The Type of Fortune That Never Misses

I’ve been having a rough time of it lately, at least judging what I’m normally accustomed to when it comes to my normally very convenient, easy, underappreciated life.

Just so you know, I’m typing this post one-handed. I’m doing about 30wpm now, which is pretty good, but I’m frustrated that it’s not the 90wpm that I normally do. Hahaha, no, that’s not why… I had a bicycle accident about three weeks ago, in which I broke my left humerus, just below the shoulder joint.

This was to have been my comeback ride — for about a month prior, I wasn’t able to ride my bicycle due to pain caused by an inflamed sciatic nerve, which was aggravated by an overly ambitious bike ride that caused me to have some lower back pain.

I normally don’t write about personal stuff in this blog, as the intent is for the web site is to be a professional portfolio and blog about software development, IT, and other things related to whatever it is I’m making my career out to be. But, as I have realized as a result of my experience in putting together my presentation to Notacon 8, I feel most complete when I do not separate my professional life from my personal life. I’m not very happy when I compartmentalize my life, working 9-5 just to earn a paycheck, and leaving work behind when I’m done with my day, and having the balance of the day left to pursue my personal interests. I want to make a unified life where nearly everything I do is geared toward achieving personal goals, and my professional goals align and merge with my personal goals to a great degree.

So this might not be the most technical of blog entries, but rest assured it ties in, as all aspects of my life tie in somehow to the work that I do and the experience and qualifications that enable me to do it.

I have been disappointed at these setbacks that have hampered me for the last two months. I had been enjoying bicycling with my friend Rachel, who had gotten me interested in hitting the road a few times a week, and had been feeling great as a result of the exercise. But it seems like every time I make an effort to get into shape, something happens that prevents me from continuing my program and I lose the progress I’d gained until I get my life in order enough to start again. This has happened countless times in my adult life. And then when I try to make my comeback after patiently waiting for the inflammation to subside enough to be active again, misfortune strikes again.

I got pretty depressed about the prospect of losing my whole summer to being sidelined with this stupid broken arm. But this lasted only a few days. The experience of mending is still ongoing, but so far has been very unlike what I might have expected. Although it is not something I would have wished for, I am the sort of person who delights in surprises, particularly when they have something to teach me. And I have come to the point where I realize that there have been things worth observing and reporting coming out of this experience.

So here’s what I’ve learned:

Broken bones don’t always hurt…. also, Pain has evolved to provide a GREAT User Experience.

When I fell off the bike, I didn’t hear or feel the bone break. I wasn’t quite stunned by the impact with the road, but it definitely staggered me, the way a body slam does. I knew almost immediately that there was something wrong with the arm, and didn’t want to try to use it. But the injury was numb initially. Not tingly numbness, but just not feeling much of anything at all numbness.

Before this happened to me, I would have expected any broken bone injury to be constantly acutely painful. I was surprised that in my case, it wasn’t. Perhaps it would have been for a worse injury than I sustained. I recognize that in my case, the type of fracture I had was perhaps one of the best possible ways to break a bone, if you had to break a bone. There was no displacement, no compound fracture, and a clean break. It only started to feel painful about 30-40 minutes on after the injury.

This gave me adequate time to do things that I needed to do in order to survive: pick myself up and get out of the street, and assess my condition, for example. Even when I did start to feel it, it wasn’t too bad unless I got jostled or bumped.

The pain was very useful in this way. It communicated to me what I needed to know, namely that I had an injury, that it was fairly serious, and then it largely got out of the way and let me take care of myself. If I did anything that might have made the trauma worse, the pain increased sharply, giving me immediate feedback that what I had done, or what had happened, was not something that I should allow to continue for any length of time.

From a User Experience perspective, I find this very instructive.

A few months ago, I watched a video of a talk entitled “Stealing From God!“, which in retrospect might have put me in the right frame of mind to pick up this lesson. The talk is worth watching in full, but in summary it’s about bio-mimesis as an inspiration to the design of technology.

When it comes to systems I might design in the future, I’ll definitely be taking this into account. Very often users complain about a shitty user experience by calling it “painful”. It’s a metaphor, but usually means tedious, repetitive, or time-wasting. Normally we designers who care about User Experience just want to eliminate any pain so that users will never have to experience it. I still think that this is a good goal. But I now think pain has something to tell us, and what it can tell us is important, and that a user experience designer can learn from it when s/he encounters it.

My advice is this: Don’t simply seek to avoid any and all pain. When you first experience “pain”, explore it. Find out what it is telling you, and if you’re the designer, ask yourself if that’s the right message, or what else or how else can you communicate more effectively. Delve into it, listen to it, appreciate it in its subtlety, learn from it. Once you understand the pain fully, then you can work effectively to avoid it altogether, or to make the “pain” as beneficial an experience as possible for the user.

It’s still best to avoid painful experiences if at all possible in the final design. But where “pain” is actually useful, it may be possible to incorporate it into the design in such a way that a user actually appreciates it. The pain experience that I had through breaking my arm was so much more useful than my typical negative experiences with computer software errors… in a strange way I find myself almost welcoming the experience with the arm — not that I would rather break my arm than experience a stupidly designed software error condition! But I can appreciate the beauty of the user experience that the bone fracture pain has given me much more than I can appreciate certain repetitive nags and modal dialogs with inadequate information and poor choices that I often see when using a computer.

Broken bones don’t need a cast to heal… and other unexpected things experience can teach you.

Common, seemingly familiar events can still surprise when they happen to you. Due to the location of the break, the ER couldn’t put me in a cast. Before this happened, I thought I pretty well knew what “the deal” is when you break something. I assumed walking into the ER that I’d be walking out with my torso half encased like a plaster or fiberglass cyborg, stuck in an immobilized position for months, and emerge from my chrysalis months later, atrophied and unable to move through my usual full range of motion. In my mind, broken bone == cast. Experience has taught me otherwise.

It turns out my experience will be nothing like that. They put me in a sling. Three weeks after the injury, my doctor tells me I’m doing well and the sling is now for comfort, not necessary to keep the arm immobilized. I can already use my arm to do light tasks. My effective strength is greatly diminished, and my range of motion is greatly restricted, but other than an ugly bruise, to look at me you wouldn’t think I had anything wrong with me, leastwise a broken bone.

As I’ve been healing, I noticed early on that if I ate a lot of protein, particularly red meat, the pain in the fracture site lessened. Often this effect was greater than the effect of the pain management drugs that the ER prescribed for me. I was surprised, but I understood immediately that it makes a great deal of sense for the body to be wired to work this way. My body needs more and different nutrients to mend a fractured bone than it normally needs, and the reward of reduced pain for eating the right (apparently) stuff is a great example of positive feedback. As a result of the reduced pain, I learned immediately that I needed to eat more of certain foods. And the pain would return if I hadn’t eaten recently enough. Again, more lessons to learn from the pain user experience. If I wasn’t paying attention to the pain, I might have just taken more pills to dull the pain. The pills, as it happen, dull my appetite, and would have created a negative feedback loop by not eating what I need in order to heal quickly and properly.

Instead, I’m amazed that three weeks after the injury I’m able to do so much, and am ready to begin physical therapy. I hear that it’s going to be painful. I’m acutely interested to learn what new messages I will be able to read in the pain to come.

People should try out being disabled. Especially user interface designers. But really, everyone.

To ensure that I eat well while I’m in this crucial healing period, and to keep myself from going stir crazy while I’m stuck at home (my doctor told me I shouldn’t drive, so I’ve been working remotely from home) without much human interaction, I sent out an open invitation to about sixty of my friends, asking them to pick a day to come over for dinner, which they would have to provide for me and they would also have to do the dishes afterward.

Surprisingly, a number of my friends were happy to take me up on this invitation. Tonight, my friend Jennifer came over with chinese food. Jennifer works with accessibility issues for disabled computer users, and is rather obsessed (I guess the polite term is passionate) about it. Perhaps because she’d come straight from work, perhaps also because she knows I’m an IT guy who is into design issues especially as they intersect with user experience issues, we ended up talking a lot about accessibility.

Jennifer clearly knows a ton about accessibility, way more than I do. I get what she says without trouble, but she’s way more familiar with the problem domain than I am. As a designer, I think it’s important to account for accessibility when designing the user experience.

Developer is a generic word — usually it means “programmer” but it also incorporates “designer.” And of course, developers are not always — in fact not often — good at both programming and good at design.

It’s hard enough for your average/mediocre programmer-developer to come up with a good UI to provide a high quality experience to the user because the average programmer-developer doesn’t know much about design, or usability. Developers who are decent at usability can design an OK user interface, but often forget about accessibility issues.

Actually, forget might be too strong a word. I sympathize with developers, so allow me to soften that a bit. They’re often resource constrained and unable to devote resources into providing accessibility. And because they seldom get to work on accessibility, they tend to not “get” accessibility.

For that reason, I think it’s a good idea for developers to “try out” various disabilities.

I’ve learned a great deal from not being able to use my off-arm at all for two weeks. I found I can do almost everything that I can normally do, but I have to take a different approach to it. It definitely slows me down. I have to think and plan actions and break them down into multiple steps that a one-armed person can accomplish. Not having the off-arm to assist my strong arm slows me down a lot more than you might think — two arms working together realizes synergy. I can carry a lot more with two arms together than I could with each arm doing its own thing. And the off-arm assists the strong arm in innumerable ways. If I needed to accommodate a one-armed person in some future project, I’d at least have some idea about what approach I’d take.

If I were to head a User Experience group, I think a great team building exercise would be to have each member try out being disabled while at work. Each person in the group would randomly select a disability, and then they would have to live it at least while at work, and I’d encourage them to continue living it at home. And not just for a few hours, or a day… say, for a week, or two. To really get an appreciation, you need to get to where you almost forget what it was like not to have the disability, but that would take a long time. A compromise “tryout time” will do well enough. During this time, they would observe carefully their experiences, and note where they found difficulty or obstacles, what approaches they took to deal with those obstacles, including asking for help. And they would be tasked to identify changes to their work environment that would make their disability easier for them to manage, and implement solutions. Needless to say, they would also have to do this for whatever projects they happen to be working on while disabled.

After going through that disability, the employee would put it down, and take on another. We’d have blindfolds, noise-cancelling ear protection, wheel chairs, arm and hand restraints, maybe special glasses to simulate colorblindness, whatever we could come up with. On a regular basis, employees would be encouraged to talk about their experiences as a “disabled” person and share what they are going through, what they are feeling, and especially how they are dealing with everything.

After the employee had gone through each disability that we could simulate, they would no longer be required to try them out, but could still revisit a disability if they wanted to go back and look for more insights. I have a feeling the best user experience guys would do so regularly.

This isn’t just a good idea for people who design the things that we use — it’s a great exercise for everyone.

For one, it makes you appreciate the things you can do but take for granted.

Second, it prepares you for the possibility of living with a disability at some point later in life if that should ever happen, as it commonly does for so many.

Lastly, it would help foment sympathy and caring for people with disabilities. So often disabled people aren’t thought about at all, and when we’re confronted with the need to accommodate their needs, too often people resent it, and and up resenting the person as well. This is terrible, but avoidable through the right experiences, learning, and appreciation.

In a way, I’m almost glad that I broke my arm. I still wish I hadn’t, but I’m grateful for what I’ve learned from it.

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  1. Yes, I had just come from work… ;)

    A few things I didn’t tell you that may provide some insight. My Mom is legally blind and has had rheumatoid arthritis since she was 30; this means she has two disabilities to contend with. One of my aunts is legally blind, and her son is deaf. I have another family member with a learning disability. For myself I was nearly deaf as a child; as an adult, I have an eye condition that, when it flares, causes me to experience what visual impairment feels like. The experience of growing up around various disabilities, and having to some degree, the experience of them yourself changes how you perceive the world.

    A major frustration when you don’t function how most people think is “normal” is that the world has to be adapted for you instead of being inclusively designed in the first place. If technology/buildings/etc. are designed with all types of users in mind, then we aren’t stuck trying to make it work later–or at least not to the same extent.

    Another thought is this: many people who don’t necessarily have adaptive needs like how things work/interface/look/etc. that have been adapted. For example, how many people prefer ramps to stairs in an airport? Clean sans serif fonts to curly ones? Subtitles at plays or other performances? Websites uncluttered by overdone design? Keystrokes that make you more efficient rather than a mouse? Or mice that use roller balls or other methods to move the cursor?

    I’d like to see a keyboard designed for people who have peripheral neuropathy in their fingers. If you can still see, you can learn how to type if touch-typing won’t work–but what if you can’t see OR feel the keys? Food for thought.


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