You Only Code as Well as You Listen

Lessons on understanding and inclusivity from Sydette Harry at Code for America Summit

In the government technology landscape, we talk every day about the importance of user-centered design. But more often than not, we are conducting user research in the name of building a better tool. At this year’s Code for America Summit, Sydette Harry of Mozilla challenged us to think less about methods like A/B testing and more about actually investigating how a person’s life is affected. She spoke about decolonizing civic tech and what it takes to really listen to users.

“We have issued a statement about what it means to do tech, what it means to be involved with tech historically, and what that has done for us as makers, as users, as people.”

Sydette approached her keynote in an experimental way: instead of writing out her presentation, she asked the internet to write it for her. She pinned a survey to the top of her Twitter profile and asked six open-ended questions about technology, community, and what people really need. And not once did someone respond that they needed another tool, or another app. The answers varied widely, but recurring themes emerged: People want to feel connected to one another. People want to feel included. People want to feel that the other people who are designing technology for them truly understand their needs.

“We can build a better thing, but that doesn’t make that thing useful, and it doesn’t make it what people need.”

When we talk about AI and data and coding, we must challenge the assumptions of where we are. We must stop thinking in numbers and start thinking in real, lived, everyday experiences. Instead of seeking feedback from a community after we’ve built something, we must bring them in at the beginning of a project to get to the heart of the issue we are trying to address. We can look at any problem and try to write code to fix it. But to have important conversations, to bring up emotions, to get people to feel that they are heard and understood, does not require better code. It requires a better process, and it requires a better conversation. And that was her call to the audience at Summit: to resist the urge to build another tool, and instead have another conversation.

“We are living human lives, and that affects the decisions we make in tech. But it also means that the people who are using the tech we make are doing the same. It’s not just about the tool.”

To hear Sydette’s presentation in full, watch the video or read the transcript below.


Sydette Harry:

I want thank you. My name is Sydette Harry. I am editor of web properties from Mozilla. I am also a first generation Guyanese American from Far Rockaway, New York. That’s important because I’m in California. And every time I’m in California, I got to tell them New York is in the building. I am also by tradition a historian. My question is often context. Not bias, not data, but where have we been, where are we, where are we going.

It was important to me to do this differently. You are all slightly unwillingly part of an experiment, which I think when we talk about what we are doing with civic tech, an important distinction to make, because often the people we are dealing with our parts of our experiments. I am going to make a request of you that you are people with me today. Not just coders, not just techies, but people. Think about bringing your full personhood, all of your experiences and what it means to live a life into this space as I talk about these things. Because I asked the internet to write this speech. I asked people to write this speech.

The process of me getting this keynote works a little differently. I presented with my crew. Are you all there? Abby, Cordelia, Alejandro. Yes us, about something called We have a website. If someone could throw up the slide for me, Throw up the slide. We have issued a statement about what it means to do tech, what it means to be involved with tech historically, and what that has done for us as makers, as users, as people.

I don’t like talking that much on stage. I can. I will. It’s fun sometimes. But what really concerned me and why I want to do this is because we are, this is about makers. You are the people who code, who research, who implement, who are at best in the communities working with people. When we talk about civic tech, too often we talk about bringing in people when we’re done. We can talk about bringing in people when we are user testing or we are investigating. It is extractive rather than generative. It is not participatory.

You can take the slide down. People need to see my face still. But that is my one slide, and it is my one slide because I asked the internet to write my speech for me. I paid them. I’m making donations to two organizations, BAJI, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, and Sister Song, a women’s reproductive justice rights organization. I put a Survey Monkey on top of my Twitter profile, and I asked six questions. I thought that they were important because I wanted to bring people in before I got my idea, before I told you what I was going to talk about, and I wanted to hear what they said, what they thought was important. Something that I hope we do.

You only code as well as you listen. Because if what you make doesn’t help people, if what you make doesn’t affect them, it is not useful. What I think has been most damaging is our lack of ability to actively listen, as well as leaning towards the things that can be explained with math, bias, things like that rather than what is important to me. I think everyone here in some way as people, maybe not as scientists or whatever, but people, context, how we live our lives. I asked six questions, and I’m going to go over them with you and why.

These questions were open-ended. They brought up some really amazing answers. And I got dinged myself. The first question I asked was: What technology do you and your community need? What does it or would it do for you? One of the first responses was that someone asked for tools for inclusive conference planning, tools for meeting. People are looking for ways to connect to each other, they’re looking for ways that allow them to access being parts of the process, civic entertainment. This person spoke specifically of wiz con. Someone talked about text and websites for political candidates, who they are, where they came from, and what are their stances. We live in a place where people still want to hear from those communities how to access things.

But the one that was most important was they wanted to be heard, really heard by designers and securities teams. It would be a start to ensure basic accessibility and safety, meaning consult with the people who get left out, not just consultants on this issue. People expect to be left out. By the way we design, by the way we talk about tech, by the content we put up. If we are talking about being inclusive, if we are talking about representing people, we have already made a major failure. They expect to be left out.

The second response was what kind of technology do you feel you and your community get. That was not good. But what struck me the most was how people responded. Sorry, I didn’t understand, so I answered this wrong. Crap. We have bad internet. People apologize for not having their needs met because technology is such an integral part of their lives. They willingly say it’s crap, but they have to use it. The decisions we make how technology is being used is affecting people. It’s affecting how they think about themselves. It’s affecting how they believe they are allowed to ask questions. We can’t just build a better mousetrap. We can’t just build a better app. We have to start thinking about the processes and ways that we are affecting people.

This was my favorite question because I got dinged. Somebody told me I asked a bad question. I’m staring at this question trying to parse it because technology and community are such broad terms. Get can go about a hundred different ways. I’m not trying to be contrary. Someone is apologizing to me for me not meeting their needs. But this is part of the issue. What do we mean when we use words, and do we mean the same thing as people we are trying to communicate with or serve? But as a broad example, there’s very little access to computer literally and self-service. Municipal websites are not mobile optimized, even at the state level.

People want to be involved. People want to be included. They do not feel included and they are apologizing for actually voicing that. This was important to me because when we talk about when you’re doing research, when we talk about we have got users involved and they are really thinking about the thing, and they’ve given us feedback. What do we mean? Did we talk to someone? Did we ask them how they felt? Did we talk to them and ask them how did it affect their lives? Or did we do an A/B test? Did we ask someone to go from a scale of one to five? Did we ask someone to put up a like or a dislike or an agree? Did we actually investigate how this was affecting their lives? Or did we just take what we needed to build the better thing?

We can build a better thing, but that doesn’t make that thing useful, and it doesn’t make it what people need. People are desperate to get the tech that they need. More importantly, they’re desperate to understand what we mean when we say civic tech. My background is journalism history. I was the community lead for the Coral Project. I helped research the talk tools that is now used on 40 multiple platforms to do comments on news. I remember when we started, everyone was closing comments. We don’t need comments. We don’t need to know what people think. We know how everything’s get. There’s a pundit. There’s a numbers. We’re going to do with 538. That wasn’t a good bet.

We made comments. People want to be heard. And now more than ever we are looking for ways to get feedback to talk to people. I asked them what was civic tech? 60% of respondents could not tell me. As we’re talking about the civic tech spaces, we’re talking about civic innovation, as we’re talking about building and making great new things, we’re dealing with the understanding that people don’t know what it means. And we have to fix that. When I say we have to fix that, I don’t mean that we have to make them understand what we mean. I think that we have to come together and make a cohesive understanding of what that means as members of the community and not just as coders.

Question four was the most important question to me. This was the set up and this is the thing that is most dear to my heart. When we talk about diversity and inclusion and even representation sometimes, we often talk about moving people from room to room, who’s in the room, who’s out the room, who are we making for, how do I be a voice for… No. We all have skillsets. We all have accesses and privileges and trials and tribulations. But people are people, and they are the best judges of their lives. They can tell us what they need. And we have to create and be in conversation with them.

When I asked, when I got this opportunity, I wanted to say what would you say to a roomful of people to help to create tech? Not how can we make you understood. Not how or can you be a example on a Petri dish. But how would you tell people. Not everyone has a smartphone. Civic and convention tech can’t be done as a hobby project. People’s civic tech, the stuff that is not shiny and bright is often seen as a thing we push to the side. People don’t even understand what it is because they feel that it’s not foregrounded.

When we talked about decolonizing civic tech, we were looking at websites. How do you get what you need? How long does it take you to get into a website? Does it support multiple languages? Or is it just a thing people do to say they do it? People asked us to hire anthropologists. As a historian, I have issues with that. As a historian who has experience with critical race theory, I have deep issues with that. But they said access and diversity do not automatically equal equity. People want to have equity. They want to feel safe. They want to have good lives. And we are using buzz words and talking about bringing people into rooms. And people are talking about I need better access to my healthcare website.

People spoke specifically about please invest in tech infrastructure. It’s not the website. It’s not the newest app. I can’t get on the web. I don’t have a cell phone. What I find most interesting is looking through all of these. Almost no one spoke about a brand new toy. They talked about the process. They talked about wanting to be involved, wanting to know, wanting to get access, because people care.

The other side of this I know in civic innovation and we are in an interesting space, I’m doing a workshop called Decolonizing Tech. You probably have some guesses about where I fall. But there is a lot of burnout. We’re tired. We’re scared. We’re upset. We’re under-resourced. We might be the lone voice. We don’t know what’s going on. We are living human lives, and that affects the decisions we make in tech. But it also means that the people who are using the tech we make are doing the same.

It’s not just about the tool. The tool is important. It’s about us. It is about how we enter a room. When you go and you code and you make a thing, do you look at it as a designer? Do you look at it as a person? We often talk about persona- or user-centered design. One of my favorite books, Sara Wachter-Boettcher, Design for Real People. Do you also code as a real person? Do you research as a real person?

Question five was: The tech I use in my life makes me feel like the people who design it understand me. I gave people a scale from zero to a hundred. What do you think the average number was? This is participatory. What do you think the average number was?

We’re doing a little better than you think, a little better. Not a lot, but a little better. 36. There were numbers from 0 to 92. This goes back to the final question. If you’re willing, can you tell me why you gave the score in question five. I know enough tech to know it doesn’t understand my circumstance and I mitigate it. In terms of my disability, I’m luckier than most. I’ve got multiple degrees so I mostly get by okay. Decisions seem not to care. They’re openly hostile to my right to privacy, my right to ownership, and contributing to siloing information of workplaces and employers that will assist me in making informed choices.

People still gave us a 36 with that response. They feel they need it and something you need they’re willing to rate highly. What is most important to me at the end of all of this is the way forward. What is the way forward? Listening is active. It’s not painless. It’s not immediate. It’s a process. If we commit to listening, this is going to suck. People are angry. People are upset. We are angry. We are under-resourced.

The problem is not how do we make people not angry with us.The problem is not how to build a better tool. The problem is not how to design a better tool. Because taking care of people is not a problem. Taking care of people is a thing we should do. The problems are anything that inhibit us from taking care of people.

We work as designers and coders in spaces. I say that my biggest influence is my mom. She was a union organizer, and she now does a lot of time making hats. When I asked about my response about one the biggest thing I say when I go into any room as a researcher or a tech person is how are we answering this one question. Does baby have hat? My mother knits hats for the NICU in my neighborhood. My mother’s like many other mothers, fathers, non-bina– elders, who make things for small children because they lack them.

When we go to make code, when we go to make apps, when we go to do these things, we are filling a need. We are assessing, we are looking, and we are trying to make something happen that was not happening before for the most vulnerable, for the people in need. It is not often a pretty question. It’s not innovative. The innovation is not you’re doing something new. Crochet has been around for centuries. The innovation is that the person, a baby didn’t have a hat. Now a baby has a hat. That is the innovation. Changing the state of something. And that means having many different conversations than the ones I think we’re having now.

When we talk about AI and data and coding, we must challenge the very assumptions of where we are. Part of the reason I was so excited to do decolonizing civic tech and put you through this experiment is one of the things that keeps coming up is biases tech. I keep asking you how is bias different from the context? I’m a black woman in America. Redlining is how they made my neighborhood. I’m a first generation immigrant. You talk about privacy and security. To get my parents citizenship, I had to give my report card to the American government. My parents speak English. What is that like for people who do not speak English? Are these our cases? Are these part of the discussion?

This isn’t a number. This is everyday experiences. Are we quantifying them at all? Are we even thinking about them? When people talk about security and privacy, we also must talk about people who have never had it and people who are just realizing that they now don’t have it. And what are we designing?

Facial recognition comes up a lot. But, if I’m in a place where it’s racial profiling, the fact that a facial recognition only recognizes me at 60% doesn’t matter if I am 80% more likely to be stopped for existing while black in public. I don’t care about the algorithm. I’m already stopped. But I still will have to use websites to get benefits, or get my passport back, or even get on the subway. How are we making tech that people can use under all of these circumstances?

One of the things that I like to think about most is I said listening because listening is a sense, listening is active. But we cannot approach things from just one way. We are just not one kind of person or two kinds of people. There are multiple things. And I asked for listening as a sense but also as a sensibility, and asking you to activate more senses and more sensibilities. Are you feeling? Are you hearing? Are you teaching? What is material to you? Are you vibrating?

Because listening is an immediate. You might not hear what that person has to say. You’re not hearing me though. And what you need and what is needed to change is different from person to person. One of my favorite things is, I told you I’m from New York. We have a phraseology called, “You good?” And you can ask it. It is an intonal inflection. And you can ask it in multiple ways. There’s a meme that signals so many things and things. “You good.” It’s fine. Don’t worry about it. “You good?” Would you like to fight me? “You good?” Are you okay? “You good.” You’re good at it.

It is two words, but it is one of the most versatile pieces of communication, and it is about a connection. I want us to think for now more about connection. We talked about inside the room, outside the room, who has access, who doesn’t have access. I would like to think of us, if we think of ourselves as people for this one time, about being part of a connection. We have skills. We have communities. There are people with other skills and different communities. When your toilet isn’t working, you don’t want an architect. You want a plumber. So not everybody needs to be an architect. And we need to respect the work that people do.

And how do we put things in context over putting things in specific boxes, or counts, or bias? People come in with their stories and their histories and their problems. We have to listen. We have to listen to that in context. We have to listen to what they need need. And we have to think about how that will affect whatever we make.

I asked a question about tech. I said that I was going to design my talk from the web. Not a single person asked for a tool. Not a single person asked for a faster thing, a better thing, a shinier thing, a newer thing. The innovation they wanted was, I want to be able to participate in my elections better, I want kids to know how to code, I want to be able to have my mom, my dad, myself use tech. I’m thinking of others. I want to know how to connect to the people who are important to me, either from my municipality, my region, my love of Firefly better. I want to bring the world I see and the world I interact with materially into the world in a way that makes us better, more cohesive, more connected every day.

We can code anything. But to have those conversations, to bring up those emotions, to get people to feel that they are heard, that they are understood does not require better code. It requires a better process, it requires a better conversation. The things we build may be tools towards that process, they may be data that helps that process, they may be brand new shiny things that help us make those feelings. But if I’m going to ask you for one thing today, if you are given the choice between making a tool or going off and inventing a shiny, shiny code thing and having another conversation, have another conversation. Figure out how to make the conversation better. Figure out how to talk to people. Listen for what they ask, for what they need, but also for what you need.

It’s hard. People are angry. There are things that we need to do. But what I found most shocking and most important of all as I tried to do this experiment and I appreciate you for playing with me is I asked people to tell me something about how they lived their most intimate lives, their fears, what they thought about technology, what they thought about the world to someone most of them have never met. They’ve never seen me. And they answered.

People look at what we do and they may not be happy with it, they may be unhappy with it. But they want us to do better. One of the answers to the questions actually said: Are you well? Are you healthy? Are you good? Because people can tell even in our coding in the tech that we think it’s so above their heads that we are people behind it. They want us to be well, because when we’re well, they’re well. We can tell each other where we are by listening, and only by listening and communicating.

So do me a favor. Do not build another app. Have another conversation. Make another conversation possible. Make access, material, comfort, something possible. Make sure the baby has a hat. Make sure you have one too. We are going to be talking at our session at 2:30 about how we can look at it through a very specific lens of decolonization. But if nothing else today, be a full person. Take that with you into your tech, take that with you into how you design, because the people who are receiving it are full people. They deserve that much from us. Thank you so much.

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