I do not know Robert Hoekman Jr. I’ve read Designing The Obvious, and it’s a splendid book that has helped me hone my interaction design skills. I’ve never heard him speak, but it does seem the web has held his opinions and ideas in high esteeem.
I do not know Whitney Hess. I read her post on what a user experience designer is not, which I think is the worst blog post I’ve read this year not authored by Michael Arrington (though I would note that Arrington occupies my entire top five). I found the article to be overly prescriptive in a field that was birthed from web generalists trying to fold interaction design practice into a web that was still Web-with-a-capital-W. I’ve never heard her speak, though I’ve heard good things about her.
I do know Andrea Schwandt-Arbogast. And I do know Elaine Nelson. I’ve known them for years and know their web work well. They are damn good designers and developers the world should know about, people who were building websites before Hess could drink and back when we all thought XML would save the world. (It didn’t.)
So when Andrea says to me in response to Hoekman’s scathing criticism of Hess that “people like him that make me petrified of public speaking,” and when Elaine follows with “that sort of thing makes me want to never ever write abt web,” I know Hoekman missed his mark badly.
I find some of Hoekman’s criticisms to be valid. Hess has come off as naive in her writing at times, arguing for a level of specialization that only Fortune 250 companies and dedicated UX agencies have while ignoring smaller firms as well as the public sector and their small-to-nonexistent budgets. His description of her talk in Italy suggests she didn’t understand the audience. I myself have wondered what she’s offering to the broader web world right now. I see a 29 year old with a lot of talent still locked up in promise and not expressed in action.
(As an aside, have you noticed our so-called “web heroes” are all in their mid 30s to late 40s and professionally emerged in the late 90s and early 2000s? I can’t think of anyone who’s reached “hero” status, Hoekman included, who doesn’t fit those qualifications, save Kristina Halvorson, who emerged in the last two years but is roughly my age. Do we preternaturally choose to not grant authority to any web profesisonal under the age of 30?)
So Hoekman has a good argument. Why did he choose to wrap it in so much venom?
Hoekman’s post reminded me of two other people in the “web hero” category — Joe Clark and Mark Pilgrim — that have dished out unapologetic scorn to those they do not consider worthy to tie their sandal when it comes to accessibility. I have a lot of respect for Clark and Pilgrim, but there are times when I find their prickliness and bile obfuscates whatever message they’re trying to get out.
Is it sexism? I don’t see how it could be. Hoekman’s “sin” of sexism is that he’s jumping up and down in a known minefield. He should have known better, but it wasn’t on purpose.
But there is a chauvinism to his argument. Hoekman is framing himself as speaking truth to power in an industry that refuses to tell the truth. This belief truly becomes tortured when he starts dragging Zeldman and Happy Cog into it, as if they are Wearing No Clothes. The problem is that I’ve found people in the trenches of the web world have a very sober view of Zeldman and Happy Cog, even if they’re not always running around spewing 3000 word diatribes about them on the Internet.
I mean, seriously, we all worship the feet of a twice-divorced recovering alcoholic with a petulant streak and his design firm that spit out a re-do of WordPress which took multiple iterations to return to usability? THAT Zeldman? THAT Happy Cog?
Seriously. I respect Jeffrey Zeldman. I was lucky enough to have lunch with him last year at An Event Apart. He’s contributed to building web design from a bunch of people with text editors to an immense, diverse industry. Hell, I have one of his quotes hanging from the corkboard opposite my cube. But he’s no hero of mine. He’s just another imperfect guy with something to say.
Just like me.
But what can I say in a world where Hoekman is waiting to gun me down the moment I give a talk he doesn’t agree with, or suggest a different way in user experience from “what he built?” I’ve been a web professional now for a dozen years, though it’s only only been this year I’ve turned from web generalist to user experience designer when I left the higher education web world. Do I have enough experience that I’m not going to be slapped with a “dime-a-dozen designer” label by him? Is he going to say that because I’m speaking I’m not building anymore and thus am no longer valid, like some on Twitter insinuated?
And yet, I do speak. I speak because I enjoy it. I speak because it lets me teach and be taught. I’ve been given the opportunity to speak at an Ignite, a Refresh, and SXSW. I count myself incredibly lucky that the same conference attendees that vilified a keynote speaker handed me a Best Of Conference award the following year.
And yet, I worry that Hoekman — or someone like him — is waiting in the wings to fire at will and accuse me of not being good enough for his impossible standard.
And if I, someone who has no fear of an audience, feel that way, what of Andrea and Elaine, people with as much (if not more) experience than me (and better at this than me)? Why should they dare step up and speak? Why should they share, knowing the spectre of Hoekman looms somewhere out there?
Why should anyone timid or afraid they’ll be publicly humiliated as an impostor speak in a world where Hoekman lurks?
See, that’s what makes me sad. Hoekman attacks Hess, and he loses the argument because his bile is louder than his honest criticism. Hoekman attacks Zeldman and Happy Cog, an appeal to the ground level web person that falls flat because we’ve heard it all before and we don’t need Hoekman to defend us from them when we’re adults and can do it ourselves, thanks.
But Hoekman scares the crap out of the very people who should be speaking up — the ones “building cool things” who are afraid to share what they have. The young designer who found something interesting in a Camtasia recording that led them to build a better web form. The experienced developer with much to share but a deep-seated impostor syndrome. The user experience specialist who doesn’t think they have enough experience to open their mouths in public. In other words, the very people Hoekman says he’s saving from the infant terrible Hess are the very people he’s scaring off.
“Millions of designers do and say the same things every single day, and the web is better because of it” comes across not as a statement of affinity with those of us who fight in the trenches every day but as a backhanded slap to those who stay in line and don’t stray from the path.
Because I think that’s what Hoekman is arguing for — do things his way and no one gets hurt.
He would argue differently. He would lean on the idea, I think, that those who do good work should be and will be rewarded for it. But I’m reminded of a saying of my father’s that I used over the weekend at Barcamp Seattle — “The cream rises to the top, but s–t floats too.” Trying to get signal through the noise is already difficult. We need to amplify the best so we can turn down the douchebags. How does a vicious teardown of a younger speaker help when some of us are just trying to be heard — and are trying to coax out some outstanding people out of their shells?
I don’t know Robert Hoekman Jr. But I know his vitriol, and it’s hard to separate his good ideas from his bad behavior. And while I respect his ideas about user experience, he is not my hero, for sharp criticism must come with honesty and respect, not with venom and dismissiveness.
I don’t know Whitney Hess. I know some of her writings, and I believe she lacks an understanding of how flexible the idea of user experience must be. She is not my hero, though I respect her ideas, and I believe that she is an decent person who knows she is learning, just like all of us. And I would rather live in her UX reality, flawed as I may see it, than in Hoekman’s, because hardened ideas are easier to deal with than hardened hearts.
I know Andrea Schwandt-Arbogast and Elaine Nelson. I know their writings. I know their work. I know them personally. They do great work. They are fallible. And they are my heroes, because every day, despite small budgets, great stress, and looming personal burnout, they do great things. And should they ever stand and speak, I will listen. And should I disagree, I will tell them in private long before I criticize them in public. And if I were to criticize, I would hope I’d choose to be clear and concise and dispassionate.
And should Robert Hoekman Jr choose to suggest they’re “dime-a-dozen designers” who are “hurting” an industry, I do not think I could be clear and concise and dispassionate.
The future of usability lies in the hands of a thousand professionals taking Hoekman and Hess’ ideas and making something new. I hope some of them will share their ideas — and their work — with the class. And I hope they can share without fear of Robert Hoekman Jr suggesting they are a dime a dozen, or Chris Fahey having so little respect for the industry that he’d suggest the work that’s come before has been poor. I just hope they can share.
And I hope one day I might be lucky enough to grace the stage of a conference like An Event Apart, though I think my comment about Jeffrey Zeldman has me blackballed for life.