“I have this refrain about the monkey house at the zoo. When you first enter into the monkey house at the zoo, you think, ‘Oh my god this place stinks!’ And then after you’re there for 20 minutes you think, ‘it’s not so bad’ and after you’re there for an hour it doesn’t smell at all. And anyone entering the monkey house freshly thinks, ‘this stinks!’ You’ve been living in the monkey house.” (Quoth Tim Gunn, from the 2008 finale of Project Runway)
Bless Tim Gunn for saying it out loud. Sometimes you’re too deep in the monkey house to realize your idea stinks. This isn’t to say it’s a bad idea, but you’ve spent so long working on the project you lose your perspective, and can’t see how it looks to someone from the outside.
Being able to keep your mind open and see things from the perspective of the programmer as well as the end user is difficult, to put it mildly. When you write and design something, you know where you’re starting from and where you’re ending. You understand, instinctively, the journey it takes to get where you’re going.
This is true of webdesign as well as programming.
For me, I know how to navigate my sites and find what I’m looking for, because I know where to find everything! I have no problem popping around to where I need to be, to do what I need, because I built everything and I’m as familiar with it as I am my closet. Possibly more-so. So when someone mentioned, after I did a redesign, that they had just learned where everything was, and they would have to re-learn it all, I smacked my head and shouted, “Why is it always monkeys?”(That’s a Kim Possible joke.)
This sent me on a three day documentation binge, where I struggled to explain things about BuddyPress that I took for granted. Like how you edit your profile, what ‘activity’ was, and how you sent a PM. It doesn’t help me that BuddyPress and WordPress are in a weird in-between stage of their Admin Bar relationship (I’ve beta-tested Boone Gorges’s new code for it, and it looks lovely). But knowing well that I’ll implement it and be comfortable using it, regardless of my user base, drove me to sit down and explain.
It was in those explanations that I realized things were wrong. Things weren’t intuitive the way I’d designed them, not for someone new, and the layout could be better. It smelled bad, and by the way, did I forget to look at the site in FireFox? The only way to chase off those monkeys is to find a way to look at everything with fresh eyes. For me, I get there by documenting with pictures and explaining a process to someone with no basis. I get there by finding a specific error, bouncing between three browsers and wondering what the heck happened to my CSS?
I have to thank a teacher, Ms. Gallagher, who sat us down one day in Life Science class and asked this question: “Pretend an alien has come to earth and asks you ‘What does salt taste like?’ They have no concept of sweet and salt, they have never eaten any human food. How do you explain it?”
I was flummoxed then, and to a degree, I am now. The answer was that you cannot explain things without something to compare it to. The human mind, at least, needs an analogy, or a basis, to stand on and build their new concepts from. Even the greatest genius in the history of pyhsics said that explaining things in laymans terms was not simple at all, which when you think about, is a hell of a lesson to toss at a bunch of hormonal 12 year-old kids, but boy did that lesson stick!
Understanding the ‘why’ behind a website may not be as complicated as physics but the basic tenant, that a person is going to look at your website and ask ‘Why do I need to do that?’ and ‘How do I do this?’ we can accept as givens. Thankfully we don’t need to subscribe to the intense level of intellectual honesty that Richard Feynman does with science. We can say ‘BuddyPress groups are similar to FaceBook pages.’ We can assume that people have a basic concept of what a forum is. We can trust people know that when there is a text box for ‘Username’, people will fill in their user name.
And yet. These are all learned skills that we have developed over years of using the internet. Twitter makes perfect sense to some of use, while others need to read mom, this is how twitter works.
The deeper you get into your own work, be it a website, physics, or painting, you have to remember you are in your monkey house. Sometimes the house is clearly visible and understandable, sometimes the house locks you in. Be that as it may, get out.