Ryan Irelan

is building Mijingo and doing limited consulting.

Design for Real Life - Eric Meyer & Sara Wachter-Boettcher

I spend more time now refining the things I already know instead of just learning something new. Sure, I still learn new stuff (I do teach for living after all) but I’m also constantly adjusting my dials for better reception of the world around me.

This could be engaging more deeply in relationships, understanding my own cycles of energy and emotions and adjusting my schedule around those to make life a bit more pleasant and fruitful, or being more empathetic and in-tune with how my work affects others. As a professional teacher and riffraff academic, this is the most important thing I do.

Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher have a similar mission for us and the websites we design and build. They pull from personal experiences of bumping up against the edges of a design or content decision and together wrote Design for Real Life, a 140-page manifesto on creating websites that feel a little more human when humans need it most.

The goal of the book is to “bring edge cases to the center”, as Anil Dash writes in the Introduction. Using case studies of how things can go wrong, and documenting the techniques we can use in our next project to improve your website, web application, or product, Sara and Eric helped me see a bit wider than my own life experience.

The book starts by confronting how we see the audience for which we design and develop sites. And, how, no matter how thoughtful we might think we are being, our decisions can create an awful experience for someone else.

On Christmas Eve 2014, I went to Facebook and was greeted by an ad promoting Year in Review, a feature I had been deliberately avoiding. But there it was in my newsfeed. Staring out at me, framed by dancing clip-art partygoers: the face of my middle child, Rebecca, who had died of aggressive brain cancer on her sixth birthday, June7th, 2014.The dissonance between that profound personal tragedy and theparty images created a visceral moment of shock. The copy, “Here’s what your year looked like!” added its own surreal layer of horror.

One could easily cast stones and quip: “Oh those young Silicon Valley kids have such a narrow, pampered view of life,” but that’s not at all what Design for Real Life is about. It is about forcing us to see beyond our own world but it is not about scolding us for making mistakes.

We will make mistakes. But the book offers tools and processes for helping to uncover those mistakes before they make it to your customer or user.

The book is also not advocating that we try to build something that won’t offend anyone or never have an edge that someone could bump into.

If we tried to avoid every possible trigger for every possible person, we’d never build anything at all. But by being intentional about what we ask of our users in the first place, and communicating the context for every interaction as clearly and transparently as possible, we’ll greatly limit the ways we can harm or traumatize them, and also make it easier for them to forgive us when we do.

Design for Real Life book illuminated the blind spots in my vision of my work. It teaches a very important refinement and improvement to the work we do designing and building for the web.

Don’t let the slim stature of the book fool you: it is a big and important work. We should all feel obligated to at least read Design for Real Life but hopefully also build the concepts and methods in the book into our future work.

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