If you choose not to decide

Note 21 August 2014: I found this in my Drafts. Usually the things I find among drafts are pretty fragmented. There’s some unfinished thoughts here, but it’s largely finished. It’s also the kind of thing I’ll likely want to come back to. So I’ve decided to publish it largely as I found it (under the date when it was written).

I’ve made a decision. It’s taken me a while: over two years, in fact.

In the short term, I’ll be focusing my career on front-end web development and accessibility. My longer term goal, however, is to shift my career slightly to become a user experience designer.

How I got here

I’ve been working on web sites for over ten years now. In that time, I’ve been a web designer (though I’m not a great graphic designer), a front-end developer, back-end developer, seo expert, sysadmin, database administrator, network administrator, information architect, and manager. I could probably think of more roles I’ve fulfilled.

For the past few years, I’ve been considering a career change. I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing, but I didn’t really know why. For a while, I was seriously considering a much more drastic career change: going back and finishing a biology degree I started over fifteen years ago.

As I thought about it, though, I realized that I enjoy working on websites. I came to the conclusion that what I was dissatisfied with wasn’t the industry I was working in, but the way I was working. I felt I had no real depth of knowledge. I knew a bit about a lot of things, but very there was no one topic that I knew well. In other words (and very cliched words at that), I was a jack of all trades. And master of none.

I’m tempted to say that I didn’t choose this, but in the immortal words of Neil Pert, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” I never made a choice. In fact, I refused to make a choice. I refused to focus on one thing.

I’m curious by nature. I took things apart as a kid — the phone system in our house, doorknobs, my Speak ‘n’ Spell. The web and the internet were the ideal playground for me. I wanted to understand how everything worked. It was exciting.

The small companies where I’ve typically worked have given me the opportunity to explore. If something needed to be done, I was happy to volunteer for it if it meant I’d learn something new.

And so I went on, never focusing on one thing. Learning a bit, and quickly moving on to the next thing that needed doing.

In the end, learning about everything wasn’t nearly as satisfying as I thought it would be. In a strange way, it feels as if I’ve learned about nothing at all, though I know that’s not true. Nevertheless, the time has come to actively choose a path.

Why User Experience Design?

Once I decided that what I needed to was choose an area to focus on, it was immediately clear that the path I should pursue is user experience design. There are at least three reasons why this was so: my life before I became a web developer, my early influences as a web developer, and what excites me about the web now.

I started learning web development while I was studying cultural anthropology at the University of Texas. For much of the time, I loved cultural anthropology. Although my initial interest was in folklore, I became fascinated by how people communicate (or fail to communicate). I eventually dropped a biology double major in order to focus on cultural anthropology and linguistics.

Early in my career as a web developer, I read two books that had a lasting impact on how I think about the design and implementation of websites. They were Information Architecture for the World Wide Web and Web Navigation: Designing the User Experience. Much of what I have tried to do as a web developer (front-end or back-end) has been based around what I learned in these two books. In short, make it as easy as possible for people to find what they are looking for.

My decision to pursue user experience design also stems from where I see the web going. Part my fascination with user experience derives from the idea of interface. A website is the place that a person interacts with a computer. That’s interesting. It raises all kinds of issues. How does the person get the computer to do what you want? How can that be facilitated? How can it be made intuitive? How can it be made more human, and less like you’re dealing with a machine.

Increasingly, though, a website (or web application) is a place that people interact with each other. This is even more fascinating. We’re not just dealing with information retrieval anymore. It’s not just about making it easy for people to find information. It’s about communication, interaction and conversations.

FIX THIS: All of this Web 2.0 stuff takes me right back to what I was learning when was studying cultural anthropology. User Experience Design gives me the chance to combine what I’ve learned over the last few years with what I learned in university.

MIGHT BE RELEVANT: This partly sums up what has been happening for the last 10 years. I tried to keep a widely varied skillset up to date while trying to aquire new skills.

What we need to do is to consciously start closing some of our doors….We ought to shut them because they draw energy and commitment from the doors that should be left open–and because they drive us crazy.

From http://bookoutlines.pbworks.com/Predictably-Irrational

Also, Nicole Sullivan’s baking bread comparison.

I get to think about how to make sites better?