Personal Histories

It’s the summer of 2014, and I’m sitting in the consul’s office filling out form after form proving my right to German citizenship: filing notarized birth certificates, declaring my mother’s birthplace, documenting my parents’ marriage.

Ich bin das __ Kind meiner Mutter, one form says: “I am the __ child of my mother.”

My pen is already pressed into the paper, a half-formed 2 filling the blank, when it hits me: I’m not the second child. I’m the third.

Suddenly, I’m six years old again, sitting at the dining table with my mom and the family photo albums. I beg her to take them out for me. I flip curiously through my parents’ late-’70s lives, all long hair and woven ponchos. I smile at my older brother’s birth and year of firsts.

I flip the page again and it’s 1982, the year before I was born. There’s my brother tottering around some pigeon-covered Old World square. There’s my grandmother at home in Munich. And then there’s Jamie—his little life, all 13 days of it, bookended by a birth certificate and a photo of a grave. He never left the rural Italian hospital where he was born, too premature to fend off the infection he caught there.

I put my arms around my mom, trying to hug her back to the present. But her grief surrounds her, palpable, impenetrable.

Only I’m not with my mom. I’m on the 28th floor of the Wells Fargo Building in Center City Philadelphia. I’ve got forms to fill out. I’ve got fingerprints to give. I shake myself back to attention.

3. Kind, I write eventually. Bruder: Jamie, geboren April 1982. I pause. This sort of thing wasn’t covered in my German classes. (Gestorben 1982), I add hastily.

The story and the backstory

My mom grew up in Munich, spent some time in Greece, and once lived in an old chocolate factory in Kreuzberg, a West Berlin neighborhood famous for its hippies and anarchists and squatters. She came to the States when she was 20 to spend summer break bumming around California. She met my father. My brother and I were born, two years apart, in our little house in Santa Cruz.

Jamie wasn’t.

None of that fits neatly into a form field.

Every question carries weight. Every bit we collect is part of a personal history—a story of a life lived.

This experience got me thinking more about the questions we ask all the time online—questions about families and marriages, about race and gender, about locations and addresses. We do this with good intentions, mostly: we’re trying to complete transactions, gather appropriate background information, recover a password, solve a problem.

But what I’ve realized is that every question carries weight. Every bit we collect is part of a personal history—a story of a life lived. And those lives are always messier than the “frictionless interactive experiences” we—designers, writers, strategists, whathaveyous—intend to create.

What’s personal is personal

Though we may know everything about our topic, we don’t know everything about our customers. Not even close. They have struggles and insecurities that affect the way they interpret our content and view our brand.
Kate Kiefer Lee

We like to think that what’s personal is universal—as if we could reduce touchy subjects to a list of dos and don’ts. But the truth is much weirder.

How many children do you have? might sound like the simplest question, until it brings a grieving parent to their knees. When is your anniversary? might create a moment of pause for someone who’s recently separated. Even What’s your hometown? or Where did you go on vacation as a child? might feel painful for kids who grew up without that kind of stability or privilege.

These are all private bits of information. Unique and identifiable. Tiny stories waiting to be strung together or picked apart.
Nicole Fenton

We don’t know which of our questions will strike a chord, or when. We don’t know whether a particular blank will be the easiest or the hardest thing in the world for a person to fill in. We can’t anticipate which users will have suffered which of life’s injustices and traumas, and simply eliminate them from our communications.

But we can be certain those injustices and traumas exist.

How might that change what we ask, and how, and when?

Trapped in a checkbox

I’m filling out a new-patient form online for my doctor’s office when I see it, sandwiched somewhere between “Do you smoke? and “Has anyone in your family had a stroke?”:

Have you ever been sexually abused or assaulted?
Yes __ No __

No context, no indication how this information will be used. No box to tick for, “Well, yes, actually, but that’s not why I am visiting you and I don’t know you and I have nothing to be ashamed of and I’m not afraid to talk about it but really I’ve done my talking already and mostly I just want my annual exam, not a bunch of prying questions or sympathy or anything, actually, from you.”

No space to breathe. Just a tidy little binary for a story that doesn’t feel tidy at all.

At my appointment, the doctor says, “So, you were sexually assaulted.” It’s not a question, but she pauses expectantly.


I consider telling her more, but I don’t. That history is mine. I get to choose when it’s trotted out, and for whom.

“I’m sorry that happened to you,” she says finally, filling the silence with the phrase I, too, learned, back when I was a crisis worker. She moves on with her checkup.

I stare at the ceiling, thinking about that checkbox. So simple, so impossible:

Yes __ No __

I don’t know why that question existed. I don’t know who asked for that information, where it’s stored, or how they intend to use it. Is it collected for statistical purposes only? Are they trying to identify victims who need help and care? Am I going to be asked about this every time I have the flu or need a prescription refilled?

I think about asking the doctor, but I don’t. Instead, I imagine the what ifs:

  • What if they’d labeled this section of the form as optional?
  • What if the question also asked whether I wanted to talk about sexual assault or abuse with my doctor?
  • What if the form asked if I needed help?
  • What if it explained why they were collecting this data?
  • What if it allowed my response to be anonymous?

Most of all, I wonder, what if this is it? What if this awkward interaction is the only reason that question was asked? What purpose was it intended to serve? Was it successful?

Has anyone ever thought about any of this?

The intention gap

Someone probably had good intentions when they added that question to their intake screener. But they didn’t tell me what those intentions were. As a result, I was left feeling uneasy and exposed—my personal history on display and out of my control.

It’s a tall order: to design systems and write words that avoid triggers when it’s possible, and allow people to navigate their reactions more safely when it’s not.

I want to do better than this in my own work, but it’s a tall order: to design systems and write words that avoid triggers when it’s possible, and allow people to navigate their reactions more safely when it’s not.

We’ll never know enough to get this quite right. But we can get a lot closer if we make it our responsibility to choose words and questions that are more tolerant of, more aware of, the unpredictability of personal histories.

If we aim not just for seamlessness, but for kindness.

If we are not just friendly, but forgiving.

The path I’m choosing

I don’t have a grand plan for this. But when I think about my work, and the impact I can have, I keep coming back to five principles:

1. Ask only for what I need.

There are lots of reasons companies want data about their customers or users, but a good many of them come down to marketing: How can I gather information that helps me more effectively sell you things?

There’s a difference between nice-to-have and mission-critical information. And too often, we force users to provide things we really don’t need—things they might not even have, or don’t want to tell us.

We talk a lot about being user-centered in the way we design and write. But how often do we assess—truly assess—how much we need from a person for them to use our products or services? How often do we prioritize our dreams of better user data, more accurate profiles, more “personalization”?

2. Work on their clock, not mine.

It wasn’t a problem that the German government asked about my family members—I’m proving my nationality, after all. But it came as a surprise; it threw me somewhere I hadn’t intended to go right then, and it took me a couple minutes to regain my bearings and move on.

Paper doesn’t mind the wait, but websites often do: they make it impossible to start a form and then save it for later. They time out. They’re impatient as all hell.

I suspect it’s because our industry has long prioritized speed: the one-click purchase. The real-time update. The instant download. And speed is helpful quite often—who doesn’t want a page to load as fast as possible?

But speed doesn’t mean the same thing as ease.

Margot Bloomstein has spoken recently about slowing our content roll—about slowing down the pace of our content to help users have a more memorable and successful experience.

What if we looked at ways to optimize interactions not just for speed, but also for flexibility—for a user to be able to complete steps on their own terms? When might it help someone to be able to pause, to save their progress, to skip a question and come back to it at the end?

What would a more forgiving interface look like?

3. Allow for complexity.

I didn’t need to explain my might-have-been older brother’s backstory to the German government. But in my doctor’s form, that complexity mattered to me—and a simple binary wasn’t nearly enough space for me to feel comfortable.

As interface-makers, what might seem simple to us could be anything but to our users. What can we do to allow for that complexity? Which what-ifs have we considered? What spaces do they create?

Take gender. I have qualms about many of Facebook’s practices, but they’ve done this well. Rather than a binary answer, you can now customize your gender however you’d like.

Facebook's gender selector showing Male, Female, and Custom options

You can also choose how you want to be addressed—as he, she, or they.

Facebook's pronoun selector showing they as the selected pronoun

We could call users who identify as something other than “male” or “female” an edge case—Why muck up our tidy little form fields and slow down the process to make space for them?

Or we could call them human.

4. Communicate what happens next.

One of my favorite details in Facebook’s gender settings is that little alert message that pops up before you confirm a setting change:

Your preferred pronoun is Public and can be seen by anyone.

I don’t care who knows what my preferred pronoun is. But I’m not a trans teen trying to negotiate the complex public-private spaces of the internet. I’m not afraid of my parents’ or peers’ reactions. I’m lucky.

Whether it’s an immediate announcement to a user’s social circle that they’ve changed their status or a note in their file about sexual assault that every doctor will ask about forever, users deserve to know what happens when they enter information—where it goes, who will see it, and how it will be used.

5. Above all, be kind.

When you approach your site design with a crisis-driven persona, you WILL see things differently.
Eric Meyer

Most of us aren’t living the worst-case scenario most of the time. But everyone is living. And that’s often hard enough.

How would our words change if we were writing for someone in crisis? Would our language soften? Would we ask for less? Would we find simpler words to use, cut those fluffy paragraphs, get to the point sooner? Would we make it easier to contact a human?

Who else might that help?

Humility. Intention. Empathy. Clarity. These concepts are easy enough to understand, but they take work to get right. As writers and strategists and designers, that’s our job. It’s up to us to think through those what-ifs and recognize that, at every single moment—both by what we say and what we do not say—we are making communication choices that affect the way our users feel, the tenor of the conversation we’re having, the answers we’ll get back, and the ways we can use that information.

Most of the choices aren’t inherently wrong or right. The problem is when our intentions are fuzzy, our choices unacknowledged, their implications never examined.


Months pass. My crisp new Reisepass arrives in the mail. It’s crimson, stamped with gold lettering. I flip it open and look at the woman inside. Her official, smile-less face looks back. You can’t see it, but her personal history is there, hidden somewhere underneath all those stamps and seals.

Ich bin das 3. Kind meiner Mutter, she says. She doesn’t expect you to fix it. She just needs space for it to exist.

German pasport interior

9 thoughts on “Personal Histories

  1. I get a pain in my heart whenever I am asked “how many siblings” do you have. I had 6. We lost my brother in 2011, so now I have 5. An innocent question, but it brings up a lot of history.

    1. I’m sorry for your loss, Noreen. It just goes to show how even the most “normal” subjects can strike a chord.

  2. I have had this post open in one of my tabs since you wrote it a week ago. It is powerful and each example makes me stop short, as my heart beats a little too quickly at the points you make. I too have come to a stopping point when filling out forms; I don’t feel comfortable answering “how many children have you had” followed up with “how many pregnancies have you had” because, as you so perfectly capture it, reasons. These are my stories to tell. Or not to tell. It should be my choice whether I tell you about being sexually assaulted as a child. To ask for this information that can be so devastatingly personal simply to fill in a database field is not a credible need. And so I opt out, or I obfuscate, to protect the parts of me that needs to be protected. I decline to acquiesce to your request. Words are powerful; yours in this article, equally so. Thank you for writing this and opening my eyes to how easily we can steamroll over our users and their humanity.

    1. Robin,

      Thank for you for understanding, and for sharing. A big hug your way. You’re right: for me, too, so much of it comes down to a feeling of needing to protect myself. I bet that’s true for many people. And it seems like what organizations don’t understand is how that puts you on the defensive in your interaction with them—which I doubt is what they want their users to be feeling.

  3. Found my way back here from your recent post at medium ( I can see the piece your critics see, the space in the middle when it sounds as though your complaints about these forms are heading to a kind of generic PC aren’t-they-thoughtless-and-insensitive place.

    But once you got into the interface design piece, any hackles that might have begun to rise on me, due to graduate school PC PTSD, vanished. You’re talking about getting the information you need in a way that maximizes respect for individuals. About making digital interactions LESS DEHUMANIZING. And that is 100% valid and desperately needed.

    1. I appreciate your comment, but I do think the desire to write things off as “generic PC” is part of the problem. It’s a problem where dominant culture minimizes and makes invisible the needs of people other than themselves, in an effort to retain power and control. I don’t know that you want to be that person. I would urge you to reconsider the resentment you have toward it.

  4. Hi Sara,

    I navigated here from Eric’s post earlier this week, after reading your post on Medium. This post goes straight to my heart, and immediately understand where you are coming from, at the same time as I extend my sympathy.

    I am the first or second child myself, depending on the same factors you wrote about. I had an older brother who passed years before I was born. He would have been five at my birth. For most of my life I had no idea how he passed, or very much about him at all, as it was so difficult for my parents to discuss, looming large whenever you’d get close to the subject.

    When my father passed, I was 35, and for the first time, some of my family shared their stories about John. Since then, I have had a huge shift in the way I think about the work we create every day.

    I saw Eric speak at XOXO last year, and his story, his whole family’s story, only reinforces the need for tact, sensitivity and really approaching “simple” features from a holistic human point-of-view.

    As I wrote over on Medium, I look forward to the book you both wrote, as I hope it will inform not only the work I do every day, but how to be appreciative and aware of everyday interactions with those around us.

    Thanks again for sharing.

  5. Very interesting article on how to design better interfaces. I really appreciate the food for thought! I think these little details are at least as important as the big things, because they have a subtle yet significant influence on the user experience. But it’s like designing with color-blindness in mind: if it doesn’t happen to you, it’s difficult to even be aware of.

    The thing with the checkboxes strikes me as odd, though. Maybe it’s because I’m a white male, maybe it’s because all my life I have been a weird and somewhat awkward person, but: I’ve always viewed paper forms as both optional and debatable. No matter if it’s a government form or a doctor’s form, if I don’t understand or like a question I just leave it empty; and if I feel the choices given are insufficient, I’m rather happy to add my own checkboxes or just write an essay next to the boxes. After all, they want to know something from me, so they should appreciate the feedback. And if they don’t, they can gladly go fuck themselves. I’m not really comfortable with strangers, so I don’t think it’s arrogance or anything like that.

    But that is certainly not an option with digital forms, which makes the UX design all the more important.

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