I emigrated

It’s been quiet around these parts, but I have a good excuse. I’ve been busy.

As you may already be aware, in July of 2013, I emigrated.

I left my beloved London to set up home with my American husband in San Francisco. A combination of visa issues and job shenanigans led us to making this decision, which are far too boring and tedious to bother to explain in any other setting than that of “over a beer in a pub”, which I’m happy to do should the situation arise, but let it be known that I left London and my job there with great sadness. If given the opportunity to go back one day, I gladly will. I miss London a lot, but that’s almost exclusively because I miss all the people I counted as friends there more than I let on.

Come visit me, guys.

And so, we’ve been busy with moving and finding somewhere to live in the madness that is the San Francisco real-estate market (it’s a really quick way to learn your way around SF, if nothing else, after you’ve viewed near 30 apartments) and doing all the sorts of boring bureaucracy that comes with starting over, not to mention dealing with the ridiculous US immigration system – I’m now a family-based visa expert, if anyone needs that.

We’re pretty settled in now, finally.

What’s next?

I loved working for the Government Digital Service. Having been there from before that department was even born, back in those slightly dingy offices in Lambeth, I was in the enviable position to see things grow and have an early impact. I can barely believe how big they are now and how much has been achieved in such a short space of time.

It was truly an honour to get to play a part in all of it and to get to work with such an incredible team of people. It’s affected me greatly in terms of what sort of work I now want to do. I knew when I arrived in San Francisco, that I didn’t want to just jump on board with the first thing I came across. I wanted to find somewhere that I knew would “get it”, somewhere that wanted to try and do Good Thingsā„¢ for real people.

And so, on January 7th, I’m joining Code for America as their senior designer and front-end engineer.

Accidental designer

Despite my advertising myself as a front-end developer, writing a lot of HTML and JS, I find my most productive days taken up considering and designing digital products and services, ideally with data and evidence.

I enjoy it a lot, but it as left me with a bit of a “am I a developer or designer?” identity crisis.

Colleagues suggest I’m in denial about being a designer – mostly because I’m not a visual designer; I don’t do pictures and graphics and I don’t wield photoshop as my tool of choice – I work in-browser. They also suggest that if I don’t start labelling myself better, I won’t be able to continue finding work doing the sorts of things I enjoy, which it turns out are mostly around supporting and, sadly, defending the user.

If I’m honest, I think I have actually just always had a bit of a problem with designers.

I unfairly (despite being very much into, and doing, art throughout my life) considered “design” to be a soft subject – engineering being the one with the greater level of difficulty. Wrong assumption, I realise, but easily encouraged during my time with computer scientists during my degree years where the concept of service design for the human-being end of software was treated as a “nice extra” and usually quite glossed over.

Along with the engineering bias, the industry as I entered it wasn’t exactly doing much for changing those wrong assumptions. When I started out, I had, as many people did in the early 00s until relatively recently, a lot of up-hill conversations and experiences with designers who were traditionally working in print and had somehow found themselves on the web, and they were doing a pretty crappy job of it.

They didn’t get it.

Those of us building websites then, early adopters of proper web-standards and sites that worked for lots of different kinds of users, tried desperately to make them understand that this isn’t print and it is a flexible, changing, growing, responsive, versatile, medium. They didn’t get it. We fell out. I had some fairly horrible run-ins with the then design director in my first job as a junior developer… Every day I am glad my current one can take me calling him an idiot and see it as a positive (not snark, genuine <3).

So, all that had left me with a fairly bitter taste. I very much knew that in my career, I not only wanted to distance myself from people who didn’t get it, but also myself from being anywhere near them in terms of the work I did, which is pretty much why I have always very clearly said “I do the code, I don’t do the design”. I’m not one of them. As if there should ever really have been a them and us.

It has meant I have had to push back into the “design” aspects of organisations I work for, because I hadn’t aligned myself from the start as part of the design team, where most of the user-orientated decisions tend to get made (which, I do think, is a mistake on most organisations part… designing for your users should be a concern from everybody on your team, no matter their role).

I think all developers should be more engaged with the overall site experience, but I realise that specialisms exist and some of us want to be nearer to that area than others. I’m one of those people who wants to make design decisions as well as code them up where I can. I want to have my cake and eat it too.

In hindsight, the problem was never really the art director when I was a junior. It wasn’t the designers that didn’t want to include me in decisions because I was a developer. It was the organisation, like many others at the time, as a whole not getting it. It’s part of the reason why it’s been great to work with other people over the years that have got it, allowing me to do the things I like and change early biases, and most recently at the Government Digital Service where I honestly believe they get it better than anyone I’ve ever worked for before. And that’s not just down to the amazing people they’ve hired – they get it at a basic level in the ethos of the department. My current contract may say “software engineer” but I am in the design team and like it very much.

I don’t really want a label. I hate labels. I loathe the term “user experience designer”, because I still believe that “user experience” is just a fundamental to what you’re doing, and shouldn’t need stating. There is nothing but user experience design if you’re building products for people.

I have a sneaking suspicion that’s what I am though and probably have always been, in the wide world of jobs people are already doing. User experience service product developer maker dogsbody thing. I am a designer who writes code, who will defend better user experiences and probably be able to tell you how to get them. But I still won’t do the pictures. Deal?

Designing better user experiences – TXJS 2012

As promised, here’s a list of the resources and links and other stuff I mentioned today at TXJS in my talk

If I mentioned anything else you’d like more background on, leave a comment and I’ll find you further resources or explanation.

And my slides are available here on slideshare, although obviously my notes on the slides may be a bit too scrappy for you to re-follow along, so I’ll post a link to the video when that’s available.

Working for the government

My soon-to-be-colleague, Gareth, reminded me via props that I haven’t mentioned that I’m switching jobs. From Monday, I’m going to work for the government!

Having been impressed with alphagov earlier this year, I was more than happy to get onboard when the offer came up to work on the next phase of the project with a bunch of people I’ve known for years (and still apparently want to work with me), and a few new ones. We’re being housed within a new department, to be known as the Government Digital Service.

Colour me excited (but maybe not orange?).