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.

The power of the written word

Charlie Brown Wah Wah Wah
I used to read a woman’s blog, everyday. It was amazing: Her drunken, violent mother, her complicated pregnancy, her terrible having a baby experience followed by terrible post-natal depression. It was a detailed slice of life which was compelling to read. One day she wrote that her husband was thinking of resigning from his job to go to another job for more money even though his boss had been great to him and it was a bit of a dilemma and what was he to do? Next day, the blog had gone forever, all that was left was an apology for saying too much.

I can only guess that the last entry, before the blog got deleted, jeopardised her husband’s livelihood and it was the kind of the thing she might not have mentioned to any of husband’s work colleagues had she seen them face-to-face.

I remember when I was eight-years-old being with my mother when we met a woman in the street who told us all about her suicide attempt. At the end of the long, sad story she looked at me as she said,

‘And I lay on the bed and wished that I would never wake up.’

I am probably the same age now as that woman was back then and I wonder would this woman be blogging nowadays? Lots of people do blog about their feelings. Is there any difference between blogging and telling people in the street?

Blogging about something and publishing it online means that you don’t know who you are telling although you have an exact record of what you have said. Telling someone in the street face-to-face means you know whom you have told but you might not remember exactly what you said.

Whether you are saying too much depends on how comfortable you feel sharing whatever you have to say and your state of mind. If you are traumatised, the filters, that you normally have to stop everything you are thinking coming straight out of your mouth, are not always working and sometimes that is not necessarily the best time to be talking about things, well, in front of eight-year olds anyway, but it is often when you have the greatest need.

Talking or blogging can be cathartic and just the thing to make sense of an event. Or, you can, as in the case of the husband-job blogger-woman, say too much and later be sorry because you set into motion events you wish hadn’t happened.

It is easier to be free with your information when there is just you and a computer and no one else. There is the fake intimacy of ‘between you, me, and the four walls…’. The X million people also on their computers who might read what you are writing, are forgotten about.

When interacting with another person we often tailor what we say depending on what they say. Or, we get prevented from saying what we want to say because this other person has something to say. Or, someone else comes along and we don’t feel comfortable having the same discussion in front of them. On a computer there is no one there to stop you saying exactly what you want to say, exactly how you want to say it. Liberating or dangerous?

It is common to read about people getting fired because they have blogged about themselves and the company they work for feels that its reputation is somehow compromised. This is interesting because people often talk about how they feel about their job when in the workplace. But, because they are talking to a limited audience in the canteen or at the coffee machine it doesn’t carry as much weight as if their opinion is all typed up and put online where you have an audience -potentially in the millions. The power of the written word does seem to be greater than the spoken one.

Years later, I asked my mother about the woman we met in the street and she didn’t remember it at all. Perhaps, back then she was forever meeting women who wanted to top themselves. Perhaps, she chose discretion. She chose not to remember in case the woman in question didn’t want anyone to remember and be reminded of a difficult time years later. Or perhaps, we said goodbye to this woman and got on the bus to go home and what to have for tea become the most important thing to us.

And perhaps it is the same when reading blogs. We switch off the computer and go back to our lives and we forget a lot of what we have read and eventually these blogs are deleted by their owners and whatever seemed so important then isn’t so, because life is ever changing. And, since we are all human, and the human condition doesn’t change, perhaps you can’t share too much. Perhaps, sharing our experiences and connecting to others for good or for bad is all we have, whether we do it online or in person.

Goodbye Kubrick, hello twenty ten

The old kubrick website of Ruth Stalker-Firth

Today I updated WordPress. Wow! I have blogged in the past about how much I love WordPress, but where have I been? The WordPress community have been busy making everything smart and sexy. The new dashboard and themes make me desperate to write cool blogs (Dream on – I will).

Before my discovery today, I was a little upset to change my Kubrick theme, I read somewhere that it is no longer supported but after I installed my upgrade it worked as beautifully as ever. However, as much as I love its calm blue smartness, I have always secretly hankered for something more without ever wanting to commit to doing anything. Apart from the ‘if it ‘ain’t broke don’t fix it’ adage, scripting is a means to an end with me. If I really need to do something in a scripting language, I hack away blindly and never get it right the first few goes. Sometimes catastrophically.

When I was an industrial placement student, I edited a whole live database system under the tuition of the resident systems security ‘expert’ (who was one creepy guy). I guess he would have told me not to do that but I was 20 years old and didn’t have a very long attention span. Seriously, who does at that age? Anyway, one embarrassing mess later I was highly amused to find out that he hadn’t a single backup of the database in his Hong Kong Book of Kung Fu tricks . It just goes to show you that everyone needs to think carefully about who is going to carry out the essential but boring jobs (university departmental intranets are a total case in point). And if you must also bore your poor students whilst instructing them, make sure you practice what you preach, and it is probably best to get it down in an email so they have clear instructions.

Apart from my hacktastic tendencies, the other reason I hesitated about tinkering with the Kubrick theme was that I liked its simplicity and its clear lines and from a usability point of view, it is easy to read and to process (Where am I? Where have I been? Where am I going?). I have chosen a similar layout on this one and it looks great, but reading it I tire more easily because the text is too wide and hence, more tiring to read. I need a smaller text column. I feel more tinkering coming on.

Luckily that will be easy to do as I have used the child theme approach (great tutorial here : http://www.throwingabrick.com/wordpress/customizing-the-wordpress-twenty-ten-theme.html ). The child theme approach to editing themes is perfect. It lets me overload my code changes in a separate directory without ever messing up the real theme’s code. Fantastic. And then, when tired of scripting, I can use the Appearance Editor in the Dashboard to change colours and had a tinker about. The sidebar is taken care of by the Widgets drag and drop. This mixture of a bit of typing and mouse manipulation is exactly me. I love it. I want to start thinking of cool things to say, up my game, have cool blogs, but I might just have to fiddle with this new theme a bit more first.

WordPress groupie: blogging, fiddling, loving it

My mate Wayne is the kind of programmer who loves to program. I am not. I think of programming as a means to an end. Something I have to do if I can’t find what I need – which, thanks to the old internet, is rare these days. Wayne writes his own version because he can, because – like Everest – the challenge is there.

I am convinced that the day he takes up blogging he will, of course, write his own blogging software before sharing his thoughts with the world. I am very excited by this prospect and will be on standby to dish out usability advice. Until this fateful day (and probably even after), I will be sticking with WordPress. I am a WordPress groupie.

Continue reading “WordPress groupie: blogging, fiddling, loving it”


wordpress logo

I have kept an electronic diary for three years now. I upgraded my handwritten diary back in 2003 and have never missed pen on paper. Yes, searching your own diary is geeky but I like it. It is something I do much more often than I thought I would. It is much quicker to have a search engine go through your words rather than flicking through pages of handwritten stuff.

I was using the free to-download-and-try version of the Zoom search engine (http://www.wrensoft.com/zoom/) on basic xhtml/css pages with ssi and I was very happy with it. Zoom is easy to install and use. It lets you search up to 50 pages free before you need to upgrade (pay some cash to get more functionality). The only problem was that it wasn’t designed specifically with the blogging style approach I wanted where the search list of pages would be updated automatically. I needed something more cohesive so after looking at various blogging and CMS alternatives I swapped over to WordPress and then having got so excited about it for my own diary I used it to set up this technology blog too.

WordPress is a stylish piece of blogging software for people who want to produce nice web pages either for themselves – like me and my ‘dear diary’ just on my computer – or to publish online, but don’t want to have to learn too many technical details. It is an example of good open source software – free to download and simple to install – if your server is set up with everything WordPress needs to run.

There is a large community of programmers beavering away. If you do get stuck you can join in one of the news groups and get the answer to your problem. If you get really confident it is easy to put a new look on your website online or offline with templates you can download.

To do anything more sophisticated there is a bit of a learning curve, but it may be worth it if you want to host podcasts or to produce feeds to other sites. There is lots of documentation on the site and the WordPress book only costs a tenner which is cheaper than a new nice diary for penning your thoughts in.