Last month, I gave the most difficult talk I’ve ever given. It’s about something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently: making our content and design work for people who don’t fit our narrow perception of “normal.” Here’s the description:
We all want interfaces that feel human—where the content is friendly and everything flows right along. But being human isn’t just about being breezy. Every user who interacts with your site comes there with personal histories—with pain and problems, with past traumas or present crises. How can we take our users’ vulnerabilities, triggers, and touchy subjects into account when we don’t even know what they are? What would it mean to optimize not just for seamlessness, but for kindness? This talk will show you how clear intentions and compassionate communication can strengthen everything from form questions to headlines to site structures.
This talk was so hard to give because it was personal: I told the most personal stories I’ve ever written about onstage, to an amphitheater filled with hundreds of people. The folks at the Design & Content Conference were wonderful enough to share this video and transcription. I hope you find it useful.
Hello, good morning. I want to start out today by telling you a little bit of a story. It’s a story of something that happened to me last summer. Last summer, I was going to a new doctor’s office for the first time and I was filling out a new patient form that they had sent me a link to. And I was working my way through all the standard stuff: Do you smoke? Has anybody in your family ever had a stroke? All of those typical things that you expect in that doctor’s form.
And then all of a sudden, sandwiched between the typical stuff, I got the question. There’s no context, there was no indication for why they were asking me this. Nobody told me what they wanted to do with this information. There wasn’t a box to tick for “well, yeah, actually, but that’s not really why I’m coming to your office, and I’m not afraid to talk about it, but I don’t really want to talk about it with you, and I’d kind of rather just get on with it.” There was no space to breathe. There was just this tidy little binary question for a story that didn’t feel tidy to me at all.
And I stood there, looking at it, and I was thinking, what happens if I check this box?
Do I tell the truth? If I do, who’s going to ask me about it? Where does that information go? Do I lie? This is a story I don’t feel good about lying about anymore.
So finally I check yes. And I go in for my visit. I’m in the middle of my appointment, and the doctor says to me, “so, you were sexually assaulted.”
It’s not a question. But she pauses expectantly.
“Yes,” I say, and I wait. I wait long enough for it to get awkward. I think about telling her more. But I don’t. That history is mine to share or not share. “I’m sorry that happened to you,” she says finally to me. The checkup goes on.
That’s the end of the story. Except it wasn’t the end of the story for me, because I sat there thinking about it, my feet in the stirrups, this question on my mind. And I sat there thinking about it after that visit, thinking about what had just happened to me, and thinking about the things that happen to all of us, the history that all of us share.
I don’t know exactly what you have gone through, but I’m sure all of you have gone through something. And what I realized is that everybody’s life is complicated, and we don’t know who is carrying what around with them. We are all carrying something—something that might hurt, something that might be confusing, something that’s just difficult to explain. And the fact is that people’s reactions can be very unpredictable.
There are some days when I can stand on a stage and tell hundreds of people that yeah, I was sexually abused. And I can tell you that it filled me with shame for years. And I can tell you that I don’t feel ashamed anymore. There are some days where saying those words makes me want to cry. Sometimes I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Sometimes I don’t know which of the many different emotional responses I’m going to have to something.
But that’s life, right? Life is messy. Life is lots of things all at once. There’s such a range of emotions that people are feeling, oftentimes more than one at the same time. And so what I started to think about was what we mean when we say that we’re making things for humans.
Oftentimes I think our interfaces are only thinking about those moments of joy and freshness. The new relationships, the new babies, the new jobs—the stuff that we’re congratulating one another for. We have shiny, happy faces that go into shiny, happy wireframes that go into shiny, happy designs. So when we talk about writing and designing for humans, what I want to talk more about is writing and designing for whole humans, for people who are hard to categorize, for people who are going through any number of internal struggles, for people who have conflicted and complicated responses to the things that we make.
Whenever I think about the people that I’m designing for and writing for, whenever I think about the people who use the products and the services that my clients are making, I think about this talk that Paul Ford gave as a commencement address a couple years ago at the School of Visual Arts.
In that talk, he said, “When I look out at this room,” much like I’m looking out at this room today, “I see a comparatively small number of faces, but I also see a trillion heartbeats. Not your own heartbeats, but those of your users.” And he asked this question, this question that sticks with me: “If we’re going to ask them to spend their heartbeats on us, on our ideas, how can we be sure, far more sure than we are right now, that they spend those heartbeats wisely?”
And so I’ve been thinking about that, and I’ve been thinking, what would it mean for my work to make sure that people are spending their heartbeats wisely? And what I’ve come to is there’s an opportunity that we have to make every decision an act of kindness. Make sure everything that we write, everything that we build, comes from a place of kindness at its core. And that’s what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about a few principles that I’ve been working on to try to express this and figure out what this means in a practical way. I’m going to talk through some of those.
The first one is to rethink what we think of when we think of normal. I’m going to have you do a little activity there in your seats. Don’t worry, you don’t have to do any meditation or rock, paper, scissors this time. All I want you to do is quietly, for a moment, imagine your user.
Just think about it. Get them in your mind. Picture your user. Do you have them there? Can you see them? Can you hear them?
Okay, so now you that you have that person in your mind, think about what you just imagined. What gender were they? Something specific? Did you have a race in mind? An age? What did you visualize? Did you have a sense of where they live, how they feel, maybe what they’re doing right now? If we’re being honest with ourselves, a lot of the times when we’re imagining our users, we’re imagining some pretty narrow people. A lot of products end up being designed for people who are all—let’s be honest—straight, white men with disposable income who live in a city.
Now, I will give all of you some credit and I will say you’re probably thinking beyond that when you’re designing or when you’re working with content. But you probably do have specifics in mind. You probably do have a specific audience you’re thinking about. Maybe you’re thinking about designing for families with household incomes above $100,000. Maybe you’re thinking of college-educated women between the ages 18 and 34. Whatever it is that you’re thinking about, that’s not necessarily a problem. Having a specific audience is not wrong. But there’s a question I think we’re often not asking. What if we’re wrong about who our audience is? What happens when we’re wrong? Do things still work? Or are we positioning our copy and our design in a way that leaves people out and alienates and hurts them?
I’m going to talk about an example that I heard about from a woman named Maggie Delano. She wrote a Medium article about it a few months ago, and the article title is pretty good at explaining what it was about: “I tried tracking my period and it was even worse than I could have imagined.” So what she did is she went out looking for period-tracking apps—a pretty common thing, women probably all know about this. Men, hope some of you do. Not that complicated. It’s a system for just knowing when the next period is going to come. So she tried out a series of period-tracking apps, and I got really curious about this one she tried out, which is called Glow. So I downloaded it, because obviously I had to see what this was all about. Just so you know, all of the screens that I’m going to go through in Glow are just me clicking around and selecting random stuff in the app. I didn’t actually enter my personal data, so we’re not going into like a personal data situation here.
So just so you know.
So I get into this app, Glow, right? And I’m like okay, let’s see what’s actually going on in here. And I start messing around with it, and the first thing you see when you get there is you get to “choose your journey.”
I hear some women laughing.
Y’all, it’s a period, it’s not a journey.
So my first thought is like, gosh, this is so weird, right? But then look at your options, there are three options here, only three. You are avoiding pregnancy, you are trying to conceive, or you are in fertility treatments. What if none of those apply to you? That was the problem that Maggie had. Her partner is a woman.
She’s like, well, I’m doing pretty okay at avoiding pregnancy, but… You know, like how do you even answer that question? They’ve defined these three paths for you, right? And none of them fit. And so there’s this huge piece of the puzzle here that’s false categorization that drives the rest of the experience. Every single thing that comes after that screen is driven by what you select there. If you don’t fit one of those three categories, how welcome do you feel?
And so, okay. I moved on. I went ahead and selected that I was avoiding pregnancy, and as I went in, I started playing around with the app. One of the things that you can do as you play around with the app, is you can enter data about, you know, what’s going on in a given day. And it has a whole lot of things that it wants from you when you enter information about a day. One of the questions it asks you is whether you had intercourse, and if you select yes it wants to know what kind of birth control method you used. And I went in and filled it out and said okay, sure: yes, and morning after pill. Let’s see what happens.
And what I get is this. I get “I had intercourse.”
But I want to call something out here: I didn’t pick a heart.
I didn’t pick that heart emoticon to get next to my heart as my little status update there. And I started thinking about this and I started thinking about all the potential problems with this. What if the sex you had wasn’t a good thing? I mean, there’s a wide range of reasons you might not be having the heart feeling just because you had sex—huge range of reasons ranging from yeah, okay, it just wasn’t that great to, like, horrible. I selected that I used the morning after pill. What if I’d had a really bad experience?
What they’re doing is they’re making an assumption, right? They’re making an assumption about how I feel. And in Glow’s mind, everybody using this app is in a loving, committed relationship, having great sex, every time they use this app. That is the only people who can use this app and have it actually feel right. Now, I hope everybody is in loving and healthy relationships who wants to be in loving and healthy relationships, but the reality of human life is just so much messier and weirder than that. And to think you can design something that’s only going to support that case to me seems woefully narrow.
Of course there’s more things they did that I thought were extremely weird. One of them is where they said, you’re having a period. And the copy says, “snuggle away.” And I guess it’s trying to be cute—it’s supposed to be a cutesy thing, right? But wait, I don’t understand why Glow is giving me permission to snuggle. I don’t understand, because I’m the one who wants to be in charge of this. Like we’re talking about my body, shouldn’t I be in charge of the decisions that I make about it? And I’m pretty sure that if I were going to give somebody control over my body, it would not be an app.
Okay, so then as I keep playing around with this, it had other things that it wanted you to enter when you entered information about a day. Actually, a wide range of things. It wanted to know if you had any exercise and how you were feeling and all this different stuff. Some of which maybe makes some sense for some people but one of the questions was also, you know, did you drink alcohol today. So I said oh, sure, I answered yes, right. And I put down that I had four drinks. Why not? I have gave myself a little party. I put down that I had four drinks—mind you, one time, in this app, this app that’s about tracking my period. I get this: “You had many drinks.”
Thanks for the info. “There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a few drinks every now and then, but heavy drinking can become a problem when it is very frequent and at a high intensity. Binge drinking is considered more than 4 drinks per sitting for women,” etc., etc. One time I entered four drinks on a period-tracking app, and this is what they wanted to give me. I look at this and I think why do you think that this is your job? Like, why are you trying to be all of these things to me that I didn’t actually ask you for?
I said I was interested in tracking my period, and you told me what I needed to be on for a journey, what I cared about, what my emotions were. You told me about me. There are so many assumptions built into a product like this. And it made me think, well, what assumptions am I building into my work? What kinds of assumptions am I making when I’m working with clients, writing copy or whatever it is I’m doing in my day?
One of the things that Maggie Delano wrote in her article is that these assumptions, for her, felt like “yet another example of technology telling queer, unpartnered, infertile, and/or women uninterested in procreating that they aren’t really women. It’s telling women that the only women worthing technology for are those women who are capable of conceiving, and who are not only in a relationship, but in a sexual relationship, and in a sexual relationship with someone who can potentially get them pregnant.” That’s a lot of assumptions.
I think they might make the case that a lot of those assumptions were so they could make it smooth and seamless and easy. So they could make it feel friendly and human and soft. They wanted to make tracking your period feel like fun.
But I look at that and I think, for whom, right? For whom? Who gets to have that experience, and who’s left behind? So I started thinking about what we can do instead and I think in general the more that we can ask users what they want, instead of assuming what they want so that we can make it polished, the better.
But perhaps even bigger than that, perhaps even more important than that, is being able to accept nuance in people’s responses. Because it’s not just about giving people three options to choose from. It’s about allowing people to define themselves. I mean you could have a simple little interface that allows people to select the things they want to track. It would not be hard in the course of building an app like this that has lots of features to modularize those decisions and to be able to say, okay, we’re going to only show you those things you want to track.
There’s plenty of people who just want to track, “when am I going to get my period?” and “how do my emotions and moods change around my period?” And there’s plenty of other people that want to track different things, like “what is my pregnancy risk?” is a pretty common thing people would be tracking. But there’s also other people who want to track if they’re in a fertile window. If you’re trying to conceive, you may be much more interested in tracking things like your general health than someone who is just using it as a period tracker. But ultimately if we’re coming from a place of kindness, and we’re thinking about those users who are a little bit different than the ones we imagined in our head, then we’re letting people define themselves. We’re allowing people to build their own identity, and not telling them exactly which path they need to be on.
Which brings me to the next thing. Which is about making space for people. Making space for real people to exist.
And I want to talk a little bit about names for that. Because names are such a core part of identity. I know my name is important to me, and I’m frustrated every time I see a field like this.
In fact, my name breaks things on the internet a lot. My name frequently does not fit into form fields—and I hate it, right? It’s a form field; I try not to take it personally. But my name routinely gets cut off all the over the place. I find that irritating.
But I don’t think this is anything compared to what Shane Creepingbear felt. Shane Creepingbear is a Native American, and he had his name rejected by Facebook. What they told him was that his name wasn’t approved, that it didn’t meet Facebook standards. And it wasn’t just Shane Creepingbear. There was actually a series of people with Native last names who were told that their names did not meet the standard and could not be used. It wasn’t just that Facebook was questioning whether they were fake names. Because, they definitely have a real name policy—we could get into that whether or not that’s a good idea—but they have this real-name policy. And sometimes are going to get flagged, and many of those flags are going to be somebody who has something inappropriate or fake or whatever. But it was that they flagged these as fake names, and they gave them this message:
“Your name wasn’t approved. It looks like that name violates our name standards. You can enter an updated name again in 1 minute. To make sure the updated name complies with our policies, please read more about what names are allowed on Facebook.”
When I read that copy, I will tell you what I hear. I hear, your name is wrong. Your name is wrong. I hear, you don’t belong here. That name violates our standards. If that’s your actual name, and you’re told it violates, it doesn’t fit Facebook, it says, you don’t belong, you don’t fit. And what it says is: you need to change. You need to do something different to fix this problem.
What if we approached that situation a little bit differently? What if all we did was change a little copy around? What if we said something like we think this:
“We think this name might be fake. You’ll need to verify this is your real name before you may use it.”
That headline’s a little longer. You might need a little more detail about what you need to do to do that. But imagine, nobody is saying your name is fake. It’s being honest about the fact that the system is imperfect. It sort of leaves open the door that they could have gotten it wrong—rather than telling you that your identity is the problem here.
Now, if you got that message, you might still not like scanning in copies of your driver’s license. You might still not like that you have to go through some extra steps in order to get this approved. But at least you’d feel like there’s space within Facebook’s universe for you to exist. It says, we could be wrong. It says, we want to fix this for you. And it says, here’s what you can do.
It’s a completely different message to address the exact same problem. And all it takes is coming from a place where we’re adjusting to our users’ needs, instead of asking them to fit ours. Where we’re understanding that the things that we’ve thought about, some people are going to fall outside of those. We think we know what a real name looks like, and sometimes people’s real names will surprise us. It’s giving them the space to be able to be who they are, instead of telling them that they must be the ones who are wrong.
To do this kind of thing, I think you also really need to be able to set aside some ego. And I’m going to tell you a little bit about doing that from my experience working with A List Apart. Steve mentioned I’ve been the editor in chief of A List Apart for about three years now, and I will tell you a few things about what our copy used to say. This is from our About page, and it’s a little segment of copy that was talking about writing for us. It says:
Maybe you can be one of us. The few, the proud, the ALA contributing authors. A List Apart is written by the community it serves: designers, developers, architects, producers, project managers, and assorted specialists. Publishing in ALA confers prestige, and has helped some of our authors gain book deals or find favor with the editors of print magazines. Interested in writing for us? See the Contribute page.
Now, the reason this copy was written this way was that there was an effort to make authors feel special. Like it’s a really important thing, and if you’ve been published in ALA, you should feel really good about that. But then go from here to what you actually see on that Contribute page. Here’s what it said.
So you want to write for A List Apart magazine.
What we’re looking for. We want to change the way our readers work, whether that means introducing a revolutionary CSS technique with dozens of potential applications, challenging the design community to ditch bad practices, or refuting common wisdom. If your article can do that, we want to see it.
When I read those pages now and I think about what they say, what they say to me is, we are very important. We are A List Apart, we’re very important, our authors get book deals, which means you’re probably not good enough, actually. You have probably can’t write for us, so. Also, it doesn’t really matter, because we don’t need you. See, because everybody wants to write for us. We don’t actually need you.
So, when I started looking more closely at that copy, it was during a time when I had started asking people, “hey, have you ever thought about writing for A List Apart? You should submit something.” Because we do take a lot of time working with people. We do a lot of editing. There’s definitely folks that we reject, there’s definitely folks who really want to put the time into their article and sometimes they’re like, oh, gosh this is too much work and they don’t want to do it. So it takes all this process to get articles into A List Apart, because we take it very seriously.
But when I started asking about people it, I got people who were just sort of like, “that seems like a really big deal,” and “I don’t think I can do that,” and “I don’t think I have anything important enough to say.” And so what we had to do was take a step back and we had to be able to admit that this wasn’t about us. It wasn’t about how important ALA was. It wasn’t about telling people that we have the best authors in the world. It was about inviting and welcoming people in. It was about letting go of some of our ego and admitting that yeah, actually, we do need you. Here’s what it says right now. Now, I wouldn’t say that this is necessarily perfect and final answer. This is the most recent copy we’ve come up with. When I started looking at it for this presentation, I was like, “oh, we should go tweak that.” Here’s what it says:
Write for us. Yes, you. We’re always looking for new authors. If you’ve got an idea that will challenge our readers and move our industry forward, we want to hear about it. But you don’t need to wait for an idea that will redefine web design. Just aim to bring readers a fresh perspective on a topic that’s keeping you up at night.
So when I look at this now, there’s a couple things I actually want to tweak, like challenging our readers—you know, I could remove some of those verbs that are very aggressive. But there are some things that we’ve done, like: “Yes, you.” We want new authors. We’re saying, look, our authors matter to us, and they’re why we’re here.
It also says that your ideas count. You don’t have to redefine all of the things. You need to do something that you’re passionate about, and if you’re excited about it and it’s something that’s keeping you up at night, that’s probably enough. It also says, like, we’re not a magazine unless we have people like you. Yes, you.
It’s a moment where we had to say, okay, can we swallow our pride about who ALA is, and how important it is to the industry or whatever, and instead just talk to these folks in a way that will help them, and will make them feel like they can actually submit something?
The next thing I want to talk about is intention. I want to talk about being intentional in the things that we ask. I’m going to tell another short story about that. It’s a story from about a year ago when I was applying to get my German passport. I’m half German and eligible, didn’t have any documentation, so I was going to the consul in Philadelphia where I live, and I was bringing all these notarized things and my mother’s birth certificate and a marriage license and all of this different stuff to prove that yes, in fact I’m eligible for German citizenship.
As I’m filling out all these forms, as I’m documenting all of this stuff about myself, I get to this question. It says, “Ich bin das ____ Kind meiner Mutter.” I’m the whatever-th child of my mother. And I start filling it in, and the first thing I start doing is start filling in this 2. I’m kind of like halfway through filling it in in pen when it hits me: I’m not exactly the second child. I’m the third.
Suddenly, I’m thinking about our house in San Jose. I’m about six years old and I’m sitting at the dining table with my mom. I have all these photo albums spread out. I really loved looking at our photo albums as a kid—you know, back when you couldn’t just get photos from your phone of many years of your life in four seconds. I would go back through these photo albums and get so curious about my parents’ lives before I was born. My brother as a baby. These things that were beyond me. And I would ask questions, like: “who are those people with the funny glasses?” and, “why is everybody wearing ponchos?” And so as I am looking through these photo albums, I can remember getting to the set of photos of a trip to Europe. There’s my brother, a little toddler, he’s toddling around in Old World squares with pigeons. There’s my grandmother, at her house in Munich.
And then there’s Jamie. Jamie never left the little hospital in Italy where he was born. Jamie was too premature to fight off the infection that he had there. Jamie was the brother I never had. But he’s a child my mom had. And so when I’m thinking about that moment, I’m thinking about sitting around the table with her, and I can still imagine her face. It’s distant. It’s impenetrable. And I’m a little kid. And I know: I know that I can’t shake her from it. I give her a hug. But there’s not really enough that I can do to bring her back to that moment. She’s somewhere else right now.
So anyway, there I am. I’m in the consul’s office. I’m filling out a form. I’m not really there to think about my mother sitting around the table. I don’t know what to answer. I don’t know how to explain, actually. I mean I hardly know how to explain this in English, but I definitely am not great at explaining this in German. And I finally write something down, and I try to write something in parentheses. And I’m like, this is the worst thing ever.
And what I realized is that every single field we collect, everything we ask for, carries weight. Because forms demand us to define ourselves. They demand that they we reveal ourselves.
And sometimes that’s okay. Citizenship is a big deal. Getting a passport is not just getting a bus ticket, right. So I’m not necessarily upset that they wanted to know about my family and my siblings. I can understand them asking for all that history. But just like my experience in the doctor’s office, it really did leave me reeling. And I realized that we can’t always change that. We can’t always change that. We can’t always predict when somebody is going to ask a question that’s going to have a reaction.
But whenever we ask about identity, whenever we ask about history, we take on risk. And the best thing that we can do to accept that risk is to ask why. We need to ensure that what we’re doing is for a good reason, that we’re not collecting data just because we want to or just because we can, or just because, “don’t forms always ask for that?”
And I think that’s something that we can consider, all of us here in the room who work on content or design or wherever between the two that you happen to be. Every time we’re designing something or writing interface copy, we can ask why—and we can also start pushing our organizations to develop things like a question protocol.
A question protocol is a technique that was designed originally for surveys, but it applies really neatly to web forms, too. Carolyn Jarrett talks about this quite a lot, and her and Gerry Gaffney wrote a book about this a few years ago called Forms that Work. And in there they talk extensively about a question protocol. A question protocol is really just a list of all the questions that you ask and who in your organizations actually use those answers. Sometimes the answer is nobody. It’s what they use them for, whether an answer is going to be required or optional, and then if it’s required, what happens. What happens if a user just enters random data just to move through the form?
You might adjust this a little bit, too, in thinking about some of the more modern apps or services you might be designing, where it might not be just “who within your organization uses the answers?” but “how do those answers affect the experience within that product or service,” because oftentimes we’re using personal data to customize what kinds of things that people are getting. We’re using profile data to tell them things that they can do. A protocol is a really valuable framework for making sure that everybody is thinking about whether something is needed, whether it’s reasonable to ask, and whether it’s actually being used. It gives everybody sort of a shared playbook for making good decisions about what we collect and why.
The thing about a question protocol is it’s not going to prevent every problem. It’s not going to prevent every circumstance of somebody having feelings when interacting with your site or your service. Because this is the truth, as Roxane Gay has written about: “Everything is a trigger for someone.” You don’t know all your users’ histories. You can’t prevent all of their touchy subjects. What we can do is train ourselves to be intentional in everything we communicate. What we can do is ensure that no decision is left unquestioned. What we can do is ensure that we’re only asking for the things that we need, that we’re communicating why we need them, that we’re being fair and kind to our users when we’re asking for information from them.
The next thing I want to talk about is finding the fractures in the things that we create and in our content.
To tell you about this, I want to tell you a story about my friend, Eric Meyer. Eric’s daughter Rebecca died on her sixth birthday last summer. Eric wrote about her illness all the way through. Some of you probably have read his work. He’s well-known in the web community. Right around Christmas last year, he wrote about this, Facebook’s Year in Review. I’m sure some of you saw this story; it actually blew up rather large and got him and I talking about this very subject. Eric didn’t create this Year in Review. It was a product that Facebook put out. Facebook wanted him to create a Year in Review and so they inserted this on his timeline. It was an example of what a Year in Review could look like. It’s a little collection of snapshots from the year so you can kind of relive the past. Except that his year was a picture of Rebecca. And the design that they put it in was a bunch of partygoers and balloons and streamers. And the copy says, “Eric, here’s what your year looked like!”
Eric looked at that and he thought, that is what my year looked like. My daughter, Rebecca. But that’s not the experience that I would want. This isn’t what I asked for. This isn’t how I want to relive these moments. And of course it wasn’t just Rebecca. There were tons of people who had crappy years. This is one where somebody’s house burned down. It was the most interacted upon photo that that person had posted all year. And then there were people who said, I don’t want to do this, because what did Facebook put in my Year in Review? Highlights of posts about a friend’s death. Highlights of obituaries I was writing.
Now, Facebook realized that this was a problem. They’ve had talks with Eric about this and I want to say that they have been very, very open to the idea that they have screwed up and they want to do things differently. But I think when we see things like this, we see things happening that are so upsetting, it makes it really hard to call them an edge case. But that’s historically what we’ve done, right? We’ve just said, oh, it’s just a statistically small number of people who’ve had this experience, most people are going to have a good experience. It’s really easy to start writing things off as an edge case.
But as Eric and I have started collaborating on this, what we’ve decided is that it’s not an edge case. That language is actually part of the problem. When you define something as an edge case, you’re saying it’s something that you don’t have to care about it. You’re allowing it to be a fringe concern. You’re relegating it to the corners, to the margins.
Instead of calling things an edge case, we’ve decided we want to call them a stress case. We want to bring them right to the center and say, stress cases are what we want to focus on. Stress cases are showing us where the weaknesses in our work are. They’re putting stress on something so you can see the fractures, and do something about them.
It’s like when your doctor wants you to do a stress test and they put you on the treadmill and they see how much stress you can put your heart under before you get an abnormal rhythm. We need to know how much stress our content can be under and our designs can be under before they break. Before our intent breaks down, and those fractures have the opportunity to hurt somebody.
The thing is that content breaks really easily. This is an email from Medium that my friend Kevin Hoffman got it. Kevin had just posted this article that was a memorial to his friend Elizabeth, who had died of cancer. He gets this email pretty soon after it’s posted. And it’s supposed to be a fun, lighthearted messaging letting him know that his post has gotten three recommends, and making sure he’s feeling okay that it’s only at three right now.
Fun fact: Shakespeare only got 2 recommends on his first Medium story.
And Kevin looks at this and he goes, the last thing I want right now is fun facts.
Fun facts create real risks. Because those fractures—those places where the content that we intended to have, the experience that we were trying to create, and the realities of our users and the content that they created—where those things have dissonance, we create alienation. We create harm.
We make our users feel a way that fun facts were never intended to make them feel.
An organization that has started to really understand this is MailChimp, and I want to bring them up because MailChimp has long been known for its voice and its tone. For its humor, and its friendliness. You maybe have seen some of MailChimp’s things before, like this. This is their “this, not that” list. Kate Kiefer-Lee has talked a lot about it over the years.
They want to be fun, but not childish, and clever, but not silly. And they have all these guidelines that kind of get their quirky, funny personality alive on the page. And it also corresponds to this big website that they have, voiceandtone.com. A lot of you may have seen this as well. What they do on voiceandtone.com is create a resource for people at MailChimp to create more effectively by keeping readers’ feelings in mind.
So they go through all of these examples. They go through all these scenarios of different kinds of content, and how somebody might be feeling when interacting with it. From feeling really excited about getting a campaign out, to getting a compliance notification, where they are being told that they have been spamming. And all of these different feelings that might be associated with them. But what they used to have on Voice and Tone is these things called Freddie’s jokes, because Freddie is the chimp behind MailChimp—he’s the mascot. And Freddie used to tell weird and wonderful jokes all the time. But they’ve actually taken that off of voiceandtone.com. They’ve kind of pulled back from Freddie and his jokes and they’ve deliberately pulled back from the humor in their content.
I asked Kate about that. We had this whole conversation about it, and she said: “Over the years we’ve moved to a much more neutral voice. We focus on clarity over cleverness and personality.” One of the things she said they started doing is emphasizing their playfulness more in the design rather than in the content, because they were worried about the content getting in the way. “We are not in an industry that is associated with crisis, but we don’t know what our readers and customers are going through. And our readers and customers are people. They could be in an emergency and still have to use the internet.” And that’s true. Your users could be in an emergency. Your users could be in crisis. Your users could be in any moment in the world, and still be interacting with your product or service for some reason. So what do we do with that? What do we do with this desire that we have to be personable? To bring our personalities to life, to bring our brands to life in our content? How do we write that when we’re also dealing with these scenarios?
I think one of the first questions we need to be asking is this: Do I control the context that my content is appearing in? That’s one of the big problems with Year in Review, and that Medium post. The people who were creating that content probably had examples in mind in their comps and their prototypes, and their examples were probably like, “somebody on vacation” in the Year in Review example, or “somebody writing another article about San Francisco’s tech scene” in the Medium example. And in those scenarios, the copy works just fine. Might be really pleasant; it might be really fun. But when we don’t control the context that our content appears within, then we don’t know what our users are going to put in there. And they could put anything. They could put something that has to do with any emotion you can imagine. So we have to ask ourselves, when I don’t control the context that my content is going to appear in, how bad could it break? What might that look like?
It’s also important to think about this: What is the ideal scenario for this content? What are you envisioning? Who are those happy people in your comps? Let’s take that for a moment—let’s take that ideal experience—and let’s try to figure out what the opposite would be. What would it look like if we replaced whatever we thought it would be in a perfect scenario with the absolute worst thing we can imagine going into that slot, into that little picture window, into that headline slot? How bad is the break? How risky it? Is that a risk that we’re willing to take?
Ultimately what we can do is we can design for people when they’re at their worst, because if we’re able to consider users at their worst, and if we’re able to make experiences feel good for people at their most vulnerable, most difficult moments, then we can make them work for everybody.
Ultimately, all of these really add up to compassion. Compassion is something I think the web industry doesn’t talk about that much. It’s something I don’t hear coming up that often. It’s something you might think is relegated to areas like social services and healthcare, where you need to give care and support to people. But I think compassion is a concept that we can really apply to the web, and of course none other than Karen McGrane has talked about this exceptionally well. She gave a talk at the IA Summit a couple of years ago where she said, you know, “We’re pretty good at being able to get inside of somebody’s head and sort of model their task. But that cognitive empathy, that’s just one level of empathy.” She said, “there’s actually a much deeper level of it that you would call compassion. What that means is that you have genuine emotional feeling for the struggles that someone is going through and you are spontaneously moved to help them because you feel them.
What she’s saying there is that compassion takes action. Compassion is being moved to do something with our empathy. It’s not enough to feel for our users; we have to go about the difficult work of helping them. Even when that means that we have to do things differently than we wanted. Even when that means that we have to think about different use cases, more use cases—that’s what compassion is.
Compassion also takes courage. It takes courage to be like MailChimp, and not just be like, “oh, lighten up” when somebody is not laughing at your jokes. It takes courage to go inside yourself and saying you know, we might be a fun-loving and zany company. But that has a cost. It’s hurting people’s feelings or it’s getting in their way. It takes courage to not have a knee-jerk reaction and instead do the difficult work of coming to terms with the way that your work affects people, whether or not you intended it.
What MailChimp realized was that being funny mattered a lot less than being helpful. All they had to do was get over themselves enough to admit it, and to embrace it.
Ultimately all of these things take practice. It’s a lot easier to be kind to somebody when they’re standing in front of you and when you know what they’re going through. It’s a lot harder to bring that kindness to people you can’t see. It’s harder to retrain our brains to look at every situation and look for the opportunities where we can make space for people, whole people.
What it is is an act of listening. It’s listening to those millions, those trillions of heartbeats, the heartbeats of people we’ll never know, but whose lives we affect every day. As Paul Ford says, we can’t just design and write for our clocks—for our deadlines or for our goals. Because the only unit of time that matters is heartbeats.
Thank you for spending yours with me.