Category Archives: Presentations

On diverse speaker lineups at conferences

There’s been a lot of discussion on Twitter about diversity in speaker lineups at web conferences.

Lea Verou wrote about the blindness of blind reviews, and while she was looking at the process of anonymized reviews in general, some tweets in and around this conversation debate whether anonymizing the speaker selection process eliminates bias. Zach Leatherman tweeted:

I don’t believe an anonymous conference speaker selection process eliminates bias any more than “not seeing race” eliminates racism.

I think Zach makes a good point. Not only does an anonymous selection not eliminate bias, but the only thing it guarantees is that the curators don’t know who they’ve selected.

This does not guarantee a diverse speaker lineup.

What anonymizing does is put a responsibility-absolving blindfold on biases, so one can inadvertently end up with a totally non-diverse lineup and then can say, “Hey, it was a fair selection because we anonymized.”

That’s a weak position, in my opinion. And yes, I know that some people “de-anonymize” in round 2 of their selection process. Kudos. For now, we (the team I work with) prefer invite-only for events with a small lineup, but that’s a post for another time.

We all have biases. But when it comes to biases regarding people, it’s what we do with them that counts. One approach could be to face those biases and consciously act against them in order to get the type of speaker lineup we want. What lineup that is might be different for everyone. You want an all-female lineup? Great. 50/50 split? Also great. Choose what you want and take responsibility for it. Own the selection process rather than hiding behind it.

One possible approach

I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve been a part of conference organizations for many years and maybe the approach we used for two editions of dsgnday and this year’s CSS Day could be useful to some. Again, I’m not saying “we did it right”. I’m just saying that we owned our process and got the lineups we wanted, and someone out there might benefit from our approach. It might not fit with your idea of the right approach. That’s fine. Anonymized curation is okay; I simply have reasons for not preferring it. Please read that again. Also, note that our team consists of four men. This is purely coincidental, something we’re acutely aware of, and is part of the reason we’re thinking so much about these issues.

We started with the goal of the conference itself, of course, which is a range of topics on web design in a broad sense of the word, since the day is meant to be something of a counterweight to the larger number of developer conferences we have here in the Netherlands. However, that doesn’t mean “no code”, so we have a huge base of speakers to pull from, including non-technical speakers.

Right away, our longlist included people we knew would be a good fit for the conference. Krijn, PPK, Martijn, and I kept a simple text file in a Dropbox that any of us could add to at any time when we thought of someone we thought would fit. (Disclaimer: I’m speaking at the event, and while I hope my talk is well-received, that’s in part a financial move since it’s not the most-attended conference in Europe and paying for speakers and their travel is very expensive.)

Setting the goals

While some conferences have a primary or secondary goal of creating a platform for new or less experienced speakers, we currently do not. It’s perfectly valid to require a certain level of speaking ability or experience for an event. There are plenty of calls for papers and other platforms for willing new speakers at other events.

We had also set a specific gender diversity goal for this conference: at least a 50%/50% male/female split. An uneven split in favor of female would have been fine as well. Note that this is a goal, not a quota.

I have to admit that several years ago, I would have found this approach to be ridiculous. I’ve even openly opposed this type of thing. But years in the industry and hearing more viewpoints and a bunch of other factors led to me completely changing my mind. If I just say to myself, “Write out a list of potential speakers”, mostly men come to mind. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s a true thing. Call it a built-in bias. I might just happen to know more male speakers. But it is a fact, at least right now. And to get the lineup we want, we have to consciously combat that tendency. Setting the goal is the first step.

Battling built-in bias

So while I had a couple of people I really wanted to speak (not only men, BTW), I left them on the longlist and did the following thinking exercise:

What if the entire world only consisted of women? Who would I like to have come and speak at this conference?

Names came easily, because we had consciously removed our natural bias by way of a simple thinking exercise. And no one can say that these are “token” (I hate that term) female speakers designed to fill a quota, because they were the people we honestly thought would do a great job and fit the subjects we wanted handled at the conference. Note that it’s getting easier and easier to think of female speakers without resorting to bias-removal thinking exercises. This is partly due to us knowing more female speakers, and also because when you consciously and consistently work to remove bias, it slowly starts to go away. At least, that’s how I experience it.

Anyway, we had several names, and we curated the final lineup based on the quality of each speaker’s work and presentation abilities, and how their varied expertise would combine into a day-long program.

This process might not be great, and the conference is not a big one, but we are really proud of the three lineups of fantastic, qualified women and men we’ve put together so far (we love you, speakers!). And there is no way we could have guaranteed this result with an anonymized process. Without taking responsibility and making conscious choices.

It’s hard to do. That’s why they call it work. :-)

Responsive Design Workflow Workshop in Berlin

With Smashing Magazine, I’ll be doing a workshop on Responsive Design Workflow in Berlin on November 11. Here’s why.

My book, Responsive Design Workflow, has been available since mid-April. The content of the book (as the workflow described within it) is not difficult, but the concepts and techniques presented do become more complex as the chapters progress. For those without coding experience, the later chapters require an openness to new approaches and a certain amount of patience. While the reader is practically hand-held through every step, it can take some time and practice to get used to my approach.

The point of the book is not to say, “this is the workflow you should adopt”, but rather to get readers to think critically about their own responsive design workflow and inspire them to change as needed. I do this by describing my own workflow, which while “different”, has been heavily battle-tested in real projects. I simply can’t describe every workflow out there. I also can’t simply write a book about new workflow theory and not give any examples of a workflow that works. So that’s what I did, and readers can choose whether or not my particular workflow is for them.

Some people have been intrigued by what they’ve read in the book, and I generally receive positive reactions about it. That said, I’ve noticed that for some it’s a lot like cookbook: you read it, you understand what’s there, but watching someone cook from it adds a lot to the understanding of it.

Reading something is one thing, but seeing it done and trying it out yourself adds insight and can be the difference between learning and not learning.

To this end, the Smashing Magazine folks and I have teamed up; I’m hosting a workshop on the content of the book. The first one will be held in just a couple of weeks, on November 11, in Berlin. We’ll have a fun and busy day working through things like:

  • Doing content inventories for design comps
  • Making simple and effective responsive wireframes in the browser
  • Gaining insight into content and design by “designing in text”
  • Ease into the responsive design process by making a linear design first
  • Planning and documenting breakpoints by drawing breakpoint graphs
  • How to make web-based design mockups (and replace PSDs as deliverables)
  • How to present your designs to stakeholders
  • How to create self-updating style guides

It’s going to be a fun-filled day! There may be new dates and locations for this workshop in 2014, but this is the only one I’m doing for the rest of this year.

Smashing is putting on a bunch of other workshops in November and December, hosted by the likes of Dan Rubin, Remy Sharp, Andrew Clarke, and more. Be sure to check them out.

So if you’re able, come join me in Berlin!

Update from The Haystack

Well, hello there!

A lot has been going on around here, and the most important thing is arguably the fact that my book is now available. Responsive Design Workflow is now available through various booksellers, also via The book, which is quicker and easier to read than it was to write, explains the whys and hows of my basic responsive web design workflow, which I have presented about these past couple of years. It was my privilege to work with some great people behind the scenes, including Mr. Responsive Ethan Marcotte (who wrote the foreword), Jake Archibald (who was kind enough to be my tech editor), and Ana Nelson (author of Dexy, the document automation tool I currently use in my work).

The book site/page, which I’m scrambling to complete, will contain errata (my publisher explained that everyone makes mistakes, not just me, so I’ve stopped torturing myself, kind of) and code examples. In fact, I’ve already put the code examples on GitHub so readers don’t have to be the victim of my insane calendar.

Krijn, PPK and I just finished the Mobilism conference, which according to PPK might just have been the last Mobilism ever. We’ll have to see how that works out. It was a fantastic event nevertheless. I presented about web-based mockups, which are an important part of the responsive workflow.

Coming up in several weeks is CSS Day, a one-day event with eight speakers, each of which will be presenting about a specific CSS module. It might not come as a surprise that I’ll be handling Flexbox, as the layout specs have been my favorite CSS topic since I first presented about them in 2009.

I’ll also be speaking at Generate in London, Breaking Development in Nashville, plus a couple of other worthwhile, yet to be announced events. Also in the works: Responsive Design Workflow workshops! Stay tuned.

As for writing, I’ve obviously found time to write everywhere but here: the book, a feature on style guides (with a tutorial on one method of creating and automating them) for .net Magazine, and I’m now a (generally) bi-monthly columnist for the Dutch industry magazine Webdesigner.

In parallel with the above, I’m still doing client work, although the amount of projects I can do is limited since I started working independently two-and-a-half years ago, which even now still takes some getting used to. I have difficulty with saying “no”, but a heavy workload is good training for that.

There’s a family life in there somewhere. Social life is on the to-do list. :)