a story go viral on you, being intentional in the age of social media, new details about my AEA talk “Designing for Crisis”, the Metafilter dot, and a whole lot more.  Parts of it are emotionally difficult, but not too many.  We got pretty deep into what I’m thinking about design and where it should go, and in a few cases Jen posed questions that I couldn’t really answer, because they’re at or beyond the edge of what I’ve figured out so far.

Jen is such a great interviewer.  Not only did she ask great questions and then patiently let me ramble my way to answers, she brought really smart perspectives to everything we were talking about.  Listening to her observations and thoughts gave me several new insights into designing for crisis, and more.  You should listen to the episode, or to any of the shows in her archives, just to hear a master of the craft at work.

So, yeah.  This has all been very interesting for me.  At some point, I’ll probably write something about what it’s like to watch a story about you go viral, but for now, I’m enjoying the return to anonymity.  It’s left me time to think more about empathetic design, and to catch up with work and other people’s thoughts.  That’s the best part of this whole web thing: learning from others.  It’s why I got started with the web in the first place.  It’s why I’m still here.

Finding My Way

With presentations of “Designing for Crisis” at AEA Orlando and World Usability Day Cleveland now behind me, I’m getting into the process of reviewing and refining the talk for 2015.  This will be my talk at An Event Apart all throughout this year, making me one of the rare AEA speakers who won’t have a brand-new talk in 2015.  (We’ll have a mix of new and familiar faces, as we always try to do, and they’ll all be bringing new material to the stage.)

Even “Designing for Crisis” will have some new aspects to it, as I discover ways to strengthen it and loop in some new thoughts and discoveries.  As an example, I just recently had a great chat with Amy Cueva, who gave me some really sharp insights into how I can share the message even more effectively.  I expect that kind of iterative improvement to continue throughout the year, given how new the topic is to me, and possibly to everyone.  It’s been something of a surprise to have many people tell me it’s caused them to see their own work in a whole new light—even people working in fields where you might think they would already be on top of this.  I’m really excited to bring this talk to people at AEA, and elsewhere as opportunities arise.  I hope it will do some good in the world.

In parallel with that ongoing effort, I’m getting back to writing more than just the occasional blog post.  I’ve restarted work on the fourth edition of CSS: The Definitive Guide—details on that will be forthcoming just after the holidays.  I’m also starting to write down some of the thoughts and approaches in “Designing for Crisis”, as well as some nascent thoughts on network effects, responsibility, community, and guidance.  I’m also trying to teach myself git so I can push out public repositories of my CSS tests and some bits of code I’d like to release into the wild, but honestly that’s pretty slow going, because it’s always a fifth or sixth priority behind my family, working on AEA, refining and rehearsing the new talk, and writing.

(“Bits of code”.  SEE WHAT I DID THERE?)

Given everything that’s coming together, I really am looking forward to 2015 and a return to speaking and writing.  For painfully obvious reasons, I was pretty out of the loop for nearly all of 2014, not to mention the last half of 2013.  I tried to stay up to date, but it’s one thing to be in the middle of things, and quite another to observe things from a distance.  (The mosh pit never looks like it feels, you know?)  So in addition to all the other stuff, I’m working overtime to catch up, and that’s where I could really use some help from the community.

So, tell me: what did I miss?  What’s emerging that I should be (or should already have been) paying attention to, and what am I already behind the curve on?  What has you excited, and what sounds so awesome that you’re hungering to know more about it?  And maybe most important of all, where should I be going to get caught up?

All input welcome, whether here in the comments, or out there on les médias sociaux.  And thank you!

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.

May 2016
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