As we gear up for the conference, the organisers have sent out a series of questions for speakers. Here are my responses.
How has your approach to your role evolved over the years?
I’ve had a fun journey up Dunning-Kruger mountain and back down the other side. I was a cocky internet kid in the 90s, self-teaching myself design and code. By 2000, I was pretty sure I was top tier. Now it’s 2021 and I’ve found a newfound respect for the huge number of things I don’t know about. My certainty and arrogance has been replaced by tradeoffs and diplomacy. Well, mostly.
What are the common challenges you see faced by product teams?
Being able to disagree and commit to the team’s plan takes a lot of maturity and effort. Many of us are taught to present our point of view and work to change people’s mind, so oftentimes compromise can feel like defeat, or like you’re letting down the design. But I think that’s just ego talking. No one on your team is trying to ship a bad product, it’s just that people have different ideas how to best succeed. And that can be hard to accept.
What are the greatest opportunities to improve accessibility in your field/ in design?
I think there are parallels to the real world. Before the United States passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, each of the fifty states went by their own standards and laws when it came to accessibility and discrimination. But once the ADA was passed nationwide, each of the fifty states had an obligation to meet it. You see the same thing with all sorts of progress across all of society, from fighting sexism and racism to environmental protections to privacy. You can’t piecemeal it.
I believe in the same thing in software design. If you ask product teams nicely to respect privacy, make things accessible, keep webpages small, localise for different languages, make sure their pages work across all viewports, and all the other things that make good design, you won’t get very far. Some teams will do it, but most won’t.
Instead, you need to make sure the common components and frameworks themselves hold a high bar for accessibility. Then you need to make sure product teams stick with best practices instead of trying to reinvent the wheel every time. Finally, government regulation has an important, but often overlooked, role to play. Once it’s illegal to make a product inaccessible, companies get really creative in their quest to not get fined.
What advice would you give practitioners who are just starting out in their careers?
Write all the time. Great design does not speak for itself, but clear and thoughtful writing does.
Document your design decisions and the rationale behind them. Write about things that interest you, things that you’d like to learn, and designs you don’t like. In all cases, learn to explain why. The better you get at writing, the more often people will agree with your ideas, and the more impact you’ll make as a designer. And the happier you’ll be as a result.