Jul 01 2015

Open Source Bridge Day 2: You Are Not Your User

Day Two of Open Source Bridge encouraged us to look beyond our own experience, and try to see the world through a different lens. Not only does it help us be more compassionate as people, but it also helps us create and code better design and user experiences for everyone we want to reach.

Algorithms Can Have Powerful Consequences

Open Source Bridge Keynote: Carina C. Zona talks about using data insights responsibly.
Carina C. Zona talks about using data insights responsibly.

Carina C. Zona opened Day 2 with “Consequences of an Insightful Algorithm” and talked about the incredible number of things we can learn about people through data, and subsequently, the potentially hurtful actions that can stem from it. Zona brought up several examples of big-name companies who have used their data less-than-responsibly, such as FitBit’s public exposure of sexual activity on profile statistics, or even more disastrous, Target’s advertisements towards pregnant women exposing a teen pregnancy. Big companies can learn a great deal about their customers by gathering and analyzing customer data, but they can easily fail at using that data responsibly.

Inadvertent algorithmic cruelty–a phrase coined by Eric Meyer–is, “what happens when code works in the majority of cases, but fails to take other use cases into account.” These types of things often happen because the consequences of how data is being used aren’t being thoroughly considered, which is easy to do when you assume that your customers and users are similar to you. That means that people outside of the assumed majority can get hurt.

We all have biases, whether we’re aware of them or not, so it’s important for us all to consider what motivates our choices, and how that can affect others who don’t share our biases. Data can be an extremely powerful tool, but it’s up to us to be honest and trustworthy, to use data responsibly, and to actively counter the biases that exist in ourselves and our culture.

Good User Experience Means Seeking Other Perspectives

With the Day 2 keynote fresh in my mind, I attended multiple sessions that encouraged all of us in tech to reach outside of our own perspectives, to think and learn about users who are different from us, and use that knowledge to create better user experiences for everyone.

Amelia Abreu facilitates a session about creating better design with user research.
Amelia Abreu facilitates a session about creating better design with user research.

Amelia Abreu and Rachel Shadoan facilitated a longer-form session, Dog Food is for Dogs: Escape the Crate of Your Perspective with User Research,” which focused on escaping the limitations of our own perspective through user research. We know our own projects inside and out, but our users don’t have that same advantage, so it’s part of our job to do the research and learn more about the people we’re designing for.

The session focused on a couple of different strategies to help us learn to see beyond our own experience: first, we looked at a photograph and brainstormed about everything from the circumstances and feelings of the people in said photo, to potential solutions to their problems. Later in the session, we broke up into several groups and explored different scenarios, so we could strategically think about the different types of people who might work with our projects, what’s exciting them about our work, and what their struggles might be.

The clear message here was that we need to consider a variety of people when we create user experiences. People tend to congregate with others who are just like them, so that can easily lead us to assume that our experience is the only one that matters. Our user scenarios should be based on field research, or we risk falling into tropes and our own biases.

In a similar vein, David Newton tackled the topic of making web design more inclusive in Universal Web Design: How to create an awesome experience for *every* user.” Newton looked at successful examples of universal design in the real world–such as curb cuts to improve accessibility for wheelchairs, strollers, and bikes–and then expanded on the concepts of universal design and how they can apply to Web Design.

Creating web design that’s intuitive, flexible, and easy to use in a variety of situations was a big topic here, and it’s one that I loved talking about. A good universal design works for us, and we don’t really think about it until it’s not there when we need it. No matter what type of web site we’re building, be it business, personal, or community, our number one goal? We want people to use the site. If you have a web design that’s confusing, or that isn’t easy to use for all of our users, then your web site is falling down on the job.

Newton went into a detailed run-down of tips, concepts, and best practices for making web designs more accessible. And, he also stressed the importance of listening to and considering a variety of users. Diversity is not only about the user, but also how they access the web, what devices, connection speeds, and so forth. We were encouraged to listen to our users, respond to their email feedback, do focus groups, and do our best to learn what they need, so we can create a better web site experience for everyone.

In short: “Remove barriers. Make things easier for users, even if it’s a little harder for us [as designers and developers].”

Did you miss out on the conference? Look back at Day 1 of Open Source Bridge, and take a look at some of our photos on Facebook.

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