Dining in the Dark

This post originally appeared on my blog on Wednesday, April 25, 2012.

A blindfolded photo attempt of my meal, served and eaten in near darkness. Thankfully it turns out that my aim with my fork was better than my aim with my cellphone camera.

Two weeks ago our longtime client Olmsted Center for Sight (formerly the lengthily-named Elizabeth Pierce Olmsted, M.D. Center for the Visually Impaired) held a benefit dinner titled “Dining in the Dark.” The concept was quite simple and given away by its name — attendees would enjoy a meal in total darkness. Not only did my company co-sponsor the event, I attended it and had the pleasure of dining with Olmsted’s president.

The meal started off with wine and salad, which you were allowed to eat in light. Then we were presented with bibs and blindfolds, and the lighting was turned down to just the candles on the table (the servers needed to see, after all). And so in darkness we set upon the main course followed by the dessert course and wrapped up with coffee service. During the main course an Olmsted representative guided us through techniques to get the lay of the land, identify foods, cut meat, find drinks and so on. I ignored all this and dove in with my characteristic nonchalance about my meal and found myself stymied by the simplest things — it takes a couple tries to realize your knife is upside down and that you are cutting with the blunt edge and not the sharp edge.

I have spent over a decade working with Olmsted Center for Sight. I have had the opportunity to see how its clientele/constituency uses computers and surfs the web. I have attended seminars, spoken at events, been a part of lawmaking discussions, implemented software and web sites, all in my time consulting with Olmsted. I have been working with low-vision and blind users for most of my professional career, but nearly always in the form of technology. Though I had some time running concerts for thousands of attendees and making sure outdoor and non-standard venues were handicapped accessible, this dinner afforded the chance for me to experience some of the day-to-day tasks that I take for granted, but this time without sight.

This post may seem to be a little outside of my generally technical discussions here, but I believe that experiences like this are important for anybody who cares about inclusive design or accessibility. Some day everyone reading this will have reduced vision, mobility, hearing, and so on. Learning now how to design and build to support those changes serves to position future generations of developers to design and build to support the future you. That’s just a good investment in your long term well-being.

Consider spending an hour blindfolded and try to do a mundane task like get dressed, eat a meal, or even use the web to look up a menu on a web site (you’ve already seen me rant about how awful that experience is for average users). Consider limiting your movement, restricting yourself to a chair, putting in earplugs, and so on. You may find your get far more insight into daily life as well as software and web development than you expected.

If you’re still reading and also care about accessibility, then in keeping with the low vision theme of this post here are some resources to use when developing sites for the blind. This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but there are links to many others within.

This handy video shows you how blind people use the iPhone 4S. It’s worth a couple minutes of your time.

This link isn’t a resource, instead it’s a story of a police department using its forensic techniques to help save 26 pages of hand-written content after the blind writer’s pen ran out of ink.


Doing (and Feeling) Good – Social Media and Cool T-Shirts

Thanks to Algonquin’s corporate membership, I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with the Buffalo Chapter of Social Media Club for a while now. The opportunities offered through SMCBuffalo, to network and learn more about Buffalo’s ever-evolving social media community, are always enjoyable and I’ve been able to help plan and attend events like TacoVino and beSOCIAL, which are great learning experiences and a lot of fun.

Taco Vino Logo

Easily my favorite connection made through SMCBuffalo, though, was getting the chance to meet Dan Gigante and to become one of the participating artists for his “buy one, give one” organization, You and Who, which sells one-of-a-kind designer t-shirts that help worthy causes in cities across the US. Every time a shirt is purchased, You and Who gives the same shirt to someone in need through their collaboration with charitable organizations in the t-shirt designers’ cities.

You and Who Buffalo Tree Shirt

Back in 2010, I designed a t-shirt for Algonquin Studios employees to wear in a local charity 5k. My design wasn’t used come race day, but when I met Dan, I realized it could still be put to good use through You and Who. My “Buffalo Tree” design fit the organization’s “New Beginnings” theme perfectly and became one of the first shirts made available through You and Who. Now, for every Buffalo Tree shirt sold through You and Who, a shirt donation is also made to one of five charitable organizations in the City of Buffalo. In addition, my “artist earnings” of $1 per shirt sold benefits Buffalo Soccer Club (the pilot program of Algonquin Sports for Kids, a 501(c)(3) organization founded by Algonquin Studios) with donations around $75/month.

Buffalo Soccer Club offers low and no-cost soccer programs for urban children in the City of Buffalo, encouraging participants to develop good physical health, positive levels of self-esteem, and core ethical principals in a safe, fun environment. And, while I’m really no good at playing soccer (trust me I’ve tried), the connection I made with Dan through SMCBuffalo gives me the opportunity to contribute to Buffalo Soccer Club, local charities, and my community at large in a much bigger way than I could personally afford to.

I feel lucky to be a member of an organization like SMCBuffalo, where I can connect with so many smart, fun, and creative people in my city. And I appreciate the opportunities at Algonquin Studios, where I can use my own creativity on projects that benefit so many different people in my community.

Updating My Web Site? Yeah, I’ve Been Meaning To Get To That…

I’ve been wondering – how many people out there would remember to check the batteries in their smoke detectors if it weren’t for daylight savings time?

Every six months, I spend a minute or two on a Saturday night trying to remember if I gain  or lose an hour that weekend. Shortly after figuring out if I’m jumping ahead or falling back this time around, I inevitably hear my dad’s voice in the back of my head saying, “Every time you change the clocks, make sure you also remember to change your smoke detector batteries.”  Day-to-day family life is pretty crazy for me these days, so I’m not 100% certain I would remember to change those batteries if my dad hadn’t hammered it into my head for years. And I’m glad I remember, because my family and my house are pretty important to me!

While I’m willing to bet most people would agree with the idea that if you run a business of any kind these days, you need a web site. But the time frame for how often you need to update (or outright change) your web site is probably far less agreed upon than say, how often you need to change the batteries in your smoke detectors. Most people might argue you should mix things up every two to three years, but I’ll bet there are some who would say you can go longer.

At the risk of sounding like my mother, technology is hard to keep up with. What’s new and fresh today will be old news in a short period of time. The truth is, if your web site is more than two years old and you are not planning to update it, or the technology it rests on, you’re probably behind the times (and your competition). For example, if your site doesn’t automatically adjust when it’s viewed on a cell phone or tablet, what are you waiting for? Your site won’t develop a mobile-friendly version of itself. How about an even more basic question – are you still sending content changes and updates to your web vendor or “tech guy” instead of using a quality CMS in-house? Well, guess what? You’re essentially hoping the smell of smoke will get you out of bed late at night, because you’ve neglected your smoke detector maintenance.

Regardless of how long you think you can go without paying it some attention, the sales call to see if you are ready to update your web site should be viewed like daylight savings.  It’s a subtle reminder, me calling to say “Hey, Busy Person! Don’t forget about this important part of your business.” When you get the call, even if you aren’t ready to deal with it then and there, ask me to call you back on a specific date in the future (sooner, rather than later) and put that call on your schedule now. It will help you make sure that your site update doesn’t get put off longer than it should.

Hmm. Maybe I should change my phone sales pitch. “Hi, this is Tom from Algonquin Studios. Have you changed the batteries in your smoke alarms and when would you like to begin updating your company’s web site?”

White Water and Software Support

The view from my weekend office - Lower Falls, Genesee River, Letchworth State Park

Some people may not know this but I have two jobs.  My full time job here at Algonquin Studios, as a Software Support Representative, and my part time job, as a weekend warrior guiding rafts on local white water rivers.

At first, you may think these jobs are completely different from one another.  At one I’m in an office, sitting at a desk and computer with Wi-Fi easily accessible; at the other I’m outside, sitting in an inflatable rubber raft that I could easily pop with the knife I carry, without the ability to make a phone call (even if I carried my cell phone with me).  But in reality the jobs are quite similar; it is my responsibility to make customers happy and ensure they have a good user experience.

Here at Algonquin Studios, my goal is that our clients will be smiling when they hang up the phone with me.  People call in with a problem – the problem can be as small as not knowing how to print an invoice or a bigger issue that takes my team a few days of research, to figure out exactly what happened, before we’re able to get back to customer. Whether it takes me 5 minutes to resolve the issue, or 5 days, my ultimate goal is the same – helping the client and providing quality service.

When rafting, my ultimate goal is no different – to give the guests in my boat a fun, safe trip down the river and have them smiling when we get to the “take out.”  Whether it’s 35 degree day, with snow falling, or an 85 degree day, with the sun shinning, I’m doing everything in my power to give my guests the best user experience I can.

At both jobs, I’ve got a team of individuals backing me up to help accomplish our common goal.  We work together asking and answering questions, learning from each other, and helping each other out so we we’re always getting better at what we do.  And, at Algonquin, there’s never an answer of “sorry, we don’t know the answer” or “sorry, we can’t help you,” we’ll always get back to the client, even if we don’t have an answer right away.

At the end of the day, regardless of which job I’m working, I’m fortunate enough to say that, along with my clients, I’m always smiling too.  At the end of a long day on the river, I smile when I hear the excitement in people’s voices at the end of a white water trip, as they recount every rapid and say they can’t wait to call their friends to tell them all the details. And, when I’m catching the train home after a day at Algonquin Studios, I’ve always got a smile on my face because I know that I worked hard and was able to help my clients handle the bumps in their operations and achieve their goals for a successful business day!