Experience: Where am I? Where have I been? Where am I going?

One month ago I, who has had cancer, dropped my daughter, who has had kidney failure, off at school for her first day. And as I walked home, I was stunned. This day was in a future I didn’t believe could happen and which I had never allowed myself to think about.

I felt completely lost.

So there we were, at the gate. My daughter was completely cool about this new experience and walked into her new life, full of joy, without a backward glance.

I was less cool.

And this feeling of being lost reminded me of the questions I would ask when designing webpages: Where am I? Where have I been? Where am I going?

And when the answers weren’t immediately apparent, I would slap on breadcrumbs, menus, sidebars, search boxes and anything else I could, to make sure users knew where to go next.

Now as I type this, it sounds like I was designing a tunnel. I didn’t think about user experience. I was just herding them through, and literally pushing them to the exit.

And for a very long time, I used the same approach in life. I herded myself through a set of goals in the hope of reaching some imagined future. In it, I would be cool and everything would be fabulous.

What can I say? I was a computer programmer. I provided programmed solutions and users stepped through them in a specific way to get specific results. And then times changed. I moved off the mainframe and onto the web but I continued with the same approach. And I wasn’t alone.

In a recent blog post, Alan Dix discusses how being lost in hyperspace, was a common preoccupation in the human-computer interaction world. But lately, having looked at how users are behaving, especially on sites like Pinterest, Alan says perhaps they are not worried about feeling lost, or having control anymore. They are just enjoying the experience.

I had a similar discovery too when I was thinking about sprucing up this website. I wandered round the web to see what was new and was looking at Jeffrey Zeldman’s site when I saw that his breadcrumbs, sidebars, and search boxes have disappeared. I was baffled at first, without signage how would I navigate? What if I got lost? But on reflection, I realised, I didn’t need signage, I was there for a mosey round and an experience. How could I get lost?

And as I admired Zeldman’s clean design and crisp pictures, I was reminded of my la pavoni. It doesn’t have much in the way of instructions on it, but it is so asethetically pleasing that when I use it, I am not just making coffee, I am temporarily transported to coffee nirvana. And how could I ever get lost in nirvana?

I still believe that design is about communication and communicating intentions. But now I know this includes more than results. Good design must mean amongst other things, a collective sharing of ideas and good experiences, which is now easier to achieve, because we have a whole generation of users who have never known the web any other way. Users who demonstrate the no function in structure principle, because they don’t worry about getting lost. They turn up without any expectations of how something should work and are happy to experience a site without needing the interaction to happen in a specific sequence.

And after my recent life experiences where I had no control over what was going on or any clear instructions on how to proceed, I have learnt an important lesson. Being present is enough. An experience doesn’t have to be prescribed. It doesn’t need sign posting. It is not about knowing exactly where you are, where you’ve been, or where you are going. It is about right now.

The current experience is all we have, so we need to make it good. And on the days when being without signage brings me out in a rash, I remember my daughter on her first day of school, embracing life with joy, and I try to do the same. And when I do that, I become the person I always wanted to be in some imagined future:

I am cool and everything is fabulous.

Chemotherapy: The year of my hair

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Before I started chemotherapy in March 2011 I had had the same hairdo for 20 years. It was long and very dark brown and curly and I loved it. It was, I believed, my crowning glory and I imagined I wouldn’t be the same without it. I found that I was the same without it. I am not my hair but I like having hair on my head.

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When my hair started falling out it was shocking to hold great big long clumps in my hands, so my husband clipped it all off and then I looked on the internet for a gallery of pictures to show me how soon my hair would grow back and what it would look like. I thought that way I would feel less sad. At the time, I couldn’t find one so I thought that one day I would put up my own for someone who wanted the same information. So, today is that day.

The pictures are random because I found chemotherapy gruelling. Ideally, the photographs would have been taken at a specific time of the month in the same place in the same outfit. Unfortunately, they were taken all over the place and sometimes there is one month between them and other times six weeks. I took pictures whenever I looked in the mirror and said, ‘Oooh new hair do,’ which happened a lot more than I had thought it would.

I had six rounds of chemotherapy, every three weeks between March and August 2011. My hair started falling out after the first round and I was completely bald by the third round. It started growing back after the fifth round and three weeks after the last round it was fuzzy, grey and thick and thin along its length. Three weeks after I finished chemotherapy I got my husband to shave my head again so it would be even. And my hair has been growing fairly steadily since then.

I had one haircut in April 2012 as it was a bit of an odd shape and then in September 2012 I got my husband to trim the back off with the kitchen scissors to turn it into a bob, rather than the mullet it felt like.

My new hair was completely grey so I coloured it my old colour. I didn’t want grey hair. I wanted to look in the mirror and see a me I recognised. I used a ‘natural’ hair dye one without ammonia in case my scalp was sensitive.

Update July 2013: My hair is starting to look like how it used to be.