Am I Overthinking This? by Michelle Rial

Am I Overthinking This? is a delightful book of 101 infographics. In the introduction, Michelle Rial explains that she was an information graphic designer whose chronic pain removed her from the field… and that this was her response.

This is the perfect coffee table book for the introverted UX designer who thinks way too hard about the little things, like:

  • Where are my hair ties?
  • Is brunch fiscally irresponsible?
  • Are people judging me by my desk?
  • Is it too late to start?
  • Am I a bad friend?
  • How much do I tip for this?
  • How do I stay calm?

Michelle uses everything from water colors to markers to hair ties, matches, and Chinese food take-out boxes to create the info graphics that are in the book.

For example, here’s “Are people judging me by my desk?”

Photo of the book page. The quadrant chart can be broken down to the following desk value combinations. Mess and quirky: you're the creative type. Neat and quirky, you're important. Messy and minimal, you're at happy hour. Neat and minimal, you're storing a lot of resentment in these drawers. The chart axis and labels are drawn on a piece of paper, but each of the values (which fills its whole quadrant) is a post-it note.

If you are an overthinker, or you are an information designer, or you just like charts (or you know anyone who fits any of these combinations) this is a book worth buying. I foresee using it to hand out “advice” to many of my friends in the future.

Radical Candor by Kim Scott

This was an odd one, in part because it wasn’t a book I chose. Our team has a book club at work and the Radical Candor was the first book we covered, in part because our manager is looking for us to provide each other with more radical candor.

So first: this book is written for managers, and I am not a manager. (I don’t foresee wanting to be a manager any time soon.) If you are a manager, it’s probably a better fit.

Second, well, there’s a lot of Silicon Valley privilege dripping from this book. At one point, Kim talks about how letting poor performers go can be a blessing for both the company and poor performer because the fired employee can go do something like starting that coffee shop they always wanted.

Maybe on a West Coast IT severance package (assuming they move somewhere else) but most people on the East Coast and all points in between lose a job and immediately have to go find another job.

Kim also talks about how things like minority status or being female might make radical candor more complicated, but doesn’t actually talk about what to do about them. Frankly, I don’t think she knows.

So yes, problematic book from multiple angles.

At the same time, this book gave me some tips and tools that I need. For example, Kim puts a lot of emphasis on giving praise, which I don’t do enough. One of the highlights of my year so far was an unexpected piece of praise from my manager for a wiki I’m putting together. I’m trying to pay that forward to the folks I work with, because we all should hear about the things we’re doing right at least as often as we hear about the things we’re doing wrong.

The other thing that Radical Candor provides is a framework for structuring large conversations. When you have a business question where you know gaining consensus is going to be an issue, you can separate the “debate” meeting from the “decide” meeting, for example, to ensure that everyone gets a chance to have their say and at the same time there isn’t pressure to make a decision right now.

don’t think that Kim Scott provided enough direct advice on how to structure a piece of criticism. I think that Crucial Conversations does a much better job in that sense. But I do think that this book gives better examples of why constantly providing just-in-time feedback can help a team move from a place where crucial conversations are necessary to a place where everyone is communicating clearly enough that high-stakes behavior discussions are fewer and far between.

In summary, this is not a book I’d say will have a permanent place on my bookshelf like Crucial Conversations does, but it’s helpful and adds some tools to my toolbox that I didn’t have before.

The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks

Everything in The Mind’s Eye involves the human body’s complex process for collecting and processing visual input. In other words, The Mind’s Eye is about seeing, or not seeing, or seeing but not understanding what you see.

Dr. Sacks covers both clinical cases in a story format (as he is wont to do) and the story of losing the eyesight in one of his eyes in this book.

Of the two topics, he is unsurprisingly more adept at presenting the clinical cases. When he’s writing about others, his style is interspersed with research examples, quotes from the patient, etc.

When he writes about his own experience losing the eyesight in one eye due to a tumor, much of the presentation is in a diary format, and he often repeats himself. The research is still present, but it’s overwhelmed by the volumes of detail about his personal experience.

Despite the abrupt change in tone and style, the information is still excellent, his content is still understandable (although possibly it helps that I’m a bit of a science and medicine wonk) and his structure still holds up.

Had he ended the book on his experience, it would have fallen flat, but the last chapter of the book (also called “The Mind’s Eye”) discusses how blind people process information and the wide variation in how we think and visualize what we know. It’s the book’s saving grace and a strong weapon against the ableist tendency to assume that all blindness is like wearing a blindfold, and that all blind people experience blindness the same way.

Because of this last chapter, I’m able to look at my own work in web design with a new approach, and that has made all the difference.

A deck of accessibility issues

Cross-posted from The Interconnected

Back in February, I wrote about the events that brought about the Alphabet of Accessibility post on The Pastry Box, and I hinted I might have a deck of cards to accompany it soon.

I opened the mail today and discovered that my prototype deck arrived. The Alphabet of Accessibility Deck is a real thing you can purchase with actual money from over at The Gamecrafter.

A box for the accessibility deck, with the deck, with letter z on top

I’m a little overwhelmed. When I wrote the original alphabet back in 2014, I certainly didn’t expect it would ever become a talk, much less a talk, a deck of cards, and a half-formed workshop.

But here we are, dragging the world forward kicking and screaming into the Century of the Anchovy, as Terry Pratchett would put it. And you can buy the deck and share it with your teams or your organizations or whatever you’d like.

Many thanks to Dylan Wilbanks, Jeff Eaton, Sarah Hoffman, Elaine Nelson, and Greg Dunlap (as well as many others!) for encouragement, sanity checks, and pointing me to The Gamecrafter. And all of my friends and family, who will continue to remain nameless, for their love, support, and well-earned right to complain about the things we still don’t get right when we design.