2008 February

Web = Magic?

As consumers of digital media, do we have a responsibility to understand the technology, even a little bit?  I guess I’m not really talking about myself here.  But I am talking about those average consumers.  People like my mom or my in-laws.  People who still don’t understand what a web browser is, or that AOL is not the internet.  My intention is not to put them down, or diminish their importance as we continue to evolve user experiences.  Instead, I’d like to encourage them to, quite simply, figure it out.  I want my mother-in-law to stop calling me whenever she can’t get on the internet because she forgot to plug the phone cord into her dial up modem.  Not because I’m not happy to help, but because the more you get about how it all works, the more you can take advantage of the advantages and efficiencies technology, or more specifically, the internet, can add to your life. We should be afraid of crossing the street against the light, or riding a motorcycle without a helmet, or eating puffer fish.  But we should not be afraid of technology.  If we use common sense, and we’re careful about the information we share, we can dive right in without fear.  You cannot break a website.  Those are words to live by.  As a user, you cannot break a site.  Fearless exploration is encouraged. 

Remember too, its called interactive technology because, in order for it to work the way it was intended, it requires your participation.  That doesn’t mean its ok to just mindlessly click random buttons.  Part of the interactive experience comes from contextual queues.  Paying attention to button text, instructional copy, visual imagery meant to guide your eye, all of this is your responsibility in the interaction.  One of the hardest messages to communicate to the fearful is really so simple.  Read.  Read what the buttons say.  Look for those helpful messages that will guide you and make your experience easier to navigate or more intuitive.  They should be there.  If they are not, well, that’s a whole other blog post.  But generally speaking, a web experience is structured around a fairly standard framework.  You should be able to get to the information you need within a click or two.  And those clicks should be clearly marked in some way or another.  Take responsibility for your experience and pay attention.  Read the page. 

Once you’ve committed to your part in the experience, its important to remember that technology is fallible.  I know. I know.  Everyone is always talking about the internet like its the cheeze whiz of the new millennium.  But please remember, it is not without it’s flaws, and it’s dependencies.  Your experience depends on a variety of things, the speed of your connection to the internet, the speed at which your pc processes information, the kind of information you are attempting to access.  Clicking into a page of text is very different than clicking into a streaming video.  Sometimes, and I know this is a terrifying consideration, you might just have to *gasp* WAIT.  Nothing boggles my mind more than watching someone click into a page and then witnessing an immediate melt-down while waiting for the page to load.  The incessant clicking that ensues is enough to make my head spin. What you might be interested in knowing is that in addition to your connection speed, your computer speed and the type of data you’re accessing, your browser may be processing many many lines of code with each of those clicks.  It could take a little while. Patience is a virtue.

I know.  I know.  I said the big bad word ‘CODE’.  Sometimes the word  ‘code’ causes people’s eyes to bleed, or roll into the back of their heads.  I am always amused by this.  You don’t have to write code to be ok with the fact that code exists.  What is code?  Simple.  It’s the thousands of lines of a foreign language, that live behind the pretty pictures, that make the pictures work.  It’s that simple.  If you’re uncomfortable with the concept of ‘programming languages’ or ‘code’ you need to get over it.  You don’t need to care any more than you do.  But don’t be intimidated by the fact that it exists.  Get this – there is a computer in your car (more than likely) and elements of how your car functions are managed by coded commands.  You never know they are there and you probably never think about them.  But they exist.  Your cell phone.  Holy smokes!  There’s code involved in how you make phone calls.  I’ve actually had clients say to me ‘. . .don’t mention code please.  Whats-her-name gets upset.’  Are you kidding me?  Don’t get upset.  Just nod knowingly in meetings where code is discussed and you’re already ahead of the competition.

I guess my point in all of this is, there is no magic here.  And whatever actually *happens* on the web is due in large part to your interaction with it.  Here’s your take-away:

Be patient.

Be fearless.

Be informed.

Be smart.

Wait.  Read. Try.


Working Women

It’s hard to talk to women about technology without also getting into a discussion about being a working woman. It’s certainly not necessary to both work and embrace technology (I was shocked—in a good way—at the number of active online communities of moms that I discovered on maternity leave), but considering that women now make up over 50% of the workforce (at, sadly, somewhere around 50% of the cost of our male counterparts) it’s a relevant topic.

I’m lucky to work for a family-friendly employer. So family-friendly, in fact, that Working Mother magazine named us one of the Top 25 Women-Owned Businesses in the nation. Holler!

Around the time of that award, they asked the women in our office to submit an application to be a Working Mother cover mom. I didn’t win, but it did get me to think about why I work instead of staying at home.

Why do I work?
Because being a working mom makes me a better mom.  Working feels right to me in the same way that staying home feels right to other moms. There was a time when I worried that liking my job—that looking forward to going to work at the end of my maternity leave—meant I was a bad mother. But, when I was fussing over the decision of staying home vs. working, a friend told me this, “In the first week or two, you’ll know. Your gut will either tell you that you need to stay home, or that it’s okay to stay at work.”

She was right. While the transition of the first week was hard emotionally (does anyone enjoy dropping their kid off at daycare the first time?!), I could feel in my gut that working was what I wanted to do. My friend’s gut told her the opposite, and she has since reduced her work schedule to 2 days a week. But, isn’t that’s really what it’s all about: being able to make the choice that feels best for you, and for your family?

I enjoy the time I have with my daughter before and after work, and she gets my full attention. There are certainly days when I come home tired and worn out, but most days I come home and can’t wait to hear everything that she did at “baby school” and tell her all about my day, and sit on the floor and read some books and eat dinner together. I certainly have less time with her than I would if I stayed home with her all day, but the time that we do have is so enjoyable and so focused. I feel like being able to have my own space at work means that I look forward to hanging out with my family at night.

What makes my job meaningful?

Doing work that I love, and working for—and with—people that I respect. I enjoy what I do for a living. I know and respect the owners of my company. I don’t feel like an anonymous cog in a machine; I can see the results of the efforts I put forward, and it feels really good. I love the feeling of looking at a completed project and knowing that I helped make it happen.

How do I handle work/life balance?
First, I’m extremely lucky to have a workplace that is supportive of working parents, and a husband that shares equally in the parenting and housework load. He is self-employed and saves my butt on most days by doing daycare dropoff and pickup. And we divvy up the other tasks too—like, if he cooks, I do dishes. If I give Trixie a bath, he does stories and bed time.

Second, I make conscious decisions about how to spend my time. When I am with my family, I make an effort to be 100% with them, and when I am working I try to be 100% in work mode. In a world where I can work from home, where anyone can contact me almost anywhere, anytime via phone, text message, IM or email, it’s easy to be “sort of” working all the time. Alternately, it’s just as easy to use part of your workday getting a bit of online shopping done, or sending an email to your friends or relatives.  The result of all this flexibility can be that your family—and your work—get half your effort and attention all the time.

I work in an office that is extremely permissive and flexible—we are all trusted as adults to do our job and manage our time appropriately. The key is to use the flexibility in a way that makes you more efficient, not less so.

Growing up, my parents never let us watch TV while we did our homework. I find that I follow a similar rule for myself in trying to keep myself focused and efficient in my work/life balance. If I work at home at night, I do it only after my daughter is in bed, and I don’t watch TV or do anything else at the same time (if I do, I find it makes me about half as productive, and who wants to work twice as long?). I could check my email before breakfast, but I don’t—because I want my family to get my full attention before we all head off to start our day. At the dinner table, there’s no TV, no books, no cell phones. Just our family, talking to each other and catching up. Conversely, when I’m in work mode (whether I’m at the office or working from home) I make an effort to focus on that.

One of the greatest challenges of my life?
Slowly coming to the realization that I can’t have it all. By that I mean learning that I can’t have a clean house, a harmonious marriage, a super-successful career, a perfect body and be an ideal mother at all times. So, I can either frustrate myself trying to achieve perfection, or I can stop amidst the imperfections and enjoy the beauty in the small moments. Because they go by fast. So, when I get home from a long day at work, I have a choice: I can either stress out about the million things on my to-do list, or I can stop worrying about how dirty the kitchen floor is for a few minutes and enjoy a tea party with my daughter. I’ve learned that the kitchen floor can get cleaned up later.