I started to write this as a comment on Eric Meyer's post: Diverse It Gets, and stopped when I realized I was blogging in Eric's comment box (probably because the three pre-filled in text fields, and a single text entry field, and a single "Submit Comment" button made it seem so easy to do :)
In my humble opinion, Eric's post was heartfelt, well written, and perhaps most importantly, honest and up front. Of course Eric is a good friend, and I'm thus quite biased, but you could easily say that one of the reasons I count him as a good friend is because he is an honest and up front person, especially on sensitive topics. But onto the topic at hand.
I tend to think of these things in terms of more questions, like:
Short attention span version:
Note: rushed blog post disclaimer - I know there are lots more posts on these topics that I could (and should) be linking to, and may get a chance to over the course of the day. For now I wanted to at least get this post, however light on the links, out there and into the conversation. More hyperlinks to follow.
If there is a problem in the lack of diversity of speakers at conferences (which a lot of smart folks that I respect do seem to think, and I tend to accept some of the arguments for that position), the bigger question is of course: what can we, as members of this community do to make it better?
One of the biggest complaints I hear/read is, why aren't people inviting me to speak? Another variant I see: why aren't people inviting my smart women colleagues/co-workers to speak?
Often the answer tends to be, because conference organizers don't know you or your colleagues, or haven't heard of you or your colleagues, or had no idea of your speaking skills or topical expertise. And since I know someone will bring it up: bloated lists of self-proclaimed experts with a particular diversity flavoring are not helping, they just make those on the list look like desperate commodities begging for attention whose primary value is their flavoring, not their expertise.
But the biggest response to those that are waiting for invites is - why are you being so passive?
The mindset of waiting to be invited is a bigger problem than not being invited, and that's squarely your and your colleagues fault, or to put it more neutrally, responsibility, or to put it more positively, something you can change about yourself that will directly help change the situation.
Whenever I read such "not getting invited" whining (sorry, but that's how it reads) in the context of diversity, it always bugs me, as if I had seen something similar before, and I think I've finally placed it.
The "not invited to FOO Camp" whiners (sidenote: almost all of whom were white caucausian men, heh). Yes, the perhaps top negative criticism of FOO Camp in the past has been "but I wasn't invited" (though people have levied gender balance critiques as well).
This used to be a lame excuse. That was before a few of us who chose the perspective of 'something you can change' got inspired, got together, and created Barcamp.
Anyone can invite themselves to a Barcamp. No Barcamps near you? Still not an excuse. Anyone can organize a Barcamp. And people have. All around the world. By people poorer than you. By people for whom English is not their first language. By people around the world with much less obvious opportunity than any of us spoiled brats working at some web 2.0 startup here in San Francisco.
Now, "was not invited" is not even a lame excuse. It's just ignorant. Or lazy. Or perhaps pathetic.
Now the question to everyone who whines about themselves or their colleagues not being invited to speak is: Why aren't you or your colleagues speaking at a Barcamp? Or again, to put it more positively, if you want to speak, don't wait for an invite, Go to a Barcamp, sign up for speaking slot, speak, and get known. Barcamp has dramatically lowered the barrier to entry to speaking, growing your speaking experience, building up your speaking resume, and heck maybe even meeting some of the folks that organize conferences, or at least meeting folks those folks look to for recommendations.
Stop waiting for a speaking invitation handout.
Go make a speaking opportunity for yourself. And regarding the topic of gender, lots of women have participated in Barcamps, organized them, and have written about it. As an example outside my more familiar social networks (I've only briefly met Nicole), go read Nicole Simon's post about her Barcamp London experience and the posts she links to.
And Barcamps go beyond web/technology. Maybe I'll see you this weekend at CookCamp.
Mood spoiler warning
Warning: that first half of the post was the more positive half. So if you're psyched up and feel empowered to take charge of your own destiny and make a difference, maybe you should stop reading now and go do that first (find a Barcamp near you, sign up, and put it in your calendar) before continuing.
However, if you want to read more about the diversity of gender and skin-color at web conferences, perhaps more along the lines of what Eric wrote, read on.
Note: most of this was written stream of conscious as a comment on Eric's post, and I will leave it as such. So if it seems not entirely well organized and through through, you're right. These are thoughts and reactions more than a well considered essay.
Enough with the warnings and disclaimers.
I tend to think of these things in terms of more questions, especially when it feels like the conversation may be being (perhaps unintentionally) blinder-framed into too narrow a perspective. I find that more questions often help both rhetorically, in a reductio sense, and to get people thinking with more perspectives. I don't have answers to (most of) these questions.
Why is it that gender (and less often race, nay, skin-color, see below) are the only physical characteristics that lots of otherwise smart people appear to chime in support for diversity of?
E.g. as long as we are trying for greater diversity in superficial physical characteristics (superficial because what do such characteristics have to do with the stated directly relevant criteria of "technical expertise, speaking skills, professional stature, brand appropriateness, and marketability" - though perhaps I can see a tenuous link with "rainbow" marketing), why not ask about other such characteristics?
Where are all the green-eyed folks?
Where are all the folks with facial tattoos?
Where are all the redheads?
Where are the speakers with non-ear facial piercings?
Surely such speakers would help with "hipness" marketing.
Or to poke another sensitive subject, where are all the speakers with visible physical handicaps (beyond just vision/glasses)? Wouldn't they be better for talks about accessibility?
And why is it that so many otherwise smart people make the colorist mistake of labeling skin color as race?
Or how about non-physical (or not easily visible physical, or not necessarily physical) characteristics that are unrelated to the stated directly relevant criteria? E.g.
Where are the hindu, buddhist, or atheist speakers? (though I would suspect, from personal experience, that there are many more closet atheist speakers than might be apparent, perhaps one day we'll live in a world where they too can come out of the closet with less fear of discrimination and ridicule).
Where are the terminally ill (non-contagious obviously) speakers?
Where are the foreign born and raised speakers?
All of the above "differences" would also bring diverse opinions and viewpoints (in many cases, much more so), not to mention that all those "differences" have historically been used for (and some continue to used for) discrimination, and yet those differences are ignored in deference to questions of gender and skin-color, why?
Why do we accept such blinders on this conversation?
I saw Aaron Swartz this past Saturday when meeting up with danah boyd at Dolores Park and in explaining why Twitter is different, interesting, worth a look, and succeeding, I related a few rules of human interface design that I'm fairly certain I came up with (though it is possible and perhaps even likely that I've assembled or simplified them from other sources). Aaron is one of the smartest
kids I know, and he compared the rules I gave him to Fitt's Law and insisted that I should blog them as I had expressed them. Perhaps by blogging them, others will raise any related prior art that I've missed.
I'm calling these hypotheses instead of laws because they have yet to be proven out through rigrous scientific study and critique. I've developed them merely from anecdotes and examples. However if these hypotheses survive the harsh critiques of PhDs with larger brains (and attention spans) who subject such assertions to sufficient controlled (reproduceable) experiments, then perhaps future generations may see fit to call them "laws".
More specifically, all other things being equal, the cognitive load required to complete an action or task in a human computer interface is directly (probably linearly) proportional to the number of clicks and keystrokes required to complete that action or task. Cognitive load can be roughly defined as "how mentally easy/hard it feels to do something".
Example: instant messaging someone vs. emailing them. To instant message (IM) someone, you merely:
Four steps. Only three if you were already "in" your IM client. Not counting typing the message itself of course which is the "content" you wanted to communicate anyway brings it down to only two steps. Thus only two gestures of user interface overhead. To email someone, you have to:
Ideally, assuming no subject (which is atypical), and only typing 3 letters to autocomplete the recipients name, this comes to a total of TEN steps, more than 3x as much interface overhead as using instant messaging. I assert that this is why sending email feels so much more heavyweight than instant messaging someone.
I originally came up with this rough idea last year (2006-10-20), and wrote it down prescriptively as:
- Minimizing clicks and keystrokes is but one way of reducing the cognitive load of a UI.
A specific instance or variant of this hypothesis (which is in fact illustrated by the above example) relates to text fields in particular:
The fewer fields in an interface, the lower the cognitive load.
Longer: since each free form text field requires a creative act to come up with contents for it (or even an explicit decision to leave it empty), each free form text field significantly adds to the cognitive load of an interface.
With instant messaging (and Twitter for that matter), there is only one field - "What are you doing?". With email there are two (if you don't count the address fields): subject and message. With blogging interfaces there are at least two as well, post title and post content. Not to mention extra fields for tags, trackbacks, etc. I also assert this is why Twittering feels much easier than blogging. One field instead of two. I do think it makes that big of a difference.
This variant was the first of the two rules that I mentioned to Aaron, and he pointed out that it actually scales all the way down to zero fields - interfaces that have NO free form text fields, that merely consist of a button, e.g. "vote for this" (like what we did with Technorati's new WTF feature), have even lower cognitive load than interfaces with a single text field.
This is the second of the two hypotheses that I wrote down on 2006-10-20, again originally in prescriptive form:
- Reducing latency also reduces cognitive load because
- having to hold a thought or series of thoughts requires cognitive load.
Another way of expressing this is the general "flow" of a human computer interface. When the computer is always waiting for the human (and not vice versa), the human is free to proceed at whatever speed feels most natural to them, slow for some folks, or rapidfire like a videogame player for others. Such rapidly responsive interfaces can even give the user the pleasant illusion of flying right through whatever task they are completing.
Interfaces however which require that the user "wait" (often by putting up a watch/clock/hourglass/spinning-rainbow-beachball-of-death cursor) lose the user's attention, and may even cause them to wander off to some other application instead of sitting and waiting for the computer to do whatever it is doing. Then when the computer is done and the human eventually returns to the task, the human has to remember, wait, what was I doing? This need to actively remember what you were in the middle of is another form of cognitive load.
Worse still is the start and stop nature of many interfaces where you can quickly do a few things, and then they stall, and then you can quickly do a few more, and then they stall again. Very much like being trapped in stop and go traffic, or a street with a series of speed bumps, which of course nobody enjoys.
More specifically: the usability of an interface (as evidenced by how much use it gets) is inversely geometrically proportional to the cognitive load of the interface.
This is the second rule I mentioned to Aaron, builds upon the previous two hypotheses and brings home why the cognitive load of an interface matters in practical terms. In short, the lower the cognitive load of your interface, the more users will use your interface, and the more often they will use it.
The inverse geometric relationship results from the compounding of two asserted inverse linear relationships.
First, the lower the cognitive load of the interface, the more users will be able to succesfully use the interface. Assuming a linear distribution of users' available cognitive load budgets (perhaps a big assumption), the number of users will increase linearly as the cognitive load of the interface is reduced. People are more likely to try something that seems like less work than something that seems like more work.
Second, the lower the cognitive load of an interface, the more often that a successful user of the interface will feel like using it. The "less work" it feels like, the more often a user will do it. Consider how often you IM a good friend vs. email them during the course of a day. The things that feel more convenient (or feel like they have less user interface futzing overhead), you do more often. Again the inverse linear relationship is asserted as the simplest model baring data to imply a more complex relationship.
If each of these inverse linear relationships is represented by the function 1/x then the product of the two is 1/x2 - an inverse geometric function.
What does this all mean?
When designing human computer interfaces (including web UIs):
And be prepared for both lots of users, and frequent users.