kaigou: under this playful boyish exterior beats the heart of a ruthless sadistic maniac (2 charming maniac)
[personal profile] kaigou
This is partially leading off my post from this morning. I had the pleasure of chatting with someone, yesterday, who does the same thing I do, job-wise. If you realized how few of us are actually around (for all that our job may sound awfully necessary, most corporations don't seem to agree), then you'd realize also what a rare pleasure it was to talk to someone who totally gets it.

Think of web application creation as a balancing act between two extremes: there's the design (what it looks like, what it does on the page, all the way to colors and fonts and whether you get a thank-you note when you're done), and there's the development (the code, basically). Designers don't code, and coders don't design, for the most part, and IMO/IME this has less to do with any integral dislike between them... so much as the fact that both sides require a lot of expertise. It is not half as easy as you may think it is, to code the backend of an application, or even to do a nicely-turned out page of CSS and Javascript on the frontend. Nor is it half so easy as you might think it is to come up with the buttons and the corners and the logos and the whatever else in Photoshop or Illustrator or Fireworks or whatever is the in-thing this week. These are areas that, to do well, do require a fair bit of training and experience -- and by then, you're probably firmly into the perspective of your area of expertise.

I'm the person in the middle. It's what I've always done (whether it's between designers and developers, or developers and admin-types, or whomever). I get that people have blindspots by virtue of their expertise, or their experience, or their upbringing, or their belief systems, or any of a variety of other intangibles. My job is to try and get them to step outside that long enough to see the other possibilities out there while at the same time validating and recognizing what they can contribute. As opposed to alienating them by throwing their blindspots/privilege back at them.

You catch more flies with honey, after all, and you convince more people to change if you can find a way to make change less scary. Yes. I do a lot of hand-holding, to echo [personal profile] the_future_modernes's comment on the previous post. You might even say my entire career has been nothing but hand-holding.

Sometimes it's designers who need the hand-holding (or holding back) to recognize that developers aren't being intentionally obtuse when they say such-and-such a fancy design option won't work. Sometimes it's developers who need to be reminded that not everyone out there is a complete savvy whiz at the freaking internets. And a lot of times it's the corporate admin-types who need to be reminded that neither designers nor developers can do this shit in thirty seconds flat and rebuild it in a heartbeat just because mister high-rank administrator doesn't like the color blue.

But a lot of times, it's that all three of them -- the business, the developers, and yes, even designers -- are completely blind, if I might use that term, to the fact that not everyone on this planet has cable-modem speed. Or the latest and greatest version of Chrome. Or the interest or inclination to make sure their system can handle Ajax. Or even, for crying out loud, has Javascript enabled. For that matter, not everyone can visually distinguish a 10 pixel by 10 pixel icon at twenty paces. (The default icons on most DW layouts are 16 pixels in height and width, and that's even too tiny for a lot of people.) Hell, if you have arthritis, or carpal tunnel, or just a difficult time with eye-hand coordination, you may struggle to get the mouse pointer precisely just-so on that dinky little icon to be able to click it... and a big part of my job -- or at least, the part that really matters to me, emotionally, the most -- involves reminding, even educating, these quite-capable and very-savvy people that: They. Are. Not. Everyone.

I am just as capable and savvy as the people I struggle to diplomatically educate. I'm not a poster child for someone who can't get the mouse to behave just right, and I don't fear the cookies, so I'm not an outsider being the token educator for people who need a clue bat. But I am an advocate, by choice, because someone's got to do it.

Why not the users who are affected?, if you're wondering: some of those users do educate. You can find a lot of them on the various accessibility and usability communities and forums, here and across the net, offering their time and expertise and personal experience to designers and architects and developers -- and people like me. Some of those users volunteer to do accessibility and usability testing -- at their jobs, their schools, or wherever else they find someone utterly clueless as to why you'd ever actually put a label on a form or use an alt-tag in an image. Other users may be fine with a mouse, but have English as a second-language, and argue/critique for clearer site architecture, for less-ambiguous terminology, for internationalization, and so on. I am so incredibly indebted to those users, I can't ever hope to quantify how much they've taught me. There are lots of different ways an application can shut a person out, and for every way, there's someone doing their best to bring that shutting-out to someone's attention.

But for every personally-affected user willing to help, there's got to be a hundred others who don't: because they are pissed-off. Justifiably so. When your online or application experience constantly kicks you in the teeth, you have every right to get angry. And you have every right to get even angrier if someone then wants to give you any crap about it. Even if that someone intends to learn, because we're back to the old thing about the token person who's required to educate everyone who is Not Like Hir. An angry user owes you nothing; instead, their anger's a sign you owe them a better online experience. Get with it.

I don't come into the picture because I ever wanted to 'save' anyone. I never really thought of myself, before the advent of the usability schools, as an advocate for anything... except maybe for just freaking doing things better. Making an application easier for a wider range of people is, in my opinion, always better.

But it's also made me much more sensitive to privilege-checking than anything, I think, previously in my life (work-wise, or even personal-wise). It's like spending your working hours juggling between the shoes of the person who can't do it all, and then stepping into the shoes of the person who can, to come up with the right words to say to lead a recalcitrant (or just overworked, or preoccupied) colleague into seeing the other side of things. Seeing it from a user's perspective. Or failing that, seeing why there's a valid business (or social, or technical) reason for doing it, even if they don't bloody well understand that mouses aren't automatically easy for everyone.

I do a lot of justifying, a lot of fast-talking, a lot of coaxing, a lot of listening, tempered with an even application of good humor, and it's all for the sake of getting some privilege-blind weenie to accept -- even embrace! -- usability & accessibility improvements to an application. I will also be sneaky, if necessary, because sometimes you just gotta do it and ask forgiveness and let the wheels of overworked developers rumble past any admin's hopes of "undoing that extra stuff you put in there". Gee, sorry, the dev team (or design team) will get to it when they can -- and meanwhile, the users are cheering in the aisles.

But the only way I can achieve any of that, at all, is to humble myself to learn from the users who are Not Me. It is hard, and sometimes it can even be pretty uncomfortable, on a personal level. I am a member of the dominant culture, after all, and beyond web-savviness, I also speak English fluently and know all the cultural in-jokes. Asking the questions or being willing to listen also means sometimes I bear the brunt of users who need to bleed the bitterness, and someone willing to listen is going to have to swallow the dose. I won't lie, there are times I want to protest ("I'm not the enemy!") and times I want to relate ("I have trouble with tiny icons, too!") and it's been a long hard road to learn to shut the fuck up when the users are talking.

Being in the middle means I have to take the kicks in the teeth from angry users who are sick of the unfair treatment or exclusion -- and then I have to turn that around, translate it, and do whatever song and dance is required to get that change to happen. The more time I've spent on journals (and DW's population has really increased this hundredfold, as anti-oppression seems to be a much larger issue than among the LJ circles I knew), the more I see a kind of juggling of privilege going on.

That is, when I speak to users, I've got all kinds of privilege I wouldn't normally ascribe to myself. I don't mean just in terms of blindspots about my own privilege, I mean as in, privileges I don't normally have the, well, privilege to claim. To users, I've realized, I'm a lynchpin. That accords me privilege that they don't have. In complaining to me, they're seeing me as someone who can route their complaints in a constructive direction.

Then I turn around and try to communicate these needs/wants to someone who's really in charge (which, sadly, has never, ever been me). I have little privilege at the table in a whole host of ways, when all else is equal. I'm not a Computer Science major, I'm not a hardcore developer, I'm not a graphics artist, I'm not a specialist, I'm not a manager. I'm a generalist using soft skills and diplomacy to argue for the human touch and interaction, in a technological industry that sometimes would really like to just get rid of the users altogether because wouldn't that make life so much easier? And then, there I go reminding these abled-bodied, CompSci or MBA specialists that, wow, there's a lot more colorblind people in this world than they're accounting for. Or that there may actually (gasp!) be people working for them, or using their applications, who get migraines from the screen contrast, or who want to come after them with tar and pitchforks for making the entire intranet text to be set at 9 pixels. It's like losing privilege across the corporate tables by dint of some kind of contagion, or maybe it's just that privilege will turn on anyone who calls out privilege. No matter how sweetly.

Mind you, this isn't a case of oh, woe, my life is so hard because I lose privilege by association and have to argue my case hard to regain it, or something. It's more than my career has put me in the position of constantly going back and forth. When I'm the one with the less privilege (by whatever means, and lest we forget, being female in the tech world does still count against you in most tech environments, however subtly these days), I acknowledge my own frustration and anger... because it's my reality-check. It reminds me that when I'm going through a kneejerk "I'm not the enemy!" or whatever, when disabled or less-enabled or just plain annoyed users take me up on the offer and tell me what they really think, that I owe them the respect and dignity that I damn well wish some corporate types would give me as well.

Lest you think this has nothing to do with fiction, that's all set up for you to understand better where I'm coming from. I was kinda vaguely aware that over a decade of this kind of work had probably had a major impact on my world-view, but it wasn't until posting a story for critique that I realized, today, just how much this lynchpin career has altered my perspective. That is, I totally get that some writers are like my less-happy users: they're pissed-off at being excluded or erased, or they're tired of conforming their version of events to play nice with the dominant perspective. They want to tell their story, and tell it well, and enough already with having to bend themselves to match someone else's application or world-view. Their demand that readers do the bending is absolutely understandable, and justified.

All that said... I'm not in a position of being erased; that is, overall, the balance of me isn't. I can completely understand the anger, but I have enough privilege that I can set that anger aside. (So long as we're not stepping into the areas where I am erased, that is, at which point my anger will also flare forth just as furiously.) Yeah, I gots myself some privilege, on the whole, and I won't ever be the top of the heap but I'll always be well above the middle, I think, at least in my lifetime.

Okay. So privilege equals power, and that I means I've got power -- of some loose sort. It may be a cliche, but if I can use my power for good across the corporate tables, why can't I -- why shouldn't I -- do the same, as a writer? Certainly, not every writer is going to see eye-to-eye with me on that, which is why I've explained how I've come to the place I am, and so it's easier to understand why I see privilege as something that might also be forced, or shaped, into something that expands rather than constricts.

There was something going around a week or two ago, maybe a month, whatever, about how if white guys don't like the idea of panels being all white guys, that maybe white guys should stop agreeing to being on panels that consist of nothing but white guys. This is exactly what I mean by using one's privilege to reduce privilege, or to even things out, or to give way so others can have a chance, to share on the privilege. Except in a writer's case, it's that if you have the option to write about white-only, Western-only, English-language-only characters, that you have the responsibility (or I do, as I see it) to write about something else.

But as someone who willfully straddles, or tries to straddle, the up/down dynamic, to create some kind of a bridge, then it's not enough to write about non-privilege characters/stories, just as it's not enough to simply be a listening board for unhappy users. I also feel driven to, bluntly, drag my fellow privilegers along with me. It means speaking in languages/modes they'll understand, while still faithful to or honest about what I'm describing.

I think it's sometimes risky, too. If you start getting too big for yourself, lose that humility, you're moving into dangerous waters. If I start thinking, wow, I'm so glad I'm not colorblind or clueless about the web or don't need certain cues to parse a page's logic, I'm getting too close to seeing users as Them, as Other, as someone who isn't an ally (somewhere, in some way, even if unknown) but as someone I'm, y'know, Righteously Helping. Or some equally condescending or patronizing bullshit attitude. If I start thinking, wow, these characters I'm writing are just so exotic and different and that this exotic difference is the entirety of what makes them interesting, then... I'm doing the same kind of thing, but as a writer. I'm seeing the characters, the users, as Something Else and for which that Something Else is the entirety of what makes them interesting, or useful, or just worth noticing. No user, and no character, can be (or should be) ever reduced to nothing more than the facet of them that makes them Not Like Me. And my job, literally, and willingly, is to do the best I can to not let anyone else see them that way, either. Even if that means standing on my head in the conference room and holding my breath until the decision-makers agree to pay attention.

That loss of humility, I think, may be one of the ways that we end up appropriating -- we're taking from the subaltern culture for the sake of the dominant culture's entertainment. And maybe on the average cloudy Wednesday afternoon, we can see a story as opening a door to the subaltern, in order to educate and broaden our fellow dominant-residents, where we manage to enrich the understanding of the former and the influence of the latter, without diminishing the latter. But maybe the same story, on rainy Friday evenings, is incredibly appropriating and demeaning because it insists on that lens being positioned for the dominant culture's benefit, and things in the dominant culture's rearview mirror are actually much closer than the story lets them appear.

I don't think I'll ever know, not from inside. I just keep trying, and keep having this conversation with myself all over again: that it's not okay to step out of the middle. Getting kicked from both sides, or getting frustrated because someone won't listen or won't shut up, isn't reason enough to stop being me. It's exhausting -- sometimes, and it's a lot of fun, the rest of the time. I can do something useful, being here in the middle. Those on each end have reasons for being there, but me, doing this is what gives my existence meaning.

As much as I'd like to write stories that demand readers to bend to me, the truth is that I'm the kind of person who would rather not force readers. I'd rather find a way to make readers want to bend. That means meeting them halfway -- whether they're the ones to the left of me, or the right of me. I've met both halfway in my dayjob, but I'm still working on it, in fiction.

Then again, my work-experience was hardly built in a day. Sometimes I wonder what makes me think my writing skills would be.
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kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
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to remember

"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

October 2016

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