Episode 91

Designing for Crisis with Eric Meyer

January 9, 2015

Too often, websites are designed with only the ideal user in mind — a typical person, in great health and sound mind, happy to be on your website doing a thing. In reality we humans exist in a variety of states, including panic, fear and reacting to a crisis. How could our sites be better, considering the needs of people in crisis? What are the consequences when we don't acknowledge the impact of our design decisions? Eric Meyer joins Jen Simmons to talk about his last year and a half, what he learned, and what he's thinking.

In This Episode

  • When should we think about users in crisis?
  • What are the needs of a person in crisis?
  • How Facebook and Twitter affect human relationship with their design decisions — for better or worse

Let's assume somebody's coming here and they're completely panicked, they're completely freaking out, and they still need to do the stuff that the site does. I don't know why they're here freaking out, but they're here freaking out. What do I think that they might want to do while they're freaking out?

Transcript

Thanks to Jenn Schlick for transcribing this episode.

Jen
This is The Web Ahead, a weekly conversation about changing technologies and the future of the web. I'm Jen Simmons and this is episode 91. I first want to say thank you to today's sponsors: Thinkful, Dayswork and Squarespace. We'll talk about them more later in the show. I should let you know that bandwidth has been provided by CacheFly, the fastest, most reliable CDN in the business.

So hello everybody! Here we are again. It's 2015. This is the first show of the new year. For today's show, I have a great friend of the show — sometimes co-host of the show — back for the first time in quite awhile. Eric Meyer. Hi Eric.

Eric
Hey. How you doing, Jen?
Jen
Good! I'm really glad you're on the show. I'm very excited to have you today. To catch up, to hear what you've been working on lately, what you're working on this year.
Eric
Right.
Jen
And we should tell people — you were a part of this show. You reached out to me... I forget the details... but we got together and started doing this series called "The Web Behind," that we started back in September 2012. We did a bunch of shows, eight of them, or something. Amazing interviews that you did with the people who invented the web. Until about February of 2013.
Eric
Yeah.
Jen
Then we didn't do it anymore.
Eric
Right.
Jen
Because other things happened that were much more important, in your life.
Eric

Yeah. So, in February 2013, that was the last one that we did. I was taking a break because I was trying to figure out who I wanted to do next. Of course, February stretches into March, which stretches into summer. Then in August 2013, while I was on vacation with my family, our middle daughter, Rebecca, who was five, got sick. And ended up being life-flighted to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia with a brain tumor.

When that happened, everything stopped. Not just doing podcasting. I basically stopped everything. We were at CHOP for — trying to remember now — more than two weeks. She was in intensive care for more than a week. They took the tumor out — actually, the tumor was almost completely removed. Then she had to recover from that. They had to place a "VP shunt," because the brain fluid was no longer properly draining from her brain, which was what had landed her in the ER in the first place. That's what was causing the symptoms that made us think that she was coming down with strep throat or spinal meningitis.

After that, we had to move to Philadelphia for a month and a half for advanced therapy, proton radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Then we were home and doing chemotherapy at the Cleveland clinic. It was sucking up almost all of my time.

Then in March of 2014, another tumor was discovered that had grown in eight weeks from nothing to a centimeter on its side. She died on her sixth birthday. June 7th, 2014.

They had told us, in Philadelphia, when the first tumor had been removed that they'd done the pathology and analysis and everything, they said, "We think it's this grade of tumor and if there's never another tumor, she has an excellent chance of growing up. If another tumor comes, then there's nothing anyone can do. You can only make her comfortable." And that's what happened.

I mean, we tried anyway. We tried experimental therapy in Pittsburgh that had some promise, but it was phase 1 clinical trial or maybe phase... I don't even remember. There were very few people in the study and it was something that had a chance of working but not much of a chance. We'll never know if it had an effect, but it certainly didn't save her life. But that's what they had told us, basically. Unless there was some amazing development between that first tumor and if the second tumor arose, then she wasn't likely to grow up. And now she's dead. So that's how it turned out.

Obviously, going through that from March to June was all consuming. The aftermath, the mourning period, left me unable to really do much. Until the last few months. But now I'm getting back into things because, you know, it's terrible to have a child die, but life can't stop. You can't stop your life at the point where your child's life stopped. I guess people do, but that has such horrible effects on everyone around them.

We have two surviving children. Which is not how I ever wanted to describe my children, as "surviving." But we have two other kids. Even if we were so inclined, it would be a terrible disservice to them to have our entire lives stop and become all about the fact that we had a child who died. It changes you. It's been said about losing any loved one. You don't get over it. You get used to it.

Jen
I'm just so sorry. I'm sure everybody listening is just... I mean, you wrote on your blog, through all of this, so eloquently and beautifully about what was happening. I know many, many people were reading along and just, so, so sorry.
Eric

I perceived that. It's interesting. The whole writing about it, and what we're going through. I felt like there were two things happening there. Well, three things.

The one that I wrote about, the thing that I was doing. Sharing her with the world. I'm actually very private about my kids. I don't post pictures of them on Flickr or Facebook or even Meyerweb except in very exceptional circumstances. Literally, the third picture of Rebecca I had ever put on Meyerweb was when we were in the hospital. I was pushing out my first post to say, "This is what's happening." The two before that had been adoption day photos.

I don't write about my kids, I don't typically tweet stuff that they say that would embarrass them. If I think they say something particularly smart, I might say something. But even at that, a lot of times, I'll say, "My child just said this to me." I won't even say which one it is. Because I feel like that's not my place, to expose their lives to the world. That's for them to decide later. Later on, when my eldest daughter, Caroline, when she becomes an adult, if she says, "Yeah, you can totally make all of the pictures that you took of me public." Then maybe I will. Or maybe I'll give them to her and say, "If you want to post them." That's her decision. If she does something... like, we all do stupid stuff as kids. But if she does something stupid, I'm not going to go and blog about it. I don't feel like that's my decision.

But in Rebecca's case, I knew she wasn't going to have that chance. She was never going to be able to make that decision in an informed way. I could have asked her, right? I could have said, "Hey, sweetie, do you mind if I put your picture out for the entire world to see?" Who asks that of a five year old? And how can they possibly have an informed answer? She might say, "Sure," not understanding what that means. Or she might say, "Oh my god, no," thinking that means the entire world would show up on her doorstep.

Jen
Yeah. Just too little to understand the internet, really, in that way.
Eric

Right. To her, the internet was where you go and see music videos on YouTube and get annoyed by the ads that they stick in.

But once it came to the point that there was basically no hope of that happening, I started writing more about her. Up until then, it was mostly about me and Kat and how we were dealing with it. Because the second thing I was trying to do is, I was trying to share the story of what people in our situation go through. What we think and feel. Not that I can speak for everybody, obviously.

It was something that I went through as a kid, actually. My sister was effectively born with cancer and survived it. She's still with us. But I had gone through that whole process. I'm always about teaching and sharing what I know with other people so they can understand better. Whether it's CSS or Microformats or whatever. I just started doing it.

And the third thing, obviously, was to share. My wife and I were going through the kind of situation that, in olden times, long long ago, you would share that with your family members who still lived in the same town as you. Your parents would effectively move in with you or you would be living right down the street from them, so you could talk to them all the time. That's not how it is anymore, right? We're scattered all over. Sharing grief, in a lot of cases, helps cope with the grief. It doesn't necessarily make it less, but it helps you deal with it.

That's what I was doing. That's the third thing I was doing. Sharing it, and saying, "This is what's happening. This is what we're going through." People would say, whatever they said. That communication. That's what the web is about, as far as I'm concerned, is communication. So I was communicating. I used to communicate, "Here this cool CSS thing." And now I was communicating, "I'm scared for my daughter's life." Eventually, "I miss my daughter so much." It was sort of the same thing. It was the same impulse, that communicating impulse, but with much different ground.

Jen
There's something about the way in which we're able to be real and talk about things in life that matter so much on the web, and have... audience is the wrong word. But just to be able to connect with other humans. To be able to have that audience, that community, be part of a big conversation where other people can say...
Eric
"I hear you."
Jen
Yeah.
Eric

Yeah, a lot of it is just that. "I hear you. You're not alone in this." I had so many people effectively say, "I hear you. I wish I could do more." To me, to be heard, a lot of times, was more than enough. How many people go through the same situation who don't have anyone to hear them? I was incredibly lucky.

I was also, let's be frank, I was incredibly lucky to be male, on the internet. Over this whole time of me sharing all of this stuff, this really personal stuff, and all that, I can probably count on the fingers of two hands the number of people who said, "Quit your whining." I got no death threats, no rape threats, no "shut up and go away." I got none of that sh*t. Pardon my language. None of that crap. We'll edit that in post.

Not to say that I didn't have people who were condescending or insulting. There were a few of those. I just deleted those comments and moved on. I guess people who troll are trying to hurt and I would just look at them and think to myself, "How do you imagine that anything you say can hurt right now? I've been hurt so much worse than this."

But my point is, I had to deal with so very little of that. I can think of maybe two people who did that on Twitter. We've seen so many examples over the last year of women sharing their experiences and just the overwhelming tidal wave — tidal rage, actually — the tidal rage that comes back at them, it's sickening. In that sense, I was born lucky that I don't have to deal with that on top of everything else.

I just spent however many minutes saying I had these trolls, but there were literally thousands of people, if you were to go back and count them all up, which I'm not sure how you could even do that, but it was literally thousands of people just saying, "We're so sorry. We're here. We hear you. If there's anything we can do." Just overwhelmingly supportive and there. It was a really big people. People have said this, I'm sure a lot of people felt like saying "I hear you" is lame and doesn't do anything, but it really, really does.

One of the things I'm going to try to do this year is just be more in touch with people. Not for any reason. Just email someone and say, "Hey, we haven't talked in awhile, and I think you're pretty awesome. I hope you're having a good day." We don't do that. I don't know anybody who does that. I don't do it, I haven't done it, and I should. I'm hoping to do that more this year and in the future.

The web is about communication. What makes the web great is that it can be one to many. I could put up a post or a Facebook post or a tweet saying, "This is the deal." Everyone who follows me in those various formats could see that.

When we were in the hospital in Philadelphia and things were looking better or looking worse or whatever. Moment to moment, they'd come in and say, "Her inter-cranial pressure seems to be dropping. We think maybe the thing that we did is helping." Rather than call a hundred people and say the same thing again and again and again, or try to create a phone tree and say that and worry about the game of telephone mangling the message by the time it got to the end of the phone tree, just put it on Facebook. "This is the deal." Then someone could ask a question, and rather than having 16 people ask that question over 16 different phone calls and answer it 16 different times, it's like, "Here's a question and we can give them an answer and everyone can see it."

That one to many is not only super efficient, but also really helpful in situations like ours. Rather than worrying about, "Did we call everybody who should know?" And suck up all of that time when we should be thinking about, "Are we going to give our consent for this surgery or that procedure?" Or whatever. Or just being there with her, spending time with her. We didn't have to sacrifice those two things. That was one of the really great things about the web and social media. Was that it was just, boom, this is the situation. Now we're going to go back to doing what we really need to be doing, rather than all these phone calls.

Jen
You're well known on the web, so a lot of people were reading your blog. But you're part of a — it seems, from what I learned of you and your family over the year, reading your blog as your went through this — aside from the professional fame, I guess, is you're part of a community at home. Your synagogue and friends and people who have nothing to do with building websites, who don't know what CSS is. Who know you and know your family, know your kids, have known you all for years. In that way, it's a good way for anybody to be able to communicate to their extended friends and family.
Eric
Right, and we do. We have amazing support here in Cleveland in our home. It was that communication. My wife Kat and I have said a number of times that we were actually really fortunate in our misfortune. I could never hope to communicate what it's like to lose a child. The only way to understand it is to go through it, and then there's really no communication necessary.

But there were so many things that we were basically lucky about. She almost died in August of 2013. If she hadn't been in an ER, she would have been dead that day. Just because of what was going on and the fact that we didn't understand what it was. It's not that it's our fault, we didn't miss anything. My wife sometimes feels like she did. She didn't. At one point, she was using Facebook to communicate with her nursing friends. Kat has several advanced medical degrees and works as a nurse. A family health practice nurse, actually. She was communicating on Facebook with her friends, saying, "Look, these are the symptoms and it's not getting better. What am I missing?" Nobody got it. Nobody thought, "Have you had her scanned for a brain tumor?" The closest anyone got was spinal meningitis. Spinal meningitis is a serious disease. Granted, at this point, we wish that was what the problem had been.

I forget where I was going with that. Oh, the community, right. We have a ton of support here, so to be able to communicate with them. Once we got home, to coordinate the web made things easier. There's a site called carecalendar.org. My dad and stepmom actually came up from Florida and moved in to our house to be with our kids for two months while we were in Philadelphia with Rebecca. A friend of ours set up this CareCalendar so people could sign up to bring a meal or help with dishes or laundry or whatever, or help my folks out while they were here.

After the second tumor was discovered, that period from there to when Rebecca died and the month or so after Rebecca's death, people signed up to come and do the dishes after dinner or bring us dinner or run laundry for us. That's really one of the most amazing things, to me. That people came and gave up time with their families, they would give up an evening with their family to wash the dishes so Kat and I could concentrate on getting the kids to bed and being with them. Which is just amazing.

If anyone listening to this has a friend who's struggling, that is one of the greatest gifts you can give, is give up some of your time. Which is just as limited as theirs, really. It's just as finite as theirs. Give up some of your time so they can put their time towards dealing with their situation. That website made it easy. Certainly, our friend could have said to everybody, "Ok, I have a paper calendar. Just call me and I'll write your name down." But it was a website. So people could just go and see what was available. They could sign up and immediately that was there, so other people knew that day was covered.

Jen

It took all of the hassle out of it. Also, it probably made it much easier for people to offer to help. Rather than not being sure how they could help or not being sure who to call, or knowing who to call but feeling shy and feeling like, "I don't know..." They could go to the website, they could look at the calendar, they could see, "Oh, people are just signing up to come over for an hour to clean. I could do that. That's easy. Oh look, on Wednesday there's no one. That's perfect, I could totally do that."

To me, all of these things we're talking about are really... this is what I love about the web. The way that people have been so hateful this past year... part of what's so depressing about it is that it starts to destroy this original idea of the web. I don't want that crazy hate world. I want this other world, where people are able to help each other in these very simple ways. To connect and leverage the power... there's just so much power. The communication is so concentrated and effective that it can be used for good in a way that's really powerful.

Eric

That's the thing. There have been times this year, in 2014. As much as the web helped me, like you say, some of the hateful, awfulness that happened, there were times when I just wanted to be offline for a few years, basically. I wasn't even receiving any of it. Just seeing it happen to other people. I was just like, "Oh my god, why?"

One of the things that I've been thinking about is... so, there was the #663399becca campaign on Twitter that Matt Robin started and Jeffrey Zeldman posted. Where everyone changed their avatars to purple and used the hashtag #663399becca because she loved purple, and that was trending. It was really amazing. I was not able, at the time, to express how we felt, because literally the getting of the trending was on the day of her funeral. Which was intentional, they did that on purpose. It really helped, in a way. It was a good feeling at a horrible time, to see everyone doing that, sort of standing with us. By the same token, because of what was going on, there was just no way that I could say, "Thank you all." To say what it meant. I was just too destroyed.

The thing about that campaign is, I've been thinking about how, structurally, it's really similar to Gamergate. The way that Gamergate developed. But it was such different goals and outcomes. Gamergate basically started — I don't want to get into the various goals or whatever people thought they were doing. But it started with somebody coining this hashtag and it getting boosted. Then there's all this stuff that came out of that. If you look at it from a mechanistic point of view. "X happened, Y amplified it, stuff flowed out from there." Not think about the aims and the goals, they're very similar. Yet, when you bring in the aims and the goals, the outcomes are so, so different.

Jen
It's sort of the difference between the tools that we use and the medium that we're involved with, versus the content and the message that's being transported on that medium.
Eric
Right. It's the, "Do you use a hammer to build a house or bash in somebody's skull?" It's a hammer either way. I've been pondering that. For that matter, all of the stuff that happened with Kathy Sierra. There's so much room for good and for ill. The #663399becca and Gamergate, to me, I feel like the good and ill in it... I don't know that I have a fully formed thesis here or anything. I've just been thinking about that. How can we get more of the good? I don't know if it's less of the ill, so much as just, maybe just more of the good. So the balance starts tipping.

Eric

It's more that it grows out of what we were talking about with Rebecca. I gave this talk at An Event Apart in Orlando for the first time. I ended up giving it shorty after, here in Cleveland. I'll be giving a refined version of it at An Event Apart throughout 2015.

I guess the thesis is that we design, typically, for ideal users. Even if you have personas, your personas are ideal users, for the most part. There might be the young professional, the recently retired, the young hipster, the middle-aged housewife. But the persona stock photos are always smiling, right?

Jen
[Laughs] Right. Happy people, healthy, in the peak of their lives.
Eric

Right. The background for them is usually personality traits. There might be what kind of community they live in. I'm not speaking for everyone, obviously. Hopefully there are people listening to this who are thinking, "Wait, no, wrong, I do way more than that." That's awesome. But the personas that I've always seen have been that sort of thing. What they're coming to the site for, what they're interested in.

I've never seen a persona that's, this person needs to know this information in the next five minutes or they're losing their job. Which is a kind of crisis. If you have an airline site, as an example, this person thought they had tickets booked but they can't find the reservation and they're having trouble logging in and the flight is in three hours. Or whatever.

In our case, I have now interacted with a lot of hospital websites over the last year and a half. A lot of medical facility and hospital websites. I have yet to see a hospital website that has somewhere on its website, prominently featured, a box that says, "Are you coming here unexpectedly? Click here to find out what you need to know."

There are people who will be in the situation that my wife and I were in. Where, when we got up that morning, we had a child who was ill. But going for emergency surgery was the last thing on our minds. We were trying to figure out what antibiotics we should be giving her, or did she need a lumbar puncture to figure out if she had spinal meningitis? We were wrestling with that for most of that afternoon. The only way to determine for sure if she has spinal meningitis is to do a lumbar puncture, where, literally, they puncture your back and draw fluid from your spine. Spinal fluid. That's a hugely invasive procedure and it can be a week before you walk again, in some cases. I suppose if they do it badly, you could never walk again. That was our huge dilemma. We're taking her to the ER to get rehydrated because she keeps throwing up. Hopefully we'll figure out what this is so we can deal with it, because she's been sick for three days and just seems to keep getting worse.

Jen
Yeah, you just got thrown into a world that you didn't expect you were getting thrown into, and you needed help.
Eric

Right. I mean, going to the ER, that's ok. Right? That happens. We had three kids so we've been to the ER before. [Laughs] We've rushed to the pediatrician on occasion before. We called the poison control hotline on one or two occasions. That wasn't so unusual. But then she seized. I actually wasn't there, I had to go back and pick up our other two kids from the babysitter that we hired so I could be in the ER with Kat and Rebecca. Kat was with her, and she had a seizure. They managed to do a CT scan when she came out of the seizure. It seemed fine. Then did another scan. Then she had another seizure. Code blue alarms went off on that second seizure. That's why I say, if we hadn't been in the ER, she would have died that day. That seizure would have killed her, except we were there, and they stabilized her.

That's when it was like, "Your daughter is going to be put in a helicopter with four EMTs who will try and keep her alive until she reaches Philadelphia. And we have to get the helicopter first." They don't keep a helicopter at a small regional medical center. A helicopter has to come from Philadelphia and then take her back. And there is no room for either of you in the helicopter. I don't even know if they would let us on if there were room. But there wasn't room, so it hardly matters.

So, right? We're on our way to the hospital. We're coming from the southern tip of New Jersey, going to Philadelphia. We live in Ohio. We don't know. We don't have this knowledge. If this had happened in Ohio, if this had happened in Cleveland, I know where the Cleveland Clinic emergency room is. Although, in this case, if she's being life-flighted there, do I go to the emergency room?

This is an extreme version of crisis, but at the same time, we pulled up the hospital website. There's a beautiful stock photo and soothing color palette and press releases down the side. Nothing. What do I do? I'm coming there. My loved one is not with me. They've gone ahead. Like, what do I do?

Jen

When we were kids, adults took care of all these things for us — if you had good adults in your life. I think when you're younger, in your twenties and such and such, if you haven't really gone through some crises like this, you think, "Isn't there somebody who tells you? Isn't there a front desk at the hospital that you just go to, and they know exactly where everybody is? They give you exactly the right information and they're super helpful." Or in other situations, there's a hurricane coming, you need to evacuate. "Well, isn't there a whole entire infrastructure in place?" That is going to let you evacuate efficiently and pleasantly and helpfully and everything's already set up and you just need to go to the place where the people — the people — have set everything up for you.

I think when you hit a situation, a real-life situation, and you're like, "I thought there was a safety net here. I thought there were Adults, with a giant capital A, who would help me in this situation." I think, frequently, people find themselves instead in this situation where they're like, "I don't know what is going on. There is no hero in this movie. There is no background music telling me whether the next moment is going to be scary or the next moment is going to be fine. I have to put the puzzle pieces together myself?"

And, yeah, we turn to the web. I mean, I was buying sheets yesterday. I was reading this extensive review on all the different kinds of thread counts and all the different brands. I go to Amazon and there's all these reviews and there's all this information about a pair of sheets, right? But there's not that kind of information around evacuation, around hospitals. Even just trying to find a doctor. Just trying to choose a regular doctor in a situation where you're not in a crisis.

It feels like there's way more important events in life, where you don't have time and the decisions are absolutely critical. The very definition of critical. The infrastructure is so weak and the information is so poor. I think it's really frightening. In a situation that's already terrifying, already life-changing, already very frightening, to realize for the first time that there is nobody there to help and the hospital website sucks. It just makes it that much worse.

Eric

Right. So the talk is basically drawing on this experience and others. It's not an hour of me going through every barrier that we encountered. That's one aspect of it.

But I also have some success stories of designing for crisis. Other kinds of crises besides life or death. Not every crisis is life or death. Although most crises feel like life or death at the time.

One of the examples that I thought of: someone who finds out that his or her mortgage payments have failed to arrive for the past two months.

Jen
And you could lose your house.
Eric

But in that moment you're like, "Oh my god, am I going to be foreclosed on? Am I going to lose my house? Do I have penalties? Can I afford to handle this?" That feels life or death even though, if you loose your house, it's horrible, but you're still alive. But that's what it feels like. Any given crisis, in that moment, the adrenaline, that whole feeling. The adrenaline wash just tingles through, yet feels awful and you're kind of nauseous and keyed up at the same time.

Thinking about these cases. The point of the talk is not to say, the homepage of the CHOP website should have been, "My child is ill. What do I do?" Right? That only serves that segment of the audience. But the purpose of the talk is to give examples of ways where this didn't happen, ways where this was done. Where the people who were designing the experience thought about people who were in crisis. Whatever that means for their particular site or service. And kept that in mind. Didn't make them necessarily central, but didn't also write them off as the edge cases. Which is what happens so much, right? It's like, "We're designing for the 90%, not the 10%."

So I talked to Amy Cueva of Mad*Pow, who's also super awesome about this sort of thing. She gave me a way of looking at it which I thought was really interesting.

There's frequency and urgency. We design for the frequent visitor, but we don't really design for the urgent visitor. The hospital website was totally for frequent visitors, or as I put it in the talk, the platonic ideal of a user. Not for people who are coming on an urgent basis.

To me, even, if I step away from everything that I went through and take the emotion out of it, that still seems crazy. It's a hospital. People will be coming on an urgent basis. They have an urgent care department, right? You would think they would have thought of that.

But, again, I have yet to see a hospital website... maybe there's one out there, but I haven't seen it yet. And I've looked at a lot of hospital websites over the last 18 months. To just say, "You're coming here on an emergency basis. This is what you need to know." Just give that basic information, right? "Go here. Park here. This is what parking costs. This is how you pay for it." People who are not familiar with hospitals will maybe not realize that every parking system is a little different. Some of the parking systems at hospitals, you can pay at the kiosk on your way out with a credit card. Others you have to pay at a kiosk in the hospital before you go to your car. If you try to pay at the gate, there's no way to pay at the gate and there's a line of cars backed up behind you and you have nowhere to go. Others, you can be validated. Some of them, there's a person sitting there and they only take cash.

Jen

And that stuff can be hard to figure out on a normal day. But when your life has been turned completely inside out, and you're shaking with adrenaline and fear.

Physiological things actually happen to your body in a life or death situation or in a crisis or in a situation where everything has changed in a way that you didn't expect. Part of your body is like, "The world is not what I thought it was. What?" Then to figure out something like, "Where am I supposed to pay for parking?"

Eric

Exactly. The overarching theme of this talk is, keep these people in mind. Here are some things you can do, sort of user tests, to simulate those frames of mind, without having people who are actually in crisis come in and do your user testing.

If you can make your site usable for them, then people who are not in crisis are going to have a great time. The site is going to be awesome.

Like I said, that's the overarching theme. There's a lot to it. There's examples of various kinds of crises and how we can approach those. I've got some stuff about ways to simulate people in crisis when you're doing user testing. User testing is usually, say you sit them down and say, "You have 20 minutes to complete task X," or whatever. It's kind of an ideal situation, right? They're literally just there to do this thing.

Jen
Yeah, they're more focused. Because you're watching them and you asked them to do this.
Eric

Right, and if they can't figure it out, then you know that you have a problem. I'm saying, here are some things you can do to make their lives really difficult and make their testing really difficult and find out if they have a problem and what problems they have.

It builds that case. It was very well-received, from what I can tell, both in Orlando and Cleveland. I actually had a number of people come up to me and say, "This needs to be a book." I'd always say, "Thank you," but I was always like, "Ah, it's not a book." It should be written about, I think. But it didn't feel like it was a book. Just recently, I've had an experience that I think made me realize what the book is about. Designing for crisis is part of it.

Eric

To some degree, I don't have an answer. I'm still trying to work that out. I thought, to some degree, I knew. I've come to realize there's more to it than that.

A lot of it is getting beyond the ideal user, the ideal use case. Trying to think of, "Ok, what kind of crisis could one of our users be having?" One of our people, to use the Facebook terminology. Of the people coming to our site, what kind of crisis could they be in? That's going to be different for everybody. An airline site is different from a hospital is different from Amazon. We might think nobody in crisis would be shopping on Amazon, but that's not necessarily true. They might have a situation that they need to get something ordered as soon as humanly possible so it arrives as soon as humanly possible.

Jen
They just had a fire and they have no clothes.
Eric

Yeah, perfect. Whatever your site is, think about, "Am I helping people who really need... like, they have no mental bandwidth? They could barely remember the URL or the Google terms to search to get to the site. How are we helping or not helping them?"

It's not easy, probably. But try to look at it from their point of view. And not think to yourself, "That's what this little bit of content over here is for." Well, what if they don't see that bit of content?

Not to say... again, you don't take that bit of content and make it the whole homepage. But, is there a way it could be punched up? Can it be restated? Can it be infused into other areas, in other ways?

So, a banking site. If they're having some sort of problem. Like, the thing that I said earlier about the mortgage payments not going through. There are plenty more examples. Credit card bills, utility bills, any number of things could go wrong. Let's say a banking site has a little box on it that says, "Have you had transaction problems? Here's how we can help." Not that I've seen that. [Laughs] Let us assume, for a moment, that a credit union or bank has that. But what if they miss that box? Is the box shaped in such a way, designed in such a way, that inside of being soothing and inviting, it comes across as a banner ad, which they just filter out automatically?

Which happened to me on a site, at one point, during this whole thing. There was a piece of information that I could have used, and I thought it was just an ad. Without thinking about it, I filtered it out.

Is that happening? If they miss that, where would they go? We have the box, but pretend the box isn't there. Take the box away for a minute. What would someone do? Would they go to Contact Us? Would they go to Customer Service? Would they go to their account? What do we think they would do? How does the design help or hinder them down those paths?

Because having a problem with a transaction, having a transaction failure or bills not being paid or whatever, can probably be considered to be more of a generic class of, "Is there a problem with your account?" Maybe the problem isn't with their account. Maybe the money went out fine, and nobody knows where it went. But they'd like to know that.

For me, if I had a bill... the electric company called and said, "You haven't paid us in three months." The first place I would go is the bank to see if there were withdrawals there. I would think to myself, "I was sure there were withdrawals from the electric company. But maybe I overlooked them. I'm going to go to my bank account and see if the money's gone out and who it looks like it's gone out to." If that's there, then I could go back to the electric company and say, "My bank says that I paid you." At which point the electric company might say, "Do you have any transaction data? Do you have any confirmation numbers?"

How does the site help in that situation? Or not? I mean, that's the foundation.

Jen
In a way it seems like, just really good design is what's needed. The kind of design that is so obvious, no matter how confused you might be.

As you were talking, I'm imagining, "Let's think of other crises around a banking website." What if your identity has been stolen? Right now, money is leaking out of your bank account. Every 10 minutes another $100 has disappeared. You're trying to figure out, "How do I stop this? What do I do? What am I supposed to do?"

Another one might be, someone in their family who is an adult who has a bank account has died. Their parent died or something. Now what am I supposed to do? I'm supposed to do something with their bank account. What am I supposed to do? I don't even use this bank. I don't know this website at all. Now I need to figure out where to go next.

It seems like, probably what a lot of sites do, is, they take all of these use cases, they lump them together and shove them into a Customer Service hole. Deep hole of crazy, hard to find. Because they just want to shove them all together. It's like, but those things wouldn't go together. They should be worked into the original information architecture. The whole site should be... the menu and the sidebar and the footer and everywhere along the way, you should have a scent, to be able to find those things, no matter what those things are. They're not all about, "Get a new car loan! Our car loans are really cheap today!" Or, "If you get this credit card..." Sales pitch, sales pitch, sales pitch, sales pitch.

Eric
I think that's really interesting. That is a good observation, about dumping everything. There are some things that should be dumped into Customer Service. I don't necessarily know what those are in the banking industry. Maybe my remaining parent died in a car accident and I need to know what to do about their bank account. Maybe that's totally customer service.
Jen
What you need to do, perhaps, is to go the bank and talk to someone. Or call. Here's the phone number.
Eric
Right. The website doesn't necessarily need to have a box that says, "Do you need to get access to someone else's bank account?" [Both laugh] That's not something that banks want to...
Jen
... advertise on their homepage. [Laughs]
Eric
Make it easy to find. These are the sorts of things that you just need to call us for. You're not going to find the information here. This is something that we have to talk to you about. And to make it easy to find. For those things, make it easy to find out, "Call this number. Tell them that this is what you're calling about. Say this phrase when you get a human." I need a successor bank account access, inheritor bank account... whatever phrase will let customer service know, this is the script that we now need to follow. Or this is the vision I need to send them to.

You can make it really easy on you, as the business, as well as on the person who's coming to you, by saying, A) You have to call us, B) Tell them you need to do this. If my dad died in a car accident and I knew which bank... I know how to find out which bank because it's all written down. But if I called them and I said, "My dad died in a car accident and I don't know anything." They can probably figure it out but I don't even know what to say to them. If there were a thing on the website that said, "Call us, say that you need to do this." Then I would feel like, "Ok, they have a plan. They know what to do."

Jen
And it's made a little bit easier because you don't have to say words that are just going to bring tears to your eyes [might overwhelm you with grief]. You can say these other things, perhaps. You're part way into the process already.
Eric

Then for things that actually can be handled on the website... I'm already a customer but something went screwy with my transactions, make it so that's easy to do. So they're not calling customer service saying, "I can't figure out how to do this thing, and I need to do it right now. I know it's five minutes to 5:00 and you're almost coming off shift, but I'm afraid that my electricity is going to get turned off and I'm going to have no heat in the middle of January."

That's where those benefits... I hesitate to say win-win, but it's a benefit to both parties. It makes the person coming to the site feel like they have a handle on a very scary situation, and it helps you deal with that more efficiently. You have people who are calling customer service be the people who need to be calling customer service. The people who don't need to be calling customer service, you've helped them, so they're not calling.

Like I say, that's one aspect of this larger thing.

Jen
It sounds like designing for crisis, as you're defining it, is also about designing with impairment in mind. Somebody being impaired.
Eric
To some degree, yeah. When you're panicking, that's a cognitive impairment. It really is. Or, in our case, to go back to that, when we're in the car going up to Philadelphia, we were stunned. It's not even the right word. I don't even know if we have a word.
Jen
In shock, really.
Eric

It was almost deer in the headlights. You feel like there's this train coming at you and you don't even know what to do. You're in shock. Mental shock, where you're like, I can get us there. Then I don't even know what to do. I don't even know what to ask. I can't make my brain work sufficiently to analyze this situation.

Like I say, there's a technical crisis. What happens if the JavaScript doesn't load? Which we can lump under performance, but, imagine that also in a situation where someone is also trying to do something critical. As opposed to, the JavaScript doesn't load and now our users are annoyed. How about, the JavaScript didn't load and now their user doesn't know if AAA is on the way to pick them up in the middle of nowhere Nevada. I don't know if the AAA website uses JavaScript or not, that's just an example that came off the top of my head. Road service. I don't want to make it sound like AAA is not doing their job.

It's trying to think of worst-case scenarios. Making them part of the process. Not the whole process, not even the central process... although, maybe the center of the process. It might be a kind of cognitive designing inside out. We talk about designing inside out, you start with the content and do the homepage last. Maybe this is, start with the crisis and then do the... I'm not sure. That's the thing. This is still evolving in my head. Maybe if you start, like, we've designed a site that only works for people who are having a crisis. Then, ok, now we can build on that for people who are not. Maybe that's the way to go. I'm not sure.

Jen
It sounds, too, like you're encouraging people who are involved in design — especially people who are the user experience designer on their project — to ask themselves, "What kind of crisis might people who use your website be in?" I would imagine, for a lot of people... a lot of people who are listening might think, "I don't build a website for a hospital. I don't build a website with 20 million users."

I've been listening a lot to CodePen Radio, a podcast that's done by the folks behind CodePen. I was listening to an episode yesterday and they were talking about responsibility. Talking about, these are the things that the three guys who run CodePen... the responsibilities that they take seriously, the things that they care about. They're in my brain right now. If Chris Coyier was thinking about this and thinking about, "What crisis might somebody be in?" The first thing, if I were suddenly on the CodePen team, I could quickly say, "There is no crisis. Why would you use CodePen in a crisis?" Actually, I can think of one. You're a woman on the internet and you're getting attacked — I was in this situation — I had to suddenly shut everything down. I shut down my WordPress websites, I shut down my Facebook, I shut down Twitter, I shut down, especially, FourSquare, which I never turned back on. I had to shut down every bit of who I am online and I had to do it as quickly as possible, and I was panicked. If I had a whole bunch of CodePen pens up, I would probably very quickly think, "What could someone do by hacking CodePen? Or hacking me? Do I need to go over there and do something? Do I need to go over there and shut myself down and close everything and hide everything?"

Even the things that might seem really, totally not part of everyday parts of humanity, there probably is something. There is a situation where people could be coming over there in a crisis, really freaking out, trying to handle whatever it is that your website does.

Eric
You're right, a lot of what I'm encouraging people to do is to not say, like you said, "Nobody comes here in a crisis."
Jen
Because it's not true.
Eric
Right. Like Karen McGrane says, "You don't get to decide what your users want to do on mobile. They do." It's sort of similar. You don't get to decide whether or not users in crisis want to use your site. That's them. Think about it. It might take awhile depending on the kind of site. It might take you a really long time to think, "Why would someone be coming to our nature center's website in a crisis?"
Jen
Because they know someone who was hiking on a trail and they got lost and they're trying to figure out where they might be, and how to get emergency services. [Laughs] My first thought was, "That's a good example, Eric, you're right, no one would ever..." Then my second thought is, "There is a crisis [scenario]."
Eric
Potentially. Take some of that creativity and apply it to this question. What sorts of crises? Even if you can't think of one, then just think to yourself, "I can't think of why someone would do this." But let's assume someone is. Let's assume somebody's coming here and they're completely panicked, they're completely freaking out, and they still need to do the stuff that the site does. I don't know why they're here freaking out, but they're here freaking out. What do I think that they might want to do while they're freaking out?
Jen
How could our design be better to help them?
Eric
Right. Because if it's better to help them, then it's better to help everybody.
Jen

It seems like this is very closely related to accessibility. Because there are plenty of people who have cognitive hard times for whatever reason. Many different reasons. Some permanent, some temporary. That are not related to crisis.

The other thing that it makes me think of is, people that don't speak the language that your website is in as their primary language. If you have an English language website, a website that's only in English, what is it like for somebody who speaks some English, but not fluently yet? If they're going to have a hard time getting through... there's something similar. There's lots of different reasons why people may not be able to really easily comprehend everything that's going on. And we know a lot about design and how to design to help people who may not be able to really see the page or understand the page or grok what's going on for a wide variety of different reasons.

Eric
And I think this would probably help them. It's interesting because, as we both know, the argument over being accessible is ongoing and seemingly never ending, unfortunately. It should have been settled long ago.
Jen
Yeah. We've figured out not to use tables for layout, why haven't we agreed that accessibility is a priority?
Eric
Right. This has links into accessibility. I don't want to claim and it replaces or supersedes or in any way does away with the need to worry about accessibility, because that's not true at all. But I think there are strong links between the two. There's at least some overlap. Like you say, because for some people the cognitive people is not that they're freaking out, it's just that they have a cognitive impairment.
Jen
They may have had a stroke, they may have a bad headache, they may have a migraine.
Eric
Right. The other thing that's happened recently was this whole Facebook thing exploded on me. [Laughs] Over the holidays, which grows out of all of the stuff we've been talking about. It happened in a really unexpected way.

Jen
Tell people who don't follow you on Twitter or weren't online over the holidays, what happened.
Eric

The TLDR is, I wrote a blog post. Then somehow — well, I know how — it ended up being covered by mainstream media, literally all over the world. What happened was... so, Facebook. Which I'm on, in part, for business reasons, and then you end up getting connected to all the people you know or have known in your life. It's a way of keeping in touch with cousins and uncles and parents and siblings and so on and so forth. A one-to-many, "Here's what's going on in my life."

Anyway. Facebook, at the end of the year, was doing this end of the year review thing. Anyone who was on Facebook probably saw somebody that they know putting up their Year in Review, which is a slideshow or whatever. I don't actually know because I never created mine. You would see this thing that said, "I had a great year, thanks for being part of it." Then you could click on it and see this video or slideshow.

I had not created a Year in Review, because I knew what kind of year I'd had. I didn't really want to review it on Facebook. When I want to review my year, I usually do it in a quiet space where I can process my emotions. So I'd been avoiding it.

On December 24, the day before Christmas, I went onto Facebook. I don't even remember why. In my News Feed, in my Timeline, was this preview for Year in Review. My assumption — which I feel relatively confident about this assumption because I've been around web design for two decades now — is that Facebook had written some code that says, "If a person hasn't done a Year in Review, let's step up our attempt to engage with them. Let's do something a little more obvious to let them know they could create their own Year in Review."

Which is a perfectly sensible business, marketing decision. But their auto-generated preview of what the "cover" of this thing would look like, was a picture of my daughter Rebecca, surrounded by this clip art of, like, people partying. "Eric, here's what your year looked like! See your year."

It was shocking, almost. Right? Because, again, I'm going to make some assumptions, but my guess is somebody in the same department, or a different department, wrote some code that said, let's find the picture that had the most engagement, the most comments, the most likes, the most views, whatever. Or some combination thereof. We'll put that as their preview image. Because that was obviously the biggest thing that we can track, it's the thing that had the biggest metrics. Then we'll surround it with this party, end-of-the-year, New Years Eve party clip art. Because that's this fun feeling of, "Here this great year, time to party."

What they missed was, not everyone had a great year. For people who had a really terrible year, if they put up a picture related to that, that was likely to get the most engagement. In my case, I had changed my avatar to a picture of my daughter for a week or two. I don't even remember, exactly. That had gotten a zillion people "liking" it. Not because they liked that Rebecca was dead, but because on Facebook, other than commenting, the only thing you can do to say, "I see what you're doing and I appreciate it," is to click Like.

Anyway. Again, I post very little. I post almost no pictures on Facebook. So they didn't have much to work with, in my case, to begin with. But that was what they picked. And it was, "Hey, your daughter's dead. This is what your year looked like."

Jen
"Let's have a party."
Eric
Immediate emotional reaction was, Facebook is celebrating the fact that my daughter died, and that that's what my year was. Then I thought about it. Those reflexes kick in. I've had code go wrong before — not necessarily like this, but I've made a code assumption. I started to think about, "What were the thought processes that led to this point?"

Like I say, the perfectly sensible business decision of, we're doing this Year in Review to strengthen the bonds with people who use our site. We're going to try to encourage people who haven't done it, to do it. Then if we're going to encourage someone to do it, this is how we're going to do it. We're going to give them a preview of what it looks like. "That looks cool, I'm going to click on that."

I was by no means the only person who had this happen to them. People had posted pictures of their pets they had to put down. I saw a picture on Twitter, the picture they got auto-selected for them was their ex-boyfriend's apartment on fire. Somebody else, it was the urn containing his father's ashes. This happened to so many people.

But I didn't know that. I thought to myself, "Man, this has probably happened to a lot of people." I didn't know about these specific examples. I saw this, got over the initial "yikes," and I threw up a couple of things on Twitter being snarky about it. Not even snarky, that's not even the right word. I was sort of venting, a little bit.

Then as I thought about it more, I thought, "This is how we got here." At the moment, I was thinking, "This is another example of designing for crisis." Or in this case, not designing for a crisis. They hadn't designed for people who had been through crisis in 2014.

So I wrote this blog post and I put a picture on it saying, "This is not unique." I wasn't saying Facebook is uniquely evil and awful and they meant to do this. The title of the post is, Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty," and maybe it should have been "Unintended Algorithmic Cruelty." But either way, it was this cruel... if someone had come over to my house and handed me a picture of Rebecca surrounded by party graphics and throwing confetti in the air and saying, "Woo! 2014!" I would have punched them or something. [Laughs] Right? That would be awful. That would be a really awful thing for any human to do. But no human did this. No human said, "Let's celebrate people's awful years." They said, this step and this step and this step. That's how we got here. So I wrote that.

Then Andy Baio — (I hope I say his name right, because I never know how to pronounce his last name. Sorry Andy! The guy who did Upcoming and XOXO with Andy McMillan.) He linked it and then Corey Doctorow put it on BoingBoing. Then the Washington Post ran an article. This is what made it go crazy, I think. The Washington Post also got in touch with Facebook and got an email back from the product manager of Year in Review, apologizing. Then the news story became, Facebook apologizes to somebody.

The first Washington Post article was actually really accurate. It was one of the best articles that was written about what happened. It accurately presented what I was saying, how we got there, what my concern was. Which was not Facebook needs to be better. It was that we all need to be better. None of us are doing this, or almost none of us are doing this. This is just an example. But they got, "Facebook Apologizes to Man for Year in Review." And then [explosion sound], all of the articles after that were, "Man Forced to Relive His Year By Watching His Year in Review Video and Facebook Apologizes." It's like, no. No. I never saw the Year in Review.

It was an interesting lesson in watching both a story go viral from the inside, and the telephone that the news media basically is. Where the actual thing, which was reported accurately at the outset, then becomes completely munged. Facebook strapped people to chairs and forced them to watch their loved ones die again. That was not the deal.

My contention here really is not that.

Jen
Right, of course.
Eric
Not that Facebook was trying to hurt me. Facebook was trying to increase traction with their users. Maybe I'm not using these buzzwords quite right. But I think anyone listening knows what I mean. They were trying to make users feel better about using Facebook in some way. They made me feel worse.

Most people, I think, who don't have the background, who saw that sort of thing would be like, "I'm never logging onto Facebook again." Because they took this and partied over the fact that my kid is dead. Whereas there are things they could have done to avoid that and actually make, even people in my situation, feel better. In the post they could have said, instead of a preview, just said, "You haven't done a Year in Review yet. Would you like to? Yes or no." Because I would have clicked no, and I would have thought, "It's nice that they asked." Maybe I'm a little annoyed that they're so pushy about it, but they asked. That's good, yay Facebook, good job for asking. I would have clicked no and it would have gone away. People who said yes, they would have gotten more engagement.

There are other things they could have done. I'm not going to pretend I'm a better designer in the sense of interaction designer. What I'm saying is, they didn't know, "How do we not hurt people by mistake?"

Jen
I think the reason this got so much attention is because... this whole thing is tapping into problems that we're already frustrated with. Many articles that have been written, many times people have talked about how on Facebook or Twitter or other sites like those, there's a way in which we're all performing a bit for each other.

It feels like, as a society, because we spend so much time on these sites now, it feels like we're in competition with each other. I should be happy for my friend in looking at this amazing trip they look. But actually I'm jealous. And it's not one friend, it's all of my friends. Everyone I know is going on fabulous trips right now and I'm not going on a fabulous trip and I don't have the money to go on a fabulous trip. I must be failing at life. [Laughs]

There's a way in which it can start to feel that way. And there's a way in which, I think, people naturally tend to share things they're proud of, that they're excited about. "Look at me, I'm on top of a mountain, I'm having this fabulous trip." It skews reality.

It's not that any one of those things is wrong. It's that when you add them all up, and you look at the situation that's bigger than all of us, that none of us can control, you end up with a situation where it feels like we're failing because none of us are these happy, perfect, fabulous people. We start to confuse ourselves with that stock clipart that everybody else... suddenly it's a bunch of clipart in my life, it looks like stock photography where everybody's smiling, except I know all of these people. These are the people that I know.

If you rewind back to the day before the web, when it was just you and our friends and you're just all hanging out, maybe at college or maybe in a situation where you've got a whole bunch of friends you spend a lot of time with. Then you know the reality of their lives. You know when someone goes on a great trip and has a lot of fun, and you know when somebody's having a hard time, and you know when somebody's kind of depressed.

Then it feels like, Facebook was just amplifying that and enforcing that idea. Not only are you supposed to be happy every day, and have fabulous things to say about life, only fabulous, but now you're supposed to have a whole year of it. Here, we're going to help you by making your fabulous year look more fabulous. You can brag to your friends about what a great year you had.

I think you're right that wasn't their intention. They just put exclamation points and happy faces and party clipart on it. That's the other thing that I think it starts to get into. To me, these tools are communication tools. It's me having actual, real relationships with actual, real people who matter to me. But it's all mixed up with monetization and metrics and advertisement and this multi-billion dollar business, trying to capture value for their shareholders or their VC funders, out of the relationships in my actual life. It's starting to get really icky. Or it's been getting really icky for the last decade. There's a crash, somehow. I don't want marketing people to take over my personal relationships. I don't want stakeholder value to be a primary factor in the interfaces that I use to be intimate with other human beings.

That is just maddening beyond belief. I think it's very hard for us to articulate those things. It's this sort of, we're fish in water and we're talking about the water. Where society and our culture is shaped by the institutions and medium that we exist is, it's hard to understand, it's hard to alter. It's so powerful, it's hard to move the button or whatever, to the place where we want it to be. I don't know that where we are is where we want to be. I think the web had so much promise. For the first 10-15 years, we were all so excited. And now it feels like we're starting to see things that we're not so excited about. It's not the web that I remember being excited about in 1997 and 1995. This isn't what I wanted, I don't want a situation where in order to stay in touch with my friends I have to be willing to feel really crappy about my life all the time. [Laughs] Or in order to have a connection that I can afford, I have to agree to be advertised to constantly.

Eric

I know you said it's hard to articulate, but I think you articulated that actually very well. [Jen laughs] You may well be right that was part of what the whole thing take off.

The primary criticism that seemed to come back, to me, from this article, was, "Why are you on Facebook?"

Jen
That doesn't solve it though.
Eric
Right, exactly.
Jen
That doesn't solve anything.
Eric
On the one hand, I sort of get it.
Jen

No, to me, that kind of a reaction only works because we happen to live in a country / in a world / in a society where being very individualistic is the default. The reaction is, "You're feeling uncomfortable? You should have taken [the correct] individual action to fix your personal experience. Problem-solved."

What I'm talking about is, something bigger than that. I don't think it's your fault or any one individual person's fault. I don't think it's the fault of the one product manager at Facebook. I think it's something that's so much bigger than us. It's this giant trend, and that's what I care about.

Maybe for some people, sure, they can chose to get off Facebook. If I don't like seeing pictures of my friends' fabulous vacations, then don't get on Facebook. That can be a good solution at times. Sometimes, maybe, if I'm feeling especially jealous, then I will stay away. Or if there's someone I'm following on Twitter and every time I see their tweets I just get jealous, that is something for me to notice and say, "I'm going to stop following that person because clearly my own baggage and crazy is getting in the way." Right, that's a good option. But that does not solve the bigger problem: is this a society that we want? Is this the world that we want to create for our children?

It's connected to the designing for crisis stuff that you're talking about. Or the things we were talking about with Gamergate and such. When we design a space, what can we do to design the kind of human interaction that we want to encourage? And discourage the kind of human interaction that we don't want to see? Are we being intentional about that? Or are we just pretending that's not our responsibility or reality, and then just caring about what shareholder value we can generate and how fast we can get to however many million users we need to be able to exit, and blah blah blah blah.

I really want to see a world where we're talking much less about exiting and much more about responsibly creating spaces for humans to communicate that help humans be better humans and help us create the kind of world we want to live in. Not this sort of world that makes people feel really bad, or makes people attack each other.

Eric

I agree with you, on a lot of that, actually. [Jen laughs]

The way I expressed it at one point, as a response to the people that said, "Don't put up pictures if you don't want to see them again," or "Get off Facebook," was, that's asking humans to change their behavior to satisfy the machines, for lack of a better word. To satisfy the code. I think it's a much higher and more important goal to write the code to support human behavior and encourage certain types of human behavior. Not to necessarily forbid other types. If you're going to give people a platform to comment, or post stuff, some people are going to post really awful stuff. But how do we encourage people to not go down that road? Like you say, to intentionally design the communities, the systems, the whatever, to have better outcomes. Design a road, to pick a physical world analogy, that encourages commerce and not banditry.

Jen
Or encourages safe driving and being able to stay on the road. [Laughs] And not hit other cars. Instead of a road where it's just chaos and a lot of people get crashed into.
Eric

That's part of this larger thing that I'm thinking about. As designers, we have a real responsibility to figure out how they can encourage those sorts of things. To think, as you say, really intentionally about what they're encouraging.

Facebook has, from what I can tell, long been designed to encourage positive... "Woo! Everyone's having a great time, everyone is awesome! Like a LEGO movie, everything is awesome." You can only say Like. You can't say...

Jen
"I see you."
Eric
Right. "I see you" or "I hear you" or "Acknowledged" or whatever. "I'm here with you."
Jen
I think using the word "Like" is a problem, actually. I think it's a really big problem. I think a lot of people are really frustrated with it. There's so many comments on Facebook, "I like this — I don't mean I liked it — I mean I wanted you to know that I see it."
Eric

There is that. It's baked in their design, that's a fundamental assumption they make in their overall design, which is, "Everything is awesome. I like this!" You can never say, "I don't like this." You can never say, "That sucks, but I'm here for you." Without commenting. Ok, maybe those are the sorts of things that could be commented on. But when I put up the picture of Rebecca, a bunch of people clicked like and I knew what they meant and it didn't hurt. I knew what they were doing. They weren't commenting because, what do you say? What do you say to someone whose child just died except, "I'm sorry." Which tons of people said, don't get me wrong.

On MetaFilter, there's the convention of just posting a dot, a period. Which is like, moment of silence. There was a post of MetaFilter about the Rebecca purple proposal, and a ton of people just posted dot. It's a convention there. Maybe Facebook needs a dot link next to the like link. On MetaFilter it's a way of saying, literally, I think it's the moment of silence dot. (I'm not a huge MetaFilter user myself — sorry Matt.) It's just a way for people to do the, "I acknowledge." This is happening, you have said this, this is terrible. I'm not going to try to insert myself into this.

That's the thing. If someone posts a picture or a post about something really horrible going on, and someone feels they have to comment, it's kind of pushing: "This is about me, too." Even if that's not their intention, that's kind of a meta-thing that can be inferred. On MetaFilter, when they do the dot, it's just, boom. I'm not trying to say anything, I'm not trying to give my take on it, I'm not trying to insert myself into this conversation. I'm standing here.

Jen
I don't want to ask you to take time out of what's going on to read what I wrote. I just want to let you know I'm here and I see you.
Eric
It's a great community convention, it's a beautiful thing. I've seen people doing it on Twitter, people who are aware of the MetaFilter convention. I've done it myself. I actually did it around Ferguson.
Jen
It was like, "There's nothing else to say" when they were making that announcement. [When the authorities announced — at an unbelievably inflammatory press conference — that no changes would be brought against the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown.] It was almost like… I didn't know anything about the MetaFilter convention — I just used the dot to say, "I have no idea what to say. I'm so angry right now. I'm just going to post a dot."
Eric

A bunch of people used it then. There were some people who did dot tweets when I posted the tweet saying that Rebecca was dead. An hour after she died, I was able to resemble myself long enough. I knew there were people who were following along. An hour was about the soonest that I could bring myself to do anything. After I got over the initial period of just not even thinking about anything except... not even thinking, just grieving. Once I got through that initial grieving period, because you can only grieve for so long before you sort of shut down and know that you'll grieve again but I think you go into emotional shock. Once I went into that calm, emotional shock period, I thought, "I should say something." It took me quite a few minutes to get that point, and then I posted it. There were people who just tweeted dots. Way more people would say, "I'm so sorry," or whatever. That's fine, I'm not criticizing anybody's reaction. I don't know that our humanity has evolved to the point that there's a perfect response to that sort of thing. It's not that anyone's response made me feel bad or whatever. I saw that convention happening.

There's so much that has to be thought about. None of this is necessarily new. We as a community have been talking about community design. Derek Powazek says, "You are what you tolerate." When it comes to communities. Which has always struck me.

Facebook itself has talked about possibly adding something other than the like button for, like, five years now. They've said, "We know people would like to have something other than like for something other than difficult situations, and we're thinking about it." 2010 is the first reference I can find to them publicly saying that. But they've never said, "Here's what we're thinking of, here's when we're going to do it."

Jen
I think the reality on Facebook specifically is... they're an advertising agency, right? They publish ads. That's what they do. That's their business. They happen to do it in a situation where they provide all of these free services to people. But their core, their business, is selling advertising space. What do their advertisers want? Their advertisers want their ads to be in a feed that's full of happy, friendly, fun experiences. So people are thinking about happy, friendly, fun stuff and then they see an ad. I would imagine that most of the designers at Facebook... there's probably very little in the culture of Facebook that talks about any of that. There's probably a lot of invisible, unspoken stuff that goes on. If a designer popped up and said, "Let's try to alter the climate of Facebook and the environment that we've created to allow for a more diverse variety of human experience so not everything is happy, fun party. But we acknowledge a real wide range of humanity." I don't think that person would be heard, but if they were heard, and did gain some traction, I think somebody high up would be like, "Yeah, no." Because advertisers would not like that. They would be very unhappy with that. That would be very, very risky for them. They don't want to see that happen.
Eric
That's interesting. You may well be right. I don't have any insider knowledge.
Jen
I have no insider knowledge. [Laughs] That's my pessimistic assumption.
Eric
To me, that seems like a really smart observation. On the other hand, though, I'll argue the opposite case. Which is, if somebody has a feed that's...
Jen
Real.
Eric
Well, not real, but where things are not happy and fun. Do advertisers really want to be in that context? Do you remember the old Coke ads, the life ads from way back?
Jen
Yeah.
Eric

What if a Coke ad got inserted right after my Facebook post that my daughter had died. "Coke adds life!" Right? That's going to turn me off to Coke, for example. You may be totally right, be the case that I could make is, within Facebook they should want to capture the greater variety of human emotion because if they have a situation where somebody's posting stuff that's getting a ton of "I hear you" but no likes, maybe back off the advertising in that situation. Because you could inadvertently create a negative brand experience for your advertisers. I realize Coke does not run the "Coke adds life" ads anymore, but it's just what came to mind.

This has happened in the news business for years. Keyword ad insertion just goes horribly wrong. I remember a screenshot I saw once, a news article, "Three Kids Die in House Fire." The ad that got inserted was from some kind of alcohol... basically, the text in the ad was, "Burn baby burn."

Jen
Like, "fire," "burn," that goes together.
Eric

Exactly. This literally happened. Maybe that was a keyword misfire, maybe it was just random chance. But, right? "Infant Dies in Fire," "Burn baby burn." I remember when that circulated, somebody put it up — this was pre-Twitter even — somebody put it up on a blog and a million people linked to it and wrote about it. It was one of those moments where, having ads based off the content sounds really great 95% of the time, 5% of the time it goes horribly, horribly wrong. The answer isn't, no more keyword-automated ads. It's, how do we prevent that? How do we design a system so we don't have those failure cases that are so horrible? That's another version of the inadvertent algorithmic cruelty. Imagine a family member goes to that article. The aunt or uncle or parents of the children who died in that fire and there's this ad, "Burn baby burn." It's like the website is mocking your pain.

Sure, like the Dread Pirate Roberts said "Life is pain. Anyone who says different is selling something." The argument I'm making is, yes, life is pain. But with web design, and web development, we have a unique ability to be sensitive to that. Target cannot take Rebecca's favorite song out of their muzak. If I go into Target, and they're playing Rebecca's favorite song, there's no real way to fix that, other than not having muzak at all. They can't take everybody's dead loved one's favorite song out of their muzak rotation. That's just not a thing that scales.

But Facebook for anyone who's doing a website can do the effective version of that. In Facebook's case, instead of, "Here's your awesome year," "Would you like to do your Year in Review? Yes or no?" Instead of having this negative experience, I would have had at least a neutral experience.

It's not just me, because at Facebook's level of scale, they have, what? 1.25 billion users? Let's assume that only 1% of Facebook users had a bad year. That's still millions of people.

Jen
It's way more than 1%.
Eric
Yeah, it's way more than that. Even if it's 1/4 or 1/3, that's a quarter of a billion people or somewhere around there. I'm not great at math off the top of my head. You get my point.
Jen
The idea of good year and bad year is simplistic, too. Everybody had a complicated year. Some people had an unbelievably shitty year, and a few people probably had a really great year. There's all kinds of things in between.
Eric

To me, I would think that an organization like... I keep going back to Facebook because this is what happened, and I feel bad because I feel like we're picking on Facebook and I know someone could be thinking, "It's because Facebook is evil." It's not just them. This is everywhere. It's all over the place, in so many contexts, on every website, basically. But I'm going to go back to Facebook anyway. [Both laugh]

Up to the point where the code decided to put that ad in to try to get me to do my Year in Review, Facebook had no idea. There was no way for them to know if I hadn't done the Year in Review because I didn't want to or because I hadn't seen it. Or because I didn't understand that I could. Yes, personally, me, I totally understood it. But not everyone who uses Facebook is savvy with this stuff. Facebook is where they find out what Aunt Millie is up to, and where they post their thing. That's it. But Facebook had no way to know. If they had just done that yes/no, they would have said, "This percentage of our users just didn't want to do this. Is that a high enough percentage that we need to rethink how we're doing this?"

Jen
They could A/B test. They could mess with those metrics.
Eric

Anyone who clicked yes, they could say, "Those people either didn't know that they could do it, or hadn't gotten around to it yet." It's not super fine-grained data, but it would let them know, of the people who hadn't done it and interacted with this yes/no thing, this percentage of people ended up doing it and this percentage of people ended up didn't want to do it. This fragment of our total user base, or this percentage of the total number of people who... like, you take the number of people who did a Year in Review and then this other segment of people who we had to ask if they wanted to do a Year in Review. I would think that would be super useful, just from an analysis point of view. Maybe you find out that 20 million people did Year in Review but 40 million people said they didn't want to. In which case, you might think, "Uh, ok, maybe we could be doing better than this." Or maybe 20 million people did Year in Review and 2,000 people said they didn't want to do it. You say, "Year in Review is really awesome but we do still have these people who don't want to do it." Maybe we could even get in touch with them and ask why. Then maybe 1,000 of them say, "I had a horrible year and I didn't want to relive it," and 1,000 people say, "This is really creepy and intrusive and I feel like you're violating my privacy." Or whatever.

There's so much that Facebook could be doing here to improve the experience, not only for people who come to their site, but the advertisers that they sell. If it turns out that Year in Review is super, super popular, maybe advertisers want to get in on that action in the future. But on the other hand, if it turns out that Year in Review only looks popular until you actually ask people whether or not they want to do it, and you find out that way more people don't want to do it, then you steer the advertisers away from that area of what you're doing. You don't want to make things worse for them.

You could build up business cases for this. I'm actually more interested in building an ethical case that has business yields, business returns, as part of it.

Jen
It will be really interesting to see what they do next year, because clearly they won't do the same thing again.
Eric
Well, they've done this kind of stuff in the past. Remember when Facebook turned 10, it auto-generated a video for you if you had enough pictures.
Jen
But this got enough press that they won't do thisem> again. [Laughs]
Eric
My point is that they've been iterating through this kind of stuff anyway. Yes, it will be interesting to see what they do.
Jen
I hold out much more hope, that they'll alter this very specific thing [making just this better]. Then they'll do some of the other [not so great] stuff that we're talking about.
Eric

This is why I'm pushing on this. I want to build up the case. Not for Facebook, for everybody. These are things that we should be doing and here are ways that we can do it. Here are the benefits, the most important of which is the simple human benefit.

To go back to that Target muzak example. In the physical world, the only way you can avoid triggering someone's grief is to not have any music playing at all. This is what we'll see online a lot. I could say something like, "Facebook didn't handle this well." Someone says, "You just want to get rid of Year in Review?" No. Because online, because of the interaction that we can do, the interaction design and development we can do, we can make this better. Which is not to say that we con-wrap everything, because there are some people who had years like mine who would have said, "Yes, I want to see my Year in Review. I want to go through this now. I do want to look at these pictures and remember my loved one. In this moment, in this context." That's fine. Year in Review is awesome for a lot of people. [Like someone] who said, "My son died this year in a car accident and I loved my Year in Review because I got to see him happy and smiling again." I'm all for that. I'm totally for that. For me, I was in a different place.

Facebook had the ability, in that situation, and we always do. All of us who are designing these sorts of interactions have the ability to ask tactfully. The way you would do as a human, right? If someone who knew me had a bunch of pictures from the last year of Rebecca's life, they wouldn't just come into my house and open up a big thing of pictures and be like, "Here! Look at the pictures!" Or hold up a picture, throw the confetti and say, "Let's go through these!" It would be, "I have these pictures. Would you like to see them now or some other time? Or not at all?" That's what most people would do. Having our code model those sorts of interactions more faithfully I think is a good thing.

Getting rid of Year in Review is the wrong response. Deleting everything that I've ever posted to Facebook so Facebook can't show it back to me is not the correct response. It's not reasonable to ask a parent to delete a picture of their dead child because they don't want to see it show up in advertising. That's not reasonable. It's a solution, but it's not a reasonable solution. It's not a human solution. In our situation, sure, I knew she was dying. At no point did I think to myself, "I should maybe not post any pictures of her because I don't want them to show up in my Year in Review later." Never really actually occurred to me. I put what I put up there because I was sharing it. That's what we use social media for.

Sure, we can take Facebook as, it's an advertising network that offers all of these great social tools. Ok. But they offer these great social tools and people are using them. People are not just using them to say, "I've got a new job." People are sometimes using them to say, "I got fired." They don't have to call 20 people and say 20 times, "I got fired." They can say it once and get on with the process of dealing with that and getting to the next thing where they find a new job. Then they can post the thing that says, "I got a new job."

The solution is not to get rid of Year in Review. The solution is not to wrap everything in cotton. That's not what I'm asking. I'm asking to be more human and have our code support human behavior. Rather than tell people dismissively that they should alter their behavior to meet what the code does. That's asking people to modify themselves for the convenience of designers, rather than designers doing the work to help the people they're trying to design for. We want the latter. We want to do better for people, I think. That's what I'm after.

Jen

We are living through an unprecedented shift in the way that humans connect and communicate with each other. The industrial revolution of the late 19th century and into the first half of the 20th century radically altered the way that humans do work. Physical labor and work. It meant we didn't have to hand-dig a giant hole. We had a tractor that would dig that hole for us. We don't have to farm in the way that we used to farm. It was an insanely different way in which humans used to, in the 1800s, live their lives, or 1700s, the way they lived their lives. Versus the way that we live them now that we have washing machines and refrigerators and vacuum cleaners.

The same thing is happening right now. We're in the middle of it, or even, perhaps, at the very beginning of it. The first 20 years, the first 25 years of it. But between having computers to help us do intellectual kinds of work, and having the internet to connect all of us together, it's an incredibly radical change in the way that humans connect and communicate.

I don't want to be part of a system where we create something that's pretty awful. I want to create something so that 100 years from now, humans are better than we were 50, 100 years ago. Not worse. What it means to be human and what it means to publish or to say things publicly or to communicate or to connect or to send somebody a notification, send somebody a message, is beautiful and it's loving and it's helpful and it's invigorating. It [could] make more about what's good about the world good, instead of the worst of humanity being amplified more than the best of humanity. Both are going to get amplified, right? But let's at least try to make the best of humans be amplified more loudly.

It's very easy when you're at work doing a specific project as a specific designer, specific project manager, whatever, you get this deadline, it's got to be done in six months. It's very, very, very small. It's this little, tiny crumb, it's sand on this giant beach. But all of those pieces of sand add up.

I mean, we haven't even talked about... we're out of time, really. [Eric laughs] We could talk about Twitter and about Twitter's refusal to do anything about abuse. They solved the problem of spam pretty quick, there's tons of people opening spam accounts and putting spam on Twitter and you don't see it. It doesn't go anywhere. Because it was very high priority, business-wise, for Twitter to put tools into place to get rid of that. They made it very easy to get rid of spam.

Of course it's much easier, that's a much easier problem to solve [compared to eliminating abuse], right? Spam is pretty obvious. You know what spam looks like. You're not hurting a person when you're eliminating spam. Ok, well, there are people who have businesses creating spam, [and eliminating spam does hurt them], (but then it's part of their business is to deal with the fact that we're going to eliminate spam all the time). Where eliminating abuse is more complicated because... it's complicated.

But I don't see Twitter really trying. I feel like Twitter kind of — Twitter really doesn't care. They keep saying they care, but they're still not doing much. It doesn't seem like they're putting many resources into fixing this. And I believe that they should. Allowing abusiveness to run rampant is a huge problem. No matter how much money or how long it takes to figure out a solution, I believe they should.

I think all of us. Every one of us who has a website, every one of us who attempts to create a community, there's something about the scale. When it's small, everything's very friendly and you don't have to do much. People really treat each other well. But once you scale past a certain point, things just start to go wrong. I feel like we really have to have a plan and do things to help create the kind of environment and community you want to have. Instead of just letting things happen.

Eric
Absolutely. Yes, we could have talked about Twitter. Again, I just want to reiterate: not trying to beat up on Facebook. It's not just them.
Jen

I think you have a very personal and specific example that resonated deeply with people. Because there is, I think, something larger that we just haven't talked about enough yet, going on.

Thanks for coming on the show.

Eric
Thank you for having me. And for everything.
Jen

Yeah. [Pause] I have to thank today's sponsors, speaking of having a business model that's based on advertising. [Laughs]

Thinkful, Dayswork, and Squarespace. They really do make this show possible. Really. It makes it possible. Wouldn't be possible otherwise.

There are show notes. People can go to 5by5.tv/webahead/91. Or hopefully soon, thewebahead.net/91. Yes. [Laughs]

If you want to be one of the people who knows right, the very moment the new website has launched, you should follow @thewebahead on Twitter. That's probably the best way, because I will announce it on Twitter and then you can run and see the new website.

Thank you to everybody who's listening. There will be another show next week and then a whole bunch after that. Thanks.

Show Notes

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