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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 Decade Apart

It was ten years ago today that Jeffrey, Jason and I stood up in front of a little over a hundred people in an oversized classroom space in the upper back corner of The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, PA, and kicked off the very first An Event Apart.

Just the three of us, talking throughout the single day of the event, trading off talks until lunch and then throughout the afternoon.  The slides, most of them running on S5, were projected onto a pull-down Da-Lite screen, and we tapped the screen with our hands to draw attention to bits of design (or code).  In the audience, there was an attendee who’d flown in from Tokyo, just to be there.  Another from London.  We were staggered to think anyone had come more than half an hour’s drive.

It was as lo-fi as it gets without paper megaphones, and we made a whole slew of rookie organizer mistakes—but we got the essentials right, the same essentials we’ve kept alive all these ten years: present in-depth, practical, higher-level content to an audience of savvy web folks, and treat them right.  As we’ve grown over the years from one day to two to three, and from three speakers to twelve (and sometimes eighteen), we’ve kept one central goal in mind: to create a conference we’d gladly pay to attend, every time.  And while I’m admittedly biased, I believe we’ve pretty much succeeded at that goal.

Ten years, which is a lifetime ago and then some, and still rolling strong.  We’re calling it A Decade Apart, because why wouldn’t we?  To celebrate, we’ll be doing some fun stuff at all our events in 2016, special giveaways on top of the usual giveaways, the return of some audience favorites…but I don’t want to give away too much just yet.  Suffice to say, we’re planning on making this our best year ever, and everything’s shaping up to deliver on those plans.

If you’ve been to a past Event Apart, thank you—and if you have a memory to share, I’d really love to hear about it in the comments.  And whether you’ve been or not, I hope to see you in 2016!

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.

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.

AEA Orlando: Special Edition

Yesterday, the team at An Event Apart unveiled a special addition to our schedule: a Special Edition event, to be held at The Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World this coming October 27-29, 2014.  That’s right: we’ll be there during both the EPCOT International Food & Wine Festival and Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at the Magic Kingdom.  If you’ve never been to the Halloween Party, you should make it a point to go.  It’s really great.  The Imagineers go all-out to add fun Halloween touches all over the park, perfectly pitched to be spooky while still being, well, not so scary.  And as for the Food & Wine Festival, yum!  It’s actually where I discovered the one form of alcohol I can stand, and there are some great food stalls scattered all around the World Showcase.

But of course, you’ll really want to be there for An Event Apart!  We’re adding a lot of new and interesting enhancements to this show.  In addition to the brand-new Gold Pass, which includes (among other things) a backstage tour of Walt Disney World, AEA Orlando: Special Edition will feature three full days of talks, eighteen speakers in all.  I’m incredibly pleased and excited to say that I’ll be among them, delivering a talk on design.  Yes.

As regular readers know, I’ve had to withdraw from almost all travel and speaking this year, including for An Event Apart, and it’s been tough to be away.  I love what Jeffrey and I have created.  I love being there to hang out with other members of the tribe.  I love being able to learn from the best and share a piece of what I know.  It was absolutely the right decision to stay home with my family in this time, but still.  I miss being there, and I can’t wait to return.

And when I do, I’ll be presenting not about CSS, but about design and how to do it better.  Specifically, the talk is called “Designing for Crisis”, which draws on my experiences of the past seven months to illustrate how design can let people down when they most need its help, show examples of design that does help people in crisis, and explore ways to approach design in order to not let those people down.  Because if you’re helping people in crisis, you’ll be helping those who aren’t in crisis as well.

It’s a big departure for me.  For many a year now, I’ve been the guy who geeks out onstage over trippy selectors and obscure browser bugs.  You know, a CSS nerd.  But as I considered whether I had anything to say in Orlando (and at Rustbelt Refresh, which invited me to speak around the same time), I slowly realized that this talk was in my head and that I was incredibly passionate about getting it out.  I could see the narrative, the lessons I could underscore with it, and the advice I would give to designers.  I haven’t been this consumed by a talk in quite a while.

I hope you’ll be there to see and hear it, but even if that doesn’t sound entirely like your cup of tea, there are seventeen other amazing speakers filling up all three days—Karen McGrane, Mike Monteiro, Jenn Lukas, Luke Wroblewski, Jaimee Newberry, Scott Berkun, and so many more.  We have the complete schedule up now, so go, bathe in the awesome and make your plans to join us!

(P.S.  If it will take you a while to get approval, better start the ball rolling now.  We’ve already had a number of registrations in the 30 hours since we made the surprise announcement, and this event being as new and different as it is, we honestly don’t know long tickets will last.)

An Event Apart 2014 Schedules, Round One

I’ve recently had the odd experience of seeing from the outside something that I usually get to see from the inside: the schedules and workshops for the first three An Event Aparts of 2014 have been announced.  Those shows are:

All the shows feature a great mix of veterans and new faces, all coming together to bring our usual blend of looking to the future while staying firmly grounded in the details of the here-and-now.  The shows include workshops from Luke Wroblewski (in Atlanta or Boston) or Josh Clark (in Seattle) about mobile and touch design.

Ordinarily, at this point I’d say “hope to see you there!” but I can’t be sure that I’ll be able to hold up my side of that.  The same family crisis that forced me to withdraw from the last four AEAs of 2013 has also kept me off the roster for at least the first three shows of 2014, and I don’t know that I’ll be able to travel even to visit.  I’ll continue to be a part of the show, but behind the scenes, at least for now.

And that crisis is why I got to experience the announcements from the outside.  While I was in Philadelphia, I was basically on extended medical leave from AEA, with the team picking up every scrap of my duties they could.  They pretty much soaked up 99%+ of what I do daily, sparing me the worry of day-to-day operations and leaving me free to focus everything I could on my daughter and family during a very difficult period.  I am forever indebted.  I can’t ever thank them enough for what they did for me.  I am beyond fortunate to have had such a strong team of friends and colleagues at my back.

I will say that it was a good thing for me to experience the process from the audience, as it were, gaining a new perspective on what we do and how we do it.  I certainly don’t recommend a major crisis as the best way to gain that perspective, but I have a newfound appreciation for the value of stepping outside of the process as completely as possible.  You might be very surprised by how things look from out there.

But back to the point: the complete agendas are up for the first three AEAs of 2014, so go check them out!  And if you’re at all interested, I wouldn’t wait to register any longer than absolutely necessary.  Every show for the past two or three years has sold out weeks or months in advance, and cancellation rates are low enough that it’s pretty rare for people on the waiting list to get in.  I hope you’ll be there!

On Stage and Off

We now (sort of) interrupt the stream of Rebecca updates for a professional update.

Given the situation with Rebecca, I’ve obviously had to make some serious adjustments to my speaking and travel schedule.  I had to cancel my appearance at the CSS Dev Conference later this month, which is a bit of a shame since I was looking forward to taking the hotel elevator at night, soaking up the CSS genius from all the other speakers, and connecting with some college friends I haven’t seen in almost 20 years.  I also had to withdraw from the CERN Line-Mode Browser Dev Days, which was a real letdown for me as an amateur web historian as well as a high-energy physics fanboy.

I also had to drop myself from the remaining An Event Aparts of 2013, as well as first few of 2014.  The reason for the extended withdrawal from the AEA stage is that in the event the cancer treatments fail and the cancer returns, the odds are very high that it will do so in the first year after diagnosis.  That first year is also the period in which Rebecca will be getting some fairly strong chemotherapy, and is likely to be in and out of the hospital on a semi-random basis.  It would be unfair to pretty much everyone I can think of for me to commit to a bunch of speaking and then cancel some of it at the last minute.  I’m sorry to be absent at my own show, but life can be like that sometimes.  Like now.

I am, on some level, sorry that I had to cancel so many events.  Not that I feel like I made any choices for which I have to apologize, of course.  I’m just sad about the way life turned, and wistful for the missed connections-that-would-have-been.

This doesn’t quite mean that I’ll be total hermit, though: I have two talks happening this month, one in Philadelphia and the other in Cleveland.

The first is an evening talk at Drexel University in Philadelphia on Wednesday, 23 October.  This will be a modified version of the talk I gave at AEA earlier in 2013, tuned for the web design students who will be in the audience but of interest to anyone (who hasn’t already heard it).  It’s now called “<strong> Layout Systems”, and we’ll be kicking things off at 7:00pm, with a completely open-topic Q&A immediately after the presentation.  The event is free and open to the general public, so if you feel like dropping by the Drexel campus that night, I’d love to say hi!

A few days after that, I’ll be speaking at the CWRU ACM chapter’s Link-State 2013 conference, October 26-27.  My topic will be CSS fonts and the crazy, crazy things you can (or can’t) do with them in current browsers.  The prices are pretty great—free for CWRU students, $10 for everyone else—so if you feel like dropping by the CWRU campus the weekend before Halloween, I’d love to say hi!

Basically, I’d love to say hi.

Next up should be an update on the writing side of my professional life, including what’s next (and what’s already available!) for CSS: The Definitive Guide, 4th Edition.

May 2016
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