WUD 2009 at MSU recap

Yesterday’s World Usability Day event at Michigan State University was good—but a little odd.

The morning sessions were spot-on, and some of the afternoon talks were good as well. However, it was clear that some panelists didn’t understand their audience of usability and accessibility practitioners. Their talks were still interesting, but they didn’t understand the user experience industry’s take on words like “accessibility” and “sustainability,” which was this year’s theme.

So, here’s a quick recap.

Assistive Technology Expo

I attended the Assistive Technology Expo in the morning. I posted yesterday about comments regarding CAPTCHAs gleaned from that talk.

The two presenters work in the technology field providing technology support for people with various disabilities and are themselves blind. They demonstrated how they use screen readers to accomplish various tasks online, like checking the weather, tuning into a football game streamed online, checking stocks, buying groceries, and buying a computer.

I appreciate observing and listening to people with disabilities who use the Internet, because it helps counter what I know about the technology with what is clear about people. That is, people adapt and make things work to the best of their ability. These two presenters were gracious about technology-related problems that I know many sighted people would be upset with. They also pointed out that most websites are at some level usable by them, but of course they prefer ones that are more accessible. We did see a number of examples where they simply wouldn’t have been able to overcome some technical roadblocks without significant additional effort.

One part of the presentation included them showcasing how they use an iPhone. An accessibility feature on the iPhone causes a single tap on the touch screen to say the name of the application (or letter if it is the keypad), while the double-tap will activate it. So, they have audible feedback to find the function they need, plus the capability to then activate it. This seemed to work very well for them.

Another point made during the session is that these assistive technologies like screen readers and electronic braille devices are quite expensive. Some screen reader programs are more expensive than the cost of the computer itself. However, the presenters voiced hope because the prices are coming down. They cited Apple shipping Macs that have built-in accessibility features at zero additional cost. Also, for Windows, there are some screen reader programs that are only a few hundred dollars.

Special Session: Contemporary Issues of IT in the Sustainable Global Knowledge Economy

This panel session had presenters on the topics of:

  • delivering broadband across the state of Michigan even to rural areas (George Boersma)
  • ITEC, a center in Lansing that provides after-school programs to help youth learn about technology, science and math (Kirk Riley)
  • IT accessibility (Sharron Rush)
  • global knowledge economy (Mark Wilson)

All the presenters were well-spoken and interesting. Sharron Rush seemed to be the one presenter that is part of the usability and accessibility profession, though the others shared important information and perspectives.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to provide more details on these presentations.

Hybrid Technology for a Sustainable Future

Shane Shulze of Ford Motor Company presented information on what Ford has been working on in regard to battery powered cars. His talk was focused on battery technology, and it was interesting to see the audience’s response.

One participant spoke up and asked about how these new cars will address the safety issues with quiet-running cars. Shane’s answer was that Ford is aware of the issue. I suppose we can look to future prototypes to see how what they do with this issue. (From a UX perspective, I think that is a really interesting question: what are the design concerns in regards to the volume and appropriateness of the audio.)

e-Government Services for a Sustainable County

Salina Washington of Oakland County and Constantinos Coursaris of Michigan State University presented on how Oakland County has transformed their delivery of services to citizens of Oakland County with the eGov department of the county government.

This presentation was inspiring. We know that good, usable technology can improve service delivery and decrease costs, but this was an actual example of that happening.

The take-away from this was that when faced with a challenge, like a massive cut in budget, instead of going the traditional route of laying people off, think creatively and as a group come up with ideas on decreasing costs and making the most of the resources that each part of the government agency uses.

Sustainability and Agility: UX Designs for Eforms

John Rivard spoke about integrating UX and Agile development at a bank. He shared examples of their workflow, like work-ahead, follow-behind. This was also an excellent presentation and it seems that the way John is working is similar to how we operate at Covenant Eyes.

That’s all folks

All-in-all, it was a good day with some unexpected, but enjoyable talks. Good job to the organizers from the MSU Usability & Accessibility Center! Also, check out Tom Schult’z posts on his blog.

MSU 4-H Children’s Garden

MSU Children's Garden in the Spring of 2008
MSU Children's Garden in the Spring of 2008

On Sunday morning, Lila, Eva and I visited the 4-H Children’s Garden at MSU. It was a beautiful day, and there were a few other small groups of people strolling around.

In the back corner of the garden, obscured by the large tree in this photo, there is a play train. On the other side of the wooden wall, to the right in the photo, there are train tracks. When trains came by, the girls clambered up to the roof of the play train and watched the real trains roar by.

The second train only had a dozen or so cars, and it was going very fast. Eva crouched defensively and covered her ears, mouth and eyes open in awe when it finally sped by, horn blaring.

A degree, finally?

this weak I finishedd my Bachealor’s in English frum michigan state university!!!!!!!!

(Ahem.)

While I was a full-time student from 1994 to 1999, I did not complete my degree requirements at that time. I was offered a full-time job in the Web field in mid-1999, and I took it. Although I was close to finishing, that essentially ended my quest for a degree, until late in 2007.

I enrolled for a class this past semester (REL350–Buddhism in South East Asia), and handed in my final exam a couple days ago. So, that wraps it up. I expect to receive the diploma soon. I may even frame it.

Now, most importantly, I can check the box that says “undergraduate degree completed” instead of “high school or equivalent completed.”

I’m a student again, and tardy already!

After a nine-year break, I’ve enrolled again at Michigan State University!

Back in 1998 or 99 I took a full-time job offer producing websites, and never finished my degree in English. So, finally, I’ll finish it off this semester. If everything goes as planned, I should graduate this May.

I’m taking one class: REL 350–Buddhism in South Asia. It’s once a week and meets for about three hours, which works out great because it interferes minimally with work and my time with my daughters.

Yesterday was a big day for me–my first day of class in nearly a decade. So, here’s the funny part.

At 4:20 PM, one of my coworkers asked, “So, how did that class go?” And then I realized I had forgotten about class, and was already ten minutes late. I was so embarrassed. Off to a great start!

New Ph.D. program site at MSU College of Education

A day or so ago, Adam of Envision Internet Consulting released a new website for a graduate program in Education at Michigan State University.

The program is the Curriculum, Teaching, and Educational Policy Ph.D. Program at the MSU College of Education.

The new site took a lot of work and I think it looks great. It also exemplifies many web standards and accessibility practices.

Congratulations to the people at the MSU College of Education and Adam!

(Now if only the main MSU College of Ed website would step up…)

I’m geeked

My department at MSU had a day celebrating 50 years of computing at MSU. So, in the MSU Computer Store, there was a Mac II plugged in and running, tiny monochromatic monitor and all.

I couldn’t help but look, and lo and behold, the hard drive had TeachText and NCSA Mosaic, the first publically available web browser, on it. When I started Mosaic, it had the date on the startup screen: 10-29-1993.

So, I wrote a web page in TeachText, welcoming people to the Computer Store and our 50 years celebration, and then viewed it in Mosaic. And then I annotated it using using the Mac’s audio-recording (which worked great, by the way).

I’m not the nostalgiac type, but it was weird. The very first web page I wrote, ever, I wrote with TeachText, and the first web browser I ever used was Mosaic on a Mac. It really took me back.

Writing markup with TeachText and seeing it render in Mosaic are the seeds of my life as a professional web developer. It seems so very long ago.

I educate

Slightly over a year ago, I switched careers from website producer, consultant, and business owner to technology educator.

I entered an organization in the midst of its ongoing, subtle identity crisis. Do we think of ourselves as trainers? We are called that, sometimes, because we give short courses and workshops on various computing topics, and these topics are often thick with training on using specific software packages. For example, how to use Microsoft Access.

At first, I didn’t know what to call myself. Trainer? Instructor? Teacher?

Over the past months, as I’ve proceeded to teach courses on a variety of topics in computing, I know that I’m an educator. Even when teaching a course on Excel, I strive to not just have the learners practice with the software, but to understand why the software works as it does. My hope is that they leave the course not only with the knowledge of how to do the fairly mundane tasks of sorting columns and using functions, but to also conceptualize and understand their data in ways that empower them to creatively bend Excel to their own purposes.

Beyond that, I’ve always recoiled emotionally from the word “trainer.” I do not wear shiny black boots, a whip, and a whistle. “Right-click! Good boy. Have a treat.”

Please, stop. I expect far, far more out of my fellow humans than a simple ability to jump through hoops. I expect ingenuity, creativity, tenacity.

So, all that said, this morning I read an essay, Human-Centered Design by Mike Cooley, from “Information Design,” edited by Jacobsen (published in 1999 by The MIT Press). Here is an excerpt that I appreciate.

My hierachy of verbs in these matters is that you program a robot, you train an animal, but you educate human beings. Education in this sense is not just what occurs in schools or universities, where, so often, students and teachers are, as Ivan Illich points out, “schooled to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new” (Illich 1971:9).

Well said.

Transitioning into this job

I thought I wanted a career, but it turns out I only wanted a paycheck.

I read that quote, it was taped to a cash register at Espresso Royale, back in July, about a month into my job as a technology trainer at the university, after having spent seven years producing web sites full-time.

Tomorrow marks six months into this job, and I’m beginning to work through the transition. Here are some ideas I’m starting to grasp—or at least wrestle with.

Work can be easy and it can be slow-paced.

Compared to starting and running an Internet consulting company for the last three years, and managing multiple web site productions for the last six or seven years, this job is a snap. There are far fewer deadlines and there just isn’t a lot of complexity or change in the work.

Plus, my role is far narrower than it was. I don’t need to be concerend about managing client relationships, doing accounting and other paperwork (which I stink at anyway), doing sales, writing proposals. And, I have far more time to produce far less.

However, just because it is easier, doesn’t mean I’m less concerend about doing it well. I like teaching most of these short technology courses, and I’ve been able to create some new courses by drawing on my background. I want to increase the quality of the overall program, and since I am not in a management position, one way I can do this is by example and contribution.

Do I want a career or simply a paycheck?

So, I don’t have an answer to this one. I have had a career in the field of web production. I am no longer actively participating in that field, though I don’t really feel like I’ve grown rusty yet. I have been keeping up on industry news and have continued conversations with colleagues who are still active in the industry.

In a skilled trade, people would develop their careers roughly by becoming an Apprentice, then a Journeyman, then a Master. And they would live by their trade. It seems like switching to a different trade would be foolish after a point.

Yet, that is what I have done. And it seems common these days, doesn’t it? People reinvent themselves. They change careers several times in their lives, right? Some do, anyway.

I think I would rate myself a fairly advanced Journeyman web producer. I have built or led development on hundreds of web sites since 1995. I’ve specialized in web site usability, information architecture, project management, writing for the web, and semantic markup. I have mentored a handful of developers and designers, a few of whom continue to work in the field.

I am not sure what it would take to be a Master, and unlike former times, I was able to study under many Masters, without their knowledge. Names? In no particular order: J. Nielsen, D. Norman, E. Meyer, J. Zeldman, the pros at Adaptive Path (I found Peter Merholz’s blog years ago and later discovered some cool things that jjg was doing), L. Rosenfeld, P. Morville, and as I think, so many others.

What would possess me to make such a drastic move away from my career in web production? Desperate measures follow desperate times, so it goes.

So, at this point I’m much closer to a career in web production. But, if I spend a few years doing technology training then it might start looking like a career in technology training. Which would I like more? At this point, I prefer web production as it is more dynamic and challenging work.

But I don’t dislike what I’m doing now. It helps that I have a good supervisor, a steady income that can be budgeted (unlike the variations in income as a self-employed person), and benefits for my family. Oh, and tomorrow I get to start using vacation time. I haven’t had a vacation in about four years.

Which is to say, right now I’m working for the paycheck.

Stillness

Early last month, Andy Johanson retired from the university. He had worked here for nearly forty years.

Forty years in the same building, the same office. Incredible. Seriously, I’m in awe.

My work history shows much more frequent changes. I worked for four or five years at the MSU Writing Center, a year or so at the LCC Writing Center, three years at University Relations here at MSU, then three years in my company. And now, I’m half a year into this position.

How does someone stay in the same type of position for so long? Granted, Andy’s job itself must have gone through substantial changes as it is in the computing field. Still, how did he last forty years? One piece of that picture that impresses me is that he didn’t seem in a rut or all that burnt-out. Maybe he is just good at hiding it, but I’ve seen other people who’ve worked in university or state jobs for a long time, and God forbid I should ever become so cynical and detached.

At the risk of people at MSU reading this, I’ve already applied for a different job, though it didn’t work out. I saw a position open at a company in Ann Arbor, Michigan for a Manager of Interface Design and it really matched up with what I want to do. It involved managing and mentoring a team of interface designs for a company whose products are delivered via the web. When I’ve had the opportunity to, I have really enjoyed managing and mentoring web designers and developers, so that would suit me. And, it would involve not only interface design, but also getting to the root of the information architecture of their products. The company called and let me know that they had already decided to promote someone internally to that position. They asked if I was interested in an interface designer position. I’m not. If I move, it will need to be into a leadership and management position, I think.

I’m trying to quiet my spirit and accept where I am and my changed role, at least for the time being.

ANGEL at MSU–Who tossed out the IA?

I’m listening to the second edition of the podcast, “the digital paper chase—education, technology, and life in the academy,” in which the intrepid hosts, Steve & Troy, talk about being tech-newbies all over again. The discussion revolves somewhat around the concepts of blogging as a Web site and podcasting.

Anyway, at some point Steve made an observation that because the blog becomes the Web site, the design shifted from designing a Web site to designing the information. He didn’t use those words, but that’s what I heard.

Which then made me think about how putting ANGEL, the online course management system, into the works at Michigan State University has enabled course authors (generally faculty at MSU) to not have to worry about designing a Web site. Within the confines of the ANGEL system, they are put into the position of having to then design the information that they deliver.

This is information design and information architecture.

It happens in every course by sheer fact that the course exists. However, I’ve had this nagging suspicion that not many course designers are actually thinking seriously enough about the information architecture of their courses.

They, generally, do have experience in designing courses. This is great. However, what happens when designing course content intersects with designing information for Web sites?

This phenomenon distributed content authoring has left people with little formal experience in designing and structuring information for the Web in the position of having to design information for the Web.

How unfortunate. What shall we do?

A job offer!

MSU LCTTP called today with an official job offer, which I gladly accepted. I’ll be a full-time instructor in a technology training program at Michigan State University.

I start next Monday, June 6th. I’ll have about a week to get situated and learn from the other instructors, then I teach my first course on the 13th. The course is Excel 2003, Level 1. I hope–and it sounds like the plan is–that I start teaching more web development-related courses soon.

I’m looking forward to this new role, and am thankful that God has made it happen and our family seems to be entering a time of more stability.