Too Sensitive

A great way to get lots of feedback from men you don’t know is to start writing about feelings on the internet.

Like the guy who wrote to me this week to scoff at an article I wrote a year ago about filling out forms that asked about my history with sexual assault and made me document my brother’s infant death:

This mindset “invites” everyone to tiptoe around in the world, walking on eggshells, always in fear of offending anyone at any point.

Or the time I suggested Twitter’s passive-aggressive copy—which tells people they ought to be more clever when they try to tweet something too long — would feel ugly or insulting if you were tweeting about a layoff or a death. Some other dude griped:

People get insulted way too easily these days.

Comments like these come up whenever I talk about making interfaces kinder to users, and the details never change. It’s always men, they’re always white, and their complaint is always the same: that caring about how our interfaces make someone feel is a waste of time. That we should have more important things to worry about.

I wonder, how many of those men — men who call themselves designers, developers, web strategists, whathaveyou — have also spent endless hours moving little boxes around just so in CSS. Shaving a few KB off a page to speed up load time. Obsessing over type, or color, or database structure, or any of the thousand details in order to make interfaces that work better.

But somehow, you make it about people who aren’t like them, people who have feelings, and suddenly, it’s all a waste of time.


Karen McGrane has this great quote about mobile: “You don’t get to decide which device people use to access the internet: they do.”

You also don’t get to decide the state someone ought to be in when they use your service, or the feelings they ought to have along the way. I’ve had friends tweet about their layoffs. About the death of a loved one. About a chronic disease. Hell, I had a friend live-tweet reporting her sexual assault to the police.

Those are deeply personal, major life events. There’s no right way to experience them, because nothing about them is right. Who the hell are we to have an opinion on someone else’s grief or trauma?


I’ve spent the past year working with Eric Meyer on Design for Real Life, a book about all the ways our digital products can fail people whose identity or emotional state doesn’t match whatever narrow vision we, as interface-makers, have decided matters.

Fun fact: Medium got rid of these jokes after seeing them juxtaposed with a death.

I’ve been paying close attention to these small breaks in UX that some people seem so happy to write off — the misplaced humor, the snotty error messages, the binary gender selection boxes, the assumptions about sexuality, the inability to select more than one race. What I’ve realized is that the best way to look at them is as a series of microaggressions.

Pick one: a typical approach to race.

Microaggressions are the daily little snubs, slights, insults, and assumptions marginalized groups face in the world. Just ask a black woman how many times a stranger has reached out and touched her hair. Or an Asian-American how many times someone has asked, “no, but where are you from, like, originally?”

(Actually, please don’t ask them. They’ve been bothered enough already.)

Lots of people think caring about these microaggressions is a waste of time, too: Stop being so sensitive! There are more important issues in the world! Everyone’s a victim these days!

Mostly the people who don’t experience them.

For those who do, they’re exhausting. They stack up over the course of a day, a week at work, a lifetime of being fed the same BS. A million tiny moments where you were reminded that you don’t fit in, or that you’re not “normal,” or that others view your body as fair game.

Take street harassment. Having a stranger whistle at you out of his car once is annoying. Having it happen every day, in between some guy muttering what he’d like to do to your body as you walk by and some other guy calling you a bitch when you won’t respond when he tells you to smile? I can tell you, that’s exhausting. Infuriating. Sometimes scary.

My dudes, I understand this might not bother you like it bothers me. But I’m just not particularly worried about you, to be honest. The world’s already designed for you.

I’m reserving all the fucks I have left to give for those who are harmed and excluded and alienated by the zillion little insults the world — including our freaking web interfaces — throws at them, over and over again.

It must be very difficult to encounter the feelings of women you don’t know on the internet.

I’m not too sensitive. I’m just barely learning to be sensitive enough — to internalize and grapple with the ways my words and my work can marginalize people who aren’t like me.

If I have time to care about content on the web — to worry about taxonomies, to fix little grammar flubs, to prioritize and organize and plan — then guess what? I have time to care about the people my work affects. I have time to assume the user knows what they need at a given moment a lot better than I do. I have time to pause my petty responses — suspend my judgments about how they should feel or what they should care about — and simply support them.

So do you.