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Three Hypotheses of Human Interface Design (2007)


I started to write this as a comment on Eric Meyer’s post: Diverse It Gets, and stopped when I realized I was blogging in Eric’s comment box (probably because the three pre-filled in text fields, and a single text entry field, and a single “Submit Comment” button made it seem so easy to do 🙂

In my humble opinion, Eric’s post was heartfelt, well written, and perhaps most importantly, honest and up front. Of course Eric is a good friend, and I’m thus quite biased, but you could easily say that one of the reasons I count him as a good friend is because he is an honest and up front person, especially on sensitive topics. But onto the topic at hand.

I tend to think of these things in terms of more questions, like:

Short attention span version:

  1. Why aren’t you speaking at a Barcamp?
  2. Why are smart people still stuck on gender and skin-color blinders?

Note: rushed blog post disclaimer – I know there are lots more posts on these topics that I could (and should) be linking to, and may get a chance to over the course of the day. For now I wanted to at least get this post, however light on the links, out there and into the conversation. More hyperlinks to follow.

Why aren’t you speaking at a Barcamp?

If there is a problem in the lack of diversity of speakers at conferences (which a lot of smart folks that I respect do seem to think, and I tend to accept some of the arguments for that position), the bigger question is of course: what can we, as members of this community do to make it better?

One of the biggest complaints I hear/read is, why aren’t people inviting me to speak? Another variant I see: why aren’t people inviting my smart women colleagues/co-workers to speak?

Often the answer tends to be, because conference organizers don’t know you or your colleagues, or haven’t heard of you or your colleagues, or had no idea of your speaking skills or topical expertise. And since I know someone will bring it up: bloated lists of self-proclaimed experts with a particular diversity flavoring are not helping, they just make those on the list look like desperate commodities begging for attention whose primary value is their flavoring, not their expertise.

But the biggest response to those that are waiting for invites is – why are you being so passive?

The mindset of waiting to be invited is a bigger problem than not being invited, and that’s squarely your and your colleagues fault, or to put it more neutrally, responsibility, or to put it more positively, something you can change about yourself that will directly help change the situation.

Whenever I read such “not getting invited” whining (sorry, but that’s how it reads) in the context of diversity, it always bugs me, as if I had seen something similar before, and I think I’ve finally placed it.

The “not invited to FOO Camp” whiners (sidenote: almost all of whom were white caucausian men, heh). Yes, the perhaps top negative criticism of FOO Camp in the past has been “but I wasn’t invited” (though people have levied gender balance critiques as well).

This used to be a lame excuse. That was before a few of us who chose the perspective of ‘something you can change’ got inspired, got together, and created Barcamp.

Anyone can invite themselves to a Barcamp. No Barcamps near you? Still not an excuse. Anyone can organize a Barcamp. And people have. All around the world. By people poorer than you. By people for whom English is not their first language. By people around the world with much less obvious opportunity than any of us spoiled brats working at some web 2.0 startup here in San Francisco.

Now, “was not invited” is not even a lame excuse. It’s just ignorant. Or lazy. Or perhaps pathetic.

Now the question to everyone who whines about themselves or their colleagues not being invited to speak is: Why aren’t you or your colleagues speaking at a Barcamp? Or again, to put it more positively, if you want to speak, don’t wait for an invite, Go to a Barcamp, sign up for speaking slot, speak, and get known. Barcamp has dramatically lowered the barrier to entry to speaking, growing your speaking experience, building up your speaking resume, and heck maybe even meeting some of the folks that organize conferences, or at least meeting folks those folks look to for recommendations.

Stop waiting for a speaking invitation handout.

Go make a speaking opportunity for yourself. And regarding the topic of gender, lots of women have participated in Barcamps, organized them, and have written about it. As an example outside my more familiar social networks (I’ve only briefly met Nicole), go read Nicole Simon’s post about her Barcamp London experience and the posts she links to.

And Barcamps go beyond web/technology. Maybe I’ll see you this weekend at CookCamp.

Why are smart people still stuck on gender and skin-color blinders?

Mood spoiler warning

Warning: that first half of the post was the more positive half. So if you’re psyched up and feel empowered to take charge of your own destiny and make a difference, maybe you should stop reading now and go do that first (find a Barcamp near you, sign up, and put it in your calendar) before continuing.

However, if you want to read more about the diversity of gender and skin-color at web conferences, perhaps more along the lines of what Eric wrote, read on.

Note: most of this was written stream of conscious as a comment on Eric’s post, and I will leave it as such. So if it seems not entirely well organized and through through, you’re right. These are thoughts and reactions more than a well considered essay.

Enough with the warnings and disclaimers.

I tend to think of these things in terms of more questions, especially when it feels like the conversation may be being (perhaps unintentionally) blinder-framed into too narrow a perspective. I find that more questions often help both rhetorically, in a reductio sense, and to get people thinking with more perspectives. I don’t have answers to (most of) these questions.

Why is it that gender (and less often race, nay, skin-color, see below) are the only physical characteristics that lots of otherwise smart people appear to chime in support for diversity of?

E.g. as long as we are trying for greater diversity in superficial physical characteristics (superficial because what do such characteristics have to do with the stated directly relevant criteria of “technical expertise, speaking skills, professional stature, brand appropriateness, and marketability” – though perhaps I can see a tenuous link with “rainbow” marketing), why not ask about other such characteristics?

Where are all the green-eyed folks?

Where are all the folks with facial tattoos?

Where are all the redheads? or pink-haired?

Where are the speakers with non-ear facial piercings?

Surely such speakers would help with “hipness” marketing.

Or to poke another sensitive subject, where are all the speakers with visible physical handicaps (beyond just vision/glasses)? Wouldn’t they be better for talks about accessibility?

And why is it that so many otherwise smart people make the colorist mistake of labeling skin color as race?

Or how about non-physical (or not easily visible physical, or not necessarily physical) characteristics that are unrelated to the stated directly relevant criteria? E.g.

Where are the hindu, buddhist, or atheist speakers? (though I would suspect, from personal experience, that there are many more closet atheist speakers than might be apparent, perhaps one day we’ll live in a world where they too can come out of the closet with less fear of discrimination and ridicule).

Where are the terminally ill (non-contagious obviously) speakers?

Where are the foreign born and raised speakers?

All of the above “differences” would also bring diverse opinions and viewpoints (in many cases, much more so), not to mention that all those “differences” have historically been used for (and some continue to used for) discrimination, and yet those differences are ignored in deference to questions of gender and skin-color, why?

Why do we accept such blinders on this conversation?