Bringing others along

On International Women’s Day, I travelled up to Manchester to do user research with some of my client’s front line staff. People in this role are 99% men, including all my research participants. I sat in a small meeting room in a government building on the edge of the city and demoed an early prototype design intended to streamline their processes.

Research and co-design

The early feedback ranged from positivity through to uncertainty whether this would be a simpler method. But the advantage of this kind of site visit and speaking those who use the service is that it became an impromptu co-design session.

To give a little background, the prototype was designed by people in the same roles as the research participants. Two weeks prior, we ran a discovery and design workshop where we mapped the service and attendees sketched new designs. These were worked up into an early clickable prototype by our UX designer.

Design workshops involving people using the service are a relatively new way of working for our client’s organisation but hugely important. Having a prototype designed by the same people who are using it automatically makes the majority of research participants more receptive. Designs are less likely to be seen as forced upon them from on high.

Through our session, participants came up with some flaws in the design that we, even with staff and client input, hadn’t considered. Through some rough scribbles and a better understanding of how it aligns to their processes, the prototype is ready to be developed for further testing.

By involving front line staff and our clients at all stages of the design and development process, we’re bringing them along with us as stakeholders, not simply users.

This is why I love user experience and research. A design and development team cannot produce products and services in isolation. It’s highly unlikely that without going out and getting feedback from those who will use it day-to-day that the design will be fit for purpose.

Being a woman in tech

Having a session like this on International Women’s Day got me thinking about my own situation as a woman in tech. Here I was, facilitating a group of eight men. Some were very engaged, some hardly said anything, and a couple, unconvinced that their feedback would make any difference, were initially sceptical of me being there.

Old me, prior to moving into a consultancy role, would have found this intimidating but the more I go out and speak to people, the better my interpersonal skills have become. I’ve found over time, that because I love this kind of work, I relax. I didn’t think of myself as a woman facilitating men, but as an expert working with my client’s staff. From my perspective gender didn’t come into it.

I suppose this relaxed state comes from confidence. I’ve learned that I’m happiest at work when I’m unconsciously competent and experience over time has developed this. The benefit of being able to relax within research sessions is it encourages participants to be at ease too.

When you’re able to take away formality, the results are inevitably better. People tell you what they really feel, not what they think you want to hear. The session was productive, everyone was heard, we had a laugh, and I came away with something much better than I took in.

Building confidence in others

So my question, when thinking about International Women’s Day, is how to help other people, not just women but those lacking self-assurance, gain confidence?

Everyone is responsible
 for looking out for the user”
– Erika Hall, Just enough research

In the same way that everyone is responsible
 for looking out for the user, everyone is responsible for bringing people up with them. It doesn’t fall to just line managers and colleagues. It’s family, friends, online interactions, events, communities and more.

Which brings me on to the Women in Tech Nottingham (WiT Notts) lighting talks that took place on Thursday.

This tweet sums up how I feel about WiT Notts too. In the spirit of encouraging people, we opened up the March event for anyone to speak about anything, code of conduct permitting. There was a range of speaking experience from none to conference-level.

WiT Notts helper
The lovely Anna helping our attendees keep time

By encouraging a safe space, we had talks from people who had attended with no intention of speaking. With some audience coaxing, they got up there and delivered brilliant talks. It makes me very proud to be a facilitator of this. 

Bringing people up with you

There’s not always positivity for women in tech events and for International Women’s Day itself. Interestingly, I find that most disparaging people are women who don’t see the need. They, on the whole, are in high-level positions in male-dominated industries. They have gotten to where they have on their own so why would they need an event?

I’m glad they fought their way to where they are but unfortunately, they don’t always allow others to follow them. Some kick the ladder from beneath them rather than holding it steady. The further I go in my career, the more I want to encourage people and hold the ladder for them. I’m fortunate to know many others who feel the same way.

Being still a gender minority in my industry, historically the ladder has been mostly been held for me by men. I’m starting to see a change, though. The service design team I work in are roughly a 50/50 mix of men and women with a slight mix of diversity but mostly 25 to 40-year-old white Europeans. Within SPARCK 38% of us are women with 55% of new hires being female. This is really encouraging to see and be a part of.

There’s a long, long way to go before we get to diversity equality. It’s not just about gender. There’s a wealth of underrepresented people in tech, be it through ethnicity, disability, or age. It’s about bringing people up with you, whoever they are. Let’s be mindful of this in our work and make sure we’re holding the door open for those coming in behind us, especially the next generation. May they see inclusivity and diversity in technology as the norm, not the exception.

Little acts of rebellion

Jess White on the stage at New Adventures
Jess’s act of rebellion. Photo: Stefan Nitzsche

Last Friday evening, I spent time with my friend Anna reflecting on the tech industry. We discussed local tech events, from Nottingham meetups Women in Tech Nottingham (WiT Notts) and Tech Nottingham and the recent New Adventures conference to FOSDEM, which Anna had recently returned from. Anna’s experience of these tech events varied and what struck me was how her experience of FOSDEM was different from that of the Nottingham events with regard to female and gender minority diversity within the attendees of the event.

Hearing Anna’s mixed experience of these events, I started questioning whether am I biased in my understanding of women in tech? Because I co-organise WiT Notts, which we have seen grow and grow, and have been a (non-solitary) female speaker at a number of meetups and conferences over the last few years; am I seeing a more positive version of diversity at the tech events I attend than others do?

The events I’ve been involved with have focused on being inclusive but inclusivity isn’t as easy as it may first appear. Initiatives such as pronoun stickers, first introduced to me via DevOpsDays London and recently used at New Adventures, are a step in the right direction. However, these stickers are not without issue.

WiT Notts were very kindly given pronoun stickers from DevOpsDays London to use at our events. Whilst attendee feedback about the stickers is generally positive, I am aware that some attendees don’t pay attention to them or feel the need to wear them. We’re working on this little-by-little to help all of our attendees feel comfortable. If you’re unsure why these stickers are important, this article helps explain why everyone should include their pronoun in their profiles and at events.  

Inclusive initiatives aside, what else can we do to encourage women and other minorities into our industry? It’s something that we’ve been working on over the last few WiT Notts events by facilitating talks and activities that empower and build up the confidence of our attendees: female, male, non-binary or of other minorities.

How to talk really, really good

Last week Jess furthered this with her talk, How to talk really, really good. In it, she shared her experience of getting into speaking at events, along with some practical advice on how to get involved ourselves. Her talk was accessible and honest, she admitted to being nervous in front of a home crowd. From the feedback I received afterwards, that really resonated with people.

If we’re to see a shift in diversity in tech, we need to provide speaking opportunities and create safe spaces for female and minority speakers to practice. We also need to provide role models for the next generation coming into the industry. One of my colleagues messaged before WiT Notts asking if he could bring his 14-year-old daughter. She was more than welcome. When I caught up with him the following day, I was pleased to hear she’d enjoyed the event and was inspired by so many people gathering together to support diversity in tech – an industry she is considering joining.

This is why Jess’ talk was so important. We need women and other minorities to be visible in the industry, especially for young people who are deciding if it’s an industry that they want to be a part of.

Stepping out

In her talk, Jess referenced ‘little acts of rebellion’. I can think of no better example than that of one of our regular, and beloved, attendees Rizwana. Riz spoke at our first WiT Notts Lightning Talks event last June. She shared a poem about WiT Notts that I wasn’t expecting (not knowing that one of her many talents is poetry) and was really touched by. Through putting herself out there and stepping onto our stage only a few months ago, she went onto contribute a poem to the New Adventures conference publication which she opened the conference with. Words cannot express how proud I am of Riz and proud of Emma and myself for helping facilitate Riz’s journey in a small way. (She’d have excelled on her own, I’m sure, but I hope that we have given her a little nudge.)

Rizwana opening New Adventures
Rizwana opening New Adventures. Photo: Stefan Nitzsche

We’re running another Lightning Talk event in March. As organisers, we want to showcase a diverse mix of speakers and talks that demonstrate the expertise and passions of our attendees.  Public speaking isn’t easy though. It takes a lot of confidence to speak to an audience of friends and strangers.

This confidence doesn’t magically appear when you hold a microphone. I wish I could say it does, but in my experience, nerves still run high. Confidence can be gained. I have learned to relax into speaking, despite my feelings beforehand. Practice is everything – you may not be confident in your speaking ability, but if you’re confident in your material and the message you want to share, this really helps.

Get involved

My advice is to give it a go. Lightning talks are great as they are only five minutes long. You may find that you enjoy it. Equally, you might hate it. Both are ok, not everyone has to be a speaker. You can contribute by listening to those who speak. And more than listen, encourage. Pay attention to them, nod if you agree with what they’re saying, smile if they make eye-contact. This helps build confidence in speakers of all experience and ability. Be a friend to the speaker, even if they are a stranger.

Since the time I’ve been involved with women in tech, I’ve seen our industry move forward. Perhaps not as much across the board as I had hoped but the needle is slowly moving. A year or so ago, Charlotte Jee published a list of women in the UK who could speak at your tech event. This list has recently been updated with many more speakers than the original post. We’re starting to see more women speaking at and attending tech events and conferences and this is a great thing.

You can’t be what you can’t see”
– Marian Wright Edelman

If we want to empower women and gender minorities, especially of the next generation, we need to be visible. They need to see us. It’s up to us to support this in whatever way feels right. Whether you are a speaker, writer, podcaster or a consumer, be visible and a part of the industry. This is how change happens.

Resources

Here are some resources to help you with your speaking, should you wish to have a go:

A New Adventure

Ethan Marcotte speaking at New Adventures

Last Thursday marked the long-anticipated return of New Adventures, a digital design conference held in my hometown of Nottingham. From the first teaser tweet which simply read “2019”, it became the main event highlight on my calendar. I was excited and delighted to see it come back after a six-year break.

New Adventures was the first industry conference I attended. As a designer with a background in print and editorial design, it taught me about the web industry as it was then. A year and a half after the 2013 event, I quit my full-time graphic design job and started running a web design company with my then partner. Later becoming an independent UX consultant before joining SPARCK at the beginning of last year. Attending New Aventures and other subsequent conferences and events inspired me to follow this career path.

Imagine then, how happy I was last summer when Simon asked to meet for a chat about getting involved with this year’s event. I thought that we were going to discuss Women in Tech Nottingham’s potential involvement. We did, and it was great to have WiT Notts contribute to the fringe events, but I was surprised and honoured to be invited to join the line-up of speakers.  

Thinking about the gap between 2013 and now, it seems that our industry has changed a good deal in quite a short amount of time. Although the World Wide Web has been around for 30 years, when New Adventures began it felt like we were very much in our infancy. As a relatively new facet of design, compared to print, for example, which has been around for centuries, we are extremely young. We’re still finding our way.

My abiding impression from New Adventures 2019, was that we are starting to grow up. Both in terms of the conference itself; promoting inclusivity through diversity tickets, pronoun and social interaction stickers and a code of conduct; and in the messages and tone of the talks and speakers.

Just as children move from a preoperative egocentric phase to maturing and understanding perspectives of others, I feel that as an industry we’re on a similar journey. We started off being heavily invested in ourselves through how and what: “How do we design for this new medium? How do we communicate online? What tools and frameworks should we use that support this?” These are important foundational questions that made sense to focus on at the beginning.

It’s now starting to seem like we’re slowly emerging from this self-centred approach and looking at a wider picture. I see a division here. There are many digital practitioners who practise human-centred design through UX and research but they are at the forefront of the curve. A quick Google search brings up an abundant number of articles on the top web design trends of 2019. There are still plenty of arguments about the best UI and prototyping software to use and ongoing disagreements over the latest and greatest front-end frameworks.

These are inward-facing conversations. They are for us and us alone. They are not solving problems for the people we’re designing for. To take an external perspective we must look not only towards the needs of the recipients of our digital products and services but start addressing how we impact those people.

New Adventures 2019 felt like a sea change. The key themes of the event were inclusivity and diversity, ethics and responsibility. The focus shifted from internal tools, trends and processes to bigger thoughts and questions: Ashley encouraged us to stop thinking like industry experts and find out how our customers think; Brendan asked us to put work out there that deserves to exist; Naz promoted diversity within teams to reach wider audiences and called upon us to do better; and Ethan addressed the power and privilege of design, questioning where we as an industry are heading.

It seems we have finally started looking outwards: identifying our responsibility and the associated consequences of our actions. We’re pushing past our early egocentric selves and are moving towards maturity. We’re still making our way along this path, learning from each other as we continue to grow. Ethan, rightly, encouraged us to approach this with hope. The talks at New Adventures showed a significant shift in our thinking and from the feedback, this year’s themes seem to have struck a chord.

My hope is that we see New Adventures return next year so we can see what direction these messages have taken us in. The call to action from the opening of the conference was “Now is the time.” I couldn’t agree more. It’s up to us to shape and build our industry, to help it develop and to make the web a better place. Let’s get to it!   

Women in Tech Nottingham at Hack24

Women in Tech teams at Hack24

Without a doubt, Hack24 has become one of the tech event highlights of my year; its only competition being the epic Tech Nottingham Christmas parties at the NVA. This year, my fourth year, was no exception. It was, however, different as I stepped away from being an attendee and donned a red volunteer hoodie.

As an organiser of Women in Tech Nottingham (WiT Notts), I was very pleased to find out that, once again, we were given the opportunity to enter two teams of attendees into Hack24 2018. As tempted as I was to take a seat at the hacking table, I wanted to be able to talk to other volunteers and attendees about WiT without feeling like I was abandoning my team. I was there, though, to support them in their hacks.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the WiT teams, Knit-Wits and WiT Happens, worked amazingly well together. This year we had a great mix of UX, front-end, back-end, full-stack, and ops – across a range of ages. Some members of the teams knew each other before the event, some knew each other vaguely from WiT Notts, but both teams didn’t know each other properly until ten days before the event. It didn’t show.

The level of teamwork, friendship, support and laughter coming from the WiT team tables was wonderful to see and it was so much fun hanging out with them. Often during a WiT Notts event I have to keep one eye on the time, food, social media, or looking after speakers, so I don’t get to spend as much time talking to our attendees as I would like. Spending time with these lovely ladies was a great treat.

I’m delighted that our WiT teams did so well. Not only were they the poster-child for teamwork, but one of our teams, the Knit-WiTs, won two of the challenges: The Thomson Reuters Do Good with Data and the MHR Easter Egg Hunt. Seeing a team of women who didn’t know each other well, creating an entry that solved a real issue for women made me extremely proud.

The Knit-Wits entry was an app that people could use report misogyny. Nottinghamshire police were the first in the country to enable misogyny to be reported as a hate crime, but the process is not made easy for victims. You be Brave, is an app designed to report harassment and abuse and capture the data. Check out the team’s entry video to see how the app works.

With only 1 in 4 women working in tech, having our attendees do so well in front of an audience of 200ish people, was absolutely fantastic. They are all superstars.

I’m grateful and humbled to be involved in heading up WiT in Nottingham. It’s a role I fell into rather than designed and it’s because I felt the need to be involved in giving female and gender minority speakers and attendees more prominence in the industry. There’s a long way still to go, but being represented at notable events like Hack24 is a really great thing.

In addition to the outstanding work of the WiT teams, the thing that makes me most proud to be a part of Hack24 is the collaboration and teamwork that it inspires in everyone. Andrew introduced the event with “There’s no such thing as an outsider at Hack24” and it’s true. I couldn’t wish for a more inclusive event.

Having hung around the Nottingham tech scene for a few years, and being an organiser of WiT, year-on-year I get to know more Hack24 attendees. (I literally knew two people in year one.) Volunteering was an opportunity to spend time with good friends and make new ones. The volunteers were all such lovely folk. I knew some vaguely, but spending hours with them has cemented them from wave across the room, to a full-on catch up the next time I see them.

If you’ve been to Hack24, you’ll know that it’s a rollercoaster of emotions. There’s palpable excitement, frustration when things go wrong (spoiler: things in hacks always go wrong), tiredness, late night ‘we’re all going a bit delirious’ silliness and more. It was fantastic to be a part of this.

All of this fun, friendship and collaboration would not be possible without the hard work and dedication of Andrew and Emma. They are the most selfless people I know and their input into the tech community in Nottingham has touched so many lives.

Meeting them has had a profound impact on me. Through attending Hack24 in 2015 and starting to go to Tech Nottingham I have made an amazing group of life-long friends; learned how to be a speaker; landed a dream job; gained confidence; and ended up as an advocate for women in tech. My life is richer for knowing them and I will be forever grateful to them for being the incredible positive influencers they are.

If you’re not involved in the tech scene in Nottingham, then I urge you to get involved. There really is an event for everyone, find yours at nottingham.digital.

Being excellent to each other at Hack24

Women in Tech Hack24 team

A little less than two years ago, I was at my first ever hack event; Hack24. As a designer rather than a developer, I was a little uncertain about whether I had a place there but thought it sounded interesting so I’d give it a try. To my team’s utter surprise, we won the Broadway challenge and thus became the ‘Superteam’.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, there was another woman there who I would go on to co-organise Women in Tech Nottingham with. Jess (who is awesome!) tells me that she had been coding for only a couple of months before her first Hack24 so, it seems, we were both finding our feet in the world of tech. And who better to help us with that than Emma and Andrew, directors and organisers of Tech Nottingham and Hack24. The second I walked into the registration area of that first Hack24 event, I was met with a huge, welcoming smile from Emma, who is sunshine personified, and felt that she was someone I needed in my life immediately.

In that first Hack24, the majority of the hackers were male. Aside from Jess and myself, there were seven other female hackers out of around 130 (if Andrew has given me the correct numbers). Even though the number of female hackers was low, my team and hacker Kate both co-won the Broadway challenge, which felt pretty darn good.

Fast forward to Hack24, 2017 and we have our first ever WiT Notts all-female teams. So how did we get on, I hear you ask? Well… we rocked it! Our team, Totally Triumphant Bodacious Babes (yes, we use Bill and Ted references a lot at WiT Notts) came runner up in Cronofy’s Let’s Rendezvous challenge. The prize was a model Delorean, which fits in nicely with our love of 80s/90s movies. Team Hey Pesto won TWO challenges: Esendex’s Connect with Gen Z without inducing zzzzzz… and Packed Pixel’s Best Hardware Hack. In addition to the two WiT Notts teams, two of our regular attendees were part of a team who won UNiDAYS’ Implement a song title challenge.

Most of the WiT Notts folks were first-time hackers at Hack24 so to win so many prizes was joyous. I’m looking forward to seeing even more women at Hack24, 2018 being brilliant and winning challenges!

I cannot begin to describe how proud I am to have worked alongside such an amazing group of ladies. Our motto at WiT Notts is ‘Be excellent to each other’. Although this is a most outstanding movie reference, it is not glib. Being excellent to each other is about collaboration and communication. We spent the weekend encouraging, supporting and entertaining each other.

After the event our teammate Laura said “I had an amazing time, there was a very supportive and friendly atmosphere all around the Hack24 event and having taken part gave me the motivation of going back to a few things that I’ve put on hold for a while. I’d go back to last Saturday… if only I had a time machine😉”

In the WiT Notts teams, everyone had their own skill-set but when these came together, we really did become more than the sum of our parts. And that’s why WiT Notts exists for now. To get women, and men, together to build a community, encourage more female speakers and to get more women at tech events such as Hack24. Jess and I always introduce our event by saying that the ultimate goal is for us to become redundant. Our work is done once there is more female representation and participation in the industry. But until that day, we’ll keep being excellent to each other and party on.

Huge shout out to the WiT Notts teams: Jess, Elsa and Laura; Amy, Bety, Alexa and Saria. And to WiT Nott’s attendees SamathyLex and Anna for being a huge part of Hack24 — you ladies rock!