My Grandad passed away recently. Seeing so many of his friends and family come from far and wide to pay their respects at his funeral was beautiful and moving. He never owned a computer, or a smartphone. He wasn’t on Facebook. His method of banking was by waiting in line at the post office to pay in cheques or withdraw cash.
Despite living what we’ve come to regard as an unconnected life, he had many, many friends. Lots of old acquaintances got in touch when they heard of his illness and many came down for the funeral to give him the send-off he deserved. The neighbours in his street called in regularly, and were there to support my Nana after his passing. He was a popular gentleman, and deservedly so: He never had a bad word to say about anyone, and always appeared to enjoy life, taking each day as it came. More importantly, he was warm, generous and charitable: He wouldn’t hesitate to help out someone in need, whether a neighbour or a stranger.
At my Grandad’s funeral I met distant relations and family friends for the first time, fielding the usual questions about where I was living and what I was doing. In my daily working life I’m used to being around people for whom the web is their passion and livelihood, or at least something they use every day. In contrast, for many of the people I met that day the web is something on the periphery, and I struggled to explain what I did for a living. Like my Grandad, they were aware of the web but didn’t feel it was something that figured greatly in their lives, if at all. They found it far easier to talk to my sister about her career as the owner of a dog walking business, perhaps because it’s something less vague, more tangible.
This was a jarring, and humbling, experience. So often I’m consumed by a small design detail, an argument on Twitter or a blog post debating the relative merits of a tiny little bit of CSS, and it can seem like the whole world revolves around these ideas. It’s easy to forget that the vast majority of the population simply don’t know or care about such things.
We are not that important.
I’ve been trying to keep these thoughts in my head as I move forward because I think it’s important to be reminded that when we design, we’re not necessarily designing for people like ourselves. Naturally, it’s fun to try out all these different effects that look super cool, a new trick we’ve learnt or an awesome font we’ve just splashed out on. But most of the time, the people who will be using what we create are not the other designers who will be impressed with our skills: They’re the people you don’t work with every day, who maybe don’t think of themselves as ‘users’ at all.
I’m a huge admirer of the fantastic work of the Government Digital Service, and what I love is that there is no ego: No single person pushing a particular agenda, just a lot of people who care incredibly passionately about making other people’s lives easier. Many internet users, like the people I met at my Grandad’s funeral, will be elderly, disabled or without regular access to the web, and just want to get something done. To make someone feel just a little bit more comfortable in this brave new digital world is something to be aspired to.
Of course, as a population we are more digitally literate than ever, and I’m aware that there is plenty of room on the web for experimentation too. I just hope that I can keep this in mind: We are not that important. But we can play an important role in improving people’s lives, whether they are aware of it or not.
In memory of John Alfred Barker.