Ready for a rambling story in three parts? A tale of smug ambition, crushing reality, drastic re-invention, and eventual self-realisation. Of course you aren’t. This is a UX website you didn’t come here for novels. Don’t worry I’ll keep it short.
No, really though, I’m in a dramatic mood this could take a while.
ACT ONE: Adrift in Design
I started working on “web stuff” while I was still in high school. I can’t recall exactly what prompted my first forays into the web but I do remember that they were originally a way for me to share my ‘art work’. I had always been an artsy kid but toward the middle of my high school I took it digital. I didn’t think I was great but I thought it was what I wanted to do and I knew I’d need a portfolio. So I set about learning HTML and, after a while XHTML and CSS. Around the same time my school got a programming class thorough one of the local colleges and I got my first trip into coding with Visual Basic.
The opportunity to take that class was great but it was very quickly not enough, for most of the kids browsing the internet or following along with each day’s lessons was enough. I, on the other hand would embellish the days assignments with whatever skills from the later chapters in the book that I could use. Then there was the one kid who was allowed to take the class to fill a block in his schedule as he worked on finishing the software he wrote to take two profile images of an object and produce a ‘3D’ representation, I didn’t think I’d ever be that good.
Somehow, despite this early obsession with art and code, I decided I was going to be an Electrical Engineer. I started college and loved the classes, digital logic design, integrated circuits, it was great stuff. Just a couple of problems, my academics hadn’t been good enough to get into Georgia Tech, and my school’s program had little to offer an EE beyond basic classed. With flagging motivation, and grades to reflect it, I looked at what else I could do; I wasn’t going to have the experience or the grades to cut it as an engineer, I thought. Of my options, Computer Science was the answer. My first school lacked a web focus so instead I added C++ and program development to the skills bag. My second school had a web program but, just like high school I quickly realised that I was way ahead of the curve again. My classmates were struggling to learn how to put files into ftp and build sites out of tables using Front Page while I was already beginning to shun tabular layout and handwriting standards compliant XHTML.
With my confidence high, in my third year of College, I landed a job as a front-end developer with what was then Trader Electronic Media. I coded the front-ends of sites like TruckTrader.com, and HarmonHomes.com. I even rewrote the entirety of the templates for Harmon Homes to kill off the tabular layout and implement a nice clean XHTML/CSS layout. I got married that same year and decided I needed to try and earn more. I had taught myself PHP and MySQL but we weren’t hiring developers at the time. Since I didn’t see much opportunity with Trader (probably out of not looking very hard) and so seven months in I got a new job with a company called Unitech doing work on eLearning modules. I quickly got to pick up ActionScript, and JSON, and some other skills. I even ended up learning some of the finer points of DOS as I helped put an Apache Server and Lesson Management System on a thumb drive. I learned a lot of techniques, and even though I didn’t realise it, through eLearning development I got my first strands of the User Experience Thread. At one point, I tried to start a web agency with a coworker but we couldn’t get off the ground.
I felt like things were going pretty well but something was missing. Still being a bit stupid I was looking at where my skills and my career stood and wondering why I wasn’t as good as the designers and programmers I read about all the time (folks with years more experience than me). I was pretty down on my skills and didn’t see a way forward. I was about to do a complete 180.
ACT TWO: Out to Sea
To get to my office every morning I had to cross the York River. Every morning, without fail some lucky soul was out on their boat. Even the barges and tugs began to look pretty appealing. I had always been obsessed with boats, something that had always confused me and my parents. Eventually I figure out that as a small child in a town called Littleport in England I had sat on the bank of the Great Ouse outside the pub near our house while my mum met with friends. I’d apparently sit and watch boats go buy one after the other and it apparently stuck.
In 2009 I was feeling stuck. I was trying to freelance as a web designer but I lacked the focus and self control to ever get beyond the design phase. I’d later figure out that this was largely due to symptoms of Disthymia but at the time I just chalked it up to not being good enough. That sense of failure and the constant exposure to boats eventually prompted what, at the time, was a huge career change.
In July of that year, on my third application attempt, I was accepted for commission as an officer in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In August I reported to Kings Point, New York, for four months of training in navigation and ship handling, and, by December, I was on my way to meet my first ship, a Hydrographic Survey Vessel out of Ketchikan Alaska. I loved it, I had a knack for spatial reasoning, and a calm demeanor that made me perfect for the role. The work was amazing as well. I was paid to take a ship up through some of the most scenic waters on earth and use advanced sonars to peer beneath the water and map the ocean bottom. My work went to update nautical charts that millions rely on to safely navigate.
While I thought that I had left behind design and user experience (still didn’t know what it was) it turns out design and UX problems aren’t web specific. My first love started leaking out as I got more familiar with the tools I was being asked to use. I reprogrammed our ship-board personnel database that I was using to put together our emergency duties to make it a little more user friendly and to improve the look of the final product. I undertook what is probably my first real User Experience/Human Factors project when I re-designed our Emergency Protocol Manual. The manual was a three-inch binder of information we used to coordinate emergency response on the ship. Each week we’d run drills simulating a fire or flooding or an abandon ship scenario. It was all part of keeping up safety. The problem was that the manual was wall after wall of text. I hated that book with a passion, you couldn’t find anything and once you did you had to read through it paragraph by paragraph. Seconds count in an emergency at sea and this wasn’t cutting it. When I was assigned as the ship’s Damage Control Officer I set about a fix. I designed a new binder based on a Royal Navy concept I had read about. Each page would be a visual depiction of a space on the ship. The pages would be organized by deck and space number, the same information relayed by our fire alarm panel. Each page would depict the space, identify the surrounding spaces, list the emergency equipment in the space and near the space, and flag any hazards. The finished product cut our fire response time by two minutes and greatly improved the rate and accuracy with which my subordinates and I could relay information to fire teams. It’s still in use today.
Two years after the manual project I finally learned about human factors and user experience. I was assigned as a Port Engineer for our fleet. My job involved building requirements for new boats that our ships would carry to do their work. Half way through the assignment I went to a conference on Launch and Recovery; the processes of deploying and retrieving small boats or equipment from a mother-ship. There were two pre-conference sessions being taught, one of them was on the topic of Human Factors Engineering. As I sat there my grin got larger and larger, these people were speaking my language. “Human error is cited as the cause of a lot of accidents by what allowed the human error?” “Good designs help the user get the results they need and helps them avoid the mistakes they might make.” Every principle and example resonated with me. This was how I’d been thinking my whole life. The hours long rant I once had about the poor design and button placement on the laptop my previous job saddled me with suddenly had a context. I lived and breathed User Experience without ever knowing it had a name. If I had still been in the web world I’d have probably heard of it by then. It was a growing trend that went mainstream just after I left. But, after all, I wasn’t a designer despite all my designs, and I definitely wasn’t a programmer despite constantly coding away my work problems, I just wasn’t part of that world and never looked over the wall.
ACT THREE: Back, With Purpose
So of course, I learned my lesson, right? Of course not, not right away at least. Remember before I mentioned Disthymia? I finally got that diagnosed and figured out about a year and a half ago and things started to click into place. My thought processes got a good bit clearer and I finally felt like a grown up (my two kids are probably thinking, “about time,” but they’re 5 and 9 and full of snark so ignore them). I was still determined I was going to be a sailor but I knew about User Experience and I was going to use it as a force for good while I finished out my career at sea. I looked into going to school for Human Factors Engineering, still not really considering work in the web site. I had read Steve Krug’s book “Don’t Make Me Think” and numerous articles on User Experience for the web but, I was a sailor now and I was going to be a sailor for the next 13 years. I thought.
Late last year I got the surprising news: “we have too many officers and not enough ships, you’ve been selected for separation”. Despite my best efforts to plead my case, and numerous senior officers who said the decision made no sense given my ability and record, the decision was eventually finalized early this year and now I find myself looking for jobs.
At first was was at a bit of a loss for where I should turn. I have a mariners license but I was 90 days shy of being able to upgrade it to the level I’d need for meaningful employment. I have started a Public Policy degree but I expected to round that out with 13 years of environmental and shipping policy expertise with NOAA before I left. Design and User Experience are what I have left.
Since that realisation I’ve been on an emotional roller-coaster. I’ve been eating up code challenges on CodeWars, I’ve been stressing out over my lack of a portfolio or any meaningful projects to share, I’ve been excitedly learning new technologies, and panicking over a lack of real professional UX experience.
And now, I’m here.
Hi, guys how are you, my name is Jason.
I’ve got until September to land a job before I get to see how far I can coast on severance pay. I’m trying to build up my skills and work out how best to market myself so that all of this passive UX exposure I have can be seen as the asset I know it is. I’m trying to build a portfolio, run a UX redesign of my work website, and in general just get back to my place in the web world.
I’m looking forward to interacting with you all, picking up tips, and hopefully, translating my unique experiences into UX lessons to help all of you too.