Michelle Barker lives in Bristol, UK and is the full-time conference producer of Future of Web Design, moonlighting as a designer and illustrator. In her spare time she teaches herself HTML and CSS, bakes experimental cakes and messes about with her cat. You can find her at www.michellebarker.co.uk, blogging alongside the Future Insights team at www.futureinsights.com and occasionally drawing while waiting for trains. She tweets about cakes, cats and events at @mbarker_84. Be nice to her by buying her a pint of ale from your local brewery.
We are not that important.
My Grandad passed away recently. Seeing so many of his friends and family come from far and wide to pay their respects at his funeral was beautiful and moving. He never owned a computer, or a smartphone. He wasn’t on Facebook. His method of banking was by waiting in line at the post office to pay in cheques or withdraw cash.
Despite living what we’ve come to regard as an unconnected life, he had many, many friends. Lots of old acquaintances got in touch when they heard of his illness and many came down for the funeral to give him the send-off he deserved. The neighbours in his street called in regularly, and were there to support my Nana after his passing. He was a popular gentleman, and deservedly so: He never had a bad word to say about anyone, and always appeared to enjoy life, taking each day as it came. More importantly, he was warm, generous and charitable: He wouldn’t hesitate to help out someone in need, whether a neighbour or a stranger.
At my Grandad’s funeral I met distant relations and family friends for the first time, fielding the usual questions about where I was living and what I was doing. In my daily working life I’m used to being around people for whom the web is their passion and livelihood, or at least something they use every day. In contrast, for many of the people I met that day the web is something on the periphery, and I struggled to explain what I did for a living. Like my Grandad, they were aware of the web but didn’t feel it was something that figured greatly in their lives, if at all. They found it far easier to talk to my sister about her career as the owner of a dog walking business, perhaps because it’s something less vague, more tangible.
This was a jarring, and humbling, experience. So often I’m consumed by a small design detail, an argument on Twitter or a blog post debating the relative merits of a tiny little bit of CSS, and it can seem like the whole world revolves around these ideas. It’s easy to forget that the vast majority of the population simply don’t know or care about such things.
We are not that important.
I’ve been trying to keep these thoughts in my head as I move forward because I think it’s important to be reminded that when we design, we’re not necessarily designing for people like ourselves. Naturally, it’s fun to try out all these different effects that look super cool, a new trick we’ve learnt or an awesome font we’ve just splashed out on. But most of the time, the people who will be using what we create are not the other designers who will be impressed with our skills: They’re the people you don’t work with every day, who maybe don’t think of themselves as ‘users’ at all.
I’m a huge admirer of the fantastic work of the Government Digital Service, and what I love is that there is no ego: No single person pushing a particular agenda, just a lot of people who care incredibly passionately about making other people’s lives easier. Many internet users, like the people I met at my Grandad’s funeral, will be elderly, disabled or without regular access to the web, and just want to get something done. To make someone feel just a little bit more comfortable in this brave new digital world is something to be aspired to.
Of course, as a population we are more digitally literate than ever, and I’m aware that there is plenty of room on the web for experimentation too. I just hope that I can keep this in mind: We are not that important. But we can play an important role in improving people’s lives, whether they are aware of it or not.
In memory of John Alfred Barker.
Roll a six to start
The other day I played a board game called The Castles of Burgundy. I should qualify: Attempted to play. My favourite games include family staples Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble and Pictionary — suffice to say, I’m no hardcore gamer (of which there is an entire subculture) — and Castles of Burgundy definitely represented one of the more challenging games I’ve played, with various cards, counters, game boards and dice all woven together in a complex web of rules, interactions and counteractions. Not to mention the graphics, which did nothing to help matters and appeared to throw user experience to the wind: Playing in the murky, low-light conditions of a pub games night, I found myself straining to decipher detailed (though beautiful) illustrations no bigger than a fingernail, and to tell apart various coloured tiles (all with very different meanings) within a near-monochromatic colour palette.
As my friend, a seasoned gamer, explained the rules, I became increasingly dispirited. Having started the night expecting a fun challenge with simple goals and objectives (get the most points to win the game!), I began to view the evening as a mountain to be climbed, in a storm, with crappy hiking boots and little chance of success.
Predictably, I lost. But, you know what? As the game went on, I actually began to enjoy it. I started to pick up the rules, form a strategy and figure out ways to thwart my opponents. Although some aspects were still frustrating, I felt pleased when I mastered a set of exchanges and made small gains. I enjoyed having to think around a problem or obstruction and anticipate my adversaries’ next move. I could see why people enjoyed playing these sorts of games.
These emotions won’t be new to anyone who’s ever tried to learn web development. As a conference producer-cum-designer, much of my free time spent teaching myself HTML and CSS feels a little like playing Castles of Burgundy in a darkened pub, surrounded by people who already know the rules. Many of us with specialist knowledge on a subject (whether in web design or another discipline) have a tendency to forget at times just how long it took us to acquire that knowledge which now feels innate to us, and that what comes as naturally as breathing to us by way of years of practise is, to someone new to the field, an uphill struggle.
The web design industry is one of the most supportive and welcoming to newcomers of any that I’ve come across. And it’s vital that those starting out in this extremely rewarding field are encouraged to persist. We might not get all the rules initially. We might finish way behind on the first go. But we’ll do it by trial and error and maybe a stroke of luck, and perhaps one day we’ll conquer kingdoms.