Archive for July, 2009

Stand up and Speak Out!

I’m constantly scouring the ‘net for UX resources.  One of the tools I use is Twitter. Several UX practitioners tweet daily with links to UX-related articles, studies, and even humor.

Last night, one of the UX practitioners I follow tweeted a link to a JPG of “If Browsers were Women”.  (I am NOT going to post the link.  If you’re interested in seeing it, a quick google search will find it for you.  But, my posting it here will defeat the purpose of this post.)  This JPG consisted of images of buxom, scantily-dressed women and descriptions relating their physical appearance and bedroom skills to the features of different browsers.

I was appalled that someone tweeting in a professional manner would promote the sexual objectification of women. Of course, I am opposed to such objectification of any sex (which is why I also chose not to post a link to the response I found, “If Browsers were Men”).  And, I realize that blatant sexism and misogyny is pretty rampant on the ‘net. As a ‘net junkie, I see it every single day. But, to see that come through a resource that I consider professional was shocking to me.

In retrospect, I’m not sure why I was shocked.  About a month ago, I had the same feeling when I read this description of what happened during the keynote at the Flashbelt Flash developers’ conference. The field of technology is male-dominated and has its roots in the beliefs of white males.  Since misogyny is, sadly, a historical male value*, I should expect that that such sexism is going to rear its ugly head at some point.

(* NOTE:  I do not believe that all white males who work in technology hold sexist/misogynistic values, and I honestly believe that the majority of people I personally know who work in technology are fair-minded, decent humans. But, we cannot deny the history. See all of my previous posts on Gender and Computerization for more of my opinions on this topic.)

Anyway…after seeing that tweet, I immediately un-followed the poster, replied via tweet, and went to his website and sent him a message. The message I sent him via email turned out to be a little harsher than I would have liked–the danger of writing when you are caught up in the heat of the moment. But, I did try not to come off as some “feminazi bitch” (as I have been called before). I then came here to my blog and wrote a post about the sexual objectification of women.

Blogging is a way for me to make sense of what’s in my head, and I find it very useful when I’m especially emotional, whether happy or angry.  But, that emotion has a way of making me irrational.  See, I was convinced that, since many of my previous attempts to call out folks on sexism and misogyny had been met with being called a “feninazi bitch” that the same thing would happen in this instance.  So, I published the angry post without waiting for his response.

And, then I saw his email.  The person had responded rather quickly to my message. He sincerely apologized to me, deleted his tweet, and publicly apologized to his other followers.  He then thanked me for bringing it to his attention.  He had no intent of promoting the objectification of women. He just thought it was funny and wanted to inject some humor into his daily tweeting.

I immediately deleted my angry blog post (though some may have seen a link to it, as I couldn’t stop my auto-feed to twitter in time.  Sorry about any confusion that may have caused!), re-followed him, and emailed him back to thank him.

Now, arguing if it this JPG is funny or not is a completely different post.  I didn’t think so, and I believe that if you do, then you harbor sexist beliefs.  But, don’t we all harbor beliefs that, at some point later in life, we wish we hadn’t? That’s what I want this blog post to be about.

Example:  I was born and raised near the Mason-Dixon line.  Many of my family are extremely racist.  It was normal for me to hear black people be called the “N word”. I think that I may have at some point, believed some of the stereotypes about black people, simple because it was all I was ever told.  But, then I went out and faced the real world, and had my own experiences that made me begin to think that some of the things I used to believe just didn’t add up. And, quite a few times, it had to be pointed out to me that something I said or something I had done could be viewed as being racist by others.

It was only when I became aware of my words and actions when I could do something about them.

I think sexism is the same, in that regard. It used to be commonly accepted by the general public that women are the weaker sex, just as it used to be accepted that black people are inferior. But, as more people began to question these beliefs and stand up for black people, the less accepted those beliefs became. Of course, racism is still alive and well today, but it is nowhere near the level of the pre-Civil Rights era. I think (hope) sexism and misogyny can benefit from the same fate.

But, it’s going to take people like me, and like you, to (in the words of my favorite Star Trek captain) Make It So. Whenever we see cases of sexism and misogyny (as well as racism and homophobia…and many other injustices in this world), we need to stand up and speak out. Yeah, it’s likely that we’re going to get scorned.  But, it might just open someone’s eyes.

I just want to end this post with a heart-felt thank you to the person with whom I had this exchange yesterday. I thank him for his open-mindedness, responsiveness, professionalism, and for teaching me a lesson about making rash judgments.

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Usability and Respect

I recently wrote about the display board outside our office on which I post inspirational UX and usability quotes.  Shortly after I published that post, I discovered that someone had scrawled “waste of time” and “waste of money” on some of the peices of paper I had posted on the board.

At first, I was really bothered that this childish act of vandalism and cowardice occurred in a secure, professional building.  But, the more I thought about it, the more saddened I became that people really believe that usability is a waste of time and money.

I tweeted and Facebooked about the defacing of our display, and I received tons of support from my online social network.  But, that is to be expected because a large number of my online social network are professionals in the web design/UX/IxD/IA/usability fields, so they already get it.  It’s a lot like complaining to other women about being a victim of sexism.

I answered the coward by posting real-life examples of positive ROI of usability:

Since then, I’ve come across some other items that reinforce the fact that, in the words of Rodney Dangerfield, usability gets no respect.

On 7/1, Dilbert did a pretty good job of summing up what it’s like to have the higher ups not understand and respect it:

And, just today, usability guru Jakob Nielsen published an EXCELLENT Alertbox titled “Building Respect for Usability Expertise“!

So, why isn’t the field of usability respected by many?  I think part of it has to do with the fact that humans have fragile egos.  As a usability consultant, I frequently have to tell programmers and managers that the website or system on which they’ve just put in many hours of hard work isn’t usable.  That’s not something they want to hear.  Some (thankfully not all) of those managers and programmers respond to this constructive criticism by rationalizing that usability is a “waste of time” and “waste of money” because it’s easier than facing the fact that what they designed isn’t perfect.

Now, that’s my personal opinion.  Jon Meads has a much better explanation, that he succinctly described in his paper “Laid-off usability engineer, or why we don’t get no respect“:

Software engineering got no respect in the early 1970s. Companies were incorporating minicomputers into their systems. Software was a necessary evil, but what was needed was usually simple to program. Anyone could be a “software engineer” even if the code he produced was structurally isomorphic to a common Italian dinner. Few software managers would insist on having systematic development processes. It added cost, and software had only to be good enough.

Usability engineering is now in a similar situation. Systematic process isn’t needed, according to management. Nor are professional knowledge and experience—that would add cost. Designing the user interface according to guidelines is sufficient, they claim.

Jakob Nielsen used the term “user advocate” to describe usability practitioners.  And, a very apt term it is.  We are advocating for more usable systems for all users.

However, we must also be usability advocates.  Both Nielsen and Meads suggest that to build respect for usability, we practitioners need to preach the benefits of usability.

I hope I’m doing my part with this blog. 🙂