A Content Strategy for Codes of Conduct

Let’s say you run an event, and you’re concerned about attendees with food allergies. Having a food allergy can be a life-threatening condition, but it’s also one that ill-informed people may respond to with dismissal or even hostility, which leads people with food allergies to feel awkward or ashamed when they bring up their special needs. You don’t want to run that kind of event, you want all your guests to feel safe.

So event staff researches common food allergy triggers. They work with the catering staff to ensure that the foods offered don’t contain anything likely to cause a severe reaction. Everyone on staff carries an Epi-Pen. They don’t want to call attention to anyone who might be affected, so they make all of these choices behind the scenes. But they feel confident that they’ve designed an experience that meets the needs of people with food allergies.

One morning, an event staffer notices an attendee walking out of the hotel before breakfast. Because the event staff have been given TSA-like training to identify any unusual stress responses in their guests, the staffer heads over to the attendee to ask if anything is wrong. “No, I’m okay,” he says. “I just have this weird allergy to raw fruit, and I don’t eat wheat, so there’s nothing for me to eat at the continental breakfast.”

What went wrong here? The best laid plans, the most well-thought out process, fell short because there wasn’t a plan for:

  1. Soliciting input directly from the people who are most directly affected
  2. Communicating clearly what steps have been taken to prevent incidents
  3. Providing a feedback mechanism to increase the likelihood that issues get reported and resolved

This process of communicating and listening is the very essence of user experience design. When you’re talking about that process as it applies to a communication plan that will be read (versus a product that will be used) I find it helpful to refer to it as a content strategy.

Food allergies : Abuse

(An imperfect analogy)

I’m drawing this analogy from Jared Spool’s explanation of the admirable work his company does to support people with food allergies at his events. An incident like this would never happen at a UIE event, because they would always provide a hot breakfast. And because their team clearly communicates what steps have been and will be taken to protect people: during registration, during check-in, and at meal times.

Creating a safe environment for attendees who have food allergies parallels the steps event planners might take to protect attendees who might be harassed, physically assaulted, or be subjected to discriminatory language based on race, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability — all of which I will loosely group under the category of “abuse.” Talking about food allergies or abuse is often met with disbelief — even a desire to pretend they’re not really a problem. As a result, in both scenarios, people may not want to speak up. They may fear that an organizer will not take them seriously.

There’s one important way that food allergies and abuse differ: only one of them can be known in advance. While we can take steps to prevent abuse, by definition an act of abuse can only be discussed and dealt with after it happens. Ensuring that affected and at-risk people have an appropriate communication mechanism with organizers is a design problem that deserves our attention.

Enter the Code of Conduct

Enter content strategy

This isn’t just about having a process, or even feeling good about the process you’ve devised. This is about communicating that process to your attendees and to the community at large.

A content strategy helps clarify the goals and intent of a Code of Conduct, making it more likely to be effective at achieving those goals. A content strategy helps answer questions like:

  • Who? Who is the primary audience for the Code of Conduct?
  • Why? Why do we have a Code of Conduct? What is the goal or purpose of it?
  • What? What is the substance, the message, the main idea?
  • How? How will we communicate to our intended audience, what is the mechanism?

Let’s look at each one of these four topics.

Audience

Who?

It’s too easy to say that the audience for a Code of Conduct is “everyone who may attend the event.” In content strategy and user experience design, defining your user as “everyone” is weak framing, one that risks missing out on understanding the key differentiators that are required for successful communication. There are really three audiences for a Code of Conduct:

  1. People who may be the target of abuse: These are people who may be more vulnerable than others, by virtue of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, or some other characteristic. People who are wary of participating due to past abuse would also fit into this category.
  2. People who have been abused: People who have been harmed in some way at the event and need to know what remedies or communication channels are available are another important audience for a Code of Conduct.
  3. People who may be abusers: This is a tricky one, because no one would see themselves in this category. But communicating standards of conduct means that no one can ever say they didn’t know their behavior wasn’t okay.

The first group, people who may be the target of abuse, is the primary audience for the Code of Conduct. If you can meet their needs, you are likely to also meet the needs of the other two groups.

Framing the audience this way will help organizers who wish to conduct more research or testing to understand the needs of this group. As with all UX research, it’s important to focus on talking with the people who are most affected — not every single person who has an opinion.

In the absence of primary research, organizers should look at what is being written publicly about Codes of Conduct as a form of secondary research — people who fit into the target audience are trying, quite powerfully, to communicate their needs. Listen to them.

Purpose

Why?

Anyone who’s ever done user experience research or design knows that understanding the needs of the audience makes clarifying the purpose much easier. In this scenario, the primary purpose of a Code of Conduct is not to change the behavior of potential abusers. Other techniques are better suited for changing behavior; the fact that a Code of Conduct isn’t the best mechanism to do that is not an argument against having one.

Codes of Conduct exist to communicate with people who may be (or have been) the target of abuse that they are participating in a community where their needs are heard, listened to, and will be met with respect and concern. It is to make clear to the community at large that we protect vulnerable people and do not tolerate abuse.

Jared makes a point in his article that I think is at the crux of this issue. There is a difference between taking steps to create a safe conference environment, and communicating to the public that steps have been taken:

Ashe Dryden, on her very valuable Codes of Conduct 101 site says “A code of conduct helps by signaling that attendees should trust conference organizers, staff, and volunteers will respond appropriately should a report be made.” If it’s true that a Code of Conduct signals that, then we’ve done a huge disservice to the community. If this signaling is happening, we’re creating a feeling of safety, where no actual guarantee of safety exists.

It’s the difference between product design and communication, between interaction design and content strategy. If you’re designing a website to sell a product, UX designers must keep in mind that the purchaser may not be the same person as the end user. They have different needs and goals. We communicate with purchasers by giving them information to read; we communicate with users by giving them a product to interact with. Solving one problem doesn’t mean you’ve solved the other — and one problem isn’t more important or more worthy of solving than the other.

To have a Code of Conduct, to speak out vocally in favor of them, is about something beyond preventing people from getting groped in a Hyatt ballroom. Of course we should design a conference experience with the goal of influencing behavior to reduce the likelihood of abuse. But it is equally important to communicate a shared understanding that we as a community take this issue seriously. To suggest that making vulnerable people “feel safe” is somehow a disservice to the community misses the point.

Powerful leaders in our community must vocally stand up for those who may be the target of abuse, publicly reinforce standards of acceptable conduct, and reassure at-risk people that they will be heard, listened to, believed. That is the purpose of communicating a Code of Conduct. No “guarantee” of safety will ever exist — but creating an environment in which everyone feels more safe because they know the community listens to them is the closest thing I can imagine.

Message

What?

The substance of a Code of Conduct is a topic that’s been covered at length by people who have spent much more time doing research with the affected members of the audience. Rather than go over that ground again, I will point you to these resources:

Codes of Conduct 101 + FAQ

Geek Feminism Wiki Conference Anti-harrassment Policy

Why You Want a Code of Conduct & How We Made One

Mechanism

How?

Figuring out where to put the Code of Conduct on the website, how to integrate it into the registration flow, how to increase the likelihood that it gets seen — as UX designers, this is what we do. This is what we’re best at.

Organizers like Erin Kissane and Steve Fisher report that reading the Code of Conduct out loud before the event was a meaningful way to ensure the message connected with people. Steve told me, in a conversation on Slack:

We read out the summary of our CoC at the start of the event, with everyone in their seats. We had communicated it over and over on everything we sent out, but sharing it physically made it far more real to our audience. Helped them frame their experience and expectations at the event and helped two people reach out when they needed help. Reading the code out loud, and ending by saying “we believe in a safe and inclusive event,” and indicating that the organizers will enforce the code — but it is the responsibility of all of us to help create that environment — received a huge round of applause, which really surprised us. We thought it would be a bit too serious. We were happy to be wrong.

A successfully designed event must ensure that people know they can discuss incidents with the event staff — that feedback mechanism is crucial. Now, that may not be a guarantee that everyone will disclose — abuse breeds shame. But organizers who do not have a content strategy for communicating with attendees risk that incidents go unreported. Organizers may pat themselves on the back, confident they’ve designed a process that protects people, and miss the very problems they thought they solved.

In a recent article on A List Apart, Christina Wodtke said that she would only work with events that have a Code of Conduct, and recommended other speakers do the same — a proposal that wasn’t met with enthusiasm by some conference chairs. I think a publicized, noisy boycott is actually doing a favor to organizers — speakers and attendees are trying to communicate by voting with their feet and their dollars. People wouldn’t need to resort to a boycott if they felt they had been listened to.

For me, personally, advocating for Codes of Conduct is about defining what it means to be a leader in this community, to use my power for good. How can the strongest people in our community help make everyone more safe? By clearly stating that we do not tolerate abuse, by speaking up in favor of community standards that favor inclusiveness and diversity. Since that’s what a Code of Conduct does, then I am proud to cosign that pledge.

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