piXel mind

Women in Tech

Every-time I see a post about Women in Tech, I am left a little bewildered. “But”, I find myself wanting to say to someone, “have you looked? There are already many women in Tech.” Tech is a sector made up of many job functions, and you will find many many women in all of those. Here, off the top of my head are women I have worked with: Amy, Ann, Jan, Jenny, Jill, Rochelle, Ana, Pegah, Sushma, Nithya, Terri, Terry, Jean, Gemma, Eileen, Caren, Janet, Jen , Nancy, Rama, Ana Helena, Anuja, Anne, Anya, Devjani, Mary, Robin, Lopa. Laura, Kristin, Pratima, Geetha, Uma, Urzula..

Perhaps, the real questions are: How many women are there in leadership positions. How many have a education in hard sciences , math, computer science and are working in engineering functions in high tech. Let me leave the first question for another time and address the second one alone.

When I came to the US almost two decades ago to start my graduate school work, I was truly horrified to learn that there were actually fewer girls interested in Engineering than there were in my school in India. I had naively assumed that in a more Western setting, women would be evenly distributed across disciplines. Today, as as parent of an almost middle schooler, I listen to the laments of mothers, who are starting to see their daughters turn away from math and science because it is seen by their peers as “difficult” and “not cool”.  Here now is something I can truly lament. Children, at the very moment that they should be introduced to the joys of a subject being turned off it for what seems like a ill informed fad. Let us design an environment where they can explore and learn to their hearts content, where they understand the inner beauty of some of these subjects – then choose to persue them if they so desire. This is vastly more important than insisiting that several of them appear at the far end of the funnel.

Any talk of women in tech must atleast be vaguely cognizant of the fact that if they are in tech , then there is someplace where thy are not. As my mind tries to find purchase on a local loss, I realize that she too was a woman in tech. A  rocket scientist no less. I remember her as someone who organized the school play last year and put in hours of work for three months – so that my son could be the loudest rooster to grace any stage in any universe (period).

So, then this: perhaps if they women are not in tech, they are somewhere else, where the need is greater, the good they do greater.

Find a voice, maybe two …

When you travel to a new place, you can go to all the tourist spots, stand in a crowd, walk past a zillion locals and still never feel that you connected with the place or its people. Then you climb into a cab, and start talking to the cab driver. Inspite of the fact that there is only one third of a language that you have in common, the conversation proceeds. He talks about the mundane. Tosses in some political commentary. Tells you some history. Points out a place or two. Asks you a question, then another. And this  does something incredible. You find you can now hear the voice of the entire city or even country. It is not just what he says. It is how he says it. And what he does not say.

Trying to learn what is going on during an event by looking at the tweet tagged with the its name, feels a little like standing at a crowded intersection in a strange land, watching the locals stream by in every which direction. But if you pick one of them… yes that one with the easel and the paint smudge and follow him to a gallery or two, then walk into a cafe where he meets his friends, absorb the iffti and then amble along towards the river front. Now, suddenly, you know a little about this land.

When something trends, it is good to have someone to follow who is embedded in that issue that is trending. During the current crisis I just happen to be following someone who is in Japan, and who by his (very limited number of ) tweets is really able to convey what is going on there – both at the personal and community level.

I would be a better world citizen, I think, if for every important (and lets just say that what is important will trend) topic, I am able to find a person or two to follow.

Of Books and Bookstores

A lifetime and a half ago, every other week, I would drive eight and some hours, from Buffalo NY to Maryland. I was still finishing my graduate work. My then boy-friend (now husband) was working in Maryland. Before the dinner and movie that marked the start of our two days together, we met up at a place that either of us would enjoy spending time at if the other was delayed. We met at the Borders store. A decade later, today when I am weary of soul and mind, I take a walk. My meandering feet almost always seem to take me to a neighborhood Borders.

It seems that this book seller is now in trouble. The descent of the ubiquitous bookseller is understood by most  by its juxtaposition against the ascent of the online retail experience and the raise in popularity of the e-book. Like many, I am thankful for the existence of on-line shopping. Unlike many, who lament the reduced reading experience, I actually like my kindle.  But still, I feel keenly the possible loss of the bookstore. I fear even more the possible loss of the personal library.

There is more to a book that the reading and understanding of it. There is more to a book store, or a library, or someones book shelf, than just the physical mechanism to hold many books. I wish I could make a list of all the things that would be amiss if actual book stores disappeared and only virtual stores remained in place. I find that I cannot. I can only tell you that my feet always take me to a bookstore. I never choose to wait for someone in a mall. It gives me joy to look at peoples book shelves. The serendipity of walking the aisles of a book store or library can never be replaced by a cover flow UI. The ubiquity of large, expansive stores filled with books, whispered to me something about the people that they served. If every book were to be digitized and given to me, and all book stores removed, I would be diminished.  Even when the information and the reading experience is well preserved, something is lost when we loose those physical entities.

I wish that every book store in trouble would be bought by Amazon and every record store by Apple. I do not mind consuming the content digitally. But I lament the loss of the storefronts and every thing else that this loss entails.

What is out there

If there were any doubt in my mind that the blog-o-sphere does not represent even the tip of the iceberg of our collective wisdom, those doubts were laid to rest when I recently saw this list of top 35 UX blogs. I decided to look at the contents of the list suspecting that I would see a lot of web design resources and possibly not much more. Well, the list has a few sites with blogs about a variety of topics, but for the most part we either have personal musings (such as this blog), blogs related to a technology, blogs that re-post other blogs.. you get the picture. Some other conclusions I came away with:

  • We (UX bloggers)  probably don’t pay much attention to SEO
  • We blog in generalities. We talk a lot more in our blogs about the meta aspects of our work and not the details of our work itself. We are for instance 82% more likely to talk about aspects of a well organized design review, than we are likely to say “I designed some navigation tabs today”. [OK, I made up the  82%, put it down to @lukew envy]
  • Large swaths of work areas such as designing enterprise applications or even desktop applications go un represented
  • When we do talk about some specific designs, we are talking about the “Topic of the Day” – a popular feature, a new application. We are adding to the Buzz.

In short, our blogs are not the sum total of our wisdom, they are more of a side outlet for our creativity and or steam. There are about 15 blogs that stand out as being exceptions because of the nature of their content. And they need to pay attention to Search Engine Optimization.

In search of Jeeves.

Somehow, I follow more than 200 people on twitter.  I may need a whom-not-to-follow feature more than a whom-to-follow feature. My current  location on this sinusoidal interest graph not withstanding, this is actually a very interesting problem. How do you connect up people to that which they are receptive to, that which they are looking for, that which they will appreciate when they see it – but may not know to look for it! Catering to “I want something, I dont know what, but I will know it when I see it” is not easy.  But it makes for an interesting problem. Today Recommendation Engines  are mostly based on available algorithms to mine existing data, determine a pattern and suggest something else that falls within the same pattern. But I am ready for more. I want Mr. Jeeves in place of the robot.  I want some whimsy. I want someone who pays attention to what I am suggestible-to at a given moment.

Netflix, Amazon, Pandora,  Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter – all have ways to recommend things to you. Pandora has a few interesting things working in its favor (in addition to the core of their recommendation engine).
It is interesting to look at how Twitter compares to Pandora along these axis.

The Recommendation  Moment and the Consumption Moment:
People will consume Pandora’s recommendations at the very moment they are made. Compare this to Netflix. Anyone who has returned a movie unwatched knows what I mean. It seems great when you put it on the queue. Later, not so much. So it sits there. And it is returned. Unlike this, with Pandora (and Netflix streaming) the instant of making the recommendation is the same as the instant of consuming the recommendation. On this dimension twitter represents something that you the user will be consuming for a long, long time after the instant of recommendation.

The Cost of Accepting
With Pandora or Netflix streaming, the cost of accepting a recommendation is rather low. You check it out, if you don’t like it, you stop and move on. The design of Pandora, it is all about reducing the cost of accepting a bad recommendation. With twitter, it may seem that the cost of accepting a recommendation is low – but in reality it is not. Un-follow is a heavy and emotionally expensive click.

Homogeneous or Distinct
I don’t know if it is conditioning by radio channels or if radio channels evolved this way due to the way we are designed to consume music: but typically when you are in the mood for a certain kind of music, you want more and more and more music of that same kind. This is less true of books or even movies. Infact right after watching an intense historical drama, I might be most suggestible to a situational comedy show. Now with twitter, my experience has become richer every-time I have found an entire new interest represented. For instance interaction designers, or snarky commentators on India, comfortable in Hinglish.  Once I found these groups, I could see who the people I found are following and add to people who represent this interest. Who to follow makes this part easier. However, it is the other thing – finding oasis of people who represent a different interest – that makes for a quantum leap in twitter-interestingess.

Length of Engagement:
For Pandora, the length of engagement with the recommendation is the average length of a song. For twitter, it is in some sense an infinitely long length of time.

Recommendation Basis: The basis for recommendations in Pandora is an analysis of the object itself. Contrast this with what Amazon does. Amazon looks to see purchase and browsing patterns, to approximate a recommendation ( they do not use a deep categorization of the books, for instance). (Netflix, ofcourse having run the million dollar contest, does a variety of things that are interesting). If we agree that twitter is ultimately trying to hook us up with more interesting tweets in our timeline, this current mechanism is more of a secondhand recommendation (like amazons) than Pandora’s.

In addition to those meta observations, here are some suggestions based on my personal experience so far:

Who-not-to-follow: Find out who I have explicitly un-followed. Do not ask me to follow them. Find out people that you have shown me that I have ignored, do not show me those people. If they have appeared 3 times on my sidebar and been ignored (less than 3 actually), that is an explicit (but no click) thumbs down.

The sounds of silence: If they have not said a word on twitter for three months, they should not be on the WTF list.

Recognize an Omission:
For some people on twitter, who to follow could be showing a lot of names that they were choosing explicitly not to follow.  If 5 of the people I follow, also follow someone, that is actually a clear indicator that I choose not to follow that person.

Sometimes, Less is More: It is also possible that not all the people who are on twitter will really have a richer experience if they start following even more people. It really depends many things, including how many people they are already following. Users with a very active timeline may have a  higher resistance to adding more people. I, for instance, would prefer to get one recommendation every week or even every other week, rather than seeing something new every time I refresh the screen.

Tell me why: I want to know why you think this is a good person for me to follow. Tell me. Right up front. Right now all I have is the persons name. It works for the very famous (who turn out to be really ineffective tweeters at times, but that is another story) – but for everyone else – I want to know more. I want to know why you think this is a good fit. I want to know why they are on my wtf.

Show me the content: I want to see the tweets. That is what helps me make the decision. If you don’t show it to me, I have to click and look.There is a part of me that wants one or two “suggested” people to simply appear in my timeline with an explanatory hashtag? I can see that this suggestion is fraught with peril, but really, a name is nothing to me many times.

And in closing: People often comment that while Facebook is the place to connect to people you know, twitter is the place to connect to the people you -wish- you knew. So you want to recommend people for me to follow on twitter  – you have to figure out what I -wish- for. Tall order? Yes. But I am afraid, it is the feature I would request. I do not wish to be “Rolodex-complete” on twitter.  Make it an opt in feature if you need to, but be adventurous. Not a lot of people, just one or two a month. But recommendations that would make me smile, even if I decided not to act on them.

  • Some people on my timeline voicing similar opinions: @psivadasan,  @daddy_san , @i_r_squared
  • My stretch goal for this post: do not use “social graph” anywhere.
  • Tangentially related reading: http://www.slate.com/id/2263462/pagenum/all/