Thursday, September 22, 2016

The curious increment of the blog at the right time

My gateway to the user experience was editing. In 20 years working on the internet, even as a designer I still think like an editor: I use my curiosity to make new connections.

Editors soak up inspiration indiscriminately, like a sponge. You can see this in sly headlines and pop-culture quotations. One day the musical “Hamilton” struts beyond the theater page. The next day, look for random references to Pokémon Go.

Our ability to connect seemingly unrelated element is a factor in our success, whatever we fall into. Maybe a critical factor: While few of us can stay in journalism, we keep searching for the next new thing. In my case, I haven't strayed far from publishing: I develop an association website, and start every weekday morning sending subscribers its news headlines.

Fans of the Mark Haddon novel shouldn’t read too much into this notion. Editors still have a fairly conventional view of the world. In this case, my wife was reading "The Curious Incident," and that started me thinking: What is it about editing that makes me at least incrementally better doing other things? Service designer Richard Verne brought a few of us writer-designers together for an IxDA Chicago panel this fall.

Writers who fall into design and development fall back on many relatable skills. Working up my talking points, I thought back on the curious increment to my design portfolio.

Content management. My first job in content management was a summer job in a law library. Years before Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney kept "binders full of women," I minded binders full of legal opinion. Federal Tax Reporter and other reference works were published as loose-leaf pages ready to file in three-ring binders. As legislatures and court rulings made new law, the publisher would print new sections, or just single pages with a sentence or two changed. I kept up the library's subscription by yanking outdated pages from the binders and inserting their replacements.

My summer job didn't inspire me to work with lawyers. It might have scared me away from law school: I couldn't imagine three years of memorizing what I was filing on the shelf. But later came internet, which at first seemed as much a fad as "Hamilton" or Pokémon. But I knew better, thinking about my summer of minding binders and the prospect of instant updates.

Human-computer interaction. Editors were the original disruptors. When word processors replaced typesetting machines, editors became typesetters. I knew what that meant because I also worked as a typesetter, on this very Compugraphic model. Where's the screen? It's the black bar at the left. The words you type scroll across it like a Times Square ticker. Just one line: The machine was built to set one line of type at a time. Why back up and make corrections? That's what page proofs are for. I proved unusually adaptable to this descendant of the linotype: I wrote whole articles at the machine, working without a manuscript.

Full-stack development. As an editor at the Sun-Times I was writing business stories for the suburban section and compilers for the computer system (“set variable 7 at system variable 16”). At any Sun-Times terminal you could place your cursor in a document, type “GET fan” on the command line, and press the enter key. Voila! my macro would print the word aficionado, spelled correctly and coded for proper hyphenation. Just trying to keep it classy at The Bright One. Knowing my way around code eventually led me to pagination desk, then the internet. Source code seemed to make sense.

Information architecture. The Tribune hired me away from the Sun-Times before my desk turned into a Trump Tower parking space. I knew I had arrived when I had Microsoft Project, Excel and Access at my desk. These were my editing tools for my first project, building a real estate website. In print, real estate listings were classified ads in small print. Online I could mash up photos, multiple listings, county tax records, school test scores, census data and crime statistics—the future template for Zillow. When I shifted to online news, the work challenged conventional workflows rather than systems. After establishing the breaking business desk, I returned to emerging technologies in data visualization and taxonomy.

Project lifecycle. The Tribune website was expanding in a hurry, and in ways that made editorial skills useful. I was good at interviewing people, learning how they did things, and suggesting improvements. Covering business and technology, I had a good sense of sales and development talk, and the need for a translator. And as an editor I knew how to set and meet deadlines.

So I dove into operations. My boss gave me a copy of “Project Management for Dummies,” apologizing for the title. I tracked projects in Excel, then FoxPro. I studied the project management body of knowledge, called the PMBOK, and managed the product backlog in what we called the BAQ, which stood for the Big Ass Queue. Later, the head of the project management office wanted to make sure I was working by the book. He suggested a text that conformed more closely to the codified PMBOK.

Product lifecycle. Now I was no longer a dummy: I was optimizing the user experience. I built mapping tools and deployed XML feeds from a new content management system. Eventually I was redesigning the Tribune website every 18 months or so, replacing systems I built—an editor revisiting evergreen topics. Newspapers can be cheap, but I suspected that wasn't the only reason projects didn't get green-lighted. I was no dummy: I knew the trajectory of the publishing business. Most newspaper people end up as ex-newspaper people.

Copywriting. When my time came, writing saved me. I had some work as a freelance designer and developer, but more as a freelance writer and radio producer. I developed a technology beat, using my interviews to investigate my next move. Then I put what I learned into practice at Chi Hack Night, LexHacks and other tech events.

Newspapers are righteous places to work. They’re businesses with a First Amendment charter. Their code of ethics starts with “Seek truth and report it.” The business model has its challenges, but it's a good pattern for all of us. Serving the customer and the community come first. The user experience is part of the DNA. That’s what I like in my current job.

I've moved beyond all this old technology, but at the time it was the new technology. If you’re hiring, think about that. People like me have a track record of figuring out new things. We may not look like your idea of a perfect fit. Don't let our experience count against us. In every incident, we get the job done.

More like this: The IxDA event had a lively Twitter feed; LinkedIn has my talking points. Also worthwhile: my blogs on design thinking in health care and mentors in Agile development.

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