On Conference Codes of Conduct

Earlier in December Christina Wodtke laid out the case for codes of conduct at conferences, based on her experience writing one for IA Summit. She invited others to sign on:

John Scalzi, author of several best selling sci-fi novels, made a pledge to his community that he would neither speak at nor attend any conference without an enforced code of conduct.
I will make the same pledge now. I will honor any commitments I’ve made previously; all new ones are subject to the pledge.
I will neither speak at nor attend conferences that do not have and enforce a code of conduct. This may prove hard, as many conferences I’d love to speak at do not have a code yet. But change takes sacrifice. Integrity takes sacrifice.
If you believe, as I do, that it is critical to make a safe place where everyone can learn and grow and network, then leave a comment with just one word: “cosigned.”

I “cosigned” this pledge.

Me saying I’m not going to speak at conferences without a Code of Conduct means little in the grand scheme of things. I’m not one of the cool kids who gets invited to speak at major conferences.

As a mostly-white American man, I have little to worry about at conferences. After all, most conferences in the Greater Tech Community (from the backend DBAs to the UX designers like me) are mostly male, mostly white, mostly American. I’m well-insulated from the struggles those who aren’t male, white, or American (or for whom English is not their primary language.)

But I know those struggles exist. I know women struggle with whether they’re going to hang with a bunch of techies and the possible threat they very likely will not pose… but just might.

Jared Spool has been highly skeptical of codes of conduct. Among his points:

A weak Code of Conduct is a placebo label saying a conference is safe, without actually ensuring it’s safe.
Absence of a Code of Conduct does not mean that the organizers will provide an unsafe conference
Things organizers can do to make events safer: Restructure parties to reduce unsafe intoxication-induced behavior; work with speakers in advance to minimize potentially offensive material; and provide very attentive, mindful customer service consistently through the attendee experience.

I find his thinking disappointing. I am not here to refute his post or his thinking, though. It is all smart, valid, and real. I’m disappointed because he is a designer.

Conferences like Spool’s UIE are well-designed. They cater to all food allergies and diets. Social times are networking oriented with controls on alcohol. The hotels are expensive but live up to the expectations that have been set. There’s a purpose and plan to everything.


In design, you can put an immense amount of attention in the details, but if the design itself is not self-evident to a user, they will miss your intent and substitute their own.

I am not saying that Spool and the UIE folks aren’t designing for people. They most certainly are. Their attention to detail is there. But detail only matters when people are on the expected path. What happens when they are off that path, for whatever reasons?

What happens when someone has any bad experience? What happens when there’s harassment? What happens when people do not feel safe?

If something terrible happened to you, how would you feel? What would you think? Would you know what to do? What makes it painful? How can conference organizers provide what is needed to those in need?

As a classic cisgendered heterosexual white(-ish) American, imagining any of these things is difficult. The worst that’s ever happened to me was a random beating by a drunk white guy. I have no personal contact with racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia.

In fact, I would conjecture most people like me have never had personal contact with such harassment. I mean, we hear stories. But we’ve rarely seen it, often don’t know what we’re even looking at when we do, and in only very rare circumstances actually observe it.

Problem is, who runs most of the major web, design, and UX conferences in America? People just like me.

Let me be clear: I am not saying people like us are racist, sexist, homophobic, whatever. We just aren’t positioned to understand it from the eyes of someone who has experienced it. Call it privilege, call it ignorance, but we are exceptionally blind because of where we stand.

Eric Meyer’s recent encounter with Facebook’s Year In Review feature reminds us what happens when we don’t look deeply at all the ways a user can experience what we design. Real people with real emotions interact with our products, services, and deliverables, whether they be simple websites or complex, multi-day, multi-track conferences.

In the user experience world, we talk a lot about user journeys — walking through how a person comes to interact with your product, interacts with it, and what they do next. On every mental model or task analysis there’s always a spot for feelings, emotions, or pain points. We talk of how to increase “delight” while minimizing “pain.”

In UX, we do user research, because we need to understand those emotions and pain points. Doing so generates empathy for the people using your product, and it gives you the words and stories you need to transmit those emotions to the product managers, developers, and executives so the know whom they’re designing and building for.

But I don’t see conferences openly talking of their research. I see people advocating for better, safer experiences (rightfully so). But other than studies here and there, I don’t see anyone doing the deep research we need to understand why things go wrong, why people do not report abuse, and why victims choose silence over what could be a far better outcome that leads away from trauma and towards healing.

And yes, research is extremely difficult when the powers overseeing conferences are still mostly white hetero men. It’s difficult when user interviews come off as cold, impersonal, and clinical; user interviews are not about safe listening. I really have no idea how to do this sort of research right, and I would never pretend I did. But we need to find a way. We need to take what we already know about the unsafe experiences and use this to build more robust, failure-tolerant experiences for people in distress.

I think, though, being a conference organizer creates a sort of conflict of interest. Just like companies facing the poor experiences they create, organizers can feel a sense of defensiveness (“How dare you suggest I produce a poor product!”), inertia (“But I don’t want to change because it’s hard and/or expensive!”), and fear (“I have a good thing going, and this seems disruptive and dangerous.”)

I’m not sure those who organize conferences can truly represent those who attend their conferences. Perhaps we need to look beyond the conference-attendee relationship and ask how we can improve the attendee-attendee relationship — and delineate what is and is not acceptable. A code of conduct would provide such a framework.

I’ve been an adult, according to American law, for 24 years. In that time, I have learned I cannot expect people to act like “adults.” Not only are we all faking it, we’re all making up what it means to be an adult as we go along. I have learned to not expect people to “settle it like adults,” because no one can agree on how. Between acrimonious divorces, revenge fantasies acted out, and the depersonalized attacks of anonymous trolls on the Internet, I cannot expect people to be “adults.” I expect people of my age will have to be reminded, once in a while, what is expected of us.

The demands for a code of conduct come from a need espoused in the Greater Tech Community for a safe experience that fosters the diversity we need to keep going forward as a community. Look at the “cosigned” names on the A List Apart article — you could build a world-class, multi-day, multi-track conference out of those names. (Hell, I’d pay money for it.)

A code of conduct isn’t a solution, but a framework for a solution. It’s a clear “we expect to stay inside these boundaries, and if you do not, we will deal with it.” I seem them as akin to the codes of conduct every bar (gay, straight, or sports), every stadium, every store has. It’s about setting expectations, not about policing behavior.

It should never be about conferences mitigating blame. It should be about conferences stating what is expected and what remedies are available. Most importantly, it should be the conference saying it’s OK to call others out.

Codes of conduct establish an expectation of safety. Our job, as the people who pay money (often out of our own pocket) to attend these events, is to hold event organizers for providing a safe environment for people of all kinds to learn and network. If we think an event isn’t living up to the standards they state in their code of conduct, we can speak up. We can also vote with our feet.

No, codes of conduct do not eliminate the problem of harassment, just as getting rid of alcohol at parties does not eliminate sexual harassment. (And, personally, laying blame at the feet of alcohol is as dubious as arguing that codes of conduct will just drive assailants underground. Alcohol is a mere lubricant for actions that would happen given the same combination of inhibition and power.)

A code of conduct, however, is a foundation from which we all can start.

If a code of conduct is not the right foundation, then we need to find another one, and soon. 2014 was an annus horribilis for women and minorities in tech (and in the United States in general). We’re losing diversity across the tech fields, and the networking opportunities at conferences are an opportunity to start reversing the slide. But we cannot reverse the slide if women and people of color worry they’ll be victims at conferences, not treated as peers and colleagues.

I’m just a white heterosexual middle-aged guy who shows up at conferences a couple times a year with a slide deck. That’s all I am. I’m not an advocate like Ashe Dryden, a voice of reason like Christina Wodtke, or a person of influence like Jared Spool. I neither have the personal experiences nor the power to create the change we need.

But I am a user experience designer, as middling as I may be. And I want things designed with empathy. If I cannot make the changes, then I’ll stand for empathy. And a code of conduct is first and foremost about empathy.

I co-signed the pledge Wodtke put forward. I will not remove my name. Flawed as it may be, it’s a clear statement that I cannot stand for where we are. Either we evolve as a profession, or we will wither and die.