AC = Amy Choi
JM = John Maeda
AA = Ashleigh Axios
AS: Andrew Sinkov
MG: Maria Giudice
AD = Anne Diaz
PV = Paco Viñoly
JS = Joan Shigekawa
AS = Aminatou Sow
EZ = Ethan Zuckerman
EM = Erin McKean
AC: Hi – hello, this is Amy Choi, Editorial Director of the Mash-Up Americans and your host for drumroll please – Design and Exclusion. A first of its kind online conference. Together with our partners Automattic and the MIT Center for Civic Media, we’ve convened design and technology leaders to talk about why some groups are excluded from design processes and how we can all think more creatively about how to avoid exclusion and serve our customers and our communities better. Let’s design the inclusive, beautiful world we want to live in. Since we’ll be spending a lot of time together, a little bit about me. I’m a journalist, creator, mom, media entrepreneur and most recently, a podcast host. Rebecca Lehrer my co-founder and I, created The Mash-Up Americans so we could think about what obsessed us – bringing our whole selves into our work and articulating the value of leading from the margins. It was really the ultimate design problem.
How might we create resources for a diverse community that had never been defined before? How could we form our diversity of experiences as an opportunity? Making sure that all voices get heard and everyone gets a seat at the table is our mission. We are about making the pie bigger and making we love pie. So another thing you should know about me is that I have an ear worm that I can not get rid of –
and I’m gonna share it with you. For 3 days I have not been able to stop humming the Cantina song from Mos Eisley. You know – [humming] dun dun dun dun du-nun dun. Dun nun du nun du nun du du – [humming stops] Okay you’re welcome. Thank you, now that we’ve gotten that taken care of, onto the show.
The design and exclusion conference will feature 4 in depth conversations alongside some lightening round sessions with answers to questions such as “When have you felt excluded? What words make you cringe? From people who might surprise you. We’ve also got an incredibly thoughtful keynote from Joan Shigekawa, former acting chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts. For our full program, head to x.design.blog.
blog where we’ll have all sorts of supplemental resources. Listening, reading, watching. And behind the scenes goodies of the making of this conference. Speaking of X.design.blog that’s also where we’ll have our full code of conduct for this conference. Basically, let’s be respectful, give each other the benefit of the doubt and avoid our shouty caps. A few more gentle reminders as you’re engaging with us online. Be considerate and kind, avoid excluding and harassing speech and imagery. Avoid making assumptions and should you catch yourself behaving disrespectfully, just stop and apologize. If you can do all that, we’ll see you on Twitter at hashtag, #DesignX where we’ll be engaging live throughout all of the panels. And a final note of gratitude. This conference is made possible by Automattic which is democratizing publishing with WordPress.com and Jetpack and the MIT Center for Civic Media which is transforming how we think about online and civic engagement. Our conference chair is Ashleigh Axios of Automattic and we would like to thank everyone
for their contributions to this important conversation. And with that, we’re on. First up, I ask John Maeda – Global Head of Computational Design and Inclusion at Automattic, a design guru and incredibly generous soul – about why it’s so critical for us to be here today, talking about exclusion.
So John, why are we all here today?
John Maeda [JM]: Well I’d ask yourself or ourselves the same question. Why are we here? What are we hoping to learn? What are we hoping to break through in what I think is a moment where the technology industry can make a huge difference if it can figure out how to be more inclusive, less exclusive. And I know that in the Design in Tech Report last year, we began to scratch away at this question of inclusion and how technology excludes certain groups. And recently you can read anything out there –
– when I say out there, that’s not just United States but all over the world. About how technology is moving so fast but humanity is moving much more slowly. So we have to tune the relationship between ourselves and our technology. I think that’s why we’re all here.
AC: Well why is this topic so urgent right now?
JM: Well it depends upon your political leanings and that can mean a lot of things to a lot of people and – first and foremost I know that as an American I find myself stuck in my American stuff. And so for all of you who are not listening from the United States you are also considering this question of how certain people are excluded – how certain people are included and how do you make that work better? I will note that the opportunity is important to focus upon. The opportunity being that if you’re a designer,
it turns out that you naturally care about diversity and inclusion. I wanna pause there for a moment. Why is this important? It’s important because it says something about creative people. Creative people are inherently inclusive because they love to learn new things. They love to be motivated, shocked, moved. Be taken to a place that they aren’t used to. They’re okay being uncomfortable. They want to learn something that they don’t know with the intent of being able to serve more people. People not like themselves. So in a sense the moment that the opportunity for designers to take a lead on how inclusion and diversity are being metabolized in the technology industry – that moment I find exciting.
AC: So where do you feel the most
potential is for change?
JM: If there’s one thing I’ve learned by working in the open source domain – a domain that – I laugh because my former graduate students, Ben Fry and Casey Reas kept pushing so hard with their processing foundation work. And only recently do I realize how important this prospective really is. How open source – making things in the open, sharing, working inclusively has revitalized my entire worldview of creativity. And that’s why when I joined Automattic, the makers of Jetpack for the WordPress world, I began thinking how this open source world is so powerful. It’s so rich. And it’s time for it to come into the foreground. that’s what excites me. With the publication of the new Design in Tech Report, recently
launched at South by Southwest, it was exciting to see how the inclusion message has been picked up globally in the context of design. Design broadening beyond its original definition. Design making a difference in the business world and especially now in the technology world. I’m exciting that we’re all coming together as designers in tech to understand – what is this exclusion stuff? It’s kind of icky. What is this inclusion stuff? It’s pretty hard. How do we put these ingredients together, look at them and figure out a path where design can make a difference in the products that we craft, create, distribute all over the world in the matter of milleseconds. I think I’m hoping that designers who are tuning in can feel this moment and want to own it and take hold of it.
Now that I’m 50, I think I think of things in terms of not the wow of what design can do, but of the why – why design can really matter today. And I think it has something to do with how designers care deeply about inclusion. Much more so than say a non-designer. Why? Because designers want to be more effective. They want to create better products. They want to understand more people. And the only way to understand more people is to engage them. To engage people unlike themselves. And in doing so, they’re able to serve more people. So for designers, it is a natural course of action to work more inclusively. That’s a special power, I think.
AC: Thank you John.
JM: Thanks Amy.
AC: Ugh I love asking him questions. I always learn something. If you stick around
for our live panel at the end of the conference, you can ask him your own questions. John, Ethan Zuckerman from the MIT Center for Civic Media and more will be on hand to answer whatever comes up. So, our first panel of the conference is exploring the issue itself. Does the design community have an exclusion problem? Who are we designing for and why does it matter? Tackling this will be our moderator for this conversation, Ashleigh Axios. Ashleigh is the superwoman who is the chair for this conference and is also the design exponent at Automattic. She will be joined by Maria Giudice, VP of Experience Design at Autodesk, and Andrew Sinkov, editor in chief at Etsy. But before we get to the conversation, there’s a few people you might recognize talking about when they have felt excluded. And we want your stories too. Share with us with the hashtag, #DesignX, on Twitter throughout the conference and beyond. And as we say at Mash-Up, we see you. We hear you, you are not alone. So, starting off with his experience
of feeling excluded, Matt Mullenweg, CEO and founder of Automattic.
Matt Mullenweg: We can probably all think of times we’ve been excluded. You know lots of people in tech grew up not being the cool kids. [laughs] I went to a performing arts high school here in Houston and my sort of area of study was jazz. Jazz is especially – well not especially but like here it’s predominantly black and there were times when like you know – everyone I would play with like after the gig would all go some place and would kind of not subtly like be like all right, bye Matt, you know. I was like ohh. Well – when you say it out loud like ohh I didn’t get invited to this party or something like that it feels almost a little trivial, especially when compared to other things that people experience. But the feelings that you felt then were very very real.
Brian Oduor: Hi I’m Brian Oduor, I’m the Cap of X. I felt excluded when I took 2 of my non-Yale club members to the Yale Club and
I was treated as though I didn’t belong there. I wasn’t let in, my friends who weren’t members were let in. I was black, they were non-black. And you know I just discovered that with such high exclusivity also comes exclusion of some other sorts.
Dungjai Pungauthaikan: Hi I’m Dungjai, parter at Once-Future Office. The last time I felt excluded was actually this past Saturday when I was having dinner with my 2 year old daughter. I’m Thai and she is a mixture of Thai, Taiwanese, Chinese. And a kid ran up to her and asked her, “Where are you from?”
Gus Granger: Hi this is Gus Granger and I feel excluded when I show up for meetings and people will assume that the white person that I arrived with is the owner of the agency as opposed to myself.
Jenn Maer: Hi I’m Jenn Maer, I’m a portfolio director at IDEO. I feel excluded when people assume that I’m straight. Also when they assume that I have kids because I am a woman of a certain
Phillip Tiongson: Hi I’m Phillip Tiongson and I’m the principal of Potion. So I grew up in Tennessee in the south and I think that exclusion wasn’t really obvious to me. I didn’t really know exactly when or how I was being excluded and I didn’t really know whether it was because I was Asian or maybe it was just cause I was the smart kid or – it was any number of things that – I just I just knew things weren’t right.
Rebecca Lehrer: Hi I’m Rebecca Lehrer, co-founder and CEO of The Mash-Up Americans. So a time I felt excluded was definitely in business where 65% of my classmates were male. Great guys – I met my husband there. But still there were often activities that were just for men. I like whiskey, I don’t know why I wasn’t invited to whiskey night but it would often just be all the men. And a
lot of business school is about meeting people and hanging out so that kind of sucked.
Reena Jana: Hey it’s Reena Jana, Creative Lead for Business Inclusion at Google. A personal story of when I felt excluded was when I went to my parent’s home countries in India and the Philippines for the first time. I grew up in a really non-diverse town in the US. And craved connection to my parents’ countries. Yet landing there and spending time there, I realized I never fully felt included. And feeling excluded from all of those 3 places that were supposed to be home was a really intense experience that definitely shaped my life.
Fatimah Kabba: Hey I’m Fatima Kabba, co-founder and head of design at Minimum. I feel excluded any time someone acts shocked when they hear an ethnic name and makes no effort to learn how to pronounce it.
Maurice [Cherry]: Hi this is Maurice [Cherry]. A time when I felt excluded has generally been at any sort of professional meet up or professional conference. Even though I know as an attendee I come with the skills and the credentials and the know-how to be there as an active participant. I still end up
feeling excluded by other attendees and often time by the people that are hosting the effect.
Ti [Chang]: Hi my name is Ti [Chang], Designer and Co-Founder of Crave. A time when I felt excluded was pretty much most of my childhood growing up in Georgie. My family moved there when I was 6 years old and we were like one of – out of maybe 3 Asian families in the whole town. So growing up I knew I was pretty different and they treated me differently. So I guess in a way that sort of helped me to kind of go deeper into my introverted world that helped me to become the fabulous person that I am today.
Anne Diaz: Hey this is Anne Diaz, lead experience researcher at Airbnb. Honestly the thing that came to mind first was remembering last year, I went to visit one of my closest friends who lives in Battery Park City in NY in this very very fancy apartment building. And I was visiting and I had left, I went to go do a walk, grab a cup of coffee and I came back. And the doorman wouldn’t let me in. And meanwhile people
are passing past the front desk saying hello. He was being very friendly, and he wouldn’t let me in. And I kept saying, “You know look I’m visiting a friend, this is her name this is the apartment that she’s in.” And he said, “Look I don’t see your name on the list.” I had been there for a couple days so I didn’t understand what was going on. And then I realized that he had been looking at the list of people who work for people in the building. So the list of nannies and cleaners and didn’t see my name on that because I was on a list of social visitors. This took about 15 minutes and I just – I remember standing there and seeing people walk into the building and just feeling like wow, he really doesn’t think that I belong here in a setting other than being of service to folks who are here.
AA: Hi this is Ashleigh Axios from Automattic. As a multi-racial woman I feel excluded every time I’m asked to fill out my race on a form
and I have to select “other.”
AA: Hi all, it’s Ashleigh Axios here from Automattic and I’m so excited to be here with all of you for this first event of its kind. In this conversation we’ll be talking about the problem of exclusion in design, particular inside the tech industry. We’ll be discussing design and exclusion within our products, the ways that we design and we build them and the communities and the people who are left out of our audiences more often than not. So why would we talk about this? At risk of sounding really cliche, admitting you have a problem is the first step to fixing the problem. Or to quote GI Joe, knowing is half the battle.
AA: This conference hinges on the idea that before we can be inclusive, we have to admit that we have as a community some issues with exclusivity.
So we have some wonderful speakers here to help us assess the issue. Maria Giudice from Autodesk is joining us and Andrew Sinkov from Etsy. Hey [folks], welcome.
MG: Thanks for having, us this is exciting.
AA: I am so excited to have you. I wanna start by talking about who’s getting left out of the things that we’re building. So something that struck me recently as very bizarre is that technology nowadays is designed to exclude event the wants of its own users. I’ll give you an example. When Apple’s health app came out a few years ago it was meant to be the central place where you could get an overview of your health and your fitness. It tracked blood oxygen saturation, your daily pathogenic acid
intake whatever that is. [laughs] Your cycling distance, all sorts of things. But it wasn’t recording the menstrual cycle. Something that is far more common and has a much more vast customer base. In fact, at the time that the app came out, it was estimated that more than 1.8 billion people were currently of the menstruating age and there were dozens of existing paid period and fertility trackers on the market. So Apple had this opportunity to really dominate that space by doing that and more, and they completely left it off the table. So it seems clear to me that that’s a market that they would want to include, or would want to serve if only to make money off of the sheer numbers. Starting with you Andrew, I’m curious to hear from you, how you think these types of oversights happen.
How does Etsy avoid excluding any of its user base?
AS: I don’t work at Apple so I don’t know exactly what lead to those decisions. And I know that a lot of the current state of that market of the menstrual tracking market is actually not that great. So they could have done a really amazing job of applying kind of their know-how and their experience design to making a really really amazing product that people would have loved. But they didn’t do it – we don’t know why. Maybe it was a missed opportunity, maybe no one said anything, no one brought it up, but maybe someone brought it up and then when they brought it up they just – someone in the room said “No, that’s not important.” I think that what happens very frequently is that especially as companies grow, they frequently get kind of stuck in the place that they were when they were younger, when they were smaller. Whatever the audience was that they started with, that’s the audience that they see themselves as having, even though now it’s 10, 20 years later and they’re still somehow stuck in that – that beginning state. And they’re not really seeing the larger
potential and the larger impact that these brands and these companies are having on the world. I think one of the things that we really strive for at Etsy is to really ask that question frequently and have programs and have methods to make sure that we are not excluding people within the company or within our community. That we’re trying to be the most inclusive that we can be, that we’re being the most positive in the impact that we’re having through the products that we build. But I think for us, it’s really always reflecting and it’s always asking that question as often as we can.
AA: Maria, in an interview with Bloomberg in 2016 you said, “Enterprise products can be so disrespectful to the user. The message is, you gotta use these products so screw you, suck it up. There’s this assumption – oh, our products are so complex they can’t be simpler to use.” And you went on to say, “We have this opportunity to really think about those products in a new way and not hide behind the complexity.” To me that hints at this idea that
designers in tech have much more – perhaps power than we’re aware of. We think maybe that we’re limited by technology and what we have today. But we may actually be using technology as an excuse or a scapegoat to push our overly complex and alienating products on our user or our customers. So I’m curious to hear from you – where did this statement come from and what problems were you seeing when you made it?
MG: Yeah that – the talk that I gave at Bloomberg actually really focused on – more about the designer’s relationship to the customers that we serve. There’s actually a lot of research – old research that talks about – that people who love their products treat their products as if they’re human beings. You can kind of see this in the past where people always name their cars. They affectionally talk about their objects. And fast forward with today’s
world when you look at Alexa and these bots that are – are based on human voice and human behavior. You can kind of see the evolution of where we have this – you know we’re building a relationship with that products. And designers forget – they tend to think more about it as pieces of technology than actually thinking about the inter-relationship that you have with products that build trust, that build human connection. The difference between good products and great products are when designers see this inter-relationship with the products that they’re responsible for designing for. In terms of complexity – especially in the enterprise world where I’m in right now. The old way of thinking about enterprise software was you know – these are products that people have to buy, they have to work internally. And that’s what I’m saying is that from this point of view, I think
designers and developers were like ah, well, you know we have these captive audiences. It’s okay if the products are subpar, because they’re gonna have to learn them and then they’re gonna learn bad behavior and then they should just suck it up. That’s where that sort of theory came from. But in today’s world there’s really no relationship – there’s less and less of a connection between enterprise products and consumer products. We love to hide behind complexity. Doing complex stuff is easy. Doing simple stuff is hard.
AA: Oh those are such good points. I love this idea that building trust is critical to building kind, thoughtful platforms and exchanges. And just kind of breaking down the barriers as you did between us as the community building, creating, designing these products – and the consumers of them, right? We’re not in this world anymore where there are these few who are working on it. And they’re separate
from and divided from the many who are using it.
MG: Well it’s very much in keeping with the the theme of this talk right now around – what are these inherent things that we are in – we are inadvertently dividing. We’re dividing people by creating these sort of like mental divisions between enterprise and consumer. Between gender, among races. We’re in a much more complicated, globally connected world and in response to the Apple uh problem where they didn’t include menstrual cycles. It’s a perfect example – of the designers were probably all 20 year old men who didn’t understand –
MG: that women actually menstruate every mont hand they’re gonna need to monitor that. [laughs] So you know –
MG: how could they? They don’t – that’s not something that they have a life experience doing. So they’ve excluded it. They did it unintentionally
because it’s not part of their worldview. So as designers we have to build a much more cohesive, emphatic worldview when we’re designing products that impact everybody.
AA: Those are such good points. We right – we – we are designing, we’re creating these things but we should also be as a group representative of the folks that we’re designing for so that we’re not missing perspective, missing insights from the community because we are broader and are better representative of that broader community. I would love to give you the opportunity Andrew – did anything in that stand out to you as something to build on?
AS: I agree with everything that was said. I think that one of the things that we as technology companies – really need to think about our products also as – as having an intent and having a goal and having a point of view and having a mission. The product itself, not only the company. So everything that we create, everything
that we build needs to sort of have that voice and have that point of view always. And so as I was saying earlier, you know sometimes when you’re smaller and you’re just starting out that can be difficult. But as you grow you actually have the resources and the opportunity to sort of begin to ask questions and to become very intentional and reflective about what you’ve built and how your product and how what you’re doing can have the greatest positive impact on the world and be the most inclusive product possible. You can do that through design, you can do that through the copy through the words that are – that exist in your product. You can do that through understanding your customer journey through your product lifecycle. To just understand all the different touchpoint, the entry points – all the moments that you have. And exactly what is the what is the intent of the product that it’s communicating out to the world and therefore then is reflected back to it from the consumers that use your product. So I think that there is there is always an opportunity to sort of see it
as a 2 way street. To really show that you understand the needs of your consumer base. And to be inclusive of that growing consumer base as you become more successful. So the larger the pool of people that you can help, that you can support, the more you need to be as understanding, as empathetic with everything that you build to make that the most inclusive, most powerful product that you can be building.
AA: Such good points. I love that question of who has the responsibly, right? We’re talking about empathy but how do we make empathy part of our work? How do you build that into your process from an editorial perspective, from a design perspective. I think that’s an open question that we all need to be tackling and working with as we try to make products that relate to our customers.
AS: I think one way that you do it just – you know you do it through research right. So you should be you should be open to first of all being wrong. To understanding that you may have made
poor decisions in the past and that you need to now change your direction and be open to new points of view, new opportunities. And there’s all – all of the inputs exist right? There’s a ton of information that can come to you if you’re just open to accepting it. So the worse thing that you can be is incredibly sort of like you know sort of running with blinders saying that I know – because I built it. And that is the worst way that you can be especially as you develop as a brand. There’s a ton of input whether from people that work within your company – external factors that you’re learning about as the world changes. Research that you can go out and gather to understand – how am I being perceived? What is my brand standing for? But there’s all of these different bits of information that can guide your decision making so that you’re always as empathetic. And I think that’s just – you have to set that as a company, as your objective. You just have to say like that is who we are, that is how we function,
that is what we do, that is what we believe in.
AA: Yes, and actually we’re gonna have so much more on research later in our discussion, this conference. So I’m excited to hear more tips from some other panelists on the ways that we could bring in data in research question-asking to get to some of those root answers that you’re that you’re talking about for brands. Existing users and their needs aren’t the only folks left out of this tech dynamic either. They’re not the only ones excluded. In 2016 on Facebook, you could design and create an advertisement and market it through their platform to anyone and everyone, excluding specific groups that they were calling affinity groups – which listed as options to exclude: African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanics in the US. In case that’s not immediately clear as
horrifying and just a tragic way of building a tool or a platform, I wanna lay out a little bit of history that just struck me. So President Lyndon B Johnson signed the Historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 which made that crap along with a host of other discrimination issues illegal in the US. This is all US specific for the time being, this example. Yet in 2016, 52 years later, Facebook was allowing advertisers to exclude specific groups based on their race or their heritage. So Facebook had racial exclusion explicitly built in as an option in their tools this decade. What the hell, right?
AA: That is something that seems a whole lot more obvious but it’s also – you could see a kind of
business case perhaps for this right? Some of the people they were excluding weren’t considered Facebook’s users. They’re users for this tool in the way that Facebook was thinking about it was more likely the businesses who are trying to advertise or the advertisers. Andrew in contrast to this I see Etsy is being about building community. How does Etsy tell stories and create a platform for all of its makers while making sure that they can access – that everyone can access Etsy equally? And what role does messaging play in this to kind of draw a stark contrast from this Facebook example?
AS: This is a very like rich question and I think it’s really important to ask like – to really understand the root cause of why that particular decision happened. What was it was there – was there a particular like financial need, was it – did they – did their research
show that this was the thing to do? It seems like there must be a much deeper question here about what leads to this type of – to this type of thinking. And then the follow on question is how do we avoid that type of thinking across the industry, whatever that happens to be. You know when it comes to Etsy, our point of view is that this is a meritocracy so what we’re trying to do is – it’s a meritocracy but it’s also one where we’re trying to help and teach people how to be the – successful entrepreneurs. How to be successful microentrepreneurs. How to turn something that they’re – you know love as a hobby and a passion and turn that into a full time job. Leave their day job and start making something or selling something that they really believe in. We’re a company that’s sort of built on the margins in many ways. Because this isn’t the mainstream way to work. This isn’t the mainstream way to have a livelihood and so – kind of our entire culture and our entire company is built around empowering those that are on the margins
And we try to think about how do we do that in all aspects of the company. So how do we do that beyond actually the marketplaces that we support but also how do we do that within our community, how do we have that kind of an impact. How do we have that kind of – how do we think about that when we’re hiring? How do we think about that when we’re writing. How do we feature sellers that represent a diversity of age, of race, of gender. These are all the types of questions that we have and we have programs within the company to try to make sure that we stick to that, that we stick to our values. That we’re never – that we’re sort of aligned on our values in all of our actions. And I think that’s the kind of thing that – you wanna make sure that there’s that thread throughout all of your activities within the company. So it’s not just like one department that gets to make the values decision and some other department that gets to make a decision that is not values aligned. We’re trying to figure out how do you do that within a company and in all ways. 100 percent of the company has to be values aligned. So what does that mean? What does that mean for the processes, what does that mean for the decisions? And ultimately that means that that our community and our
world is gonna be – is gonna see that, is gonna see that is gonna appreciate, is gonna feel that is gonna get that from the company.
MG: I have all sorts of feelings about the Facebook decision, Ashleigh. For somebody who actually worked at Facebook for 2 years. First of all – [laughs] – I do think as designers as we start more and more having access to data, and the – how we’re going to be using that data for good or for evil. This is like a whole new ground for us to be thinking about. We have to kind of understand where that ethical line is. Because just because we could doesn’t mean we should. So this example from Facebook is probably one of many examples where it feels like it crossed an ethical line. I wasn’t there at the time, I wasn’t working at Facebook at 2016 so can’t claim any kind of –
AA: Good disclaimer.
MG: responsibility for this, but I do know,
that people have really good intentions. And when you’re working on a platform as huge as Facebook where it’s where it’s having impact over billions and billions of people the responsibility of the designer is even more and more important – to really start thinking about the potential unintended consequences of that decision. In the case of Facebook it might at the time have been – they didn’t think of the negative impacts of racial profiling. Cause that’s what it is. They thought about how advertisers or you know small business people can communicate to their constituents in a much more targeted way. What you’re gonna see are companies like Facebook and they’ve done this for years. Crossing the line unintentionally. Now once you cross the line, what do you do about it right? I think it’s easy to have unintentional consequences. The more important
thing is, once realize you’ve crossed that line, what are you gonna do about it? What are you – how are you gonna learn? At the end of the day, it’s really about understanding sort of the ethical implications over design decisions.
AA: I love that thinking – thinking about it from that lens and a company perspective – and then just to underline that point that you made at the end there, Maria. That mistakes are always going to happen. And recovery and how you respond to them and how you adjust is equally as important as the initial decision itself and what led to it in the first place.
MG: What I find really interesting about this conversation, when we’re talking about sort of diversity and inclusiveness what we keep on kind of coming around is – we’re talking about the importance of having a – a very diverse and inclusive design community. So the – you now they could have more empathy for the customers that we serve. And on the other end we have a much
more globally connected constituent – people that we’re serving. And so you need to have both right? You need to have empathy for the people we’re serving which are global. And have all sorts of ways in which we can kind of inherently, unconsciously divide them into categories. And then we – and then we also have to make sure that we have design – a very diverse design force so that we’re designing products that include everybody.
AA: Everything you said I just – I completely agree with. For those that can’t hear our nodding, there was a lot of fervent nodding during that comment.
MG: One of the things that I belong to – I’m on the board of this great nonprofit called the Interact Project. It’s very hard to hire designers out of school because there aren’t a lot of – there isn’t a lot of diversity in design schools period. And so you have to almost
go back into people’s neighborhoods. You have to go to high schools, you gotta go to middle schools and we have to train people in underserved communities about the power and careers in design itself. We’re not gonna get diversity out of design – in these technology companies until we actually invest at the middle school and high school level.
AA: Completely agree. This kind of pipeline thing that comes up all the time in technology needs to be addressed and we each have a responsibility to help inspire the next generation of creatives. Of writers, of designers, of developers, of hybrids of those things to come in from more diverse backgrounds and experiences. We’ve been talking about who’s been left out. And probably just scratching the surface. You know there are there are a lot of groups that get excluded. But I’d love to talk a little bit more about how they’re being left out and how that’s come into play. Beyond the
hiring stuff that we’ve touched upon and some of the other ideas. Andrew I’m gonna go back to you here. Anil Dash once said, as it turns out, we have a way to prevent gangs of humans from acting like savage packs of animals. In fact we’ve developed entire disciplines based around this goal over thousands of years. We just ignore most of these lessons and have been taught that when we create our communities online, they don’t need to take these into consideration. But by simply learning from disciplines like urban planning, zoning regulations, crowd control, effective human policing, and the simple practices it takes to stage an effective public event such as this – we can come up with a set of principles to prevent the overwhelming majority of the worst behaviors of the internet. This kind of gets into the realm of you know harassment right? Not only are we creating things that do things directly to products.
We’re creating environments where sometimes ideas can kind of seed or we might be encouraging negative social interactions. So as somebody Andrew with a psychology background, I’m wondering if this statement resonates with you. What you might recommend. What fields of study you think designers, technologists, writers alike might benefit from studying and getting more familiar with.
AS: It’s so interesting how frequently when we think about like a new technology which isn’t even that new anymore. The internet – it’s not nearly as new as it feels sometimes or apps. But there’s this point of view that you have to look at it with completely fresh eyes. Like there’s no – there is no past. Uh you sometimes see that. I mean that’s certainly not the case. And whenever you’re able to bring in influences from other disciplines – completely other – different disciplines. The impact can be tremendous. It’s a little bit difficult sometimes to just like
invent how a community can be managed through you know urban planning methodologies. At the same time once you start having that discussion you find all of the connection points and all the similarities. An area that I think is really fascinating is around behavioral economics and what’s possible there. There’s a ton of work that’s happened over the past 20 years related to how people make decisions and how it is possible to influence the decisions towards the direction that you want. So folks like Dan Ariely – just an immense amount of process in this area. And one of the ways that we’ve seen this kind of in practice. There’s a company that I’ve helped out a little bit called Lemonade and they do property insurance in NY. One of the things that they’ve done is to really see – how can you reduce fraud, which is an incredibly huge problem within the insurance space. How do you reduce fraud by applying behavioral economics into an app flow.
So the app is super friendly. You feel like you’re not really doing much as a user, you’re just making some simple decisions, you’re signing your name, you’re taking a photo. But all throughout that is woven this deep research about behavioral economics related to how you make a decision and how to ensure that you’re being truthful. And those types of ideas and seeing that application within an app that’s beautifully designed and it just feels like it makes you happy to use it. And you kind of compare that to a standard insurance process which you know – we hate. And you say like that’s an example of a way that you can guide through design and guide through bringing in ideas from other disciplines to get the result that you want. So it’s super interesting and it’s super exciting to see that kind of thing happen. And I’m excited to see how similar types of sort or like intersections can evolve in other areas.
AA: I love that. I see the education system already adapting at least across the US to encourage more dynamic relationships between fields.
So I would hope that this starts to merge into design engineering, to alter behavior and to shift our thinking. When we’re talking about diversity, a lot of times we’re talking about diversity of thought as much as we’re talking about some of the more you know physically apparent traits of diversity. And you know broadening our experiences is certainly a way to – and our training is certainly a way to include diversity of thought and make sure that we’re not excluding people in the process. I – also I love how that tie into education. That we have an opportunity to bring it in at an earlier phase than we may be now. We’re trying to tackle it professionally most of the time. The folks who are in tech already. And Maria you brought up the pipeline a little bit earlier. Kind of getting new perspectives into the pipeline. And that fits to me with your experience, Maria ,of – Autodesk is really trying to help people
redesign the world that they live in. So how do you avoid exclusion in that redesign, and what are some best practices or tips for those who are designing their own communities and all sense of the word?
MG: Well there’s a couple things. One of them is to make sure that people – the kind of things that our customers create essentially they’re creating products and buildings. We need to help our customers understand the global implication of the products and the buildings that they’re creating. So one of the things that we wanna make sure is that are we creating tools to help our customers make sustainability decisions? Making sure that they’re creating things that are actually going to help the environment, not harm the environment. Same thing with products. So when we talk about building a community and enabling people to create innovation, wanna make sure that we’re actually doing
something that’s beneficial to the world. We wanna make sure that our customers can have the tools to make those good choices.
AA: Beautiful. I see that tying back into Andrew’s point earlier about the values of the company kind of exuding in the work, in the teams and just being the core at which everything radiates out of.
MG: The other thing is that the idea of the maker is changing too. So you know we’re entering a world where somebody could imagine an object and actually produce it. That you know it doesn’t have to – it doesn’t have to be costly, it doesn’t have to go through multiple stages of manufacturing. People can envision something and make it. And so a large part of our job is to kind of unlock that and make sure that the future makers have the tools that are gonna enable them to be as innovative as possible.
AA: What a good metaphor for everything that we’re talking about right? We’re talking about people who have the tools, the capabilities,
to make. And they need to be kind of aware, cognizant of the impact that that making can have. So I’m – I’m so curious about how your ecosystem evolves and the ways that it might be reflective of the broader topics that we have here and the issues at hand. I’m just gonna ask really blatantly for both of you guys here really fast. Do you think that design has an exclusion problem?
AS: Does it have an exclusion problem – I mean I think that it just goes back to the points that we’ve been making around – when you’re designing, who’s influencing you? Where are you getting your inspiration? Who’s around you? Who’s giving you the ideas, who’s helping you develop as a person? And are you being open to a variety of influences. And I think ultimately if you’re designing something that you personally find beautiful – is it necessarily
serving the largest community. And I – I mean these are – this is – I think it’s just a matter of just like where you are in your career. Where you are in your – in what type of company you’re a part of, who you’re surrounded by. These are the types of things and I think that you know – there are companies that do this well and there are companies that probably could be better.
MG: What I loved what you said Andrew about – really design is about being in service to others. So I don’t think design has an exclusion problem as much as designers can inherently have an exclusion problem based on their worldview, based on their ability to have empathy for the people that they’re serving and based on the challenges that are in front of them. Are they thinking broadly enough and being clear about the unintended consequences of their design decisions.
AA: What are the broader implication of this issue of exclusion? What do you think is really at stake?
MG: First of all,
anything that’s gonna further divide us is a bad thing. We’re kind of – we’re at this really weird point in our lives where politics are in – are dividing us, our world view is dividing us, and technology divide is also a big big issue. There’s the people who actually have access to technology. They have internet access. When we talk about technology, we’re really talking about internet access and we forget that there’s a whole population of people who don’t have access to the internet. They don’t have access to information. They are already excluded. And we have to do our best to kind of – to not have the lines that exclude us but really make sure – our job is to make sure that we’re bringing people together.
AA: Maria I wanna hug you right now.
AS: I would add to that that I think that there’s also – as much as as much as technology has
you know can bring people together, it also has the effect of making the whole world homogenous in away that is kind of sad, frankly. Anybody that gets access to technology, especially you know something that’s coming out Silicon Valley across the world is being – is getting the same thing. Is getting fed the same exact point of view, the same exact experience. And we’re losing. We’re losing diversity of opinion, of idea. We’re losing – we’re losing creative diversity. Every country around the world, you go travel and it kind of looks a lot alike. It’s becoming more and more alike and that’s terrifying. Technology connects but it also has an ability to really destroy a lot of the culture and the history. And the more that we actually make it homogenous, the more that we strive towards sameness, the worse we are. And so I think we all have a – a responsibility to really do what we
can to bring diversity of opinion. To sort of – this is sacred, you know. And this is gonna go away if we don’t do something about it.
AA: So well said, both of you. I wanna ask for just one takeaway from either of you.
MG: At the end of the day, we are here to serve people. We are here to make people’s lives better through the skills that we have. Whether it’s very very small thing, where you know somebody is buying something that – online that they love to you know doing something that – you know enables people to understand upcoming earthquakes. Like the scale that we have in our community is broad. But the end of the day, we’re doing something to improve peoples’ lives and we should not lose sight of that. That’s our responsibility, that we are in service to others.
AS: Just know what you’re responsible to, who you’re responsible to and
make sure that you are – that you’re always being reflective and asking that question of: what is the impact that I wanna have on the world, what is the impact that my company should have on the world or my environment. And never be satisfied with the answer that it’s a financial benefit. Cause if it’s a financial benefit for yourself then you know, that’s kind of lame.
AA: Well said. Thank you so much. Maria, Andrew thank you so much for this great conversation and for your time.
MG: Thank you.
AA: Thank you.
AC: I feel really good about the fact that we’re facing this whole exclusion problem head on. Also I love the idea that design should be measured by its ethical promise. Like just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. And also making money is fantastic – we love money. Get that coin. But just making money isn’t a good enough reason to do anything. You actually have to create value and should always be the guiding principle of design.
Which is what we’re all about here at Design and Exclusion. This conference is lovingly brought to you by Automattic, the MIT Center for Civic Media and of course the Mash-Up Americans. What do a technology company, a research powerhouse and a media firm have in common? Well we’re all working together to have honest conversations, build empathy and help make the world a more inclusive, more compassionate place. And if you wanna join us on the ride, make sure to check out X.design.blog for resources, ideas, and more. So on our next panel, I was lucky enough to talk to Paco Viñoly, VP of Design at Nextdoor and Anne Diaz, Lead Experience Researcher at Airbnb. And we’re talking about how to ask better questions, gather better information and interpret that information with depth and nuance. I mean one thing about data is that even if something is technically accurate or a quantifiable fact, it’s not always representative of a larger truth about a community, or about its intentions. I mean sometimes the answers we get are less about truth,
than they are about the questions themselves and the perspective of the asker. So how can designers make more informed more ethical choices to better serve their communities? How do we acknowledge our own biases when it comes to our work? As we say at The Mash-Up Americans, you don’t know what you don’t know but you’ve gotta be willing to adapt when new information comes in. For example, Paco tells us about how Nextdoor confronted its teams unconscious bias when racists posts started flooding the community. And how it was able to reduce the racism across the network with design. But first we’re gonna hear from some other design experts on a time that they misinterpreted data.
AA: Hi, this is Ashleigh Axios of Automattic. I used to see charts and graphs showing the high numbers of black men incarcerated in the US and I would get really embarrassed. I was sure that the data was being read by everyone as it was being interpreted by me- connecting black men to crime in the US at a higher rate. Of course the data didn’t actually say that black men are
more prone to criminal activity than any other group but the framing of the information left it very open to interpretation which can be influenced our biases as a society. I felt that deeply at the time and have remembered it as a designer. I remember that how we frame information is very important. When I design with data now I think about the negative stereotypes that could creep into or enforce the information by accident and I very carefully frame the content to avoid reinforcing that.
Tad Toulis: Hey I’m Tad Toulis, Vice President of Design at Sonos. I don’t know if this is technically a fringe case but I have been mystified repeatedly by how often the fundamentals of technology are lost on users. Case in point – how broadly wireless is misunderstood. Tech has competed on making things easier and more pervasive. But clearly we have chosen not to educate. That makes me wonder where the road ends.
AC: Okay. So how does data influence your design work?
Gus Granger: Hi this is Gus Granger and data has influenced our approach to design by giving us new ways to measure the effectiveness of the work that we create for our clients so that we can make sure that we’re providing them strong investments for their businesses and not just a beautiful expenses. And that has made us a healthier business and you know provided more effective work for our clients.
Hank Richardson: Hi I’m Hank Richardson, the Director of Opportunity and Design Coach at Portfolio Center in Atlanta. Data influences everything and is everywhere. It’s noise. The potholes in the street, the clanking of knives and forks on a plate. Music, nature. The thing about data is, it’s not automatically information. Data is facts and information is the meaning that we designers give to those facts. Data all by itself has little meaning. It’s only when we
take the facts and put them together in some way that the meaning becomes clear. Information then leads to understanding.
Lawrence: Hey this is Lawrence from LADdesign. How does data influence my design? Well when I’m designing an album cover, looking at the band’s community online really helps me understand who I’m speaking to visually.
Maurice [Cherry]: Hi this is Maurice. Data has influenced by designs because it allows me to make sure that the design choices that I’m making are actually rooted in some type of logic. Usually when I do surveys or do user testing or things like that, I do those because I wanna gain information that I can use to make informed design decisions. And that’s not necessarily for me but it’s also for my clients as well. Often times depending on how close we are to our project, we can only see it in one certain way. But once we get data either from customers or from external users, it’s then we can really sort of paint the full picture about what the product should be. And that is what helps
inform and influence design.
AC: All right guys, thank you so much for being here today. In this panel we are talking about information. How we gather it, how we understand it, how we deploy it in our work, and we have 2 amazing people here for the conversation. Paco Viñoly from Nextdoor, and Anne Diaz from Airbnb. Hey guys thank you for being here.
PV: Hello, hi.
AC: So I wanna start off by thinking a little bit about how we even think about questions and information gathering. How do we ask the right questions and how do we create the best possible products and experiences with the data that we gather. Like kind of set the stage for how our own perspective and our own world views like really deeply influence the kind of questions we ask and then again – on the flip side, how we interpret it. So 2 examples come to mind.
One is, oh the great embarrassment of the Pepsi ad that just came out. Pepsi created what is universally being lauded – hm. Sarcastic term – as a completely tone deaf advertisement. So essentially it was how Pepsi’s gonna solve the social justice movements of the world by having Kendall Jenner give some riot police a can of Pepsi. And so this to me is like the most recent example of how you can take the data that you have – the information at hand and create what you believe is the best possible product with that data – and still be completely off because of missteps all along the way. So to a brand, they could be like what is the hottest thing right now? Kendall Jenner is the hottest celebrity. Social justice it the topic of conversation and the – the rising political activism of young people. And then millennials. And then they also knew that they needed to be
diverse, right? Like everybody knows that diversity is a thing that we should care about. And so they created an ad in which there’s Kendall Jenner, there’s young people. They’re protesting something – you know there’s a lot of nods to diversity. There’s a young woman in hijab, there’s black kids dancing, there’s Latinos, there’s white people. And yet and yet with all of that data they created a big mistake which they have apologized for in full. So here for me is an example of how you can believe you have all the right information at hand, and still you’re not interpreting it the right way because of your perspective, because of people who are not sitting in the room with you. Another example that I was recently discussing with Aminatou Sow, who we’ll hear from a little bit later in the show – she does a lot of work with Sundance and she was recently in conversation with a producer who was talking about how you know – studios – film studios
make decisions based on data. You know they make decisions and execute based on all of this information and the algorithms that they apply to it. And one of the data points is that women don’t create blockbuster action films. These big budget Star Wars like film. And the data has borne out that there have been no successful examples. But the point that Aminatou is making is that the reason that there’s no data that bears that out is because no woman has been given an opportunity to direct big budget film. So you know there’s all these different steps at which your perspective can really shape the decisions that you’re making. So that’s just kind of to set the frame for this conversation. You know like information data is the best. We all like kind of bow to the god of information unless we’re gathering it the wrong way and then looking at it wrong. That can really lead to some missteps. So – Anne, you’re a researcher. How do we avoid these kinds of pitfalls? Like how do we think inclusively
from the get-go as we’re gathering information?
AD: Yeah so I was thinking about this a little bit last night and just trying to think through – you know when I start on a research project how I try to approach it to make sure that I’m thinking from all the different angles that are gonna be helpful to answering this question. And I think the strategy that I try to use is figuring out what I want to do with the data that I find. So not just looking at data as like this treasure trove of information that is somehow going to tell me exactly what to do. But instead thinking about like what’s the North Star, what’s the thing that I want to do with what I learn from this information. And being really really explicit about that and upfront about it. And getting the other people that I work with to also buy into yes, this is what we wanna do with this data once we gather it. By having that kind of North Star, it really helps to number 1, figure out who you need to talk to, and it also
helps to weed out the bias that inevitably creeps in when you start looking at data. You’ll start to find things that are really interesting and that might take you on a tangent. And sometimes those tangents are really beautiful and really meaningful. But I think the most important thing is constantly – especially as a researcher as I’m interviewing people, constantly trying to understand – is what I’m hearing right now, is that gonna help with that ultimate goal that I set up to accomplish.
AD: And steering the conversation in ways that will help me get information. That ultimately will lead to that goal.
AC: That’s interesting too – that’s a great point – is that having that North Star is so essential. Because you’re not in the business of just getting any information you want. Right or –
AC: or just you know – like how do you make also the information gathering productive and useful to you.
AC: How do we question our own assumptions about what is a tangent and then what is actually
the real story.
AC: You know like –
AC: Does the North Star sometimes shift?
AD: Yeah and I think that’s why it’s really important to come up with some sort of North Star that’s actually not a hypothesis. So –
AD: there are probably many researchers who would disagree with me on this point, but instead of saying you know – I wanna prove whether or not this thing happens.
AD: When I start on a research project I am thinking about what do I need to learn in order to do X? So like we want to build a stronger profile for example on Airbnb. So what do I need to learn that will help me figure out what a strong profile looks like? And –
AD: really trying to define like where this data is going to go first instead of –
AD: I think – you know here are all my hypotheses about what people will want. You know sometimes people answer a question and you realize they’re trying to tell you something else. They’re trying to –
AD: answer a question that maybe wasn’t in the room. You know
trying to be very sensitive to that as well, because I think that the best sort of research interviews stem from people being very candid and very honest and you have to be paying attention to what people want to tell you in order to –
AD: get that real candor to come out.
AC: It’s so much about your EQ – right like
AC: your emotional intelligence and then also creating a space in which they can feel secure
AC: in actually telling you the truth.
AC: Paco, I’d like to hear from you about – from the design perspective how design can quickly respond to new information that comes in. I’d love to know kind of the insider perspective on how Nextdoor responded to you know – how the app was being used. Specifically in response to when you when you went through the exercise of like reducing racist posts on the app.
PV: Interesting. The first part of your question I think is interesting because the relationship of design
with data is always a complex one. We try to also have a North Star that we’re designing to. But it can be perhaps at times overly humbling and distracting – what the data will say
PV: to you. It’s extremely valuable for a designer to react and respond to the data but I think it has to be done in the right context and particularly in the right time frame. Because being reactive isn’t always the right thing. So I think that’s kind of in the –
PV: something I think a lot about because we do gather a lot of data and a lot of metrics at Nextdoor and making sure that we are still designing for our members is – we have to find a right balance. In terms of the racial profiling it’s a very interesting project we went through because we had designed a system that we thought was good. And it was
working. And –
AC: I mean don’t you always?
PV: Yeah exactly.
AC: We all do –
PV: that was-
AC: we’re like oh no this – why would you do it if you didn’t think it was –
PV: So we thought we had covered everything. And as we launched these things into the wild they start evolving and we start learning. And in some ways we learned as much as we could on our own. And –
PV: then we got a little help. A little help I think in different data points that informed the design and the product work we were doing. So those data points involved working with the community groups. We focused the work primarily around Oakland, here in California. It’s close to us, and we could learn a lot faster and then be able
PV: to deploy. So we worked with community groups, we worked with um for example Neighbors for Racial Justice. We worked with
PV: 100 black men, we worked with the City Council and the city government. We worked with the Police
Department. So we worked – we tried to gather as much information and perspectives. It was a difficult process for us because it’s – we were learning things that we weren’t expecting to learn. And a perspective
PV: that was completely new to us.
AC: Just very challenging topics, too. It’s not like you were learning that people use things on their iPhones instead of on their laptops.
PV: Yeah and we were learning a lot about unconscious bias. Obviously it’s unconscious so we weren’t aware that we had that.
AC: [laughs] Right, right.
PV: And trying to really get help in working through that was super valuable. We iterated –
PV: and ultimately we came up with a – with a product that has tremendous amount of friction which is not usually what we design for, especially in the –
PV: the online world. But that friction created benefits and created a positive outcome
for our members ultimately, right. So we took all the feedback from the community but ultimately we designed products for our members and the neighbors. And the outcome was something that was positive for them as a tool. It was also positive in that it helped the government, Police Department to be able to react in the right appropriate way.
AC: You have some stats there too. What was the reduction rate?
PV: Yeah you know I don’t have the latest stats- when we launched we lowered the incidence of racial profiling by 75%.
AC: That’s amazing.
AC: It’s unbelievable.
PV: It’s – we’re not gonna solve racism. And at first the initial reaction from a lot of the team was – this is human nature. But as we kind of dug deeper and rolled up our sleeves we realized that if we can make a little bit of a dent in
PV: in propagating of this behavior.
At the scale that we work at, it could be a meaningful difference. And it’s – it became a really important thing for us on the team, for us as a company, because that’s the mission
PV: that we’re on, is to make our neighborhoods better and stronger. And this was a very tangible way of seeing it come to life.
AC: Mmhm. For our listeners I am nodding vigorously into my microphone. As we say at Mash-Up, we all enter the fight at different levels and with different tools. And we can all have an impact in our own way. So as you said, Nextdoor may not solve racism. But, you have built now something that can have a real use for the communities that are using it. And can truly help them do better in that regard. And I think you raised two really important points here. And the one that I’d like to touch on first is about humility. Of course you
only – you can only beta test so much, you need to see your product out in the wild. But we also live in a world in which you know – it feels like all information is readily available. And we all need to be experts in everything. At least very much experts in our field, right? I think what we’re talking about here with humility, with asking questions, with questioning our North Star in a way is about letting ourselves being open and vulnerable – and having some humility. And realizing that like okay, I don’t have to be an expert. Like I can ask more questions and that actually will deepen and make our designs better. Right like that will make what we’re offering better by being a little bit vulnerable. And I just wanna have that in our minds as we kind of go through this conversation. Because it’s super hard to do, right. Like who wants to say that they don’t know something.
PV: Humility became a part of my life as a
designer early on. So I was just a little bit pre- the web.
AC: There was a time before the web?!
PV: A long time ago. Our listeners won’t know what I’m saying now but – but there was a time when the designer ego ruled supreme. And when –
PV: When we started working in digital and in the web and metrics, and – multivariate testing and all these statistics came into play. I think design took a humbling medicine right.
PV: The next step happened when we started working at such large scale with – for me the experience of social networks is trying to control what millions of people will want to do on your platform is a fruitless task. So working with them and facilitating what naturally happens is another big lesson for me at least in how I approach design.
that’s such a great point. Anne, how does humility play in designing research?
AD: One of the things I really love about being a researcher is that in order to be a good researcher humility is just the name of the game. I mean I think that the way to be an expert in research is to be really good at saying I don’t know but I want to find out.
AD: You know constantly challenging your own assumptions and the benefit of being a researcher too, is that you know designers have to take this information and then do something with it. And my role is to just find it. [laughs] To kind of dig it up. And I think one of the things I really enjoy as well about research is that there is something really powerful in looking at the world in the way that it is as opposed to the way that you want it to be. If we can look at something in the eye whether it’s racial profiling or discrimination and we can look at it and just see – this is how it happens.
This is what’s going on, these are the motivations that people have and this is what they’re trying to do. You kind of have then all the tools that you need to start to figure out how do we change this, and how do we –
AD: maybe make a new reality. But you have to start by really being pretty honest about what’s actually going on.
AC: I love that, I love that. And that for me, is right in this moment right now, it feels so profound to say that the first step is looking – looking reality in the eye. And I think that’s certainly been true of our work at The Mash-Up Americans which is that you know we started our exploration of race and culture and identity in America as a celebration
AC: of all the different things that make us who we are. And in the past couple months it has become a cause. We like to say we – since the election, we know better about the marketplace in which we operate. There’s a large part of that which is looking it in the eye. Looking
AC: at reality in the eye.
AC: You know the other deep theme that has arisen from the conversation so far is about community.
You know and to me at its heart both Nextdoor and Air and [sic] bnb are about building community in some way. You know Nextdoor is almost very literally you’re talking to your neighbors right? In – you’re talking to your neighbors in a digital way and then seeing them out in the wild in an analog way. And Airbnb is another kind of building community. It’s opening and sharing your home, right. And why do – why are people coming into your home if you’re a host? They’re coming into your city, into your space. They’re seeing how you – how you live in the world really by being inside your home. And I can’t really think of a more – a deeper way in which you build community and like – and make connections. And so it – you know it feels to me like – that both of these are at heart, if we’re here talking about designing solution – about being deeply inclusive. You can’t build community by necessarily being exclusive, although Paco you had a great point that like – some things have to be excluded
because if you’re in Oakland then you don’t need to include a neighbor, quote neighbor that’s in LA. Like that not
AC: part of your community. So we have boundaries around this right? Recently Kristy Tillman at Slack had been quoted in an article saying, “I found myself in places that weren’t designed for me. But surely places where I had a perspective to offer. Surely places that people already at the table needed my perspective unbeknownst to them.” And I think there’s something about that – that unbeknownst to – you don’t know what you don’t know. But then you start actively and proactively building so that you can access more. So that you can be more inclusive and that feels really important in this conversation about gathering data and how you interpret it. Anne, as you – in your experiences, you’re experimenting with different research approaches – what do different strategies reveal? You know Paco was saying a little bit about what happened when the makeup of
his team changed. What happens when the makeup of your questions change or – what are you best practices for actively avoiding exclusion as well?
AD: Yeah so one thing that we’ve been doing at Airbnb and being really really thoughtful about this – is of course because we are a travel company, and we are a global company – making sure that our research does not just happen in the Bay Area. The Bay Area is a real –
AD: not the most representative place.
AC: It’s not a good focus group for 1 as we like to say.
AD: Exactly. And you know if the question is about hosts in the Bay Area it’s a fantastic place. But when we talk about hosts in general or let’s say hosts who rent out vacation rentals or even folks who are traveling throughout the United States. We can’t just look at the Bay Area and so while we have some fantastic research labs that are in our office here in San Francisco –
we’ve really made a very conscious effort on the research team to get out of the building. And so we’ve been –
AD: conducting a lot of research that’s remote with folks all over the United States and also outside of the country as well. Many of my colleagues have been taking trips to Europe and to Asia, to Latin America. Places where we have very very high concentrations of people using Airbnb, and we need to learn from them. And so we’ve been partnering with folks in those different countries who can help us with translation and helping to set up focus groups in ways that will be comfortable and helpful. We’ve also been working a lot with our localization team. This year I got to go through a process that- I learned a new word called “trans-creation.”
AD: Trans-creation, yeah. So we were working on – I work as part of the anti-discrimination
product team at Airbnb. And we launched a community commitment to all of our hosts and all of our guests. So when you go on Airbnb, if any of you have logged in recently you’ve probably seen this. We ask everyone to make a public commitment to working to overcome their own bias and being open and accepting of others in the community. And so the way that we wrote this commitment – we wanted it to be relatively short so that people would read it. But we also wanted it to be meaningful and not to sugarcoat things. So we – but we wrote it with a very American idea in mind. So for example, we – we sort of list out all of these different protective classes that we wanna make sure that you don’t exhibit discrimination towards.
AD: And the language itself is fairly firm. It sounds a lot like sort of equal employment opportunity language that you might see in other
AD: places. What we found
is that in many other countries, China in particular, this language was not landing very well. So we had just gone through a basic translation process which is almost a word for word translation. We met with the localization team to try and figure out what was going on and they said you know, this is just – it’s really weird in Mandarin. It’s really weird. And so we sat
AD: down to go through again what’s called a trans-creation process where you take language and you take an idea and you figure out how to make it work for another culture. So instead of –
AD: just translating word for word, what was really interesting is that in Mandarin the language ended up completely changing to be more about you know – won’t you join us in helping to make the world more harmonious. So it was –
AD: much more aspirational and a – and a little bit more
AD: targeted towards like be a part of this group. And
AD: the American language was very much about like hey, you should you know do this thing as part of a community, very individual.
AD: And that was just such an interesting process.
AC: Oh and that’s
so American and so Chinese.
AD: Yes exactly exactly.
AC: That makes – of course that makes perfect sense. Oh thank you for sharing that story. I think that there’s so many lessons that are revealed in that. Also in that you know that was the lesson that Airbnb had, too. I’m sure when the service launched it wouldn’t have necessarily occurred to people that like hosts wouldn’t wanna rent to black people. Or to A- like that the is something that has to be responded to.
AC: As we posited earlier you know – design shouldn’t be reactive. But it should also be able to integrate the new information that is coming in.
AD: Mmhm. Exactly.
AC: And – I love trans-creation. I mean so much of our lives is trans-creation right? Like –
AC: in having conversations, in like building relationships. How do we express what we need to say in a way that the recipient can understand it. In order to do
that you have to have some empathy, and actively work on that to have a really fruitful and productive dialogue.
AD: Right, exactly.
AC: I love that. Do you have any other examples of how you had to trans-create something in – Argentina. Let’s go to – let’s go to Paco’s home country.
AD: I don’t have any examples that are quite as striking as that one. That whole process was honestly just such an eye-opening experience around – we can have these ideas here in San Francisco that really resonate with us and that feel – we’re so confident that they’re the right thing to do. And then when you start –
AD: talking to people outside of the office, and again this is the beauty of research. You start talking to people who have not been thinking about this for the last you know week, months, years. Research is a constant trans-creation process. You’re constantly trying to get into someone else’s head and see what you’ve been working on from their perspective. And you realize all the different biases
and all the different assumptions that we just make on a day to day basis, as soon as you put something in front of someone who is a relative stranger and you hear their initial reactions and you learn how –
AD: they’re responding to something.
AC: And I think also, what a great lesson in how much richer our own – not just for professional reasons and creating products, but how much richer our own lives become when we’re open to hearing all of these different things.
AC: And open to having our own perspectives and biases challenged. Our – I’ve been doing a little bit of soul searching on – Anne what you had raised earlier. And I love how you think about how you go into asking questions without having a hypothesis. That’s so hard to do. Because you’re like well, I think this. I bet I can find 10 examples that prove that –
AC: Right, like – and if you already have a hypothesis going into a challenge, or going into an information gathering
mode, you know obviously that’s going to slant things right? And I’ve – so I’ve been reading about p-hacking in research? Forgive me if I butcher it cause I’m a layman coming to this. A laywoman coming to this. But as I understand it, essentially it’s being – it’s taking a data set and slicing it with different hypotheses until you essentially come up with like data in one hand that fits the hypothesis in another. So that something then gets proven. I sometimes worry that like we’re at – as a culture kind of at danger of doing this at large with all of our assumptions and all of our unconscious biases. I really feel good about the fact that you’re nodding as you’re listening to me say this. And to me again this is just such a reminder about the importance of having different perspectives in a room, to be valuing a diverse set of viewpoints. And to always be thinking about how do we get more information. Always be questioning ourselves and how we look at that information.
It’s been kind of occupying me in my mind especially as like – I think in the past 6 months, year I’ve really had my world view challenged by the political climate. And I would like to know you know is this something that – Anne maybe that you think about or if you any thoughts on it.
AD: Oh yeah. I mean I think we see examples of p-hacking happening constantly. And where we’re presented with data that gives us one vision of the world. You know I’m thinking about the NY Times leading up to the election there was that like – here’s the likelihood that Clinton will win versus Trump. And how I think that –
AD: amongst my very liberal close personal circle, how that just gave us all so much confidence that this was in the bag and
AD: no big deal. Or you know more recently there was that survey that the Trump camp put out, asking questions about a whole range of issues that were really
written in such a way that that of course the story no matter what people answered was going to tell the narrative that –
AD: the administration wanted to hear. Yeah I mean I think like data can be very dangerous because we all do have biases and we all do want to hear the things that reinforce our own beliefs. I won’t say that I’m great at doing that all the time. I think you know we’re all human and one of the ways that I’ve been trying in my research to make sure that I’m staying open minded is when I figure out who I want to talk to – I do that based on characteristics that are already proven. So for example, if I’m talking to guests, I come up with criteria of – you know I wanna talk to people who traveled on Airbnb for the first time in the last week. And the reality is, there are so many different people for whom that’s true. And so just by narrowing
down my criteria to something again that like I know is true in the data, and I’m not looking for things like where – where do they live and what their gender is and what their age is. I can sort of automatically get this broader, much more interesting set of people who match that one criteria. So that’s one sort of – it’s not even a great strategy really, but that’s one way in which I try to make sure that I’m talking to a wide range of people.
AD: By narrowing in on what I think is the most important criteria, then letting everything else be open from there.
AC: Open. That’s – that’s definitely a recurring theme in this conversation. How do we be open? Which I think leads me to my final question, which is – how do we do better? You know how do we ask better questions, how do we challenge our own assumptions? How
do we bring more perspectives into our work? Paco if you have any tips or any personal ways in which you are tackling this challenge?
PV: I mean I agree with everything that Ann was talking about. I think from my perspective the things that I – that I tend to do and they’re not revolutionary and they’re not – they’re not by any means my invention. But I try to – whenever I come into a design challenge is to ask the why question. And to ask it you know at least 5 times. You know I’m sure this is the Toyota way of manufacturing right? And to really driving to the core problem that you’re solving. We all come with preconceived notions of what the problem is and how to solve it. And usually it can be very different. So
you know in the past few years have relied on that system to ask why at least 5 times. And with time you get better at asking the next question, right.
PV: I found that if you do that in practice, you usually get to a more focused core of the problem. Which can – then when you back out of it you can design a solution that’s much more effective.
AC: I love that. Asking why and asking why continuously throughout the process. Anne, what about you? Any single tip?
AD: Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about this idea of a growth mindset. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that but it’s a concept that a psychology named Carol Dweck out of Stanford has spent a lot of her career thinking about. And it’s really beautiful concept which is that when you have a growth mindset. So when you’re in – when you approach the world and you approach problems with this idea of I
can learn and I can grow. Which also inherently means, I don’t know right now. You absorb information and you can change your mind at an incredible rate. And this is a really powerful concept in children but it’s also been proven out in adults as well. So priming people with this idea of a growth mindset, that you can change the way that you think. You can learn a new skill, you can learn something new – can make people open to so many different experiences and so many different new ideas. And so I’ve been trying to remind myself constantly that I wanna be in this growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset which lends itself to saying things like, oh I’m an expert already. Or I’m really smart or I’m a great designer or I’m a great researcher. Constantly telling myself, I can be a better researcher. I can learn more about this. I don’t know as much about this as I want to. I really want to to understand this better. Growth mindset is
my – my hack
AC: I love
AD: to that.
AC: that. Always ask why and always have a growth mindset. Well with that, thank you so much Paco and Anne. This was a fantastic conversation.
AD: Thank you.
PV: Thank you.
AC: I love the idea that practicing a little vulnerability and humility can lead to wisdom. I mean we can all just be a little bit more humble and do our best to look deeper at our assumptions. And as Anne said, do our best to look at the world as it is and not what we want it to be. I’ll add that once we have a clear picture, let’s gather up our optimism and creativity and design it to be better. We have more on X.design.blog so go check out all the good stuff there, and we wanna know – how do you ask questions? How do you see the world you live in? I’ll tell you how we do it – with love, always. Share with us on Twitter at hashtag, #DesignX. Now, onto a keynote I am so excited about as a personal beneficiary of the NEA.
Joan Shigekawa, former acting chairwoman of the National Endowment of the Arts and a longtime executive at the Rockefeller foundation is here to talk to us about how we marshal our creative talents to help those most in need. Art is the future guys, and Joan is here to help us pave the way.
JS: When we talk about exclusion from design, exclusion from technology and exclusion from art, what we are really asking is, who exactly is building the future infrastructure for collaboration, for communication and for creativity in our country? And who’s country is it? When the data tells us that there are so many voices missing from the fields of technology, art and design. And that these fields are dominated by a single subset of people who share 2 characteristics. They’re white and they are male. What opportunities do we miss when we exclude voices
from technology, art and design – first we certainly miss opportunities of imagination. Here is Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, about what art does. Quote, “Art makes space. It makes space for aspiration. It makes a space to instigate change. It creates space through the ability to provide the opportunity for dialogue. The opportunity for reflection. So the kind of space making, the mental space the intellectual space, the emotional space – the political space that art creates is what makes it such a disruptive force.” And I would add, such a force for change. Art shapes our storytelling and creates our images. When most women and most people of color are missing from the picture,
we are in fact missing the ideas and energy of the majority of Americans. Ideas and energy which could create new modes of communication, new products and services, an new approaches to complex problems. Second, what opportunities are we missing when technology design is dominated by one kind of person? When our field of vision in technology is narrow, we limit the range of ideas for a vibrant user experience. We block opportunities for participation. Thus, when we learn that IBM has recently hired 1,000 designers to join their engineering teams, in an effort to create innovation at the interface between humans and machines – we have to ask. Who are these designers and what range of human experience do their choices reflect?
And when we learn that designers are hard at work on the internet of things we have to ask, who are these designers? And what are the incentives for them to design for those most in need? In the past 10 years, we’ve come to the realization that designers have been trained to focus their attention on the top 10% of the world’s population. And 90% o the world’s population does not benefit from design in their daily lives. It was a museum which highlighted the issue of inequality in design as a national concern. The Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum with their groundbreaking exhibition – Design for the Other 90%. This show demonstrated how design had the potential to be a lifesaving force at home and around the world. And in her second show, Design
with the Other 90% the curator, Cynthia Smith, went onto demonstrate how the power of design could be even further strengthened through collaboration with grassroots innovators and end users. If currently excluded voices are not part of the ongoing design process, how will we ensure that access to technology’s innovations will remain open to all? Failure to enable access for all citizens represents not only a missed opportunity but also a threat to democracy’s goal of equality. How do we design technology and create communication that builds bridges across our differences and doesn’t drive us to talk only to people who are just like ourselves. For example, how do we design a system to enable art, science and technology to compliment each other’s thinking and generate new ideas.
How do we build a platform for interaction among groups who have very different beliefs and value systems? These are all design issues. American innovation must be able to access the full range of ideas and cultural imagination available to us or we may not be able to solve the complex problems that we face. But there is good news. We have proof that if you build platforms for full participation – platforms which do away with command and control structures. Platforms that are open to all and not just to experts. You can tackle complex challenges with success. Here are just 3 examples and you probably know of many more. Think about the early days of the wiki more than 2 decades and what amazing access to knowledge it has produced. Next consider InnoCentive – a
company which developed open innovation through crowdsourcing by involving anyone to provide solutions to research and development problems in applied science. And last, consider Joi Ito’s grassroots citizen science action to measure levels of radiation around the world. It began with a nuclear power plant accident in Japan which put his family in danger. He started with a question the government was not answering about how much radiation exposure his family had sustained. Joi who is now head of the Media Lab at MIT instantly asked for help from the internet. Others contributed resources, ideas and data and the collaboration grew until an interactive network of knowledge was built. They named it, Safecast and it is now the world’s largest open data set of radiation measurements. Joey Ito’s central
point is that to build the project, they used a compass and not a map. They did not stop to map out a grand plan – but rather built solutions to each obstacle as it came up. Now these examples are all very different. But what they have in common is a faith in human intuition and imagination. And a commitment to inclusion. Let me quote Joi Ito one last time. Quote: “So I think the good news is that even though the world is extremely complex, what you need to do is very simple. Focus on being connected, always learning, fully aware and super present. Now these are the attributes of art. The tools of design and the building blocks of technology. And this is how we can make a 21st century America that includes all of us. Our best ideas, our many dreams
for the future.” Thank you.
AC: I certainly don’t wanna miss an opportunity of imagination and I don’t think any of you do either. So thank you so much Joan for your insights. We have hit the halfway mark for the conference. We’ve laid out the problem, we’ve explored our assumptions and now it’s time to talk about how we talk to each other. You know so we all live online and on social media to a certain extent. And I would hazard a guess that most of us here have conversations and share pictures and stories about ourselves online. The thing is, literally anybody anywhere in the world can access all of us with just a little know-how. Both good guys and bad guys. As a laywoman, I try to avoid thinking about it too hard because it’s just uh too terrifying? But I’m glad that there are people who think about this all the time. And we’ve gotten a few of them together here for you. Aminatou Sow, co-founder of Tech LadyMafia and co-host of Call Your Girlfriend is moderating a great
discussion between Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the MIT Center for Civic Media and Erin McKean, founder of Wordnik, the largest online dictionary. Coming up first, a few designers on their personal social media policies. Coming up first – a few designers on their personal social media policies and the lines they draw. Maria Giudice of Autodesk will lead us off with why she doesn’t draw on the lines.
Maria Giudice: One of the things about me is I’m very comfortable with privacy and lack of privacy which is kind of odd being a woman. And a lot of people in my age grew up and they’re really afraid of giving up like personal information. I feel like my – as long as I can go through life and be incredibly human and honest, I don’t change the way I talk between an intern and a CEO, I have a lot of integrity in my life. I feel like I have the freedom to be as open and honest as possible. So I quite over
share on Facebook. I do it for the benefit of my kids cause when I – when I die, they’ll have that whole chronology of their crazy mom. You know, I’m pretty open online and I don’t make a distinction between my online persona and my real life persona.
Dian Holton: Hi, my name is Dian Holton, I’m the Deputy Art Director with AARP Media. I post my interests when it comes to social media.
And those interests are pop culture, fashion, design, education, and diversity as it relates to the arts. I don’t usually discuss government politics on any of my feeds. Mainly because I don’t wanna get into a cyber rant with anyone or have something I stated be misinterpreted. Given this current political climate, I don’t wanna be depressed. We live in dark times, and I’d rather use the majority of my social media empowering, educating and inviting people to escape to a land of rainbows and unicorns.
Jenn Maer: Hi I’m Jenn Maer. I’m a Portfolio Director at IDEO. My personal social media policy
is to never post or comment while inebriated. I learned that lesson the hard way. I also take social media breaks pretty regularly.
Ti [Chang]: Hi my name is Ti, designer and co-founder of Crave. My personal social media policy is basically – if I hesitate before posting, that’s when I kind of pause and I think about hm, maybe I shouldn’t post this. Or if it – if anything that I write in the heat of the moment that gives me a little bit of pause, I kind of let that marinate a little bit and often times I delete it. And usually it’s the right call.
AS: Hello listeners, it’s Aminatou, and today, we’re talking about well – conversation. How can we make online engagement and interaction more civil? How do we design tools and experiences that facilitate social engagement? How do we develop a language that is more nuanced and less exclusive so
we can talk more deeply about all of these issues? All big, meaty subjects, so I’m really excited to have with me today, Erin McKean, Lexicographer and Founder of the online Dictionary, Wordnik, and Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT Media Lab, Welcome to the show, both of you.
EZ: Great to be with you.
EM: Thank you.
AS: Great. Erin, can you tell us more about Wordnik and how that came to be and what the reaction to it has seemed to be online?
EM: Sure, how much time do you have? So um –
AS: 20 seconds.
EM: So Wordnik – [laughs] Wordnik is an online native dictionary. It’s the world’s biggest
EM: dictionary by number of words. Not by number of users sadly. And the goal of Wordnik is to collect and share every single word of English. And most people aren’t aware that more than half of the unique words in the
English language don’t actually have traditional dictionary definitions. So we’re trying to not write definitions for all these words but collect really good example sentences that show how these words are used in context. Because most of the words you learn in your life you probably learn them in context rather than reading a dictionary definition. And I would say that the reaction to Wordnik is, if this is the kind of thing you like, you really like Wordnik.
AS: Then we really like Wordnik. How do you think your work with that dovetails into this conversation that we’re having today about being more inclusive and designing spaces that facilitate the healthy online engagement that we’re looking for?
EM: I think – well Wordnik’s policy is basically one of radical inclusion. If someone uses a word somewhere and they intend to be speaking English, we want – we wanna record that. And I think a lot of the discussion that goes on around
– some kinds of inclusive languages, is people get derailed about whether or not a term is a word. And honestly, they’re all words. What people are really arguing about is whether they want to include that word in their own vocabularies.
AS: That’s fair. Ethan, what does the MIT uh lab’s research real is kind of the most – or some of the most pressing issues around online harassment right now?
EZ: So a lot of the work that we’re doing at the Media Lab around online harassment really looks at this role of moderators. It asks this question of who is setting the rules of the road of the community that you’re based in. There’s a lot of tension in communities like Twitter that I think err towards being radically inclusive and in ways that sometimes mean that we’re not actually taking care of users within the space. And within systems like that, you’ll see people getting together
and essentially saying, could we make this a safer space, could we make this a more speech friendly space? Can we find a way to share blacklists or sort of block people who we know to be harassing. In many ways we’re much more interested in spaces like Reddit where moderators are able to say, here are the rules of the road for our space and we’re gonna try to listen to you and evolve those roles with you so that we can get to a place where people can express themselves but we also have a space where people don’t feel attacked and chased away.
AS: That’s really interesting, what you’re saying about the roles of the moderators. What do you – I guess you know like how do we make sure that the moderators themselves are you know diverse or that the pool that we’re choosing from is inclusive?
EZ: It’s a really good question. And in a community like Reddit which tends to skew young and male
you’re likely to have a lot of communities that may well have a rule set that favors jocularity or you know favors outrage in one set or another. The trick is that communities where people can choose whether to participate or not, people can gravitate towards the moderators that they want to support and they want to work with. And so you know there are spaces on Reddit like TwoXChromosomes which tend to be women talking to one another that have female moderators, that tend to have very different rules of the road than some of the other communities where people might be supporting harassment, egging people on. I think the real issue is that a lot of communities don’t think about the fact that they are moderating. They see themselves as platforms. And they essentially say look, everyone’s here on an equal basis, but of course there’s moderation happening behind the scenes. Those moderators
in many cases aren’t aware of their own biases. They aren’t aware of the rules that they’re bringing to the road. And this is where we end up with situations on Facebook where Facebook decides across the board that they’re going to block all images of female breasts, not considering breast feeding communities or not considering breast cancer survivor communities. There really needs to be a lot more thought about who gets to moderate these spaces. Who they’re listening to, and what are the rules that they end up adhering to.
AS: I mean on some level, it’s almost kind of ridiculous that some of these platforms have been around for so long – and questions like that are not baked into the process. You know I think – I think that that example that you gave about the breastfeeding communities is real. We’ve seen that a lot also around communities of people who discuss cancer and mastectomies. And really I think you know something that is so apparent is that this is – it’s
never the – these questions of what community moderation will look like or community conversations or these various . They’re never part of the initial design of the platform whatever the platform is. And so some of the fallout that you see around those conversations or frustration that the users have is because it’s an afterthought as opposed to something that’s baked into the actual product.
EZ: So one of the things that I think happens and I’d love to hear Erin what you think about this, but I think people tend to assume that tech is hard and humans are easy. And in my experience, tech is easy and humans are hard. And so I think what happens is companies hire – you know badass highly paid hyper confident engineers and assume that they’re going to build a platform that is perfect and expand and grow forever. And then at some point when they realize they need community managers you know with the rounding error in their budget, that’s who they end up
hiring. I think in many cases it probably needs to be the other way around. All of these social media systems at their heart, depend on human beings interacting with one another in productive and interesting ways. And it drives me nuts that we hire the engineers first and never the anthropologists.
EM: I think that’s really rue and I also think that the structure of most tech companies is that they very – they very much value what they consider to be scalable. Like platforms. And not what they consider to be not-scalable like human moderators. And I think you can’t overlook the fact that that kind of human labor is often very feminized so it’s valued even less.
EZ: I think in many cases, moderation has really strong aspects of emotional labor associated with it. This concept that only are you doing the job, but there’s this added layer of work whereas you’re being polite and caring
to people who are often being awful and difficult. And that emotional labor tends absolutely to be feminized. It’s an idea that came out of customer service, came out of airline flight attendants. But it absolutely has moved on to community moderation. And my experience is it does end up being a profession when people are hiring for it that is disproportionately female and often ends up being a path into a company for women who are not coming in with a strong technical background but does end up feminizing it in exactly that everyone’s describing.
AS: Yeah I think it’s interesting too Ethan that early on we touched on Reddit and we talked about you know the kind of the young male moderators on that platform and other platform. All of you know – I think a lot of us have – or a lot of women have anecdotal knowledge and personal experience that people who troll us online are
also young and male. And I was wondering does the Lab have any conclusive research on who online trolls are?
EZ: It’s hard because it’s very difficult to get trolls to stand up and identify themselves. And almost everybody is working through a scrim of anonymity. I think this is why the recent story on This American Life about – and I’m blanking on Lindsay’s last name. Do –
AS: About Lindy – Lindy West confronting –
EZ: Thank you.
AS: her troll who had been –
EZ: Thank you so much.
AS: harassing her online, yeah.
EZ: Right so the –
AS: It’s such a great example –
EZ: So – so when
AS: of that.
EZ: Lindy West wrote that brilliant essay about confronting this troll who had done just horrific things – had literally seized her deceased father’s account to make fun of her online. And then had a conversation with the guy and discovered that it was really about his loneliness and self-loathing –
but had been taken out on her in just this absolutely horrible fashion. I do think there is an intuition that there’s a lot of young, lonely men involved with this. I think what’s hard is that trolling means so many different things these days. In some ways it really has become a weaponized tool of political discourse in certain corners of the internet. And then I think you’re really asking the question of who is being led to that form of alt-right politics. Who is really engaged in that sort of speech. But it’s really hard to get a troll census. It’s much easier to get troll behavior. It’s actually a lot easier to get evidence of people who have been trolled and have been harassed because they reach out to each other. And there we know that it’s disproportionately female. It’s disproportionately women of color. And if anything, what it really is is strong women who are willing to take a
stand and voice their opinions online.
AS: Erin, what are your insights on how language becomes weaponized online?
EM: I think people are quick to – to talk about hurtful terms and blame the language. But what it really comes down to is respect for like the personhood of other people. And so coming up with term-
AS: Can you expand more on that?
EM: Sure. Like – I – I wanna talk a little bit about like you know choosing what pronouns to use. And a lot of people deliberately misgender folks online as a way to demonstrate their disrespect. Or they dead name trans people online as a way to demonstrate their disrespect for that person and what their preferences are. And of course there are a lot of derogatory
terms. I think probably cuck is the big – biggest example right now. And the whole premise of that word it that you have a woman in your life who is your partner but no, she’s really a thing. And disrespect for that thing. Reflects poorly on your manhood. And so it all comes down to how can we use language to disrespect and other some person either by disregarding their preferences, disregarding their beliefs, disregarding kind of their personhood.
EZ: Erin, I’m wondering are you finding yourself doing any work on the etymology of some of the terms that are emerging around online harassment? I find myself thinking of something like sea-lioning. Which I understand to be this practice of sort of going in and seizing someone else’s conversation. Essentially sticking around to
sort of force them into pseudo civil conversation with you. Do you find yourself you know sort of documenting the coinage of new terms around some of these types of harassment?
EM: I wish that – I wish that at Wordnik we had the resources to do some of that research. Etymology is really the only thing that’s – that’s hard to do with techmining and to automate. But I think it’s really interesting and kind of the only bright spot in this about how creative people are in picking up these terms and spreading them. Like I think mansplaining is probably like a – a triumph of being added to the English language because it went from kind of being a very quick throwaway term. But it resonated so much with people that now it’s almost – I would say entirely –
AS: But but it really wasn’t
EM: standard English.
AS: right? I don’t know it’s – I feel that – I think that that word mansplaining is really important for example, as that – I think it’s interesting
that you – you kind of coded it that way. But the truth is that there has – there is a thriving feminist community online that has really come out of whatever we think the third wave feminist moment is. And – and these online feminism communities have their – they have their own language, they have their own codes of conduct. And really their own arguments for what skin in the game, kind of online is. And mansplaining is something that yes, seemed like such a throwaway term but really captured the core of what we experience online everyday. You know it’s like there’s not a single woman on Twitter who doesn’t have an experience of telling a joke and a man like telling that joke back to her trying to explain to them or doing these – you know these like just very gender dynamics that seem really silly when they’re one-offs but really when you look at how pervasive they are and how much just time and energy they take away
from you – I think that it is – it’s kind of a testament to the fact that like women are fed up online, that we come up with this language together.
EM: Oh totally like I don’t – I – I don’t mean to indicate that I think that it is a throwaway term. I think that when it was – first started to be covered in like non-feminist media it was kind of treated like ha-ha. But women’s – pushed back and said no, this is real thing. This is not a joke.
AS: Yeah you know it’s like I think about the – you know you and I are both members of the Tech LadyMafia. One of the things that’s really interesting about TLM is that when we started it, we – there – my cofounder Erie Meyer and I are the only 2 moderators. And I use moderator like in the loosest of terms. We are – we’re essentially never around. Somebody has to alert us to problems. But I want us – you know and all – we have a very loose code of conduct that is you know essentially like don’t be a jerk, give
people the benefit of the doubt. And this is kind of a – this is a private space but also don’t expect your privacy not to be – not to be trampled on here because we can’t trust everybody online. And it’s been really interesting to me that probably in 5 years now of us having that community, there have been very few dustups as opposed to other same kind of communities that I’m a part of. And I don’t know what that you know – I don’t know that it’s – speaks specifically to women in tech being you know like being a certain kind of person as much as – to the fact that we set these kind of very loose boundaries and let everybody participate in enforcing them. I was wondering like as a member what your – you know like both your take on that is and what your experience has been in the group.
EM: It feels like a very, I would say, benefit-of-the-doubt type space. It’s one of the few, like, big group discussions –
that I’m a part of where I don’t like dread opening the digest email. I always learn something from people in the group, and whenever I have a request to make or a question to ask, I don’t, you know, scrunch up my shoulders, like, prepping myself for the onslaught of like, “How could you be so stupid?” responses, right? [laughter] And I also feel like it’s one of the places where there’s a deliberate effort made on the part of the participants to try to understand people’s intent, and to assume good intent. And good intent does not obviate bad behavior, but if you look at it from the point of view of like, “Oh, you were trying to do x but actually you did y, so let’s figure out how we could get you back to x.”
AS: Yeah, you know, I think that that’s in the design of the listserv, that was probably the value that was the most importance to us, was just never jumping to conclusions about someone, until you figured it out. In some weirdly serendipitous way it has worked out, but I—yeah, sometimes we wonder about that, I was like, “This is very strange.” Also I think it’s because we usually tend to not talk about politics, so that probably helps too.
EZ: I think that assumption of goodwill is so important, and to sort of say, “I know that your intentions must be good so now let’s figure out what just happened there.” One of the groups that I got quite involved with for a while when I had my child was Nuevo Dads, and it was a group of men who’d recently had kids, and just talking about parenting advice and trying to have a space where people could ask questions.
Another father asked a question about sleep training, and I jumped into the thread because Drew had just gone through sleep training, and another member of the thread basically reacted by saying, “You guys are horrible. I can’t believe you would ever make a child sleep in his own bed. What’s wrong with you?” And the entire conversation just sort of came to this screeching halt. And it turns out that sleep training is one of these things like politics, that–
AS: Oh, it’s the third rail. I watched a community of like, over 2,000 women, who had been supportive over the years, completely disintegrate over a sleep-training question.
EZ: I never returned. [laughs] And it was so sad, because, you know, I had tried to jump in and sort of share my experience, and the rest of the community sort jumped on this guy, essentially saying, “Wait a second, I can’t believe that you’re taking on these people and making them feel bad.”
But it was just for me, it was this this reminder of just how fragile these communities are. You really only have to hit one of the speed bumps and unless you have really careful moderation to get you through it, these things can fall apart as quickly as they come together. The fragility of community amazes me.
AS: Yeah, why do you think it is that we still, it’s been so hard to scale that sort of sense of benefit of the doubt in all of these online communities, whether it’s listservs, or it is Twitter, or the bigger platforms?
EZ: So my take on it is that low barrier to entry tends to equal low barrier to exit. You get involved with this, all you had to do was respond to a couple of emails, if it doesn’t work, I’ll walk away and I’ll find another place to be.
And in that sense online community can feel very very different from physical community where, if I really have a falling out with my neighbors, and it really falls apart, I might have to move. I might have to pick up and move all of my stuff. This isn’t to say that people don’t end up with online communities that end up enormously important and end up being sort of major parts of their lives. But I think many of these communities, they can have that fragility because the cost of entering or exiting ends up being so low.
AS: Yeah, I mean, I think that you’re right, because I think that we see this a lot, especially for communities where, I’ll speak as a person of color, whenever there is that like, whatever the equivalent of the sleep training politics question is that has made me leave a listserv, is you find that the next place that you go becomes smaller. And so you become excluding of the kind of, or you try to be excluding of the kind of perspective that you have. Like I’ve noticed a lot, since the election for example, in my friend circle, that people are communicating more via these large text message threads that are, you know, it’s like 5 or 6 or 10 people, but it’s, you are literally choosing who your people are.
And in some regard I’m like, yes, this feels like a great safe space. And in another way it’s, you know, it’s really sad that people feel driven away for whatever reason from these larger groups.
EZ: So I’m seeing exactly the same thing around closed spaces, I’m seeing a lot of conversations moving to WhatsApp groups. I think the phenomenon of the private Facebook group is a really interesting one. I’ve seen people who have minority political opinions, they’re pro-Trump in an anti-Trump state, sort of move into those spaces. The really interesting downside of all of this is that you lose that visibility of the conversation. And so the echo chambers get even deeper. For us over at Global Voices, it’s a huge problem.
So dialogues that used to happen on blogs, that used to happen on sort of, public Facebook pages, they’re all in private WhatsApp groups now. And the conversations are fascinating, but the ethics of, how do you share it, how do you bring it out. I’m on a WhatsApp group with activists in a Middle Eastern nation. And they’ve all stopped writing publicly because they’re really concerned about having their words out in public. They write a ton on this WhatsApp group, but the whole question of, “Are we allowed to share that? And if we don’t share that, you know, do we essentially just have silence coming from this country?” It’s a really weird switch in the online dialogue space.
AS: Are you seeing any platforms or people that are working in tech to remedy this? Because I think that you’re absolutely right, we’re losing so much of the public-facing conversation and in some way it is, like to me at least it seems that some of the responsibility, not all of it but some of it, rests on these platforms being spaces where we can do that safely.
But on the other hand, everybody’s so much more aware of surveillance now, everybody is so much more aware of, you know, all of the ways that people have ill intentions towards especially, you know, global justice movement work. And so I think that that’s going to be a delicate balance to strike.
EZ: So I see tons of students coming to my door with ideas for tools to increase dialogue. I see people all the time coming up with an idea for how to fix Twitter or fix Facebook so that you break out of echo chambers or filter bubbles. What I’m not seeing a lot of is responsibility coming from the platform owners themselves. What I would really love to see is these companies start thinking about a double bottom line.
So when you look at newspapers, like high quality newspapers, like The Washington Post or The New York Times, they’re trying to make money but they also do things all the time that lose the money but are important for civic reasons. So they cover stories that they know aren’t going to get a huge amount of attention. You know, Aminatou, I follow West African coverage very closely. That doesn’t get a whole lot of clicks, but it’s critically important so that people know what’s going on with Boko Haram in Nigeria.
EZ: So when The Times is doing that, they are basically playing the two bottom lines. And I would love to see Facebook think of themselves in terms of two bottom lines. How do they make money? But how do they build and deploy tools that are designed to help us have better conversations, help us speak freely, help us listen to and talk with a diverse range of people.
AS: So earlier on we talked about the psychology and the emotional work and the burden that moderating is.
Is there any specific technology that you’re seeing that are great tools for facilitating this creation of safer productive online spaces? And that’s for both of you.
EZ: Sure, so I’ll call on research by one of my doctoral students, Nathan Matias, who is finishing up his dissertation right now. And his dissertation focuses on a piece of software he wrote called Civil Servant. And what Civil Servant tries to do is to help moderators of online communities test rule changes. So a concrete example of it, the people on Reddit who are moderating our world news are pretty concerned about fake news. They’re concerned about stories that are just entirely made up. And so they have a list of sources that frequently get accused of fake news, and they sort of have the question, “Do we just downvote these, do we ban them, do we prevent them?”
What they ended up doing was they used Civil Servant to do some A/B testing. So they had three options, they could put up these stories without any comment, they could put them out and flag them and say, “Hey, this comes from a platform that often seems to turn out fake news. You should examine it very carefully.” And then there’s a third case which is “You should examine it very carefully, and downvote it if it’s fake news.” And so they set up these three conditions, they test it, it turns out that that second condition, of “You should examine it very carefully,” that works very well to get fake news out of your feed.
EZ: Telling people to examine it closely and downvote it does not work well, because people on Reddit do not like being told what to do. So the point is not that this is magically a fix to fake news, the real point of this is that this is a way to do experimentation.
So even in a system where you don’t control the algorithm, you don’t have control over all the levers, as a moderator, you can do experimentation, and you can make a system work better for yourself. Nathan points to a whole class of systems that people are starting to call “successor systems.” And these are ways to basically work within a platform that you don’t control, but work for more fairness or work for more worker rights, or work for beneficial outcomes, even if you don’t control the playing field. It’s the successor to the system that you have to work within.
AS: Erin, what do you think?
EM: I see a lot of people kind of always thinking that the next thing around the corner is gonna solve this problem on a technical level. I think a lot of people are pinning hopes on way better automatic image recognition, because I think we’ve seen that text filters are—they just don’t work. People work around them so quickly. And then you also have to worry about the Scunthorpe problem.
And also with those kind of really terrible image memes that go around, you have to do a lot of juggling to get a text-based filter to work with those. So I don’t really see that kind of barrier-type tech helping at all. I think a lot of what Ethan’s talking about is kind of nudging people to be the best version of themselves. Asking them to think about things to kind of short-circuit that direct trigger between seeing something and doing something. Giving people a moment to pause and reflect seems to work a lot. I think probably my favorite text-based moderation tool is pretty old now, it was used a lot on the blog Making Light, “disemvoweling,” where you take people’s negative comments and just take all the vowels out.
AS: Oh wow!
EM (cont): So they’re still there and they’re kind of readable, but it takes just a little bit more cognitive effort to understand what’s going on. And it turns out that trolls get really mad if you just delete their comments. But if you take all the vowels out, it doesn’t seem to have the same effect on them, and then of course people can see what’s going on. [laughs] But there’s something about adding just a little bit of friction, that makes people slow their roll.
AS: I’ve just started calling all of my trolls. Whenever…the thing that’s really funny about, on Twitter specifically, when somebody with like, 20 followers, says something unpleasant to you, it turns out that when you email them, or when you Google them, the only two things you can find out about them is exactly where they live and exactly where they work. Because they have no other digital footprint.
And so, I like, depending on the offense, have been like really mercenary. Where I will like, call them at work and say, “Hi! This is Amina from the Internet.” And like, those conversations have been hilarious. Twice I had teenagers, and talking to their school yielded perfect results for me. But it’s so much work.
EM: Now, that would be great if you could build some kind of Twilio Twitterbot that you could just point and have a recorded message play. That would save you a lot of time.
AS: Exactly! It would save me a lot of time. I mean, now I have a script. It’s kind of, it’s amazing how people will be their worst selves until you, until they realize that you also know something about them, you know? It’s kind of something that they never realize. But yeah, unfortunately none of those things are scaleable, or I would also be a tech millionaire. [laughs]
EZ: So they might be scaleable as people find ways to start working together, right? So there’ve been so many creative efforts on Twitter for women who’ve been facing harassment to exchange blacklists and block lists.
And it would be really interesting to see whether there’s a way to sort of escalate. So you’ve called some of these trolls, but maybe there’s others where you end up throwing your script at them, you get the information, but you decide that they’re not worth your time. They may well be trolling someone else out there, and you may have saved someone the 15 minutes of trying to figure out who they are. The other thing is, the more you talk about it, the more you share the information on it, maybe the more it becomes a normal form of practice. But I have to say, I just love that idea of, “Hi! I’m Amina from the Internet. I’ve actually stepped out of my screen and into your life, even if only through a phone call.” I can imagine the sort of terror that would go through the head of a troll who assumed that he, and I’m assuming most of these people are he, was anonymous–
AS: Oh, 100 percent of the time. [laughs]
EZ (cont): –harassing you with impunity.
AS: Yeah, you know, that Lindy West story that you brought up earlier to me is so illustrative of this whole problem, right, where, somebody can do something so despicable to you, but you call them up, you talk to them, turns out they’re just another regular human being. And the thing about that is terrifying is that, I dunno, at least with some of the human that I’ve talked to is just this realization that just like anybody can be a troll, you know? Because I think about that man specifically and he was so well adjusted in his life. And it, it’s kind of this boundary where you’re…because of the interactions that you have online, it really affects the IRL, real life interactions that you have with people and seeing how those norms change and how emotionally it affects you in all of those ways.
But I guess as we kind of wrap up the show, I was wondering if—and we’ve done a little bit of this—but if you had specific personal advice for our listeners to create better conversations and engagement in their communities, if you had any tactical tips that are not, you know, not my weaponized, call-people-at-work and terrify-them-in-the-middle-of-the-day even though it works. [laughs] Like what are things you think would be useful for our listeners to hear?
EM: So it’s probably just my personal bias as a linguist and a lexicographer but I always feel that you really get a good perspective on what other people think just by looking at the words they use, like what’s the terminology they prefer, what contexts do they use those words in, can you mirror that language back to them, so that they feel heard and understood? Like if you go into a conversation intent on using your own vocabulary even if it’s not the vocabulary of the space, you kind of stick out like a sore thumb. But if you try deliberately to become fully part of the conversation, to use the language of the group, then things, at least in my experience, tend to go more smoothly.
EZ: So I’ll offer two that I try to do. The first is that I’m not expecting the platforms to solve the diversity problem anytime soon. So I try to engage in audits periodically of what I’m reading, I will you know, take a week and just kind of keep track in a notebook or a text file, what I’m reading, who I’m paying attention to, or look at my Twitter feed. And when I feel like I’m getting too concentrated, I’m listening to too many men, I’m listening to too many white men, I’m listening to too many liberals, um, I’ll try to do some pruning and I’ll try to do some adding. And so I think taking on that responsibility, for who you’re choosing to pay attention to, I think that ends up potentially being very helpful.
The other is that I try very, very hard in social media to take two or three deep breaths before I respond. So, to the extent that I get harassment online, it has to do with my role 20 years ago in unleashing the pop-up ad on the world. And every so often, someone will find an article that I wrote on The Atlantic three years ago talking about this, and you know, fire off a death threat. And so anytime I see someone mentioning pop-ups, I’m sort of expecting hatred. And so I got a, not a particularly well crafted tweet about this a little while ago. And I took two or three breaths, and I wrote back to the person, and somewhere in the exchange, we discovered that he’s a high school student, ten miles away from my rural town way out in western Massachusetts. And the end of the whole thing is I ended up coming and speaking to his high school computer science class, which was sort of awesome.
But would not have happened had I sort of reacted with my initial reaction which was assuming that he was attacking me. So I find that that deep breath helps me a lot.
AS: This was such a great conversation. There’s so much, so much more that we could’ve touched on. For more resources, and to keep the conversation going, head over to x.design .blog. Ethan and Erin, thank you both for taking the time, and I hope to see you both very soon.
EM: Thank you so much!
EZ: Thanks for having us. Great conversation.
Amy S. Choi (ASC): Okay, so a couple takeaways here: One, recognize the personhood of other persons because that’s the humane thing to do and honestly it’s just not that hard. Two, give people the benefit of the doubt as a means of opening up real channels of communication, whether online or in person. Three, never have a public opinion on sleep training. And four, there is a huge opportunity for somebody that wants to build a bot that can help Amina to frighten her trolls. So if anybody wants to get on that I am sure she and many other women in the world would welcome it.
ASC: Because as Ethan said, tech is easy and humans are hard. To join the very human conversation about design and exclusion happening right now, head to Twitter, #designx. You can check out more of Ethan and his team’s research on online engagement and internet freedom at the MIT Center for Civic Media at civic.mit.edu. It’s time for our final panel before we move into the live portion of our design and exclusion conference. I am so excited to share with you my conversation with Aarron Walter, VP of Design Education at InVision, and none other than Matt Mullenweg, the Founder and Chief Executive of Automattic. Automattic is, duh, one of the conveners of this incredible conference. And on a personal tip, we at the Mash-Up Americans owe Matt a forever debt of gratitude, as our website, MashUpAmericans.com, obviously runs on WordPress. Thank you, Matt, and the team at Automattic, for creating an ecosystem where we can share original stories from the true center of American culture and amplify voices that are typically marginalized from the mainstream conversation.
So, amplifying voices and encouraging leadership from the margins is one of the ways that we are tackling the problem of exclusion. But there are so, so, so many more strategies for the fight, including broadening our perspectives, changing our language, and engaging with people who challenge us. And of course, one of the most effective weapons for fighting exclusion? Inclusive design. Before we get into it with Matt and Aaron, let’s hear again from the community on how we get out of our own bubbles and build empathy.
Hank Richardson (HR): Hi, I’m Hank Richardson, the Director of Opportunity and Design Coach at Portfolio Center in Atlanta. You know, you never want to solve a problem from the same perspective that the question is asked. So books that always change my thinking, Marshall McLuhan’s book The Medium is the Message, also, Paul Rand’s Design, Form, and Chaos, as well, from Glasgow to Brooklyn, because one is about form and the other, about aesthetics.
HR: Philosophy–read all the philosophy you can. I’m reading about Hegel just now, and the best book ever: James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.
Jen Mayer: Hi, I’m Jen Mayer, I’m a Portfolio Director at IDO. I try to actually not unfriend people that I desperately want to unfriend. I just keep them in my feed and try and take it all in.
Lawrence [Azerrad]: Hey this is Lawrence from LAD Design, what do I do, watch, or read that helps me understand a different perspective? That would definitely be meditate, everyday, to remind myself why I love what I do and my reason for doing it.
Rebecca Lehrer (RL): Hi, I’m Rebecca Lehrer, I’m the cofounder and CEO of the Mash-Up Americans. I try to read and watch and do a lot of things that help me understand different perspectives, hopefully. But I think one of the main ways I do that is actually on Twitter.
RL: So I try to watch and just learn from people, what they’re sharing, what they care about, I don’t need to respond to them, I don’t feel the need to defend myself, but to understand why and what they’re talking about, just what the conversation is.
Ti [Chang]: Hi, my name’s Ti, designer and cofounder of Crave. What I watch or read that helps me understand a different perspective, I actually go to DailyMailco.uk. It is this hot mess of a newspaper that is a cross between tabloids and CNN. And when I see the headlines and the stories, I’m just kind of somewhat enlightened by the different ways people can interpret things. So yeah, that’s how I get another perspective.
Tad Toulis (TT): Hey, I’m Tad Toulis, vice president of design at Sonos. To gain a different perspective, I’ll often toggle between Fox and CNN on the same news cycle. But generally I try to catch my news from foreign outlets, to get outside of the American media landscape.
Sometimes all our media just feels like cereal boxes at the grocery store, 100 brands at 3 price points. 57 channels, but 2 viewpoints.
ASC: We have been discussing tough topics throughout Design and Exclusion, and it’s time for us to get down to solutions. How do we think inclusively at every step? How do we challenge ourselves to do better in the future, and what commitments can we all make as leaders in the field? So what are real, tactical tips and best practices for how we can all, as a community, avoid exclusion in design? I am super excited to have here in this conversation, Matt Mullenweg of Automattic and Aarron Walter of InVision. Welcome, you two, thank you for being here.
MM: Howdy howdy.
AW: Hey, thanks for having me.
ASC: Oh, I like the “howdy!” Matt’s in Texas. Aaron, I was waiting for a “ya’ll.”
AW: There might be a “ya’ll” or two that’ll pop up here shortly.
ASC: I appreciate that. Alright, so let’s get down to brass tacks, because after our conversations on the industry that we’ve had today, on the research on online engagement, we all really want to get down to work here.
So Matt, talk to me. Why now? Why is this conversation so important to be having now? Why is talking about design and exclusion so important to Automattic right now? And was there a personal catalyst for this?
MM: Whew, that’s a lot of questions. I think why now is that because one of the original sort of goals of the people who pioneered the internet has succeeded, we now have billions of people online, we’re going to have billions more coming online. And I think that we’re now seeing that perhaps the early utopian vision, of what that would look like, when people came together and were able to communicate in these open forms, sometimes anonymous, sometimes not, sometimes attached to identity, lots of things, many human behaviors came along with that. And we see examples, more and more every day.
Where the internet supercharges communication, and communication can be used positively or negatively. But I think that function can follow form, so the folks building tools, if we can approach thoughtfully, the issues around what these tools sort of encourage people to do, and what the consequences are, and how the sort of default modes of interaction are. We can perhaps come a little bit closer to that ideal that we had when we got started. When the internet was just wild and free.
ASC: That’s so interesting, that in some ways all the goals have been achieved, and in others, we’ve realized that maybe some of the tools we’ve built have been in some way weaponized in a way that we never thought, right. That communication, and the harnessing of all of these voices and all of this energy can be used for incredible social change, and it can also be used to hurt in some ways.
Was there a single thing, maybe in your life or in your lived experience, that made now the moment in your career where thinking about exclusion and inclusion was so important?
MM: Personally, you know, I’ve come up through open source. Which is this idea of people collaborating all over the world to build software, generally. These communities can often be very fiery [laughs] There’s a Socratic approach to debate and development where you challenge people’s ideas, you know, it can be very very combative, to put it lightly. And me, especially when I was a young, 18, 19 year old kid, just getting started, I really thrived in this. I loved the debates and everything. But over time, when I started to see the folks who were joining the community and more importantly the people who dropped out of the community, in terms of contributing to open source. It became clear that this mode of interaction is not something that is very inviting [laughs]
And that, ultimately, wants the people building WordPress and other tools to represent the people that we’re trying to serve as well. And I’m a big believer that truly diverse groups of people, in every factor, in every variable, can create better products, so. We started to think about how are we interacting with each other. And can we bring, the thing for me, actually being from the South, is this idea of etiquette and politeness, how can we fuse that with a vigorous debate of ideas, but keeping it just to the ideas, and maybe keeping it vigorous, but not to the point where it’s going to scare people away, or make people feel like it’s an emotional burden to participate in development.
ASC: Absolutely, I mean, there’s a big difference between vigorous and vicious.
MM: Absolutely, and the other thing that’s really changed is the family that I work with every day has grown, you know, Automattic didn’t exist when WordPress started.
And, you know, over the past couple years since I became CEO it’s gone from 200-something to over 550 people. And because we’re a totally distributed company, you know, it’s not just that we have people all in Mountain View that are from parts of the world. But everyday I work with people in 50 plus countries. Who live there, who wake up there, who go to sleep there, whose families are there. More than half the company is outside of North America so there’s just, you get the sort of diversity in differences and experiences of people living day to day, even above and beyond where they were born or came from, I think brings a lot of these issues in focus. And I think that it is just kind of a microcosm of what goes on in the internet at large, where you have people who, I feel often, part of the reason they’re not connecting is they don’t have a shared base of understanding because their experiences thus far have been so disparate that it’s hard to find common ground to even begin to have that sort of benefit of the doubt and everything else that can really be conducive to a production conversation like we’re having here.
ASC: Mhm, right, absolutely, and you have to have that trust in order to have productive disagreement. I think that’s such a great point you make about your lived experience and how that perspective of being from the South, for example, led you to think a little bit more deeply about the ideas of etiquette or kindness or politeness, courtesy. And that within Automattic there’s people from all over the world, that are also bringing their own lived experience into it. Aaron, you know, we have chatted about this before, we talked a little bit about your kids, and I would love to share some of that with our audience, how your lived experience, for example, also with your children, has shaped how you think about exclusion, whether it’s in design, or through other parts of your life.
AW: Yeah, so my two boys, I’ve got a 3 year old and a 6 year old, both of my boys are adopted and they’re black, and my wife and I are white, and you know, for us, when we try to find the right books and movies and things we want to share with our boys, stories that are interesting and inspiring to them, we’re always looking for them in the story, that they can see themselves in the story. And it’s something that, growing up as a white male in the Midwest, it was easy to see myself, I could be Luke Skywalker, I could be Han Solo. But showing that to my kids, can they see themselves as the hero? And even last night, I put PJs on my youngest son and he looked at Finn on his shirt, and I was so excited to see that movie come out and here is a hero character who’s a black male.
And there’s just not, there’s just not a whole lot of that that’s out there. And so for our family, that was really meaningful. And he looked at that shirt and he said, “He’s a bad guy!” and I said, “Whoa, wait, why is he a bad guy?” And he, you know, it could have been because of race, it could’ve been for, because he was holding a laser blaster, but these sorts of things kind of seep into our understanding of the world, of what is good, what is bad, these memes that are subconscious in media and stories and things all around us. So, to me, being involved in design, to me and to us at InVision, this idea of how do we get everyone’s voice into the conversation, is really critical. Because if we think about just the mechanics of resources, Matt was talking about 4 billion people online.
Well, 4 billion people online, and there’s so many different perspectives and talents and value that can be brought to all of the things that we make in the world. And if we limit that to a small privileged perspective, none of us are served. None of us are served well, because there’s so much potential that’s not maximized there.
ASC: We see the effects of this at such a molecular level, and at such an intimate one too. Like your son, getting to have a hero that looks like him is so important. Then also, with both of the work you do, it’s systems upon systems upon systems. And what we’re creating is an environment, an ecosystem, in which other people can thrive. In which, how do we change the system as a whole to bring people in from the very beginning, and to let that trickle down to ultimately, to somebody designing a film in which your son can see himself.
I think it’s important to always be thinking about how all of these are interrelated. Because no single active inclusion lives in a vacuum. Important to consider that, right, when we’re thinking about solutions as we are now. So to me the soul of the conversation here, and really this whole conference is about, it’s about what we want our future to look like, right? And then how we design for that. Matt can you tell us a little bit about how Automattic is combatting exclusion right now? Like what are the most pressing components of that process, like throughout the conference we’ve talked about pipeline of talent, research and information gathering, conversation and community building. What’s Automattic’s strategy in this?
MM: Well I’ll start at a personal level and say the first thing I’m doing is just listening. That’s why of this as so important and why, I love that this is coming from a design angle. Because that’s one of the things that helped awaken it for me, is like John Maeda, who’s our Global Head of Design and Inclusion joined and really seeking out him for that role, knowing that he would bring so much more to that sort of perspective. From the very early days, I’ll give a good example. WordPress from the very beginning, one of the things that distinguished it from other platforms is it had comment moderation. So by default, for a comment to appear on your site, you have to approve it. And it’s got some fairly sophisticated tools in terms of, you can block the IP, or by keyword, or regular expressions. If you’re technical, you can get pretty good at say, filtering out people or content that people are commenting about.
Also many people don’t know but at Automattic our first commercial product wasn’t actually WordPress.com, it was Akismet, which is an anti-spam, sort of machine service. It’s been running for over a decade now. Now looking at these things that might be more technical or might be combatted at one type of annoying or abusive speech or just spam [laughs] and how to span that out. For example for the filtering tools. To just make it more accessible, so you don’t have to learn regular expressions. To be able to adequately filter, maybe a type of comment that you’re getting or a type of person that’s following you or harassing you online. So I would say this is one of our first places ’cause comments are so central to blogs, in my opinion what makes blogs so beautiful, is that comments are more interesting than the post itself, and so by working on that first we think that that can help inform some of our other parts of our product that will also need help.
But I will be the first to say that we’re very much in the first inning here, I wouldn’t say that Automattic’s doing a good job on everything else, so we’re really looking at other things people are doing well, and also other things people are doing poorly, to try to avoid the same mistakes or emulate the best practices.
ASC: Mhm, it gets back to that idea of if you have a space in which you can talk, you can then also listen. And I think that’s a really valuable point that you raise right now is that for you personally, you’re in a listening zone, you’re trying to absorb all the different things and learn from other people’s mistakes and other people’s successes, when it comes to inclusion and exclusion. What do you listen, what are you seeking out to listen to, as part of this process, are there specific sources?
MM: I think you can find inspiration for this from almost any realm. So, I find behavioral economics really really interesting. Behavioral psychology, you know, when you look at how societies evolve. History, a lot of this is not new, it’s things that society dealt with when newspapers came out and yellow sheets and you know, history actually is very awakening, especially when you start digging beyond what you learned in school. Growing up in Texas I actually had two years of Texas history and only one year of American history, which is kind of funny, but–
ASC: That’s amazing.
AW: Texas history is extra big though.
MM: I mean, we have a design.blog, which is a great publication, I think this conference is on a subdomain of it, x.design.blog. When John kicked that off, that was really awakening for me.
ASC: I think part of thinking about how we solve, for inclusion, is about also our prioritization, right.
What can we do now, where can we start. Like you said, we’re all at first base. And I think part of this is that, we’re also always going to be at first base, because more information will always come in, the world will always get bigger, or our understanding of it will always become more nuanced, so we can always continue to find ways to be more inclusive, like this is a project that never ends. In another conversation earlier in Design and Exclusion, Paco Vinoly from NextDoor was telling us about how NextDoor was able to dramatically reduce the amount of racial profiling on, like across their social network. And it’s not necessarily that NextDoor is going to solve racism, but it is doing every possible thing within its power to do what it can to fight racism in the product that it makes.
I’ve been reflecting on that for a little while now and I think that there’s something so profound and so valuable about that because it’s just such a good reminder that we can all be empowered to do something, right? Tackling exclusion in the world and in design may not seem doable, but that we all have roles to play, right, like everybody can enter the fight in different ways. In the world that we live in, with the barrage of information, it can become overwhelming to then be like, “Ah! What do I do? How do I help?” And I think it’s really, you know, it’s not small to start by listening. It’s not small to think, I can help build one tool. And that’s the impact that we can have. Aarron, from your perspective, we’ve kind of heard Matt’s and mine, what do you feel like is a thing that people can do, like what can you do now, that doesn’t seem so daunting?
AW: One of the things that I try to do, and is often hard to do, is put myself in a situation where I’m in the minority. Every time I take my boys to the barbershop, it’s a learning experience for me, we get to a barbershop where I’m usually the only white guy there, and I definitely stand out, but it’s really, it essentially shows me the perspective that my boys often live in. But also is the perspective that I see so many people in the city and as I travel, that this is their daily life, that their constantly adapting as a minority and adapting to different culture, adapting to different situations. To me, that’s really helpful, ’cause you said it earlier, that it humanizes or gives you empathy or understanding, it’s almost just like, it normalizes another perspective, that this is just part of your world.
And that’s something that can come through in your work and lots of other places. Being open to how finding that perspective, seeing that perspective, can be channeled in other places is really valuable, just the knowing. And for us, at InVision, we’ve had a number of conversations recently, in many ways our software needs to be a bit agnostic and kind of just let people making things and get out of the way. But we produce a ton of content, you know, we do a lot of writing, we interview a lot of people, like John, and we do a ton of illustration. And it’s important to us as we think about the illustrations and who’s represented, for instance we were working on this guide to design leadership and initially the illustration concepts were very white, it was a lot of white men–
ASC: Welcome to my world, guys! [laughs]
AW: I was looking at these and I was thinking, how would my boys, if they wanted to be design leaders someday, how would they see themselves in that position? And it’s a small thing, it’s an illustration, but it’s actually a pretty big deal. So we continue to work and refine, iterate, to make sure that the content that we’re producing, illustrations that accompany that, tell the story of you could be from any sort of background, and you can have this lead position. And if you are in that lead position from that background, clearly you have a lot of influence on who you hire, who you bring into the company, just focusing on hiring, I think that’s another thing that so many listeners today probably have some role that they play in hiring. And it might not be the hiring manager who’s making the final decision, but you might be participating in interviews, and getting to know new candidates.
Thinking about, it’s so easy for us to choose people who are like us, “Oh, I really liked hanging out with that person, I love that they’re reading the same books as me, etcetera,” that actually can be a pretty negative thing because you get this perpetuating echo chamber of a single perspective. So the challenge is, as you’re hiring and thinking about how do you build your company, who is going to be on this team, is to choose people that have different perspectives, that will help challenge the work, push the work in different ways, and you know, I’ve talked to a lot of designers and mentored them over the years, and I hear the same thing, when I ask, “What is it you want, what is the ideal job for you as a designer?” And they say, “I want a place where I can grow” and a place that is a lot of sameness is not a place that you can grow.
It’s not a place where you can realize the potential that you have as a designer. So I think hiring is a really really important tool.
ASC: Our listeners can’t see it but I have nodding vigorously, to the point where my neck might break off. I’m so with you, I think there’s a couple of really critical points to highlight here, one is Aarron I agree, putting in people of color, people across the gender spectrum into representations of leadership roles is so critically important, because you can’t be what you can’t see. You can–
AW: You can, but it’s really damn hard. It’s really hard, and it’s so many headwinds against you to just put you head in that space that nobody else out there like me is doing this but I have the confidence and the gumption to go out that and try this. Versus, if you get some cues that say, okay–
ASC: This is possible.
AW: Yeah, it’s within the realm of possibility, that you could potentially do this. That’s a really important thing.
ASC: Yeah, I think that is so important, and why we’re so focused on representation. I also think there is, in thinking, this is about hiring, but also about collaboration and decision-making in general, and also just how we open up our spheres or a lens through which we can examine our own preferences, and our own inclinations is literally to look around the room. You know, who’s invited to the party. And if everybody invited to the party looks kinda just like you, then do a little soul-searching. And it’s hard to do, right, because it’s painful and you’re like, “Ah! I’m not a racist person or I’m not a single-minded person!”
But it’s just a, look at your bookshelf, that’s the same way of looking at who’s invited to the party. Are they all male authors? Are they all black authors? Are they all only women? If it’s only ever one thing, then I think it’s worth thinking about, okay, how do I challenge myself, how do I look further. And to your point, you know, we may not all be the final arbiter of who gets hired in the company or how something gets made. But we all have some power, right, like we all have some agency in avoiding exclusion and incorporating inclusion. So I really want everybody to feel that, to be like, I can do this, I can do something. Even though we’re not going to heal the world in one design, we can all do something.
I think part of building this future that we all want, that we’re all seeking is that, you know, we work in digital, right, and most of our community is digital. But we don’t live in digital. We live in physical spaces, we interact with real people, and you’re going to the barbershop with your kids, you know, we use real, tangible objects every day that are also products of design. This is like, the stage in which we live our lives. How do we integrate inclusive design thinking to these other aspects? Like how do those two worlds come together?
AW: Well design thinking, the first stage is empathy. And starting by understanding your audience is, that’s the very nature of design thinking. It’s definitely built in, finding ways to connect to a lot of different customers. I used to run a research team, founded the research team at MailChimp.
And we spent a lot of time traveling and meeting with customers in person, talking to them on the phone. It’s the best way to become a better designer is to connect with your customer. So being in those physical spaces, that was my favorite part of doing research was going to the place where they work, we had a way of describing, like their home place, their workspace, or their third space, which is you know, like their favorite coffee shop or bar or something like that. Going to these places that are part of their life give us some perspective and it might be more ambient information that informs who the people are that are using the product, and sometimes it’s very tangible how it informs design work too. But I’m a big believer as a designer that we should be talking to our customers on a regular basis and I think that that dovetails very nicely with this conversation of inclusion and how we get different perspectives and inform our work.
MM: Yeah, it all comes back to empathy I think if there’s one word to take away, it’s empathy. I’m kind of in this ’cause I am an idealist. And that’s almost somewhat controversial to say, but I really do believe in the fundamental goodness of humanity. It’s just that when something go wrong, we notice it so much more than when anything goes right. Behavioral economics, you feel a dollar you lose, seven times more than a dollar you gain. It’s built into our psychology there. And so as more and more, maybe 0.1 percent of the population that’s not good in this way, but when you start to get a billion people online, it’s a lot of folks, and they can amplify their voices in ways that impact us.
Actually, at times in my online life when I’ve been attacked by a mob [laughs] when there’s like hundreds, there’s blogs and hundreds of people saying “Matt is terrible” etcetera, that’s not been as bad, as when sometimes there’s that one persistent person, who’s just like, everything else is going fine, and your life is fine, and there’s that one kind of troll or harasser or something like that. It’s so interesting how like, even in that situation, sometimes the mob is less bad, to me, I felt like the mob was less bad than this one sort of persistent mosquito-like presence in the room. But we have to, I think that, part of the reason I work on publishing, is I do believe that humanity is fundamentally good, and as we get more communication things get better, ’cause communication is the root of empathy. It’s hard to have empathy without getting there in the room, or having that conversation. And you have to be able to bring that mode of thinking, even when–
Like Amy said, it’s ideal, if you’re in a room that’s inclusive of many different types of folks, but sometimes you’re not, you know? Sometimes I’m at dinner with my mom, my sister, and my uncle. And we all kind of look the same. We all have literally almost identical backgrounds. And it’s how do you bring that thinking and that open mindedness to that dinner conversation, as well as the one where you’re with all your buddies, and it’s more of like a mixed group.
ASC: I love that because, I love thinking about empathy, period. You know, one of the ways in which we think about it at Mash-Up is that it’s different from sympathy where, sympathy, you have already a connection to somebody’s experience and can be sympathetic to it, like “Oh, you’re waylaid with a terrible cold or oh, your kid’s in the hospital,” like, I get that. I know, my kid has been in the hospital, or I’ve been terribly sick.
I so sympathize with that. Empathy, is about doing the hard work of connecting to and really believing the experience of somebody who you don’t share a common ground. You know we think of it as like, getting down on your knees, and like really looking at somebody in the eye, and saying, “I see you. And I will work with you on your needs, even though they’re not mine.” Even though they’re not something that affects me, personally, and that’s equally important work. It’s more work too, right, it’s not easy, but probably that’s what makes it more important. And Matt you also raised, a subject which for me is a really core one to this whole conference which is about intention.
Throughout the panels, we’ve kind of heard that so much of exclusion is unintentional, which I’d like to push that forward a little bit. Yes, exclusion can be unintentional, you could have not intended to forget about all the other people that were outside the room. Or a bunch of, you know, men designers could have forgotten the needs of women when designing an app, for example. But I think, in knowing that we all do live in our bubbles, in acknowledging that unconscious bias exists, there is a point at which you have to have real intention in fighting it, and if you’re not doing that work, you know, my point is that everybody has to do that work, that un-intentionality, is not a reason for exclusionary practices to exist.
We all need to, to push ourselves a little bit further on this. What do you do really to get out of your bubble?
AW: Speaking of comfortable bubbles, it’s very comfortable for us, we very like-minded people, to talk about you know, best practices of inclusion and so forth, but there are other people out there that they live in rural locations where they’re just not exposed to a lot of culture, that’s where I grew up in Iowa, it’s a monoculture, primarily. There are some other folks that live there, but it’s primarily a monoculture, and people don’t really have those broader experiences. And subsequently those of us that, we live in cities, we’ve traveled the world, we’ve got that broader perspective, it’s very easy for us to kind of look down our noses at these people who live in a monoculture.
That they are unenlightened and they need to figure stuff out, and to some degree that’s true, like everyone should wake up and see, this is the bubble that we live in, the world is a big place, and everyone should be invited to the party. But I think there’s something to understanding people of various political spectrums, and I’m not saying that I have to necessarily embrace all of these political ideals that may be counter to my beliefs, but we started this conversation talking about trust and respect and how we actually have conversations and learn from each other, and if we continue to throw mud, if we continue to kind of look down our nose and say, “You philistine, you’re too arcane to be part of the enlightened world and someday hopefully you’ll figure it out.”
Well that’s not productive either, right? It’s, if we want to be inclusive, we need to think about a lot of different people, even when it’s really challenging. Like it can be very challenging to be inclusive. The easy thing is to say, oh hey, other people that don’t look like me should be part of this conversation, great. How about other people who think things differently than I do, how do I talk to them, how do I see their perspective, maybe not necessarily agree with it, how can I look at these other things that challenge my fundamental beliefs, and see if there’s a different way to have this conversation, to get to know somebody.
MM: I’d like to get out of San Fransisco and New York. I think, growing up in Houston, and now returning to Houston in my thirties has been fantastic, Houston’s been majority minority for a while. I believe it’s the most diverse city in the United States in terms of sort of, equality–
ASC: Houston is also the size of a state. Houston will someday annex the rest of Texas it seems like.
MM: It’s getting big. It’s now the third largest city in the United States. But you know, I have friends here who’s a woman, who’s a first-generation immigrant, non-white, married to someone who’s first-generation Mexican-American, and voted for Trump. And understanding that perspective kind of blows my mind. How does that work? And I’ll hate-read Breitbart and other things as well. I haven’t found those personally as useful.
ASC: I do so much hate-reading. I feel like I need to know the enemy. I’ll be honest. I watch every press conference and then I have like, tightness in my chest for hours, and Rebecca, my partner is like “What? Why did you do that?” I’m like, I feel like I had to. Anyway, sorry, go on.
MM: [laughs] I haven’t found that as productive.
ASC: No, it’s not, it’s not, you’re on the right track. I’m just saying that I’m still back there.
MM: I’ve been trying it as well. Maybe we’ll keep doing it, but I have to balance that out. ‘Cause like I said earlier, the bad stuff does impact you.
So, history does have a lot to learn here. And I think we all have to, the more we can dig into that, like, we’ve talked about reaching across, for current folks, across the aisle, across to other types of folks, but also reaching across time. Whether to people who are different ages, like older, or to people who passed away generations ago, who can talk about things that can really inspire or inform you because to be honest a lot of the stuff was a lot worse a hundred years ago and the struggles were very different. But also, I find some of it a lot more inspiring. This is an exclusion conference, which is kind of a reverse way to look at it, ’cause obviously the purpose of the conference is not to do more exclusion, but I find myself returning again and again to one of the things Martin Luther King popularized which is this beloved community. It’s, and the word even, kind of scares people, because it talks about love, or beloved, or it might feel like it has religious connotations.
But I’m not even gonna talk about it, just encourage everyone to look it up and read about it, and it’s something that when things get tough I find myself returning to again and again, as sort of the ideal of where we could head to, ’cause I do believe it’s possible.
ASC: Thank you, Matt, I was actually just thinking, going to ask, you know, so much of the work is necessary and also hard, and we’ve talked about tactics but I love that wisdom on how to keep yourself whole, as part of the journey here is also a soulful one. You’re challenging yourself, and you’re challenging the people around you and your colleagues, any sort of life advice, or spiritual advice that you would share as people go on that journey?
MM: You know I think it’s interesting how many parts of life, when you’re growing, it’s really uncomfortable. If you think about pain in your muscles, like that’s a very physical embodiment of it, but probably every part of your life where you’ve really grown, including engaging with these types of issues, it’s probably been really uncomfortable or painful at some point, and so just remembering that that’s part of the process. I had a trainer once that said “That’s the feeling of weakness leaving your body.” [laughs] You can imagine that, maybe that’s the feeling for all sorts of other things that you’re trying to get rid of, mental, emotional, background, whatever. Maybe that pain is some of that leaving your body, it can be a good reminder to work through it. ‘Course it’s not true 100 percent, but if you can keep that in mind for some stuff.
ASC: Jerry Seinfeld has a line in one of his Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee where he’s like, “Pain is information rushing in, maybe a little too fast, but it’s just information, it’ll make you better.”
Aarron, any tips from you?
AW: It’s a pretty heavy question. I do like the idea of thinking about this from like a spiritual perspective, even if, you know, listeners are not particularly spiritual in many ways. But I find the more that I connect with people in my area, people in my town, support something that’s bigger than me, the more giving myself to that, I get far more of what I need, it’s far more satisfying. So, yeah, finding something meaningful in your area, in your community that you can be part of that can connect you to new people and help you see new perspectives, there’s a lot to be gained there.
ASC: I think that’s great. And one thing that Mash-Up we learned on this journey we had a conversation with Krista Tippett, who I’m sure you guys know from her incredible show On Being.
And she was–
MM: The biggest fan.
ASC: She’s the best! She’s the best. And she was saying when we’re talking about the spiritual fight, when she was in conversation with John Lewis, that he would, part of his fight, part of his spiritual preparation, when he knew he was going to protest, even to the people that he knew would probably beat him, and thought of him as less than human, that he would imagine them as children, as babies, and remember that we all came into this earth, and that that, that sustained him through so much of this. So, thank you guys so much. From me, I invite all of our listeners to again, look around the room, ask a few questions, who is invited to the party, who can you invite?
ASC (cont): How can you with the power and position that you have, and we all have some, punch up against systems that create exclusion? And my life advice is to be willing to be humbled. This is hard work, but I’m on your team, Matt and Aarron are on your team, and so many others are too. So, we’ve got some big thinkers on the case, on Design and Exclusion, so let’s not be afraid as we challenge ourselves and commit ourselves deeper to fighting exclusion. Matt, Aarron, thank you so much for your time and your insights, this was fantastic.
AW: Thank you.
MM: Yeah, thank you Amy.
ASC: Thank you so much Aarron and Matt. We have a lot to think about as a community, and this conversation has really reenergized me personally. These are super challenging subjects and conversations and just knowing that such great minds are tackling exclusion, has honestly, it’s replenished my stores of optimism, so I am super grateful for that. It’s time for our live panel. Head back to x.design.blog and send us your questions and ideas that have percolated throughout this conference with the hashtag, #designx.
I’ll be live at MIT with John Maeda, Ethan Zuckerman, and more. And if you want to talk more about the noisy, rich, multicultural world we live in, go check out my podcast, the Mash-Up Americans at iTunes.com, slash Mash Up. Thank you so much to Automattic and the MIT Center for Civic Media for making the Design and Exclusion Conference possible. See you on the internet: x.design.blog.