Strategic Web Usability

5 Years as My Own Boss

5-year birthday candleMay 1st was the official 5-year anniversary of launching my consulting firm, User Effect. In the fall of 2005, I quit my job as VP of a 16-person software company (after 8 years). I liked the people and the work was ok, but something just felt wrong.

I can give 100 reasons for why I quit, but only one really matters: when I walked from the car to the office door, I could feel a storm gathering, like one of those rain clouds that follows people in a Peanuts cartoon. I hated my job, and I was tired of pretending that I didn't.

Last year was a big year – I really solidified my direction, doubled my revenue over 2009, finally incorporated and did a lot of i-dotting and t-crossing, all while turning 40 and being a first-time dad. You'll never hear me say that I've "made it" (I'm my own worst critic), but I've learned a lot in the past 5 years, and I thought it would be a good time to share a few of those lessons:

1. You're never the boss.

If there's one thing I'm tired of hearing from people, it's probably: "It must be great to be your own boss." At one point early last year, I counted and realized that I had something like 17 bosses. In other words, 17 different people could call or email me, and I would most likely agree to do what they said (if I wanted to keep them as clients).

Of course, I'm a consultant, so you might think it's different if you're a writer or creative type. Even if you don't have clients, you have an audience, and make no mistake – they're the boss. I write for a 90K-subscriber search marketing blog, and I can tell you that each of those 90,000 people are my boss when I'm working on a post.

You'll always be accountable to someone, and that's probably a good thing.

2. You have to want it.

There are a lot of thankless tasks when you're your own boss. You know how someone at your office sells the projects, picks up the phone, pays the phone bill, changes the toilet paper, makes the coffee, bills the clients, pays the taxes, mows the grass, and makes sure you get paid every 2 weeks? Those "someones" are all you now.

For techie types, the hardest part of that is that you have to sell, and you can't sell if you don't want it. Pick your word: "passionate", "hungry", "motivated" – you'd better be all of those things.

3. Freedom is terrifying.

Some people think that the worst thing in the world is being told what to do and when to do it. Freedom sounds good, until it's staring you in the face. There's something about the void of limitless potential - of knowing that you could do anything today - that can be absolutely horrifying. You'll stare at the computer, paralyzed, and you'll second-guess yourself into a fetal position. Make sure you're ready for the reality of total freedom, and not just the fantasy of it.

4. Look wide, aim narrow.

When you're just getting started, you want to do everything and please everyone. It's normal to not want to turn away any business, but when you aim for everything, you end up with a vague, indecisive message. Worse yet, no one you talk to can really communicate what you do to the next person (in other words: goodbye referrals).

It's tough, but you have to pin yourself down and take aim at something small. When I launched my packaged site audits (usability-focused), it was really tough. I'm a generalist, and I wanted to keep my options open. As soon as I did that, though, people started getting what I was all about. Ironically, even though they didn't usually buy the audit, it got them talking to me and actually broadened the scope of my client work.

It takes good aim to get your foot into a closing door. You've got plenty of time to widen your reach once that door opens.

Stepping away from business, I see this same issue in my broader life (and my friends' lives) as we've hit our 30s (and now 40s). We don't want to make choices, because picking a direction means giving up on some other direction, and that would mean throwing away one or more of our dreams. I think that's the essence of mid-life crisis.

Make no mistake - if you never choose, you're throwing away all of your dreams. At some point, you have to pick a direction – moving North means you can't go South for a while – but your only other option is to stand still.

5. Envy is completely useless.

When you go out on your own, you'll be bombarded by envy. Your friends will envy you for having freedom and being your own boss (see point 1). You'll envy them for having a steady paycheck, health insurance, and a 401K. Once you start working, you'll envy everyone on the internet who's doing everything better than you.

Let me be blunt – all that envy is absolutely fucking useless. Every decision in life has tradeoffs, and some things are going to be harder when you're on your own. If you sit at your desk staring out the window feeling jealous of everyone who walks by, you will fail.

I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

I'm not sure I've painted the brightest picture of self-employment, and there are plenty of tough days, but I'd make the same choice over and over (if the warp core breached and I got stuck in a time loop or something). I've realized over time that I don't work the way people are supposed to work.

Sitting in an office from 9-to-5 (or 8-to-8) is like wearing my skinny jeans because I ran out of laundry – it's uncomfortable, I can't breathe, and my manhood gets squeezed in unfortunate ways (figuratively-speaking).

I love not commuting, I love making lunch in my own kitchen, and I absolutely love spending even a few minutes extra time with my daughter. I'm not saying I'd never go back to an office, but I have no regrets at all about the direction I've chosen.

I can't close this out without thanking a few people, most of all my brilliant, lovely, and hard-working wife, Nancy. I'd also like to thank my old friends and clients at Seminar Information Service and Tews Interactive, as well as the great teams at SEOmoz and Walker Sands with whom I have the good fortune of working. Special thanks, too, to everyone who's read and supported the User Effect blog and my work across the industry over this past 5 years.

Announcing: 30GO30.com

I've been a bad blogger. Ironically, it's partially the fault of this blog - as of late last year, User Effect's consulting work really took off, and I've been booked almost solid since early 2010. In my insanity, I apparently thought that, having no time in the day, that would be a perfect time to take on a couple of new projects of my own:

1. Fatherhood

Apparently, I never announced it here (proving exactly how scatterbrained I've been lately), but my wife and I had a baby girl back in July. She's already 3-1/2 months old, huge, and has a full head of hair. She's also amazing, relentless, gorgeous and exhausting. I turned 40 just 2 weeks after she arrived, so it's all I can do to keep up. Don't worry, I won't turn this into a daddy-blog.

2. 30GO30

30GO30When I started User Effect, I promised myself that, once I had a stable set of clients, I'd pursue a project of my own. After writing my Guide to Usability Tools as a 30-day experiment last year, I was so amazed with the impact 30 days of focused work could have that I decided to launch a blog and online tool dedicated to that idea. It took some time, but the result is 30GO30, which I just launched last week.

User Effect the company is still going strong, but the blog will probably be a bit quiet while I sort out how best to regroup and possibly expand. I'd just like to thank everyone for their support and readership over the past few years - you've all been instrumental to my success.

10,000 Tweets for Human Rights

Today marks my 10,000th semi-random thought on Twitter, but this post isn't really about Twitter. Suffice it to say that I've gotten a lot from my time on social media, both personally and professionally, and have been constantly amazed at the generosity of my peers. Today, I'd like to give something back, so I'm using my 10,000th tweet to raise $10,000 for human rights.

First, a bit of history. Back in graduate school (in the early 90s), I decided I needed to get more "involved". Like most people, I wasn't sure exactly what that meant, but I had always felt some connection to human rights causes, and so a friend and I decided to check out the university chapter of Amnesty International.

Most of the chapter members were undergrads and they were clearly itching to be activists. To be honest, I've never been very comfortable as an activist, at least not in the shouting, sign-toting sense. Maybe it's because I came of age in the 80s, or maybe it's just the incurable introvert in me. So, I decided to do my part by writing letters for Amnesty's Urgent Action Network.

At first, this was mostly cathartic. Writing letters, especially the act of putting pen to paper (which I didn't do much even 15 years ago), made me feel like I was doing something. Still, they were just letters.

Two months later, my definition of "just letters" changed forever. I was reading Amnesty's monthly updates and a name on the list of released political prisoners sounded familiar. I shuffled through my letters, and there it was. I had written a letter for a young woman, a wrongfully-accused dissident, and now she was free. I'm not saying I did it, but I was a part of it. This was real.

I'm not a religious man, in the way most people use the word, but I do believe that there is evil in this world. Power twists and corrupts, and those who hold that power will torture and kill to keep it. This is not a conspiracy theory. It happens every day.

Across thousands of miles, one letter can shine a light in a dark corner. Somehow, despite their power, evil men are cowards. The flickering flame of one letter can send them scattering back into the darkness. The torch of a thousand letters can shame them into a veneer of decency.

In this time of recession and fear, it can be hard to feel charitable. You may wake up tomorrow wondering if you'll still have a job, the money to pay your rent, or the means to provide for your family. These are very real and very human fears. Somewhere, though, there is a fear that most of us, thankfully, can barely comprehend. Somewhere, an innocent man or woman will wake up tomorrow wondering if this will be the day that they are finally murdered by their captors.

Tomorrow morning, a man will wake up wondering if this is the day he will be executed for the crime of peacefully protesting against his government. Tomorrow morning, the family of a university professor will wake up wondering if they'll ever see him alive again. Tomorrow morning, a group of farmers will wonder if this is the day their homes will be burned to the ground by mercenaries. These are only three stories of hundreds, all of them happening right now.

Please join me in helping Amnesty International and protecting the lives and liberties of our fellow human beings around the world. The following link goes to Change.org, which is helping me track this 10,000 Tweets campaign:

Donate Today

Thank you for anything you can do to help, and please re-tweet this post.

Users Don't Read - The Ride

When working with new clients, I sometimes find it useful to strip the text off of a site and see what's left. Where is my eye drawn? Can I spot the call to action? What can I really tell, just at a glance?

So, I thought it might be fun to create a simulator (sorry, it's not really a ride) that does just that. Just enter any website URL into the form below, and you'll see what it might look like if users couldn't (or wouldn't) read. Letters are replaced with "X" or "x" and numbers with "0":

http://

Consider it a thought exercise. Here are a few tips for how to use the simulator:

  • See where your eyes are naturally drawn without text
  • If you couldn't read anything, where would you click?
  • Are you overwhelmed by colors, emphasis, or links?

This is just a beta for now. If people like it, I'll consider beefing up the code.

How to Solve Any Problem

I like to solve problems, which is convenient, because that's also my job. My first love was coding, and it taught me to think about problems in a logical way. In the 30 years since then, I've been amazed at how often that approach has applied to the rest of my professional life (and frequently my personal life).

Here are four things I've learned about solving just about any problem:

1. Replicate It

That's fancy programmer talk for "make it happen again," or, as they might say where I grew up in Illinois farm country: "If it ain't broke, break it." You know this story: one morning, your car starts making some noise like a rabid woodland creature. It's about to drive you insane, you take it to the mechanic, and poof! - no noise. The mechanic can't fix a problem he can't find. Some problems are always evident, but others have a way of hiding. Try turning on the lights to find a chirping cricket, and you'll see what I mean.

Tony Hsieh created Zappos' reputation for customer service by requiring all of his employees (even the top brass) to go through a month-long boot camp, starting with call-center duty. If you really want to solve a problem, you have to experience it firsthand.

2. Isolate It

Whether you've got a bug in your code, your website sales are dropping, or you're trying to stop a flu pandemic, you've got to track down the source of the problem. Dive in deep, narrow your focus, and segment, segment, segment (as my friend Avinash would say). Big problems become a lot smaller when you can finally break them down to their core. Solving small problems not only costs a lot less, but it prevents collateral damage. Unleashing Godzilla might solve your city's traffic problem, but adjusting the timing of a few lights is easier to clean up.

3. Ask for Help

I once attended a lecture by the world's foremost authority on how pigeons open their beaks in response to food. After that lecture, I realized that I probably knew more than 99.9999% of the people on earth about the subject of pigeon-beak mechanics. I'm not sure if that's a good thing, but the point is this: someone, somewhere will always know more than you about everything.

Sure, it's hard to hear, but suck it up - these people hold your answers. Some problems are hard, and you're going to need an expert. In graduate school, I spent half my day walking through the halls talking to people and asking them questions, and every minute of it was time well spent. Thanks to the internet and social media, finding and befriending experts is easier than ever. All many of them ask in return is that you pay your own expertise forward.

4. Just Fix It

We've become a culture that spends most of our time looking for shortcuts. We think that, somewhere out there, there's a Web 2.0 tool or iPhone app to magically solve our problems. I once found a friend of mine working on an Excel spreadsheet to automate his class grading. He finally admitted that he spent the entire day on the spreadsheet and could have done the same thing in 30 minutes by hand. Sure, the right tool or automation at the right time can be a life-saver, but we've tipped to the opposite extreme, where we spend more time hunting for tools than actually using them. If we were cavemen, we'd have gone extinct looking for a wheel instead of just carrying our food home.

Consider a couple of extreme examples. How did magician David Blaine make it look like he was holding his breath for 17 minutes? He held his breath for 17 minutes. How do Penn and Teller do the trick where it seems like they're eating handfuls of ants? They eat the ants. Our grandparents had this thing called "elbow grease" - you apply it to a problem and the problem goes away. Shut up and do it.

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