How user research woke me up to harassment in the design community

Tackling community safety in product design

Sexism, chauvinism, bigotry. All words which I’ve heard in relation to the UX community. Each word leads back to a story about someone being approached inappropriately at a conference, or a Twitter troll questioning someones continued existence on Earth. As a member of this community, it makes me sick.

But it’s not a problem for me to worry about right? I’m an educated white male in the tech industry. I’m playing life on easy mode. I knew it happened, and I’d read widely on the topic, but I never considered it was something I would actually have to deal with. What could I do anyway? I’d never seen or been in a position to stop anything.

Then a user research participant told me that they wouldn’t use my product because they were scared of ‘creepy guys in our industry’. And then another, and then another. It quickly became my problem.

I travel a lot. 365 days a year actually. Me and my partner travel constantly while running a UX design agency. One of the reasons we do this is because we love meeting new people, especially our design peers. I truly believe that talking and sharing with other designers makes us all better people, both personally and professionally.

So in 2014 we drove 5000 miles across the US and Canada, meeting designers along the way. We found people to talk to and organised meetings on Twitter. For two introverts, the safety net of a tweet was great.

Fast forward 6 months and I’m designing Umploo, a tool for the design community to connect traveling designers. I want everyone to be able to easily find and meet a design peer in a new city. I want people to talk about what they’re working on over a coffee, and share ideas and solutions. It might sound a little fanciful but having now done it over 20 times, in 15 cities, I can say that I never had a single boring encounter. Everyone had a story and I always left having learnt something new. And I can say I never felt threatened or creeped out, perhaps because I’m male, 6 feet tall and 200 pounds.

I thought the idea was good, but since it’s important to practise what you preach, some user research was in order. 22 people answered a survey I put out to the UX community with the aim to validate the initial idea. To my relief, the idea didn’t flop, people liked the concept and would like to meet up with another designer for a coffee if they were travelling.

But then I get a bad response, and then 2 more. My heart sank. I read the comments from the these participants:

If I am solo there is a potential position of vulnerability (and being female it may be a tough spot if you are on the trip solo).
I’m a woman in a male-dominated field and there are a lot of creeps out there

My immediate reaction was to play down the comments in my head, after all it was only 2 people. But then I thought back to all the stories I’d read and the endless blog posts about sexism and harassment in the digital industry.

Suddenly I was faced with the realisation that a huge group of my target market think it’s a good idea and want to use my product, but don’t feel safe enough to. It’s not just a business problem I’m facing, it’s a moral one.

I was so excited about my idea that it barely occurred to me that other people could have some negative experiences if they used Umploo. Luckily, as is often the case, user research slapped me in the face and showed me another reality. If Umploo is going to work, it would have to tackle the issue head on.

It would be straightforward to design a web-app which connected two designers in different cities. It would be simple to throw a quick prototype together in a couple of days and start making connections. The standard thing to do would be to include a disclaimer like this one from To say it distances them from any responsibility is putting it mildly:

PWAL is not involved in the contact between Users in any way whatsoever. As a result PWAL does not have any control over the conduct of Users, nor over the information published on the app. User is solely responsible for all interaction with other Users. PWAL cannot be held liable any damage or harm resulting from interaction with other PWAL Users.

It’s a tricky problem because as a studious business owner, minimising risk to your company is important. But shirking your responsibilities completely? That’s not the vision I have for Umploo. I want us to tackle the issue head on, to create a truly safe and inclusive space. I want have done everything in my power to make sure that everyone feels comfortable to reach out to a design peer in a city they’re visiting, and feel confident that they’ll have a good experience from it.

At this stage, we don’t have the answers yet. We’re working on ideas such as online and offline ID verification, private and public reviews, safety advice on where to meet, and a code of conduct. Perhaps most importantly, we’re planning a clear and public complaints system so that if users do have a problem, they know who and how to talk to us, and what will happen next.

We’re still at the early design stages, but this means we can build these features in from the beginning. If you’d like to be kept up to date, then signup to our mailing list at Or if you’ve got some advice or want to get more involved, drop us a tweet or email.