Identity

Identity and identification is a function of power; the essence of any inclusive group is based on the exclusion of “the Other” group. I believe that some communities are created to include others and have nothing to do with excluding a specific population. As my friends and I say when the topic comes up (e.g., men complaining that all women colleges are sexist for excluding them): “It’s not about you. It’s all about us.” Hall challenges this, claiming that characteristically powerful groups (e.g., wealthy, heterosexual, male, etc.) were allowed (or obligated?) to define other groups. If this is the case, that groups of power are inclusive by excluding “the Other”, what does the “sexist all women’s college” claim mean? Technically, it is a matter of a historically disadvantaged group (as defined by a historically advantaged group) creating something for their benefit and then standing by the inclusion standards.

Hall also claims that identity is a fluid construction that depends entirely on the presence of other groups and situational context. Outside of things like ancestry, which is a pretty rigid attribute, your identity is a reflection of the situation. For example, I consider myself a creative person and in most scenarios this is true, until I am in a room with professional artists, writers, or designers. Then I am an admirer of creativity.

In an ongoing discussion about privacy, identity, and anonymity, it’s hard to distinguish the end of one concept and the beginning of another. Though, if there is one thing I continuously come back to it is the importance of context in every situation. According to Palen, privacy in new technologies should be assessed with respect to three major boundaries: Disclosure, Identity, and Temporality. What does it mean for someone to function as an individual and a representative of a larger institution or social group? How do past actions frame one’s future privacy? Even if we are able to answer these questions, there are unintentional seems that can lead to inferences and the reveal of private information. Palen uses the example of a calendar-sharing system showing HR conference bookings over an extended period of time. One can easily infer that they are planning a round of layoffs in those conference rooms.

I think this happens very frequently. On social media accounts, you can usually see a list of a user’s followed and following accounts. I have unconsciously made inferences about people (e.g., where they live, their political alliances, etc.) based on the other social media accounts they follow. It would not be hard to imagine a scenario where this could unintentionally expose highly personal information. According to Palen, the best way to manage this would be to understand the ways in which people are using certain information to address the seams. Is this a never-ending process? Is there a way to properly mask information to limit the possible inferences while maintaining an online presence? Or does maintaining an online presence mean that inferences (and privacy) will always be murky?

I rounded out my readings with Bylund, who found in a research of a professional social setting, that people don’t care all that much when their information is publicly displayed. They may even celebrate the information and feel offended when their information isn’t shared publicly. Though, I do recognize that in the Bylund study, the personal information was shared in a social, professional setting. The things you’re comfortable sharing with colleagues is likely different from the things you would feel comfortable sharing with family, friends, or strangers.

Basically, technologists are making conservative estimates about users’ opinions on privacy in some situations. In other situations, technology leaves room for inferences and exposure of private information. “So, what’s the middle ground? How can the pieces of identify be applied in a meaningful way?” The answer, of course: It depends.

References

Bylund, M., Höök, K., and Pommeranz, A. Pieces of identity. Proceedings of the 5th Nordic conference on Human-computer interaction: building bridges, (2008), 427–430.

Hall, S. Who needs ‘identity’? In Questions of Cultural Identity. Sage, London, 1996, 1–17.

Palen, L. and Dourish, P. Unpacking “privacy” for a networked world. CHI ’03: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, ACM Request Permissions (2003), 129.

PRO/Design

PROdesign

I was invited to speak at Nasdaq’s first PRO/Design conference, a free one-day conference about building design-driven companies. This is a brain dump of the experience, highlights, and major takeaways.

PROdesign

The Beginning. It all started at an informal UX Happy Hour meet in August where, I met Chris Avore, a Product Design Lead at Nasdaq. We had a great conversation about the dividing lines between product and UX teams, transitioning from one to the other, and the ideal ways to approach design in a company. A few weeks later, Chris pitched an idea: what if I presented at conference about design-driven companies? Obviously I said yes! The real question is how many exclamation points I used when I responded…

The Preparation. Then came the preparation. As I thought about the experiences and ideas I felt strongly about sharing, I returned to the idea that design isn’t a singular responsibility. Serving as a visual or UX designer doesn’t mean maintaining complete ownership over the company’s design; it should be a collaborative process. I used my experience at a Product Manager at a growing start up as a foundation to progress through what it means to move towards design-driven in a company.

The title, you ask: No One Team Should Have All That Power: Understanding Who Owns Design in the Product Development Process. Yes, that is a Kanye West reference.

Pre-Game Time. I arrived to New York on Thursday, January 29th – the day before PRO/Design. First stop: Totto Ramen, because New York ramen is fabulous. Second stop: PRO/Design pre-conference happy hour to meet the presenters and planners.

I met the Nasdaq Product Design team that, on top of their already demanding job-work, was turning this brilliant brain-child into a living, tangible thing. In their spare time. Huge kudos and lots of hats tipped off. Though, the best part was their genuine and unabashed excitement about the attendees, presentations, and network opportunities. The good energy in that room was contagious and I knew tomorrow would be amazing.

On conference day, I was fitted with Madonna-style microphone piece which really set the tone for how dope the day would be. My talk was scheduled after Sofia Millares, who delivered a brilliant talk about design and communication. Then, game time.

Game Time! My presentation was a geared towards talking through who owns design in the product development process, because no one team should have all that power. What’s that mean? That design is important and lives at the heart of the user experience. I think it’s crucial that companies put user experience first, eliminate bottle necks, and establish design standards to empower everyone to contribute to design. But before I dove into these things, I introduced myself.

I graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in computer science and have a strong web development background. I went on to spend four years as a Product Manager at a successful startup in New York. (Note: I intentionally left the name of the company out of the presentation, but this is not a secret in my real life. If you’ve ever received a holiday card from me you know the answer.) I worked in a small team, so my role as product manager included a lot of user experience and interaction design work. I loved that part of my job and decided to switch gears, move from New York to Atlanta, and be a UX designer while studying HCI at Georgia Tech. Basically, I understand the importance of collaborating between development, product, and design. I framed my presentation around understanding this concept in the context of my experience at a startup that developed a design-driven approach to product.

So the main question: who owns design? Is it the developers that code the product? The designers that mold the visual experience? Marketing that promote the product? Stakeholders that fund the initiative? Or the product team that plans the product? The short answer is that everyone owns design! Design will play an equal role when it’s being shared and utilized by everyone. Then, the question becomes: how do teams go about sharing that ownership? How do teams better collaborate in the design process? How can accountability for design be better distributed between various teams?

Working at a growing startup means growing pains. They’re not bad – they’re a fact. On a normal day at the company, I coordinated with developers about features for users and visual designers about styles and experiences. I noticed what we’ll call a traditional design approach, in which teams focus on users or design. The company recognized both of these as important, but separate entities. As you can see in the diagram, teams began initiatives with the user or design in mind.

For example, we had an excellent customer support team that understood, respected, and valued our users. When customer support approached a situation, feature, or bug-fix, they had the user at the forefront of their mind.On the other hand, designers, stakeholders, and marketing approached with a design-first mentality. For example, we had a wonderful marketing team that understood, respected, and valued our design. When marketing approached a situation, feature, or bug-fix, they had the design at the forefront of their mind.

Now, both users and design are crucial. That much is evident. So what connects them? In this traditional design approach, there are bridges, such as product managers, connecting users and design. We were small enough to not have hired user experience designers, but they would also be considered bridges in this model. What’s my beef with bridges? Bridges aren’t technically a bad thing, but could create a bottleneck, especially if the company relies too heavily on them. In my experience, it created a situation where I was constantly balancing “the user is always right” with “show users good taste in design”, reconciling sometimes competing priorities. This could be made more efficient by repositioning my role to a contributor, instead of a bottleneck or a bridge.

Though, the most important thing I want to point out is that none of the teams in this model are wrong for their alliances. The challenge is that there is an alliance to be chosen at all. The product process is a collaborative effort in which all teams share responsibility and ownership. I believe that design facilitates collaboration within and among teams. To quote a modern philosopher and rapper, “No one team should have all that power.” By that I mean that no one team should own a process or a product. For example, customer support shouldn’t be the company’s only insight into the minds of users. Visual designers shouldn’t be the company’s only connection to their design standards. Product shouldn’t be the company’s only ally advocating for the design and users.

As the company grew, and there were more teams and more resources available, we experienced a shift to a design-driven approach, which focuses simultaneously on users and design, understanding that they balance and guide one another. As you can see in this diagrams, users are at the center of the model, the yolk of the design egg if you will. What does this mean? A design-driven approach, in this context is synonymous to a user experience approach, in which users guide the design process and the experience is optimized for their wants and needs. So, all of the teams are guided by design, and therefore guided by users. For us, this started by establishing a design vision. For example, we increased transparency around annual and quarterly metric goals and visual design standards, meaning that everyone could look to the design vision to guide their team decisions. This was us aligning on a design vision to empower each team to contribute to design.

Notice that the arrows are two-way between the teams and the design-egg-user-yolk? Not only is each team guided by design, but they also inform and contribute to the design. The possibilities here are endless, but the bottom line is that this is how teams share ownership. By establishing and aligning to a design vision, we empowered each team to utilize design in unique and powerful ways.This was an amazing evolution! All of a sudden teams had fluid conversations about users and design, and they were empowered to do so. This is also solid proof that growing pains lead to great things.

So, what lessons did I learn moving from a traditional approach to a design-driven approach? First, to align on a vision, mission, and goals. Establishing a design goal and standard helped us empower each team to use and contribute in unique and powerful ways. Each team’s use of design doesn’t have to look the same, as long as it follows the company’s design vision.

Second, empower everyone to contribute to design. We put users and design at the center of the company’s product development process and encouraged teams to craft an experience around those standards. By following that design vision, to create positive user experiences, teams effectively contribute back to the design. It’s a continuous cycle.

Third, always consider the user’s experience – they are, after, the yolk of the design. A design-driven approach is a user experience focused approach. Continuously start with the users and the design, and revisit frequently to reiterate the product’s focus on users.

Lastly, eliminate bottlenecks, for efficiency sake. In the traditional design approach, there were bridges connecting the user-first and design-first teams. Serving as a liaison is valid, but for us, product managers became bottlenecks. Remove unnecessary bottlenecks from the product process and enable teams to access design and users…leaving time for other bottles, like champagne!

Proof. Check out link to my presentation slides. I’m working on getting a recording of the presentation and Q&A session. Check back soon!

View Slides

“Thick” Authenticity & Workifying Games

This reading critique was written by Monet Spells for Educational Technology (CS 6460, Fall 2014) at Georgia Tech.

“Thick” Authenticity: New Media and Authentic Learning
by D.W. Shaffer and M.Resnick
and
Workifying Games: Successfully Engaging African American
Gamers in Computer Science

by B. DiSalvo, M. Guzdial, T. McKlin and A. Bruckman

These two readings complement one another in their support of authentic learning experiences that can be applied, adapted, and meaningful for learners. Workifying Games outlines a study done to engage African American male gamers with computer science concepts through video game playing and testing. “Thick” Authenticity establishes a context within which to understand the importance of measuring and reiterating effective educational processes.

In Workifying Games, the researchers assessed societal facts and problems relating to employment, education, and pursuing computer science studies or professions. The main drivers of the study were the historical evidence of African American males underperforming in academic settings and being unemployed or underemployed; the need for more computer scientists in the United States; and the tendency for (white male) gamers to leverage their recreational hacking into an interest in computer science. The researchers addressed each of the facts by encouraging African American male gamers to hack or mod video games, with careful respect to the value they place in sportsmanship. The researches leveraged new media (video games) to create an authentic learning experience (genuine interest in computer science), and utilized scaffolding (video games) to introduce a new topic (computer science). By eliminating initial resistance and offering relevant rewards, the researchers were able to make an impact on the students. How does this compare with other definitions of authentic learning experiences, as outlined in “Thick“ Authenticity?

According to “Thick“ Authenticity, effective learning environments need to exhibit all of the kinds of authenticity: personal, real world, disciplinary, and relevantly assessed. The last principle claims that means of assessment should reflect the learning process. This system is reasonable for skill-and-drill classroom settings where instruction is reiterated with practice problems. However, does this attitude towards assessment imply that if an educator creates a learning environment founded on community, conversation, and discussions, that the assessment should be the same? How does a community, conversation, and discussion-based assessment function? Does this mean that participatory learning environments are, at the core, inauthentic learning experiences if the assessments aren’t also participatory?

I am also interested in exploring the quote “…as computers replace pencil and paper, intellectual pursuits will change.” This is a something we’ve touched on several times in class. What are the important fundamentals for students to learn, especially as fields develop? We’ve discussed educators placing importance on certain antiquated concepts as a right of passage for students. For example, students of woodwork still learn to sharpen tools, though technological advances have all but eliminated the need for manual sharpening. Would it be beneficial if educators treated these fundamental concepts as black boxes instead of making students learn them? Would skipping over the “old”, outdated parts leave more room for students to learn and explore the future of these industries? If so, who decides what is truly important? Do students ever want to learn the history or fundamentals of a field before getting their hands dirty with the “cool” stuff? If not, does this invalidate their ability to effectively contribute to a participatory learning environment?

.tech and i go way back

This piece is cross-posted in Wellesley Underground.

My relationship with technology is intimate and deeply integrated in my thinking and view of the world around me.

In the mid-1990s, my mother started a company called CompuKidz, teaching children how to use computers. She recognized that technology would shape the future and we can best leverage that shift by supporting computer education for children. There was always a computer in our house loaded with creative games and educational programs. I would type stories for hours and then design accompanying illustrations. By the time my elementary school offered a computer class, I was already bored with the introductions. Didn’t everyone’s fingers glide across the keyboard without looking? Who needed help turning the computer on and finding Oregon Trail? Didn’t everyone have a computer in their house that they could use after their homework was done? The answer, I found, was no.

I attended a high school with a Science and Technology program, meaning that in addition to standard high school courses, the program offered specializations in biology, engineering, and computer science. I majored in computer science and learned to program.

Learning to code was a breath of fresh air. Understanding how to communicate with a computer was like learning to speak my crush’s language. We were both logical. We both broke big problems into smaller, sequential steps. We both processed information and assessed the solution. We were finally speaking the same language. Before, I was communicating at my computer but now I could communicate with it. I was in love. I wrote programs for fun, I thought about how everyday technologies were coded, I refactored my code to make it shorter and more efficient. This, kids, is your brain on code.

In my senior year I applied to a bunch of schools, got into them, and narrowed down to two. I could attend Carnegie Mellon University and study with some of the best computer scientists in the world for free, or, I could attend Wellesley and get an excellent liberal arts education, going on to become a lawyer or writer with tons of student debt. I visited Wellesley and knew this was where I needed to be.I made promises to study English and leave computer science behind.

I broke up with computer science in favor of being around an environment that motivated, challenged, and excited me. I vowed to do whatever it took to be around these brilliant minds that would change the world. (Spoiler: my personal mottos are “Why pick one when you can have both?” and “Treat yo’self”. I don’t do well denying myself things.)

Fast-forward to 2008. It was late in my sophomore year and I was preparing to tell my mother that I’d declared a major. Inhale. Exhale. Dial. “Mom, I decided to major in computer science.” I said as I’d been practicing.

“I thought you wanted to major in English and go to law school.” She had a point. But how could I explain that I took a CS class to fulfill a requirement and free-fell back into the comfort of it. I felt guilty for ever having left computer science; you can’t deny a love like that. I couldn’t leave it a second time, so one required CS class turned into two CS classes, which turned into possibly minoring, which turned into majoring.

As my studies progressed, I became more fascinated in what coding could create. How could computer science concepts develop innovative softwares and solve important problems? Next time, I’ll tell you a story about the jump I made from programming to product management and how that journey is going.

For now, I’ll say that I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to identify and cultivate my passion so early in life. If you’ve identified something similar in yourself, we owe it to ourselves, and our respective industries, to never deny ourselves the pleasure of diving deep and not coming up for air.

With a smile,

Monet

.let karma handle the finances

This piece is cross-posted in Wellesley Underground.

I listened to a student presentation today about how important it is to encourage women to pursue computer science. I listened with an open mind and suppressed the urge to correct “all girls school” (it’s definitely “all women’s college” – who doesn’t know that?!) and “women don’t…” (women are not a solitary entity) in favor of internalizing their message. The presenters talked about the stereotypical relationship women have with tech and computer science the way one would a fear of dogs. “If we can show them that it’s not scary and that it can be fun, women will love computer science. They’ll be cuddling and playing fetch in no time!”

There is a fundamental flaw in this ideology. This ideology isn’t about developing environments for women to pursue fields that interest them, uninterrupted. This ideology is about encouraging women to subscribe to society’s ideals about what it means to be a woman – oh yea, and pursue tech. If women see that tech can be easy and fun (things society assumes women are capable of) they will be comfortable pursuing technology.

Tech can be easy. Women can do easy. Therefore women can do tech.

I often ponder the factors that contribute to tech being a male-dominated field. I recognize that my upbringing (predominantly Black upper middle-class suburb), subject interests (always computer science), and formal education (Wellesley College) skew my perception. I’m even in a co-ed, tech-related masters program that is predominantly women. So, when we talk about the underrepresentation of women in tech I think, “but there are SO many brilliant women in tech around me“. I have to remind myself that this is not the norm. That there are entire business, academic departments, and development teams that can count their women developers with one hand in their pocket.

So I ponder. Today I had a revelation.

I’m sure you’ve heard about Satya Nadella’s complete screw up, in telling women not to ask for raises, but to let karma bring it to them. He attended the prestigious (and well attended) Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, sat on a stage in front of several women, and advised them to let karma handle the finances. In a world of women being told to Lean In, Nadella suggests we leave altogether.

As I thought about my colleagues in the audience listening to a successful man encourage them to not be pushy or aggressive, to wait it out and let things come to them it hit me: society refuses to recognize that women can do hard things. Of course women can navigate salary negotiations, pursue STEM career paths, and climb the professional ladder. (Also, do not soften the things women can do by throwing in “and have dinner on the table by 6!” Who doesn’t know that?!) The gender divide is not the professional equivalent of cynophobia, and cannot be solved with soft strokes behind the ears or puppy licks.

People are working to create environments in which women can pursue tech. Successful allies in the field (let’s just say men) support and extend the message because diversity is good. We are effectively asking women to subscribe to a system that has systematically put them at a disadvantage, and promise that tech will be different. Women in tech are brilliant, powerful unicorns until someone tells them to let karma handle the finances.

Every time a woman is discouraged away from tech, I imagine some patriarchal figure cooing “Don’t you worry your pretty little head off about that.” Nadella is basically saying that being a nice gal will get you ahead. But wait, didn’t we learn that nice finishes last? That hard work, determination, and pursuing the rewards you rightfully deserve are respected and encouraged in the professional world. The Boys have different rules and even in their advice to women, women still get 77 cents to the dollar.

A statement was released. Nadella took it back. But does that change anything? Not really.

While it’s disappointing that we’re still having elementary discussions about gender equality, its important that we continue to show up. That we encourage women (in and out of tech) to understand the issues, care about the impact, and show up.Create forums for successful women to advocate for collective interests and offer informed advice to other women. Push girls to pursue the things that interest them, to become women that show up for the things that interest them.

And anyone will tell you: when you show up, you better show out.