I can't

A few years back I wrote about an extremely powerful technique in doing user research: sketching with users. The idea of just handing someone a Sharpie and a piece of paper is a simple one, but for my research it has been one of my favorite and useful tools.

There's one part of that post I want to come back to, something that I have faced a lot. You see, when you get the title of “designer” or anything with “design” in it some funny things happen, in my experience. First, people may devalue your skills (“I can have my dog design a website!”) Second, people may admit they can't do what you do (“I can't sketch!”) Both happen, sometimes simultaneously. Here's what I said in 2013.

Now, you know that some people react with, "I can't draw!" or more precisely, "I claim I don't know how to think visually because I fear that it requires some sort of title with 'design' or 'artist' in it and I don't have that but help me here and please don't judge me okay because it looks like you have those skills!"

Now, as a thought experiment, consider something you have in your mind that you say you can't do. It's there. Maybe it's old. Maybe it's something that just popped up, some challenge, some new thing. And now, deconstruct it. Why are you saying that? Is it that you can't do it, or can't do it well? And how are you defining “well”, anyway?

The truth is, you can do it. Whatever it is. Big or small. There may be things that need to happen, yes. And importantly, the outcome may not be exactly what you expect. But you can do it. For me, I found it way easier to be challenged externally than internally. If someone told me I couldn't do something, I would fester and get upset and then come back and do it. But if I took it and fully internalized it, for the longest time I would take it as truth.

It was so easy for me to apply this to other people. Look:

So it was my responsibility to help those people [who said they couldn't sketch] through the process, guiding them and sketching on another piece of paper right next to them. It wasn't to upstage their ideas, but to help them feel comfortable and willing.

Not bad advice for working with yourself, either. Guide yourself. Help yourself through the process. Don't upstage your ideas. Help yourself feel comfortable and willing.

If you have this happen to yourself, this “I can't” mentality, please question it. Do what you need to do to access your self – your true, loving, honest, caring self – and start there. Don't start at the outcome. Start with what you can do, your power, in this very moment.

A Little Water

I have to confess something to you. I'm not a fan of self-help books.

For the longest time, I was stubborn. I held those books in very high contempt. What could a book teach me? What could I possibly learn from a book that was seemingly designed to help me? I don't need help!

But I did. And I found the help I needed in not-quite self-help books. Not books that were categorized officially in that spot, but ones that had a profound impact on me nonetheless. And it wasn't always expected.

Many years ago my wife and I were at a bookstore and I found myself looking at books by the Dalai Lama. Live in a Better Way spoke to me, at least in title. And at the time I had had nothing more than a passing fascination with Buddhism. But I bought the book. And I devoured it. So many words in it gave me so much hope, so much care, that I actually felt like I was healed at the end of it.

It helped me consider things in a different light, in a different way: my life, love, death, and everything. It didn't prescribe how to do things, not intentionally. It simply presented its topic and gave the hardened soil of my soul a little water and sunlight.

That book pulled on things I already knew, long knew, about myself. And it started to encourage me to explore the world in this way. It didn't start my journey. But for a short time, it gave me the space I needed to begin to truly find myself.


Two days ago, I had the honor of speaking at SXSW 2015 with my good friend Elysse Zarek. It was my second time presenting there, and there really is no other conference like it.

After being intrigued with attending sessions from other tracks (Film or Music) last year, I had the opportunity to do so this year. I attended two from Film: one about telling great true stories, and only the 2nd screening ever (!) of the Mavis Staples documentary, Mavis!

The two sessions really played together well. I heard from journalists, writers, and filmmakers about their approach and craft. It was surprising to me to hear that they often will start their interviews and their work before finding the emotional core of the story. I would not have thought of that. I heard how different it is to take a story for radio (This American Life, specifically) and adapt it to film. Both of these things really got me thinking about design work.

In UX, we start with our structure. We talk with people, sketch things out, define an IA, maybe wireframe things up, and iterate, iterate, iterate. We listen, we record, we comb through transcripts. We start looking for the emerging patterns and... yes, the story. We then articulate that story by addressing it in design: interactions, flows, screens, products, what-have-you. It runs very parallel.

Similarly, there was discussion of the narrative. Subjects of interviews come in with their own narratives, often casting themselves as the hero or the villain. That gets shifted a bit, perhaps, because the filmmaker also has a narrative. She may find it aligns with the subject's narrative, or not. Finally, once something is out in the world, the audience has a narrative. Of course once it's out there, the subject may then directly engage with the audience!

It's a process that can be cyclical and messy but, again, it sounded like design to me. Users come in with their life story, their experiences, and their problems. We bring in our experience in this realm, and try to shape those things into... something. But once the product is out there, it's no longer ours, and we may try to improve it or change it, but it's up to others to use it as they see fit.

Fascinating stuff. It made me appreciate film for many reasons and also got me totally intrigued on how many other parallels there are between the mediums. I opined at the end of the evening that I wanted to make films. You never know.

A Short Story about Leonard Nimoy

In the late 90s and early 00s, I ran a site called Big Fat Blog, devoted to fat rights, equality, and acceptance. And in 2005, I was pointed to Leonard Nimoy's Full Body Project photography. (It's NSFW, in the event that you look around for it.) Being a photographer myself, I hadn't realized that the man I knew primarily for his acting ability was also a really, really good photographer. I looked at the online exhibit of the photos and came away impressed. They were just really, really well done from both technical and editorial perspectives.

So, I wrote up a post on the site about it. The images were of large women, powerful women, and it was all in a celebratory and most body positive way. And Nimoy's words that went with the images were all very, very positive. I didn't think much of the post.

A couple of days later, I found a message in my inbox. It was from Leonard Nimoy.

He wrote to me – to me! – to say thanks for the post, and stressed that his work was not intended to mock or otherwise put down these women. His words and tone were genuine and pure.

I was floored. How could I not be?

I wrote him back, thanking him and letting him know that if he ever wanted to talk more about the project, it'd be an honor for me to interview him. But that was ancillary. I mostly thanked him without gushing (maybe?) and appreciated that he put this work out into the world.

And now, he is gone. But his words, his images, his stories, his work that touched so so many, will live on.

PS: A 2007 New York Times piece about Mr. Nimoy's photographs gives more detail about the project (in a work-safe format) and even cites Big Fat Blog.

Body Struggles

I went to a Catholic school growing up and, unlike our counterparts in public schools at the time, we had uniforms. Ugly uniforms. Boys had to wear gold – not yellow, gold – polo shirts and blue slacks. Thankfully once I got to 6th grade, the school uniform had shifted to a more reasonable but stain-prone white button-down shirt.

And during my time growing up, my body changed quite a bit. I gained a lot of weight after the first grade, went on a terrible diet before sixth grade, and gained it all back in seventh grade. The emotional and spiritual cost of these changes, the diet in particular, are tremendous and are things I still live with to this day.

As a consequence, I've struggled with and spent much energy on my physical appearance over the past couple decades of my life. I have always been hyper-aware of the way I look and I have always been concerned with being judged by my body. It is a default that I carry with me.

One example I think about is that ugly uniform. I think back to the way that uniform felt on me. It felt tight and restrictive, especially once I gained weight. The pants were tight in the waist, and a belt was even tighter, many days to the point of pain. My pants sizes moved squarely into "husky" territory, and sometimes, those pants had to be special ordered. All the while I got this image of my body in my head, and thought for certain that clothing had to fit a certain way. It had to be a little painful and not very forgiving.

Similarly, a couple of years ago I tried on a rather dapper shirt at a store. It looked great when I was standing up in the dressing room. It was a little... shall we say... fitted. But I was driven by the size of the shirt. It was a small. See, so wearing it would mean... I was small. I'd not been small before. That was exciting to parts of me! So I bought it. I wore it to work the next day and remember that I was in pain – in actual pain – from having a too-tight shirt. I remember getting back in the car for the drive home, unbuttoning the shirt, and just being able to fucking breathe. That incident caused me to really reflect on how I treat my body. And I returned the shirt. And I apologized to myself, and worked with myself, for I had really set myself up to fail.

These aren't isolated feelings. My mind can easily spin up several incidents regarding my body and the way others hurt me because of it. All of these experiences set me up to be in a place where I was disconnected from my body, at war with it many times, because I didn't feel comfortable in it. It is only within the past several years that I have started to slowly, slowly unpack these feelings and address them as I see fit.

Still, these experiences drift into my mind now and then. They show up when I try on pants that are just a smidge too small, or shoes that almost fit. They gently, subtly reinforce this notion that my body is wrong in some way. At the same time I've made wonderful efforts towards acceptance, self-love, and self-care, there is still a part of me inside that agrees.

Changing Bigger Patterns

In the past I've espoused the idea of focusing on the small things in your life in order to bring about design changes. They're the “microinteractions” of our lives, if you will. In my experience, that is arguably the easiest stuff to tackle. I'd rather focus on something like not drinking caffeine in the afternoon in order to improve my health, versus going all out and saying I'm going to eliminate all caffeine for three quarters of the year (ACK!)

That's one example, of course, and you may be at a place to do something bigger. That's when it's time to look not just at your goals – those things way up high – but larger patterns. They're at the “product design” level.

I've got to admit, I've been feeling a little bummed lately. I've been more irritable, I've been exercising less, and my attitude towards my body has shifted to a negative place right now. And when I've had only now in focus, it's felt new and singular. I've wondered, “Wow, how do I get through this?” A few days ago I found myself rifling through old journal entries; I was very curious about what I was writing and thinking a year ago. And do you know what I found?

Much of the same stuff.

I wrote about very, very similar feelings on very, very similar topics. It was a small but important aha! moment. It started to reveal something bigger: this is something that happened to me last year at around the same time. So, what caused that? I was curious about it, so I read some of my other entries from around that time. I found that I had worked through some of these things. It gave me comfort and assured me that it was something that Past Me had also confronted.

Now, though, I'm able to see that this is something that has happened two years straight – so I can address it if I choose to. I might take action on this, or I might leave my future self more clues – more information about how this moment feels, how this all is going right now. But having that information and knowing the scale of this pattern is really, really helpful for me.

The Size of It

When it comes to our daily lives, then, how can we tell what kind of pattern we're in? How do we know if this is something small, medium, large, or even larger? Here are a few pointers.

  1. First off, notice what you're doing. When you're in the middle of something – anything – and you notice it, also take that time to notice the way you're feeling about it. When I was writing my journal a few days ago, I felt very wrapped up in the emotions I was capturing but – and this was key – I was also curious about what had happened before. And I let that curiosity assist me.
  2. Drill down into the “why”. Now that you've observed something about yourself, to borrow research lingo, it's time to analyze it. You don't need to write a 50-page PowerPoint deck on it... unless you want to, of course... but be present in that moment, with those feelings. What's really happening? Ask yourself “why” multiple times. Be honest with yourself and you will find that the answers get bigger and bigger.
  3. If you want to change it, design it to scale. Of course, you have to choose to want to change the pattern. You don't have to. You can do it later, or not at all. But should you choose to change it, brainstorm and think about the actions that can lead to what you want. In my example, if I don't want to get into a self-care rut right around late January maybe I need to do multiple things in order to improve my attitude – and it wouldn't hurt to do them in advance of this time period, either. But one change that I see as small probably won't be enough. It's an experiment I'm willing to try.
  4. Keep tabs on it. Obviously, I'm a fan of journaling. But one of the actions I can take to help me keep tabs on it is to pop a reminder for myself into my calendar ahead of time. That's a way to get it out of my head and let me think about it later. And in the GTD bonus round, I'll just make a project in my Someday bucket (or schedule it for much later this year) so I can proactively take care of myself.
  5. Do it. The hardest part. I know I'll be scared, or be tempted to brush it off. But now I know from experience what brushing it off has felt like!

You wouldn't redesign a microinteraction with the intent of affecting change in the entire system. As in design, it's all about the scale of the challenge.

Come hear me speak in 2015!

I'm very pleased to share a couple of updates on the speaking front!

SXSW this March

First, Elysse Zarek and I are presenting Growing Up Digital: Raising Tech-Savvy Kids at SXSW in March! We're excited to share with you the ways you can encourage a positive relationship with technology in your kids.

We're presenting on Sunday, March 15th at 3:30pm. Here are the details on our session, and don't forget that you can still register for SXSW!

WebVisions Portland this May

I'm also very pleased to share that I'll be speaking at WebVisions in the great city of Portland, Oregon, this May! My talk, Better Living Through Design, was a standing room-only presentation in Chicago last September. It's going to be a blast, and I can't wait to share it with you.

Don't miss the interview I did with WebVisions last year, too. You can register for WebVisions right now!

Untrusted System

It's kinda funny to admit, but one of the cornerstones of my Better Living Through Design talk is how flawed my brain is. It's a straight up blow to the ego, and it's humbling. It's almost embarrassing to admit it. But it is true.

And when it comes to Getting Things Done (GTD), the organizing system I've been interested in for a few years, my brain has fiercely held on. I first noticed it nearly two years ago, and have been feeling it ever since. I ended up in a place of quasi-GTD where some things were really, really handled well by my “trusted system” and others that remained in my head.

Within the past few weeks, I've had a change of heart. I am on the precipice of plunging right into GTD and truly implementing it. But I admit, I am afraid to do so.

Holding myself back

The biggest fear? Full on acknowledgement that I can't hold everything in my head. It's admitting, in a way, that my life is complex and complicated. It's admitting that I can't remember everything I need to do in the coming week, day, month, and so forth. It's an attachment to a way of being that is not... me. And wow, my brain is not a fan of that.

I've also been seduced by the marketing angle of all of it. GTD has felt like a Way of Life, in title case, and a big thing. That is both intriguing and repulsive to me.

Due in part to that perception, my mind then distracts me from the tasks at hand. It feels a lot more productive to reevaluate OmniFocus versus Things (my app of choice) again than just plunge in and organize my Things Inbox. And, in terms of the way I've handled GTD, the Inbox is where all of my loose to do items go. They require organization, clarification, and refinement – straight up work.

It's an IA problem

When I step back and look at the root of the problem, though, it's more about the IA (how I've organized my lists) than the UX (the tools and processes). There have been times when I've done the brain dump – getting all of those to-dos and items out of my head and into the Inbox – and nothing else. And I tell you, that alone feels good! Until I look at an Inbox with 75+ unsorted items. Then it's back to Overwhelming City.

GTD provides a system to organize these bits. It leans heavily on Next Actions: individual, physical actions that one can take to get closer to a particular outcome. Small tasks. Doable tasks. Then there are Projects, which sound daunting but are really a number of tasks grouped together. Some Projects and Next Actions go into a Someday bin, which means I care about them... but not necessarily right now. And there are Waiting items, those that are dependent on others.

On top of that, there are the concepts of Contexts and Areas of Responsibility. Contexts address where a task can be done (I surely can't change a light bulb in the kitchen when I'm at work), and the Areas of Responsibility live above Projects, addressing my bigger goals.

The system, as you can see, is carefully designed. There are processes and rules. I understand them. My brain gets it. But that fear? That is real. And it's coming from a place of concern that if I organize my entire life – setting aside the drama – then where will the spontaneity be? Where will the creative things be?

Yet, if GTD is reframed as not a thing to organize my entire life, but to organize the bits that crave to be organized... it's a tool, instead of a Way of Life. It's another thing I can use in order to clear up my head and get to the good stuff.

And so, in revisiting my post on GTD from April 2013, I feel I can end it with the exact same words.

So, I can say that thus far my experience with a trusted system has been fine - but I need to actually trust that trusted system first. Letting go is a big step.

Inaction is a choice

A slide from my talk, Better Living Through Design:



Roz Duffy's excellent post, Just Start Flossing, brought up a slew of emotions and thoughts for me. I was also influenced by watching the entire GTD series (with David Allen himself!) on lynda.com.

The theme? Just do it. Get your shit together and do it.

What gets in the way? Often, it's my brain.

My brain is an awesome tool. It's not perfect, but it has served me well for 37 years so far. But sometimes, it helps get me royally stuck. I stand on the precipice of possibility and freak right out. Or rather, my brain freaks out. It starts asking too many questions in what feels like a nanosecond. What if the other choice was better? What if I'm doing it wrong? What will I think about it? What will others think? How much will this be messed up? Will it actually be good?

That, in turn, oft seized me up. I would do nothing; or, rather, I would do something else that required a lower level of effort. Like tweeting. Or shopping. Or going down a Wikipedia rabbit hole. Or putting the dishes away. All of that stuff that never goes away. This is so low effort that I call it inaction because it's a lack of movement on the big, scary stuff.

That's why I advocate for small changes, something that is echoed in Roz's post and the GTD philosophy too. Small stuff, my brain can handle. Turn off notifications from Mail on my phone? Oh yeah. Start eating more avocado? Most definitely. Be mindful of nutrition when picking foods? Yep.

Hear me now and believe me later: inaction is a choice you make, and it is actually an action! In the parlance of design, it is akin to reviewing the research and choosing to do nothing. It is valid, yes, but it has consequences – just as other actions do. And really, it just doesn't feel the same as a concrete action does.

There is a sea of choices, possibilities, and decisions out there. It's on us whether we want to dive in or not.

Denver, the second time around

When I was very young, the idea of moving to Denver was planted in my noggin and stuck with me for a long, long time. Denver was the place I would live, I decided. I wasn't sure why; I hadn't been there, I hadn't known anyone from there. But I think the idea of living in a different place (but not too different) was appealing to young me.

In 2003, my wife and I moved to Denver. This was it. This was where I was going to be, and where I was going to live. But between my job (which was OK) and her job (which was pretty awful), I got myself stuck in a rut. Instead of looking around for possibilities and growth, I closed myself off and wanted to get back to Chicago as soon as possible. It happened. We were there for just a year.

But over the past few years, there's been enough change in my life to warrant a reexamination of it. And as I mentioned in my post, The Last Everything, there were a lot of factors that went into deciding to move to Denver this time. I said:

The only time I've lived outside of Chicago was, in fact, in Denver over 10 years ago. It was a very different time, and I was a very different person.

I can't ignore where I am in my life now when examining this. 12 years ago, I was young and green. I hadn't traveled all that much and thought cities (at least in the US) were all the same. I was expecting a Chicago-like experience in Denver. And when that failed to materialize, I became small and hardened. I didn't try to plant roots. I didn't try to make too many new friends. I simply shut myself off, and pined for the familiar things back in Chicago.

It was a change and I handled it poorly.

This time around, things are altogether different. I have a wife and a son. I have a larger family support group in Colorado. I am walking in with an open mind. I have a new job with smart people. I can feel the potential and the opportunity growing. It will not be easy. Parts of me will want it to be easy. But it will be different and, this time, I will make it better.

The little kid who wanted to live in Denver is delighted.