Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable with Erika Hall
Let’s be real: writing is hard. We’ve written and rewritten this intro seven times. Taking on any new challenge or project that requires deep thought, passion, and creativity, can push us outside of our comfort zones. It can make us feel anxious about succeeding—but it can also force us to grow and take on new challenges.
In this episode, Erika Hall talks with us about starting a design agency, the power of empathy in everything we do, and her brand-new book.
People are actually terrified of asking questions — and especially people who end up in positions of leadership. To say, “Oh, we don’t know this and we have to find something out, and I don’t have the answer” is really scary, and that’s nothing that we’ve been rewarded for our entire lives. And if you want to have a research mindset or just use evidence to make decisions, you have to be in a constant state of admitting that you don’t have all the answers.
—Erika Hall, Mule Design
Here’s what we get into—and of course, there’s a full transcript, too.
First, Katel shares a secret: when she started working for A Book Apart, she’d never worked on a book before. But neither had the first author she worked with! And it all worked out ok. We discuss getting used to big new challenges, and how to decide when it’s time to take the leap and write a book—and then give the middle finger to imposter syndrome.
Interview: Erika Hall
Designer, author, and all-around smarty Erika Hall fills us in on how she spent the last year: writing a book (and getting stuck, and writing some more), teaching people how to make better design decisions, and taking on gender bias in the workplace. We talk about:
- How she started Mule Design and how the agency—and their work—has changed since 2001.
- Being outspoken online and fighting the trolls who live in our review systems.
- Why it’s critical to bring empathy into our working relationships as well as our personal ones—and how feeling comfortable being uncomfortable can be the most powerful thing you can do.
Why we won’t solve gender bias with education alone; we have to change our own habits and help others learn to do the same.
- Her new book, Conversational Design, all about how to use conversation as a model for designing interactive digital products and services that are less robotic and more real.
- The joys and horrors of writing: making it through 2017, surviving the myth that your second book will be easier than your first, overcoming a health setback—but getting through it all to launch a book.
- Finding inspiration IRL—no, really, sometimes stepping away from our screens and talking to our neighbors is the best way to rediscover the good in the world. And listening to Oprah. And Ru Paul.
Fuck Yeah of the Week
We end the show with heartfelt appreciation and admiration for Emma Gonzalez (@emma4change) and the massive student activism movement that has been ongoing in the wake of Parkland.To all the people, young and old, who are standing up and speaking out: fuck yeah and thank you.
- Tweet from David Hogg
- RuPaul’s Drag Race
- BBC’s In Our Time
- The 9 Rules of Design Research
- Be a Pal, My Dude
- Just Enough Research
- Conversational Design
- Mule Design’s Gender Bias Workshop
This episode of NYG is brought to you by:
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Sara Wachter-Boettcher Do you want to work with a diverse, passionate team that likes to get shit done? Then you should talk to Shopify. Shopify is the leading global commerce platform for entrepreneurs. And they’re growing! And they don’t just want you to apply to them. They want to apply to you. Visit shopify.com/careers to see what they’re all about [music fades in].
Jenn Lukas Welcome to No, You Go, the show about being ambitious—and sticking together. I’m Jenn Lukas.
Katel LeDû I’m Katel LeDû.
SWB And I’m Sara Wachter-Boettcher.
JL Whether it’s a blog post, a conference talk, or a book, writing is hard. Finding inspiration to create is hard, but how do we get through it? On today’s episode we’ll talk with Erika Hall, co-founder of Mule Design and author of Just Enough Research and, the brand new book, Conversational Design. We’ll hear about what motivates her to write, and how she manages everyday bumps in the road to large-scale challenges. But before we hear from Erika, let’s talk about this whole publishing thing.
KL So … when I started at A Book Apart, I had never worked on a book before … and neither had Erika.
SWB Wait, hold on. You started being in charge of a publishing company after not having ever worked on a book before?
KL Yeah, no, shhh, don’t tell anyone that.
SWB So, first up: like, uh, I don’t know that anybody could tell because you did great. But, like. how did that happen?
KL So while I was jumping into publishing into a book, I was also getting acclimated to the role, and figuring out what I was doing with A Book Apart. And like really, truly, the company was also sort of figuring that out. Which is good. We were growing together. But it was something I had never done before and I was absolutely terrified. I was basically supposed to be the leader on this project. I was supposed to know what I was doing, I was supposed to keep everything going. I was also supposed to establish myself and get a bunch of people to trust me and to work with me and to know that I was going to lead them in the right direction. Um and [chuckles] I felt like I was starting from scratch and completely flailing. There was also no one I could really talk to because I, all of a sudden, didn’t have any colleagues. I had always worked for companies that were large. I had always worked for organizations where I went into an office every day and, all of a sudden, I was, you know, working from home. I was completely by myself and we didn’t have a team. I was the first full-time employee with A Book Apart. So it was really strange to kind of go from being around a bunch of people all the time to being alone. It took me like a good year to just like get used to it.
SWB Yeah, I mean, something I was really thinking about as you were talking was like, ok, how much I think we often … underestimate how long it should take to get used to something. And big changes take a really long time. You know they talk about like what are the most stressful moments in people’s lives? And some of them are, you know, grief of a close — you know, losing somebody close to them and going through grief, or going through a divorce, but also things like moving is one of the most stressful things. All of those like high-stress things — new jobs are definitely part of that. And I think like — I don’t know, at least I do this to myself where I’m like, “I should be over this by now.” Or like, “This shouldn’t be that big of a deal,” and then it is a big deal and you end up kind of beating yourself up about why aren’t you comfortable yet or why aren’t feeling more in the groove of things yet? And then like you know [sighs] looking at it from the outside though and being like, “Uh Katel! Of course that took a fucking year [laughing] that sounds really hard!”
SWB You get a different perspective.
KL Yeah well and even thinking about like the, you know, the question that you asked in the beginning of kind of like, how did you start at this, you know, at this thing that you hadn’t done before? I had like so many fears about that … because I spent, and again, because I was sort of on my own and didn’t have like an ongoing feedback loop, I was always in my head about like, did I make the right choice? And am I gonna do this job well? Like am I gonna serve this company and these people, you know, to the best of my ability? … I was actually just talking to Erika the other day because, you know, her book is launching and she was like, “Oh my gosh, I hadn’t really realized that was both our first time working on a book.” And she was like, “Well, you know what? It worked out.” [Laughing] And I was like, “Yeah, it totally worked out. It worked out well.”
JL I — [laughs] I love this because this is like the quintessential fuck of imposter syndrome [laughter]. Like essentially you were just like, “You know what?” You said it. You said you felt like you were flailing but I mean, spoiler alert, because we’re years ahead now. I mean, you weren’t! I mean, you published a slew of great books! So obviously you took this and you got through and you did do an awesome job. So I love it because I feel like we can now look back and talk a little bit about how you were feeling but you still took on that job. You still did it, even with potentially these doubts that you had, or these feelings of flailing, you took it and you were like, “I’m gonna do this.” There had to be this part of you that was like, “I know I can do this,” because you did it, right?
SWB Also, this is the obligatory moment where I have to remind everybody that Katel is now the CEO of A Book Apart [KL laughs], where, that wasn’t where you started, right? Like you were the managing editor when you started there?
KL Managing director.
SWB Managing director, sure [yeah]. Um so, right, going from being the managing director, which is obviously still kind of running the show and getting books out the door, to being the CEO means that the people who founded the company saw that you were doing an excellent job and that you not only could lead publishing but that you needed to be at an executive level of the organization. Like … so … yeah. Like you can do it, obviously. I think we have a lot of evidence at this point [laughing] that you can do it.
KL Yeah. Here I’m like wiping my brow. I mean, yeah, and I think while I was stepping into having only been in very structured environments, I was like, “Ok, this might be a little more difficult for me.” But it was also a chance for me to be like, “I can make this something that I want it to be.” Which is amazing. That’s an amazing opportunity. But yeah, I mean I think you have to look for those openings and kind of say, “Alright, I can do this job. You know, I have these skills. And it might just be a little bit of different scenario or the set up might be different but I’m gonna apply that.”
JL Yeah, I love this. I feel like a lot of times people feel like if they’re in a path with a specific direction there’s no how do they move over. I love that you did that [KL yeah]. You took those and you applied them to a different direction.
SWB I think there’s something else thought that maybe also is a parallel to what happens when you write a book which is like, you also have to be able to look at your past experience and have some faith that you maybe know more than you give yourself credit for, or that things that you learned in the past really do apply. And I think some of the time that takes some experience to be able to look at what you’ve done in the past and imagine it kind of coming together in a different way. I mean I know when it comes to writing, going back to thinking about from the author perspective: nobody goes into writing a book for the first time having ever written a book before — like you have to do it for the first time! Right? [Agreeable sounds from others] That’s — that can feel very daunting and I know it feels daunting for probably most people and I think one of the things that really helped me when I thought about writing a book was like, “What are the strengths that I already have that have led me here?” And I mean obviously part of it is like having subject matter expertise that somebody wants to publish a book about. Ok that’s one piece of the strengths. But it’s not just that. It’s not just like your knowledge, it’s actually also about having the ability to take something big and break it down into small chunks … the ability to kind of think about that macro picture of like what’s the whole arc of this thing going to be and then zoom in on the details. Or maybe it’s skills that people already have in things like just doggedly getting stuff done, checking things off the list, like project management skills are massive. Or perhaps it’s just, you know, you can start out thinking like, “I can do this because I know that I have a voice that’s really compelling for people and I’m gonna have to get much better at [laughing] project management,” which I think is true for a lot of authors. You know whatever it is, you have to be able to kind of identify like, “I don’t just have an idea or a topical expertise, I also have some skills that I can apply to this particular kind of problem.” And I think sometimes it’s like … I don’t know, I feel like we work in a culture that really is quick to label people as this or that and it’s like, you know, so you end up in these — these modes of thinking where you’re very defined by the job titles you’ve had before and it can be hard, I think, to remember that those are just combinations of skills and you could combine those skills in another way and end up with a totally different job title that you’re totally qualified for.
JL Yeah. I can’t think of like how many people in the past have been like, “I don’t really care what title you put on your LinkedIn, this is what you’re going to be doing here.” And I feel that’s like a common sentiment from employers sometimes.
KL Yeah. One of the things I love about A Book Apart is that we really look for authors to have — to come with like not just potentially subject matter expertise but like a point of view. Right like some kind of way they’re going to approach or present the thing that they’re writing about that is different or has some kind of meaning that we really identify with. And, I don’t know, I will just say that you know as many doubts as someone might have about whether — whether they can write a book about something, or they are, you know, the right person to write a book about it. It’s like, “We haven’t read a book about that by you.” So I mean that’s a shameless plug to say that, you know, I love hearing from people about their book ideas so, please, write to us, but [laughs] —
JL This episode is not sponsored by A Book Apart.
KL [Laughs] It’s not! Sorry [laughs].
SWB Um no I think that um I think that that’s a really important thing to keep in mind because I know that going into whether it’s writing or speaking or just in general like kind of … putting yourself out there and talking about your profession and talking about things you know, trying teach other people things you know, it can often feel like — it feels very daunting if there’s other people have written stuff or said stuff before and I have to be totally new and original and then you start feeling like, “Well, gosh, everything’s already been said.” And of course it hasn’t. And you know for me it’s — I’m always thinking like, “What are the problems that I’m seeing out there that my peers are experiencing? And what are the issues that I think people should be talking about more than they are?” And then figuring out what that perspective is and once you have that perspective, I think things really click into place and you end up with a different kind of book, and a different kind of result than the kind of like “Insert Topic for Dummies.” Right? Like which is a different kind of book which might be helpful [KL right] for some people but [yeah] that’s such a limited view on what a professional book could be. Um you know I always think of it as like — I wanna influence how people think about their work and that’s — versus just saying, “I wanna teach them how to do a thing.”
SWB I think that’s something that [laughing] Erika does really well, as well. I think that she definitely understands that teaching people about issues in design and research is also all about having that point of view and that point of view is informed by all of the experiences that she has both professionally and personally and I really value that when I read her work.
KL Yeah, I mean, she really brings that and her personality to it. So, I mean, she’s also just really fun to read which is a huge bonus.
SWB Well, speaking of her being fun to read, I think she’s also fun to listen to. Are we ready to hear from Erika?
KL Yeah, let’s do it! [Music fades in.]
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Interview: Erika Hall
KL [Music fades out] Erika Hall is a co-founder of Mule Design in San Francisco. She and I met when she was working on her first book, Just Enough Research, with us at A Book Apart and I had just joined the company. I have since been in awe of how Erika advocates for good design work through her own practice, that she generously shares her expertise, and how she does it all with fierceness and wit. Erika, we are so happy to have you on the show today. Welcome to No, You Go.
Erika Hall Hi! Thank you. I’m very happy to be here.
KL Yay! You co-founded Mule Design in 2001. How did you and your partner, Mike Monteiro, decide to start Mule?
EH [Laughs] wow. The origin story [KL yeah] in that — the mist of time. Well we’d uh we’d been working together and … we had developed a, you know, as has become apparent: we have strong opinions about things, and each of us, independently, I think our entire lives has had strong opinions about things, and we were doing design consulting and we said, “Hey, we have strong opinions about how this should go and we would like uh be in charge of our own choices and especially choosing clients because, I think, that’s where our dissatisfaction with working for other people really came from is we saw that the clients you choose make you the sort of designers you become,” and we saw how those choices had been made and we were like, “Oh we don’t really — this work can be really, really hard and demands, to do it well, it demands a lot of commitment … at every level, really.” So we were like, “Ok we wanna choose our clients … and we wanna this control over how we work with them and control over the client relationship. Hey!! Let’s start a company.” So that’s sort of how it started.
14:40 KL How has running that company changed over time for you?
EH Oh boy. Uh … we ourselves became less stupid, I think, because [laughter] when we started we really, really had no idea what we were doing. So the great part — and we talked to a lot of people uh doing our research before we started who had started companies to say, “What should we look out for?” And, “Do you have any advice?” But then over the course as we talked to other people running their own companies we really learned — it’s like what you learn when you grow up, between being a child and being an adult, is you learn that no adults actually know what they’re doing. We really learned that everyone running a company, like at every level, feels like they’re making it up as they’re going along. So, I think, our experience wasn’t unique or that unusual but over time we really found, you know, we’d get in these challenging situations and have this experience to fall back on, and the conversations with clients that used to be terrifying, all of a sudden I had all this experience, and we developed all this experience around working with organizations, and so that part became easier. And then over time we really found that the business has been changing because organizations are building their own internal design teams and so it has worked out, I think, well, in the sense that what we have become particularly good at … is also the set of things that are much more in demand which has to do with dealing with the organizations and creating the conditions for good design, not just providing design services.
KL Were there any things that you ran up against that were really difficult for Mule or just challenging in a way that you were like, “How are we gonna help clients with this specific thing?”
EH Oh boy. Um [exhales deeply] I mean the thing that makes the work most challenging is how humans make decisions. And what we’ve found is that sometimes we come in and we say, especially now that we say, “We’ve been doing this since late 2001.” We say, you know, “We’ve worked with organizations of every description, from a two-person startup to, you know, an enormous multinational organization.” And it all comes down to how the individual humans communicate and make decisions, that’s what makes a project go well or go badly. And the nature of people is that we actually — we hate change, right? This is something I talk about all the time: we’re creatures of habit. And we like to be comfortable. And doing new things, and going into territories that you don’t understand very well is really uncomfortable. And the thing that’s hardest for us, and the place that we still feel like, “How do we help you?” Is if people hire us and they say, “Oh we wanna do things differently, we wanna change, we wanna be innovative … but we don’t want to be challenged … and we don’t wanna change how we work as an organization.” And then there are limits to how much we can help them if they are still — if we say, “Ok we have to come to this and be really collaborative.” And they say, “Oh we wanna hold onto our fear and hold onto our hierarchy … and we still wanna make decisions based on what the person with the most power in the organizations prefers, rather than what the evidence supports,” then they’re really — there’s a limit … to like if the organ— if the people in the organization don’t want to engage at that level, there’s only so much we can do … because that’s what the work requires.
18:19 KL Speaking of, you know, just working with people and, [chuckles] you know, interaction with humans, like you’re really vocal on Twitter about a lot of things like design research, the political climate, and feminism. Have — do you feel repercussions from that? Or do you like worry about alienating clients or attracting trolls?
EH Nope! [Laughs, KL joins in].
KL [Laughing] I mean how has that — I feel like being active there is [yeah] you know it’s a part of your work, I think, and it’s [mm hmm] a part of just not being able to separate politics from design and vice versa. Like, how do you deal with that?
EH I mean it is a part — like we would not have like named our company Mule if we didn’t want to establish a certain [clears throat, chuckles] sensibility. And I — I have and I — this is something that I’ve spoken about privately but haven’t said publicly, and now I’m afraid I will say it, but who knows what will happen, is that uh … personally … I have [hesitates] not experienced bad repercussions from being online and being outspoken online. I don’t know why that is and I hope I’m not welcoming it now … but it’s — it’s sort of been a mystery because I say things and it’s fine. Uh we have gotten some repercussions from things Mike has said, particularly about guns, but those repercussions are — it — like I’ve learned a lot about how online reviews systems work … uh and the trolls have come at us. Like every place that we can get sort of a star rating, trolls have come at us to downvote us and so we’ve learned is that those systems work better or worse at um filtering out trolls. For example, Yelp is really good … for obvious they’ve really developed a practice about highlighting reviews that are more legitimate. Amazon is pretty good at this. Google is terrible! So if you google “Mule Design” you will see an amazing set of what I call fan fiction reviews … which — which describe scenarios that have never happened but because they’re indistinguishable, from Google’s perspective, from legitimate reviews, there is no way to remove them [KL right] and — and if you go on Amazon and you look at the reviews for Just Enough Research, they’re divided between — like they’re half five-star reviews and half one-star reviews, and the one-star reviews have nothing to do with the book, and everything to do with us being outspoken, particularly, I think, for things around um gun control.
SWB You know, Erika, that’s really interesting. Um I think both what you’re saying about not having felt like you’ve been particularly targeted in the way that women are so often targeted online for being outspoken, and I felt a little bit of the same where … I get some but I haven’t had the sort of like coordinated attacks or — or just overwhelming quantity of abuse that so many people I know, particularly women and then, of course [mm hmm], particularly the most marginalized women [yeah] have had, and I — I’ve wondered a lot about that myself too, and then I’ve been like, “Ok well, what does it mean for me to sit here and, like … wonder why I haven’t had more of that? Am I inviting it?” You know, “Should I knock on wood right now?” [Yeah] you know I think a lot of it, for me, I’ve thought about like, well what does that have to do with my level of like privilege and power and sort of, like, a sense of, like, do I seem to be better connected or better protected than the people who are getting more abuse? Is it dumb luck? I’m not totally sure but I’m really interested if you’ve thought about how that’s played a role in how you’re perceived?
EH [Inhales sharply] yeah! And one of the reasons I’ve been really reticent to say anything about this is because it feels like victim blaming to say, “Oh I’m doing something right! And the people who are … getting a lot of abuse are doing something wrong.” Like that is something I don’t believe in and don’t want to promote that idea in any way. But this is just been generally true in my offline life as well. So yeah, I don’t — I don’t know. I mean [KL yeah] maybe I am that personally terrifying … maybe that’s it.
SWB I like to — I like to think that. I like to think that [EH definitely] — that people are a little scared of you and that maybe people are a little scared of me [yeah] and I’m very ok with that.
EH Yup. Exactly. Like, “Take me on!”
KL Right, if that protects you, that’s ok … Erika, one of the many things that I admire you for is that you talk about empathy as a piece of the design process, but actually also part of the working process, how we work with other people. Can you talk about why that’s so important?
EH We don’t talk a lot — enough about empathy for our coworkers and colleagues, and this also ties into the work we do around gender bias and collaboration and all of the organizational stuff about design … is that so often you get in organizations where people treat each other terribly or have a lot of fear … about their colleagues or their — the leadership, and there’s a lot of politics. And so I think we really need to think about empathy for our coworkers and seeing the people that we go to work with every day as human beings. And that’s actually more difficult because it’s — a lot of times organizations in the way that they provide incentives or recognition, even though they talk about, “Oh! We’re a team-centered environment. Yay!” Are really incentivizing to be very competitive and terrible to one another, and that’s the part, I think, solving that … will really help … bring better things into the world. And you have to do that. You have to be able to be honest with each other, and so something that [sucks teeth] um I’ve talked [hesitates] about before and is uh, I think, a few people have been talking about the concept of psychological safety that Google really promoted after they did this project, Aristotle, to look at what made teams work. The idea that you have to feel comfortable … being vulnerable in front of your coworkers and you have to be — feel like you can admit you don’t know things and you can make mistakes and you won’t be attacked for that or diminished for that in the workplace is such an important concept and, I think, that’s — all designers should be looking more inward and looking at that context in which they’re doing their work.
KL I think about this in every corner of my life. I mean I think about it, you know, in my interactions day to day with just, like, people I’m, you know, working with or talking with or on the street, whatever. And [sighs] I just feel like the more we can do to — to, you know, propagate that, the better. Like if we can start to feel a little bit more vulnerable with each other, [sighs] I just feel like we can do better work. I mean I know that sounds cheesy but [yeah!][laughs].
EH It’s absolutely true and I think this works at every level, like this is how, I think, decisions should be evidence based and we should each other as individual humans with value. And I think the what’s going on politically … connects to how we are in our work lives, and how we are in our personal lives, and our neighborhoods. It’s all the same. It’s like if you’re acting based on fear and myth … um and you’re treating people as though they aren’t individual humans but part of a category that you can stereotype and demonize, that’s true in the workplace. If you’re talking about, “Oh designers versus engineers versus marketing people!” And it’s true in society.
KL Yeah, completely. In a recent piece you wrote, actually, “The Nine Rules of Design Research,” which is awesome, the first thing you write is: “Get comfortable being uncomfortable.” What do you mean by that?
EH This is something I found in talking to a lot of people and thinking about research after writing Just Enough Research is you hear about all of these … barriers to doing research, a lot of times it’s, “Oh that costs too much money to do a research study or it takes too much time.” And this is all cover for the fact that people are actually terrified of asking questions — and especially people who end up in, like, positions of leadership. To say like, “Oh, we don’t know this and we have to find something out, and I don’t have the answer,” is really scary and that’s nothing that we’ve been rewarded for our entire lives. And if you want to, you know, have a research mindset or just use evidence to make decisions, you have to be in a constant state of admitting that you don’t have all the answers. That has to be where you live in order to continue to learn. You have to walk in to work every day and say, “I don’t have all the answers,” and that just has to be kind of your mantra … and that’s terrifying and uncomfortable. It’s much more comfortable to say, “Oh I have the answer and I’m gonna hang onto this answer,” because you have certainty and certainty is really comfortable. And if you have — if you have a way of looking at things, you don’t want that to be challenged by new information. And that’s very uncomfortable. So if you start by saying, “Ok! I’m just going to be uncomfortable because I’m going to recognize that I have an opportunity to learn something new every day and I’m never going to be done,” then once you get comfortable with that mindset, then it becomes a lot easier to — to accept new information and have really good arguments and discussions with your colleagues about the best course of action, because it’s not going to take away that certainty that you need to cling to and defend.
SWB Yeah, I’d love to dig into something that you mentioned a little bit: so when it comes to being vulnerable at work and sort of like having to have that start from within in order to get anywhere, something I’m curious about is how does somebody who maybe isn’t in a position where they have um a huge amount of power at their organization, like how do they find space to do that without sort of making themselves vulnerable in ways that are maybe more negative? I guess what I mean is if you don’t have a ton at work, showing up and kind of putting that vulnerability out there may not create — you know, you doing that by yourself is not going to work if the environment is not [chuckling] uh prepared for it and like so like what does somebody do about that to kind of try to make space for that in their life and in their work and foster that in a work environment that they don’t necessarily control?
EH That is a great question because it’s absolutely true that if you’re in a more toxic work culture and you admit you don’t know know something, right? Like right off the bat? Then that’s gonna be like fresh meat for the vultures sort of thing. The best way to handle that is to ask questions because I think there’s so much concern with making a good argument and offering a lot of reasons for things, and it’s much better — and this is something you can — I think you can do from any position but it’s still, in some organizations, risky. Uh to just ask. Like if somebody puts forward something with a lot of certainty and you’re like, “Huh! I’m not so sure about that.” Find a way to just ask — asking questions is really powerful and then you can help without yourself starting by saying, “Hey! I’m the person who knows the least around here.” You can create a culture of asking questions and that will kind of shake that sense of false certainty a little bit.
KL You also started writing about the impact of gender bias in the workplace and how to be a good ally. Can you tell us … just about that and what made you write it?
EH We started … doing a workshop around gender bias and the reason we started doing the workshop around gender bias, it came from the observation that we’ve been talking about gender bias in the workplace, well, for my entire life, but especially in like the last … uh 20 years it seems like the conversation has gone nowhere because we all recognize, “Oh! Huh! Especially in the sciences and in academia,” but, it turns out, in every industry there’s a tremendous amount of gender bias. And the thing I observed having, you know, worked in web-related things for the last 20 years is that it’s gotten worse for women. When I started out in my career, I felt totally supported. I felt like we were all learning things together. When I worked um … at — I started at a more technical position and when I was just learning things about um building websites and running web servers, I would hang out with the nerds. They would invite me to the LAN parties, right? Where you all get on your computer and shoot at each other, playing Quake, or whatever. And they — I had root on the server and that was fine and they would — they were like, “Oh you wanna learn more about Unix? Cool!” And … it seems like i the recent years it’s not that sort of paradise, apparently, that I experienced. And so we started asking the question like, “Why did it get worse?” Um and why is all of this training — cuz you’re like, “Oh people are talking about unconscious bias and we’re doing these trainings.” And I’m like, “This is not working,” and when we talked about it, the core problem we identified is that organizations were treating this like it was a knowledge problem. Like, “Oh this is just something people don’t know.” And they’d do these trainings that would say, “Hey, everyone! Did you know that people act out of these unconscious biases and stereotypes and that’s making it hard for people who are less well represented in the workplace to get fair treatment?” And then everybody goes to these trainings and they’re like, “Oh cool, so everybody does it. So I don’t have to change.” And we said, “Oh what if we … look at the problem another way?” And it really is a problem of changing habits, not just giving people new information. And once you look at the problem like that, it’s a much different problem and it’s much harder to solve in the sense that you can’t just put a thousand employees in a room, show a presentation, and say, “Go forth and be unbiased.” And uh and so we developed a training around, “Ok, how do we help women who are experiencing this in their workplace, do less work?” Right? Because women are often doing a lot more work to deal with the amount of bias that they encounter. And so we said, “Ok, we’ll do a workshop that says, ‘You can change — you can kind of change the habits around this and you can also personally do less work.’” And one of the comments we received was, “What about the guys? Why aren’t they participating in this?” And the reason is that if you’re in a position of — of power and privilege, you have no incentive to change your habits, to change the way things work. This is why, you know, you look at Apple and their diversity numbers are terrible. And they’re like, “Oh yeah yeah, we wanna work on that.” But why should they? They have billions of dollars and what they’ve been doing is really worked for them … but I recognize that there are a lot of men out there who do believe that gender bias is a bad thing because it, you know, it’s like they don’t feel like they need their mediocrity protected. So I wrote that piece to say, “Ok, if you’re one of the guys who recognizes that this is a bad situation and doesn’t feel threatened by people saying that it should change, here’s some really concrete things that you can do to support this type of change.”
KL I think back on earlier in my career and I had similar thoughts to what you were saying at the beginning of this and I look back on it and I’m like, “I don’t know if it was better.” Like I think that I felt more supported and I’m not sure that I actually was. Like I think it may just not have been a good enough or a big enough conversation at that point and the fact that it is way more out in the open and people who are afraid and have that fear of sort of like holding onto what they’ve, you know, the habits that they have had over the years are — that’s why that just seems like so much more uh glaring.
SWB I think a lot about how at the beginning of my career I … did not think that much about some of those dynamics at work because I was really busy trying to like establish professional footing, and figure out what I was doing, and create some credibility, and some sort of space for myself to get things done. And as part of that, I worked with a bunch of dudes who I largely liked and I liked to be able to hang out with them and sort of feel like I was one of them and, you know, hang out at the beer bar, and … laugh at the dirty jokes and whatever. And that was fine and I mean like it wasn’t like a particular horror story or anything but, I think, one of the things that I’ve since very much realized for myself is that a lot of my sense of like, “Yeah ok this is fine,” was coming from a place of … subverting some things about myself in order to create space in an environment that wasn’t necessarily supportive to me and so it’s like I didn’t think that it was a big deal but I’ve since realized that there were a lot of pieces of myself that I had to turn off in order for myself to kind of fit in. And — and then at some point that became like not enough for me [yeah] and not acceptable to me.
KL Yeah it’s like we — we all had to do that because we had to like try to focus on doing the actual work, right? To get us to the next level or to, you know, start managing bigger teams or get into the meetings or whatever and it’s like, yeah, I totally agree with you, Sara.
SWB Yeah so I wonder if it’s like it seems better, like it seems like it was better only because if you didn’t ask for enough, you know? [Laughing] like we weren’t ask— I wasn’t asking for enough, I would say.
EH Yeah, I think that’s part of it and, I think, specifically just talking about web related things. Like when that all started in San Francisco, it was a more welcoming community because it was something — it was a new endeavor that wasn’t part of any industry that I would say was institutionalized enough to also have institutionalized sexism. So I really feel like it was welcoming to women, I don’t think it was ever particularly racially diverse. I will say that. But I think what happened is that there was sort of a — this web culture. This like nerdy, little web culture … that was sort of an alternative culture and then, I think, finance culture took it over. I think that’s also a part of it … because I think that’s really what’s changed … is that it’s not like, “Oh we’re doing this thing that makes no money! … that is cool and we’re figuring it out and it’s like a whacky little science project that people who like doing whacky little science projects like.” And then these companies became investment vehicles. And then I think that brought all of that “Wolf of Wall Street” bro culture into it. So I think I absolutely agree with what both of you have said in terms of like, “Oh! We were being the cool girls.” But I didn’t feel as much of that, I felt like, “Oh we’re all doing this neat thing and building this new world and — and having a fun time together,” to, “Oh! Here are people who want to use this to transfer wealth in huge ways and who cares what we’re actually building.” And so I think that is also part of it.
KL So we are talking to you at a very, I think, exciting moment, um you have a brand new book coming out. Can you tell us just a little bit about that?
EH Yeah, Conversational Design — it’s about using human conversation which humans have been doing for oh a hundred thousand years, kind of as long as we’ve been human, we’ve been conversing. And using that as a model for designing interactive, digital products and services, and really looking beyond the surface because I know everything around chatbots and the speakers you talk to you like the Alexa and Google Home — that’s really been operating on the surface and I think what people are finding now is that it’s not necessarily easier to talk to a system like that and so it goes — I try to go a little deeper to say, “Ok what makes it so easy? Like we’re having this conversation and it’s easy and natural. And what makes that work? And how can we look at that to say, ‘Oh how can we really make these systems work in a device independent that feels more human and humane?’”
KL Well as your publisher, I’m very excited about it [laughter]. Um I also know that writing a book and that process is really fucking hard, what were some of the biggest challenges you encountered?
EH Whoo! Well 2017 just as a whole! That was really hard because well the genesis for this book was a set of things I was thinking about and talking about like ten years ago about language and the interface and all of that. So first there’s the idea that, “Oh this is going to be much easier than my first book.” That’s like the first myth that you get right out of the way [KL chuckles]. And then everything seemed to be changing in the industry so often around this stuff because I started with, “Oh I’m just going to talk about using language,” and then I felt like, “Oh I’ve gotta incorporate these things that are happening around messaging and AI and voice interfaces and things like that.” And then the 2016 election happened [laughing] um and then it felt very difficult to get it together to write a book about interaction design when the world was on fire, and that led to a lot of just sitting in my office, staring at my screen, not doing anything, and feeling terrible. And so that made it hard [KL laughs].
SWB I don’t think you were alone [laughter] in that I mean like I had literally that same problem, but I think everybody I know had some variation of that problem where it’s like, “Is what I’m doing even a thing anymore? Like who cares?” I think, Katel, you talked about this on a recent episode where you were like, you would think about something that you really wanted to do at A Book Apart, right? Like you talked about wanting to build out, you know, the marketing campaigns more effectively and then being like, “Well [sighs], does work even matter? [KL laughs] Do books matter?” [KL yeah] And of course books fucking matter. But it can feel sometimes like they don’t.
KL And I think there’s that, you know, like we talked about with Eileen Webb in her interview there’s this like sort of overcast of are we feeling up to ourselves? Like are we feeling ok? And I know, for me, like I often underplay how much it affects me when I’m dealing with a health issue, you know, not just physically and mentally but emotionally, and I really feel like I get slowed down easily, and I used to not think that that was the case. Erika, you went through some health stuff in the last year too. How did you navigate, you know, going through that and healing and just trying to stay on top of running a studio, and writing a book, and just, you know, finishing?
EH [Laughs] That was the icing on the glory that was 2017 is, yeah, I’m generally a pretty healthy person and I had a situation and I had to suddenly realize I had to have some pretty major surgery. I haven’t really talked about this much. So yeah, right when I was finishing the book, I was going through this stuff and … so I felt very, very lucky to be like where I am geographically and to have like to have the support and tools I have, and to have the health insurance I have. So it really was a like, “Ok, hey! It’s a thing I have to deal with.” And in some ways, it was great because it was so concrete … and um, and yeah, fortunately like Mike was super supportive and did a great job of hiding how he was freaking out. And it was just like a series of steps. And it’s one of those things like in crisis situations, like I get super matter of fact, like, “Ok. Here are the things that are happening. These things are happening now. Ok.” And so I did that and I was just lucky that everything went great because like you — bay area has the best healthcare in the world, because my insurance was good, because everything went super smooth, and the whole like kind of let’s call it “the ordeal” was like less than two months.
KL Mmm. Well, I have one last question: where do you find inspiration and optimism these days?
EH What helped me, when things got really dark, is to like step away from the computer and just go to my grocer, and go to my dry cleaner, and have these like friendly interactions and say, “Oh this is really where life happens.” Like it’s really easy to get caught up in these — because right now, thanks to the internet, we can know about everything terrible thing going on in the world at all times. And so it’s like, “Oh hey! People are still like living their lives [laughs] and it’s ok in some places on the ground.” And then just with the people I know and the people who are finding the strength to do positive things and a lot of that is also in books, as Sara mentioned. Like books are really important! There are a lot of books that were written during really terrible times in history. Like you look at what was going on, you know, during the twentieth century … all of these like horrible wars and uprisings and then the fight for civil rights in America. And dealing with everything going on there and you’re like, “Wow! Throughout these periods which are arguably as bad or worse than what the crises that we’re dealing with now, people still found the strength and the ability to put something out there into the world that’s positive and enduring,” and I think looking at that is really fantastic. Because it’s so easy to react. Right? There’s so much to react to every single day. There are like ten horrible things to react to, that like pull you down into this really primal fear place [KL chuckles] and I think you find these ideas and these people that lift you up out of it. Man, I’ve started listening to Oprah’s podcast [laughs]. I highly recommend her conversation with RuPaul! All we watch in our household now is RuPaul’s Drag Race, and that really helps. And I listen to BBC In Our Time, which is a fantastic podcast where academics talk about, like, concepts in science, or notable thinkers, or periods in history, and it gives you that historical context, which I think can help crystalize—like, it helps to look backwards a little bit to think about positive ideas for the future, and get out of this corner of “everything is on fire and the world is ending.”
KL Yeah. Well I’ve written down all of these recommendations and I’m going to do the same thing. Thank you so much for joining us. It was so great to talk to you.
EH Oh thank you! I love talking with fantastic people such as yourselves! [Music fades in.]
Fuck Yeah of the Week
JL When we plan our shows, we talk a lot about what the Fuck Yeah of the Week’s going to be. And this week we were talking about a few different things. And the thing that kept coming to my mind was Emma Gonzales and the students’ work in the wake of Parkland. I’ve been following some of this work and @emmaforchange is her Twitter account and you start following this Twitter account and you start seeing all of these powerful voices … and all of these powerful thoughts that are coming out of … you know, the children and youth in our country right now. And, for me, that’s … so amazing to look at. And — and it does inspire a “Fuck Yeah!” and a, “Thank you.” A thank you to see that people are speaking out about this right now. There has been — I don’t know if any one of us can look at this and not get emotional but everything that’s been happening, and it’s not that this was the first that anything has brought up these emotions in our country, um gun violence is definitely nothing new. But I think [sighs] every time I see it, I get a little … the sigh is so heavy, I just don’t know what to do. Um I feel very lost, I think now, I think about my one-year-old son. And I think, “Fuck! You know?” Like you start like, “Should we homeschool? Should we move to Canada?” There’s like a gazillion thoughts that come through my head at all time and I just get like a little bit lost and a little bit um, not a little bit, a lot depressed. And like what do we do? What do we do for our kids? What do we do? And when I see this group of people that are fighting for themselves, that, to me … [sighs] … it makes me feel like I could potentially believe in something and that there might — that there will be change.
SWB Every time there’s a school shooting, I think about my friend, Teresa. My friend Teresa was one of my best friends growing up, and we eventually both moved to kind of different parts of town, so we were in different high schools. And in 1998 she was shot in a shooting at Thurston High School. Um she was shot in the head. And every time. Every time. Right? There’s a shooting in the news, I imagine [fighting tears] myself back at the hospital, visiting her, and talking to her mom at the ICU. I mean. and she was there for weeks, I mean she — she was like … this is such a terrible distinction to have to even make, but she was basically the most severely injured person who lived. I think a lot about her but I also think a lot about, what did I think and what did I go through during that time in my life? And I will be perfectly honest, it didn’t occur to me to protest. Like it didn’t cross my mind … I knew that … America’s gun culture was a problem. I understood that this was not okay or normal. I mean this was earlier, like this was before Columbine, even. I — I knew that, but it didn’t really occur to me that there was a thing that I might say or do about it beyond … beyond just saying like, “Wow, guns are fucked up,” to my friends. And beyond going to hospital and, like, being there. So I think a lot about like [sighs] how much presence of mind it takes from these kids to be able to do that at this moment, and I also think about sort of like what’s changed since then? Like what’s different in the world? And part of it is things like, you know, social media, and access to these tools to really get out to a lot of people really quickly. Part of this is the fact that there’s just been so many of these shootings in the time period between Thurston High School in 1998 and today. I mean that’s going to be 20 years ago this May. But I also think a lot about who these kids are able to learn from, and the kinds of techniques that they learned, and something I’ve been really — I’ve been really paying close attention to, and really thankful for, is that as these kids are stepping up and refusing to be silenced and — and really … doing remarkable work. So many of them have also said that they didn’t just come up with this on their own, that they learned tactics and techniques from people who’ve been doing organizing work, activist work for years, and specifically, you know Black Lives Matter … which did not get the kinds of positive publicity that these kids are getting and doesn’t mean these kids don’t deserve— like these kids deserve every single second of positive publicity for the work that they are doing. But I think it’s really important that they’re able to also say like, “We didn’t just make this up ourselves. Like there’s people who have done this before us.” And, you know, I think about how much different … my reaction might’ve been if I had had more of a connection to activist groups that existed then, and the work that they were doing, and the skills in organizing, and just sort of understanding the power of protest that I just didn’t know that much about. And so I’m — you know, I’m so — I’m so [sighs] sad that we are at this moment, and in terms of gun violence in this country, and in terms of like so many other issues, but I am Fuck Yeah excited at the kind of like way in which I think so many of us are getting more comfortable with protest, with pushback, with being vocal about the things that matter. I like to see so many people getting out of their comfort zone and sort of like stretching that muscle a bit. And being willing to stand up and say what is important to them. And it makes me hopeful that is a time that is like … hard to be hopeful during.
JL Yeah, agreed, I mean there was um, you know, students that were in Riverview Gardens High School in Saint Louis that did the walk-out and were told that they would not be let back into school. There was a tweet from David Hogg that said, “To those of you not let back into school. One: that’s a great college essay, and two: your schools will be on the wrong side of history, you won’t be.”
KL The people who are saying, “This is going to go on your record, you’re going to be suspended, you’re going to be expelled.” Like, that’s not even going to be a thing if this doesn’t get solved.
SWB Your permanent record is a myth, first off.
SWB Um, like guess what’s on my permanent record? Like, you know, like I got in a fight with Pauline Dungan in the sixth grade [laughter] and I got suspended and look at me now, motherfuckers! I’m fine. It’s fine. But I also — you know but yeah I think that it’s — it’s definitely all of these like fear tactics to try to kind of keep kids in their place. And I look at those kids and I’m like, “Man, those kids’ place is in the front!” Like, that is their place. They’re in their right place right now.
KL They see straight through that fucking bullshit! That’s the thing, that’s one of the biggest powers they have.
JL So thank you for everyone that is working on the march for our lives and for speaking out and for fighting for yourselves, and I hope that, you know, we all can find ways to fight for our kids also today, and find ways to constantly, you know, be advocates for ourself, and be advocates for those around us.
SWB Fuck Yeah for the teenagers. Like …
SWB Fuck Yeah!
KL Fuck Yeah!
SWB The kids are all right.
KL That’s it for this week’s episode of No, You Go, the show about being ambitious—and sticking together. NYG is recorded in our home city of Philadelphia, and produced by Steph Colbourn. Our theme music is by The Diaphone. Thanks to Erika Hall for being our guest today. If you like what you’ve been hearing, please make sure to subscribe and rate us on Apple Podcasts. Your support helps us spread the word. We’ll be back next week [music fading in] with another great guest [music ramps up to end].