Join Me for a Swim Tonight

photo by oHoTos via PhotoRee

July 1977. Hotter-than-normal weather had taken the small town and Ken and Marge seized the opportunity to host a block party in their massive back yard. The adults had just popped open another Coors and most of the children were engaged in swimming or a game of tag.

Mike and Carolyn from down the street looked up in time to witness their daughter, a toddler at the time, smiling at them through her shock of curls from the end of the diving board. Straddling her tricycle, she waved and called out “Look at me!” before plunging headfirst into the deep end of the pool.

The little girl doesn’t remember actually riding off the end of the board but she does recall thrashing about underwater and seeing her trike floating in front of her moments before a pair of adult hands pulled her to safety. Could have been her dad; could have been Ken. It could have even been George from across the street. Regardless, as she sat on the hot concrete coughing up water and feeling the chlorine still burning her nostrils, she had already, at three, taken a HUGE risk and come out the other end safely.

Some random “hot day” aroma made me think of this story, the first of two times in my life I nearly drowned, on my way home from work today. I think partially because of the weather and partially because of what Spring means to so many of us – time to clean out the clutter, reevaluate, purge if necessary and clear away the dust and dirt that has accumulated during the long winter – and water represents some of that cleansing process.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking over the past few months, mostly about the changes that seem to be happening all around me. There are lots of changes afoot at work, several of my friends have moved away or are in the process of doing so, and I have other things going on in my personal life that have me feeling a bit reflective.

The ultimate question is what would make my happy? What do I really want?

Years ago, I completely changed everything in my life around. Within a matter of months, I was living someplace different, working somewhere else, and all my relationships had changed. A total life reboot, if you will. It was a wild time in my life and it was scary as hell. But like that day on the diving board, I plunged into my new life with nary a thought and made a 180 degree change in every area. And I survived.

Is it time to do the same thing again? What would transpire if I pulled up all the roots I’ve spent the last several years tending and began anew? What if I conducted a massive purge, like cleaning out the closet during Spring cleaning?

What if I went right off that diving board, into the big Unknown again? Would I be rewarded with a new and exciting life, or would I drown with no one to pull me out once it’s obvious that I’m in trouble?

These are questions I lie awake thinking about. I feel this strong pull to go somewhere and change something, but inertia or possibly fear prevents it.

Off on a Tangent

A typical conversation in my house happening tonight:

Husband: There’s been a lot of cuts in the school district [that he works in].

Me: Yeah, the economy really has been doing a number lately. It’s doing a number two!

7-year-old Son, overhearing: Mama, what does number one mean in going potty?

Me: It means to pee.

Son: Then number two means to poop… In the movie Rango, the other animals thought he was doing a number two. [pause] I don’t know what his real name was.

Me: Maybe his real name is Rango.

Son: I don’t know…

Me: Maybe his real name is Richard Starkey.

Son: Maybe his real name is Chamelon-Face!

Me: Maybe his real name is “Karma, karma, karma, karma, karma Chamelon…”!

Son: [giggles]

Rocket Surgery for Fun and Profit

Fellow Toastmasters and honored guests… have you ever, suddenly and without warning, wanted to chuck your computer out the window? What was it exactly that caused you to have such a violent reaction? Was it a drop down menu on a website that didn’t stay open quite long enough for you to make your selection? A button that was too small to click? Long swaths of text that made no sense? A search engine that gave you 50,000 results but not one was the one you were looking for?

photo by Austin Kleon
via PhotoRee

In the early 1960s, brilliant engineers decided that computers should be able to talk to one another and, in 1989 after a series of papers were written and meetings were held on the topic, the internet was born. Since that time, billions – and billions – of websites have populated the universe known as the World Wide Web, and it is more commonplace today to have CEO give you his website address than his work phone number.

But for all the technological progress we’ve made on the web, have we forgotten the human side of things? What about those who depend upon websites to get information or complete tasks, such as making bank account transfers or researching information?

Shortly after the birth of the internet, its younger cousin, usability design, was born. Now, the topic of a fourth Toastmasters speech is about How to Say it, so I’m not going to weigh you down with a lot of jargon, but I do want to tell you that designing for the web so that real human beings can use it isn’t exactly rocket science. Heck, it’s not even brain surgery. In fact, according to usability expert Steve Krug, it ain’t Rocket Surgery, and neither is understanding how and why it should be done.

Usability is a term which describes the ease with which a person, commonly referred to as a user, can navigate, understand and transact with some generic thing, be it a car, a DVD player or, in my example, a website.

I’m not just talking about making the web more usable for those with disabilities… this is the art and science of ensuring that buttons can be clicked, menus can be utilized and terms can be searched. It is ensuring that visitors to the site know the purpose of the site and can complete the tasks they need to in order to make good use of your site. Ensuring that your site is usable translates directly into a better experience for your visitors and more profit for your company!

How exactly is this done? Like any other process, designing for usability follows a series of steps:

1. Determine the purpose of the site, the audience and the tasks needing completion
2. Conduct usability testing
3. Make any tweaks to the design that are needed
4. Repeat as necessary

According to usability experts, including Steve Krug, usability testing needn’t be expensive or particularly complicated – the whole objective is to notice how real people use your design and find any “speed bumps”. Don’t go by what people say… you have to actually see where they click, where they look, how they interpret what they see.

There are various ways of testing a design, of course, including eye tracking (noting where their gaze goes), click tracking and recording audio and video of them interacting with the site and talking out loud about what they are thinking. Once you have retrieved the results of your testing, you have a basis for resolving any issues that come up, ensuring that your design is both simple and delightful to use.

Sounds easy, right?

To make it even easier on designers, there are conventions that users have come to expect on websites. Some examples:

• Links that are underlined, or at least a different color than the rest of the text
• A link back to the home page
• A way to “go back” if you make a mistake
• A way to search

What does all this cost? While hiring a usability expert can run into the thousands of dollars, usability testing that you conduct yourself can be had for pennies or, in some cases, for FREE, through dozens of websites which offer testing tools that require little or no extra equipment. If you really want to test a design quickly and cheaply, you can even do what is referred to as “paper prototyping”, which is simply sketching your design out on a sheet of paper and asking your testers questions about the designs, such as “Where would you click to buy a widget?” This is a satisfying way to conduct testing, as it’s fast, cheap and tactile – your testers can literally touch your site and get a “feel” for how things work.

Once you have performed the necessary rocket surgery on your design, you can release it to the world, to a delighted and enamored public… or at least a group of users who return to your site again and again.

A Depressive Named Laughing Boy

photo by Dude With Camera via PhotoRee

One night about six years ago, I was sitting at the computer (as I am, admittedly, often want to do), when something inside urged me to Google Crowded House, the phenomenal Melbourne, Australia-based band that had split up a decade prior. I don’t know what made me do it, but I entered the search term and clicked on “Groups” so I could read the most current message board and newsgroup discussions.

What I found took my breath away for a minute or so. Just a couple of weeks earlier, their former drummer, Paul Hester, had committed suicide in a Sydney park while out walking his dogs.

I devoured article after article that night, thinking no way is this happening. It can’t be.

Perhaps one reason this bit of news struck me the way that it did is because I have a personal connection to suicide.

I was sleeping in one morning during my first fall semester in college when my mom suddenly burst through my bedroom door and announced, breathlessly, that she had to run to the high school where my brother was a senior. “I have to go,” she told me, “Mike killed himself this morning”.

Mike was a guy both my brother and I had befriended. I would go so far as to say he and A were best friends. Mike was very tall and lanky (with size 15 feet!) and immensely likeable, always with a smile. I had taken a guitar class with him,, and he and A were practically inseperable.

The night before he died, Mike had started a job at a local fast food place and had wrapped up his first shift. He was just a few weeks into his senior year and was looking forward to finishing school, moving into his own place and whatever else lay ahead for him. He had also recently reunited with his girlfriend.

When my mom had said the words “Mike killed himself” I immediately questioned her. “You mean accidentally? Like he wrecked his car?” I could not comprehend him deliberately ending his own life.

I spent the next hour and a half fretting at home about what this all meant. My brother’s best friend was dead and I had no idea why. I was 18 years old and just beginning my adult life and this guy who was a year younger than me had suddenly and without warning finished his life. Nothing about it made sense and I sat in the huge house, alone, my head spinning.

When my mom finally came home, she was in tears. “Oh N… he hung himself”, she cried. And we hugged.

That night, I dreamt about Mike. I was shopping at a local grocery store I’d never set foot in and he was standing in the middle of one of the aisles. He was crying and told me repeatedly how sorry he was. I assured him it was OK and he said he was fine and would continue to be fine. The next morning I felt somehow peaceful about his death and I never again had a dream about him, although I have since visited the grocery store in my dream and it looks more or less the same as it had in the dream.

About two years after I read the news of his death, I also dreamt about Paul Hester. This time I found myself standing on the porch of an expansive mansion on the waterfront in Sydney. When he answered the door, he exclaimed “N! What are you doing here?” and invited me in for a cup of tea, over which he told me he was doing “very well” (afterwards, I learned that, in his life, Paul Hester had owned a tea house). I woke up from that dream with a similar feeling of peace.

I have no idea why all the dreams – I had a nightmare about Kurt Cobain the night after he died – unless my subconscious felt the need to work something out. All these years later, I still don’t know what. I only know that we are all on this planet together, attempting to survive, some finding it much more difficult than others.

It was pointed out to me recently that depression happens when our problems become so large that the entire world is minuscule by comparison. If there is anything in this life worth doing, it should be to help decrease and shrink the problems of others, as much as possible.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” – Plato