Back in 1998 when I graduated from college and was “choosing a career” – and by choosing a career I mean financing the bare essentials to feed, shelter and hydrate a 21-year-old in New York City – there was no such thing as a user experience designer. In fact, I doubt anyone had ever used the phrase “user experience” at all. (Well, perhaps Steve Jobs and Jony Ive moaned it to one another while licking iMacs in Cupertino.)
I had one or two skills, picked up from my work-study job at the Health Services Center at Columbia University: HTML, Photoshop and a handful of Unix commands. I was promptly put to work making and tracking online ads for the brave new world of the online economy. Click here!
My claim to fame at that first job was designing a blueprint of a piece of software that would automate my mind-numbing job and pestering the higher ups to get it built. “That would put you out of a job, you know,” said most everyone. “Great!” I said. Self-preservation was never my strong suit.
As sites and the devices they were viewed on become more robust and complicated, a new field emerged called information architecture. In those days I was writing a little code, and not doing very well at it. What I was very good at was critiquing all the systems and processes around me. Relentlessly. (Sorry mom, dad, friends, lovers and pets.) And in the heady days of the first dot com bubble, for some reason this was seen as an asset.
It was an oddly natural fit for me to be doing IA, which was later called information design, interaction design, interface design and for now, experience design. I spent the next 10 or so years flipping between UX and writing, two seemingly disparate fields. UX was analytical, collaborative, client-focused, and generally profit-driven. The writing I was doing, mostly journalism and public radio pieces, was personal, expressive and wholly bereft of profit.
It took me a long time to figure out why the hell I wanted to do both of these things that didn’t seem to have anything in common. One year I banked a nice nest egg designing sites for Tylenol, that I used to later subsidize a reporting stint in a mold-infested hostel in post-Katrina New Orleans.
Only since we founded The Glue, have I finally started to connect the dots on what I do. I tell stories, whether it’s with words, sounds, video or with a piece of software. I first wonder what is interesting about this? What is valuable? Why must it be shared? What word, or message or image feels good and to whom? What moment is the perfect place to reveal it? And of course, what can be removed? This is a process that is as natural in a piece of video or writing, as it is in a mobile app.
On my first visit to the Guggenheim Museum in New York, I remember walking slowly down the ramp – the exhibit escapes me now – and noticing my thirst at the exact moment one of the brass-plated drinking fountains came into my view. How did Frank Lloyd Wright know I would be thirsty just then? And how kind of him to provide hydration without forcing me away from the art and into a dark cramped corridor.
It’s the satisfaction of that perfectly timed drink of water that I’m always hoping to provide in whatever I do.