A List Apart


Illustration by Kevin Cornell

Universal Design IRL

What you tolerate defines your community.
Heather Champ at Web Directions South 2012

We talk a lot here at A List Apart about designing for the future. About being thoughtful, accessible, forward-thinking, and compassionate. About building a web that serves more of us, more fully.

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And yet, when it comes to building our own communities—the events and conferences in which we learn new skills and discuss new ideas—we’ve spent precious little time designing with this inclusivity in mind. We accept conference lineups loaded with white men because “we couldn’t find any other qualified speakers,” or “all the women we asked said no.” We host bro-tastic hackathons fueled by beer-serving babes. Sometimes, we even give straight-up harassment and vitriol a place at the podium.

This isn’t good enough.

If the web’s ideal is universality, as Sir Tim Berners-Lee says, then shouldn’t this be the driving principle behind our own communities and organizations as well? If we want a web that works for everyone, then don’t we need a web profession that reflects just as much diversity? After all, the best way to understand the audiences we design for is to know those audiences. And the best way to know people is to have them, with all their differences of perspective and background—and, yes, age and gender and race and language, too—right alongside us.

“But I don’t want to exclude anyone,” you might be thinking. “I’m not trying to keep women or people of color or those from different backgrounds out of the spotlight.” I’m sure that’s true. Yet our community is far from diverse: According to the 2011 findings from our very own Survey for People Who Make Websites, just 18 percent of you are likely to be women, and even fewer of you are non-white. Add in the fact that women, people of color, and those from outside the U.S. are all much more likely to perceive bias in their careers, and it starts to get pretty hard to pretend everything’s OK. In fact, sexism at “geek” events is so prevalent, there’s a whole wiki devoted to cataloging known incidents.

However you participate in the web community—organizing conferences, holding hack nights, publishing articles, hosting meetups, or simply attending events—you have the power to do something about this, and in turn bring the web closer to its ideals. And it’s not as hard as you might think.

We have the tools

The web’s ability to connect people, facilitate understanding, and amplify ideas has enabled us to build incredible things. It’s also given us a wealth of lessons in how to design thriving, thoughtful communities. Lessons it’s time we turn toward ourselves—toward reaching this more personal, more intimate goal.

What can we learn from designing online communities, social systems like Flickr and Facebook? I propose four key skills: setting expectations, making it easy to report abuse, fostering diverse participation, and avoiding blaming our users.

Set expectations for behavior

The right tone of voice can turn someone’s confusion into trust, skepticism into optimism, boredom into curiosity. The wrong tone of voice can turn someone’s interest into annoyance, anticipation into disappointment, frustration into full-on anger.

—MailChimp’s Voice & Tone guide

Online communities are fertile ground for misunderstandings. Without the benefit of nonverbal cues like nods, smiles, motions, and postures, we misinterpret sarcasm. Our jokes fall flat. Our feelings get hurt. So what do we do when building these communities, besides writing up explicit terms of service? We set implicit expectations.

Implicit expectations include the voice and tone of an interface—from the signup forms to the welcome messages, the email reminders to the error notifications. Design, too: Typography, color, and layout choices all influence how a user sees an experience, and help her form an impression of not just what the site is, but how it feels, and how she’s expected to behave there. With every bit of content you communicate, you’re modeling the discourse you expect from others.

In addition to having explicit rules of conduct (and training your volunteers to enforce them), you can also create these types of implicit expectations in IRL. In fact, if you organize events, you already have models for behavior: the people who take the stage. Placed on a platform, both literally and figuratively, your speakers’ and organizers’ behavior and actions become your event’s norm. Their tone becomes your audience’s tone.

It’s your job to make sure it’s the right one.

If you’re in charge, talk with presenters, organizers, and volunteers about the expectations you want to set. Remind them that their actions are on display, and will reverberate across the event. Empower them to model the sorts of behavior you want to see, and be explicit about what’s inappropriate—like slides that objectify women or statements that marginalize non-U.S. attendees.

If you’ve picked the right speakers, this won’t impose on their creativity one bit.

Provide easy-to-navigate outlets to report abuse

Imagine a 14-year-old girl logging onto Facebook to find that she’s been called a slut and tagged in obscene photos by a classmate intent on ruining her reputation. She’s got enough on her plate without having to also wrangle with an interface that makes it hard to stop the harassment, right? So Facebook offers the option to delete any item posted to your page, right alongside the post—and to block a user and report abuse, just by visiting that user’s profile.

Now think about the last conference you attended. If you’d been harassed, would you have known where to go for help? Would you have had a clear outlet to voice concerns? Or would you have been @-messaging a generic conference avatar, unsure who was on the other end? Sidling up to a harried registration desk to discuss your grievances in public?

Would you have said anything at all?

I didn’t. A couple years back, I was propositioned by an employee of the company organizing the conference—a much-older man who was also a vendor for my then-employer. We’d had drinks with another colleague of mine, where we’d made mundane cocktail talk about business and spouses. We said goodnight, and approximately two seconds after he knew I’d be alone, he sent me a demanding, aggressive text message—one that assumed I’d already consented to a liaison. I was disgusted and furious, but unsure what to do: He was my main contact at his company, and knew the owner of mine well. The prospect of explaining all this over and over to people I wasn’t sure would understand seemed like a further humiliation waiting to happen.

So I let it go. And I spent months feeling ashamed of myself for it.

No event organizer wants attendees—especially those dropping hundreds or thousands of dollars on a conference pass—to feel this way. But if you’re in charge, you’ve got to do more than want. You’ve got to plan, and you’ve got to make it clear to the people attending that there’s an outlet for their concerns—before they have any.

Hearing about inappropriate behavior is difficult, sure. But no matter how awkward it is for you, I promise it’s much worse for the person who’s been made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe, who’s trying to hold it together while telling you, and who’s scared you’ll just write it off.

Don’t let that happen. If you organize events, name a person or provide a place—virtual or physical. Promise confidentiality. And publish this on your website or in your collateral, right from the start. You don’t need to make it scary—just include a simple note reminding attendees that everyone should feel welcome, and if they don’t, there’s a place to go and a person who’ll listen.

If you volunteer or speak at events, make a point to ask about policies for harassment or inappropriate behavior: Does the event have any? What are they? Raising the question may be all that’s needed to get an organizer thinking about these issues.

Whatever you do, don’t you make it a burden for someone to figure out how to tell you they’ve been harassed. If you do, many of them never will.

Foster diversity to foster longevity

Back in 2010, when Twitter first started suggesting people for users to follow, it made a rookie mistake: recommending the same people to everyone, all the time. This created a dynamic where “the rich got richer,” as Heather Champ, who’s known for her work building communities like Flickr, has noted. In other words, it made a few big names even bigger (Bieber, anyone?), but it failed to foster deeper connections or build robust communities. Over time, Twitter realized this wasn’t working and responded with major updates designed to give users more varied, relevant suggestions.

As we design community events, it’s important to ask the same thing: Are we just allowing the same people to keynote each year? Are we creating a divide between the haves and the have-nots—those with all the speaking experience, and those with none? If so, which people are we leaving behind? What value could they bring, what new connections could they build across our community, if we amplified their voices instead? What is our industry not learning, where is our industry stagnating, because we’re inviting the same cast to perform the same show each night?

Sameness is boring. It’s predictable. It’s stale.

Perhaps worst of all, it’ll only sell tickets or entertain audiences for so long. The best events feel fresh and different each time—they bring forth a variety of voices, tell a range of stories, and share a breadth of perspectives. They shift and adapt—just like the web.

As an attendee, you might argue that you want to see polished speakers and big names. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s normal to seek out lineups that have a few. But how many times have you looked at a speaker roster and thought, “man, that guy’s at everything”?

The best events avoid this sort of speaker fatigue by mixing in fresh faces and ideas—and that requires actively looking for new voices. If you’re recruiting talent, ask past speakers whom they’ve been reading recently. Trawl Twitter for interesting blog posts hashtagged to your field. Invite longtime attendees to submit a talk. Consider whether women might be declining your invitation to speak for reasons you hadn’t considered, and address those, too.

A star-studded speaker roster might generate buzz, but a diverse lineup adds texture, depth, and color. It adds richness and fullness. Done well, it makes people remember how your event changed the way they think and feel—not just which internet celebrity gave the keynote.

Don’t blame your users

Users aren’t perfect: They’re busy. They’re distracted. They’re human.

When we design for humans, we know we need to be forgiving. We know that when they need help, we can’t talk down to them. We know they deserve respect, understanding, and compassion.

Perhaps most of all, we know that when they fail, it’s our job to get better.

The same is true in person. Every time you make an excuse for a bad experience—“It was just for fun. I don’t know why you’re so offended,” or “We’re not trying to exclude anyone…you must be imagining things!”—you’re blaming your user. You’re making it his problem, not yours.

I’ve felt like this, too. Recently, I was accosted by a conference organizer at an official event happy hour. He had always come on a bit strong—too many cheek kisses, too much touching, too-tight hugs, too everything—but I’d always ignored it, figuring he wasn’t worth getting worked up about.

I was wrong. This time, when I questioned something he’d said in his talk that I considered divisive, things turned a very different direction. He screamed at me, in public, pointing his finger and advancing on me aggressively. I kept reiterating that I wasn’t sure why he was so upset, but the yelling continued for what felt like an eternity. I finally told him that the way he was talking to me was inappropriate, that I needed to be treated with respect, and that if he continued, I wouldn’t speak to him anymore.

I’d gone from someone he thought he could paw at to someone he thought he could scream at, and the combination left me shaken. I felt degraded. I felt humiliated.

But most of all, when trying to talk to people about what had happened, I felt marginalized. “He was probably drunk!” some folks said. “Oh, you just got him agitated! You know how he is,” I was told.

Whether or not I’d said something controversial doesn’t really matter. Disagreement and discussion aren’t the problem. His response was abusive and inappropriate, if not overtly sexist, and excusing his bad behavior made it my fault: If I’d just avoided him while he was drinking, just not asked a question, just not gotten him so “worked up,” then this wouldn’t have happened.

You know how condescending, blame-ridden error messages—like “FAILURE. FILL OUT ALL FIELDS CORRECTLY”—frustrate the hell out of users? It’s no different here. Blaming someone who’s been treated poorly is taking what’s already an alienating, isolating experience and deepening it. It’s making them feel incompetent and ashamed.

It’s like the lite version of telling someone she shouldn’t have been wearing a short skirt if she didn’t want to be groped. And it’s a problem you can fight, even if you’re just an attendee, by taking a stand against bad behavior—one that puts the blame squarely on the person who’s really responsible.

It’s up to us

I don’t pretend my experiences are tragic. I wasn’t terrorized or physically assaulted. My life goes on.

But my stories also aren’t unique. I could regale you with hours of anecdotes from friends and colleagues—mostly women, but not all—who’ve poured their time and love and attention into preparing presentations and articles, only to be humiliated or marginalized. People who’ve chosen not to talk about their piss-poor experiences for fear of being retaliated against. People who’ve stopped attending events or speaking up, because it’s just too damn hard to keep smiling while feeling left out, degraded, or attacked. Instead of outing others, though, I’ve told you my own stories. Stories I wish I didn’t have. Stories I wasn’t sure I’d ever share.

I’m sharing them now because I believe we have the power to improve things.

We already know how to make design choices that support inclusivity, set expectations for users, and model the interactions we want. There’s no excuse not to fix this—and, in fact, there’s a real danger in not trying.

We’ve spent two decades talking about a web that’s inclusive and flexible. We’ve devoted countless hours to creating spaces where conversations and relationships can thrive. The longer we tolerate a community that excludes others, the more we, as an industry, are defined by exclusion—and the further away we remain from the universality we’ve worked so hard to build.

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