I’ve been to forums in the past where speakers onstage serve up Kool-aid, in the form of flashy innovation, the illusion of collective harmony, or myths of the illusive work-life balance. And, I admit, I’ve drunk it when I’ve been thirsty for something, anything, to get me out of a design funk. But now I know there’s someplace better. In EYEO, I found a festival in which speakers serve up the human side of technological innovation, the power of critical mass, and first-person accounts of successfully, and industriously, making space in life for work that excites us.
This summer, I attended what I hope to be the first of many EYEOs, and the takeaways still feel fresh and refreshing, like the life water we all need to reenergize our careers and reevaluate our creative choices.
EYEO is an interdisciplinary tech conference that encourages collaboration across industries, borders, and cultures. The festival draws driven thinkers and leaders from all over the world, including visual and audio artists, designers, developers, engineers, data scientists, educators, and social activists. Its mission is to show how those identifiers are fluid, how our curiosities overlap, and how our communities can be more inclusive. EYEO encourages participation and the forging of new partnerships; their slogan is “converge to inspire.”
At EYEO, speakers present ideas that rise above sterile case studies or sales pitches. We’ve heard that all before and we sign up for EYEO because we know we deserve better. EYEO attendees instead get eye-opening humility, humanity, transparency, storytelling, comedy, and calls to action. Talks range from academic — like a social history of the American hardware store — to deeply personal —a first-person account of how a tragic event can alter one’s life course — to curated panel discussions that spark a fire in those of us who see injustice in the industries in which we work. Every captivating talk, roundtable, and meetup asks us to think about how we can leverage technology for good, and why we should be.
There is no marketplace and almost no corporate swag, which in itself says a lot about the principles of the event organizers. Instead, EYEO gave attendees a single notebook in which they could memorialize quotes, ideas, and sketches. Classic. Understated. But the magic is how it was designed. Prior to the conference, attendees completed a survey of short questions about their personalities. Are they optimists or skeptics? Are they adventurers or do they play it safe? Then, Accurat, an information design company lead by speaker Giorgia Lupi, transformed the submissions into an abstract data visualization that is printed on the cover, like a secret code.
The brightly-colored notebook is not only a vehicle for ideas, but also an icebreaker, an artifact, and a reflection of how each of us plays a role in a greater community, which can’t be overstated. Now it’s my turn to give back, so I’ll start by sharing my notes from the conference as they can be applied to the working environment and the work that we do at Something Digital.
Left: The EYEO notebook designed by Accurat and Pitch Interactive.; Right: “Dear Data”, an amazing book on soft data written by two EYEO speakers and friends, Giorgia Lupi and Stephanie Posavec.
We have unlimited data plans with which we listen to playlists curated to our tastes, order products that are recommended for us, and monitor our health stats. Data science is literally on the pulse of everything that happens in our lives and we’re producing data all the time. Everything we do, say, hear, and see is data. Although we may not be aware of it, we’re making and processing data, from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed — even while we’re sleeping. Data can be for us to help us measure our own progress, or it can be for a corporation to market products and services to us tailored to our predictable behavior.
From a personal perspective, because of its deeper technological applications, data can often seem out of our control, or like an unreal, mysterious ‘other’ (I know I’m being watched by the device in my hand and on my wrist, but that’s just the world we live in). From a business perspective, because my work is about designing better user experiences based on data analysis —monitoring click-through rates, traffic, and popular searches — data can seem tactical, a means to an outcome.
But a common call to action among many of the speakers at EYEO is to rethink what we classify as data. Slowing down, being present, observing, and taking note: that’s data. Sources of data are everywhere. It could be as banal as the minutes a subway train arrives off schedule each morning or as critical as documenting the daily side effects of the medications we take. Counting something means it matters. Spending time reviewing this kind of data — sometimes referred to as ‘soft’ or ‘folk’ data for its lack of social currency — means spending time with ourselves.
How can this humanistic approach to data be applied in commerce? One way is to allow people to see themselves in data. We create personas by observing real behaviors of real people, making predictions based on their lifestyles and interests, and designing with the intention to show them that their needs are valuable. Data becomes a way to communicate intention. UX design is an industry driven by subjective data, like user feedback. In user testing, we ask questions to lend visibility to data that otherwise goes unseen and unmeasured.
Soft data in the marketing world can be found in social sharing and user generated content. For example, the eyewear store Tens.co features a widget showing visitors in real-time which products other customers are purchasing in that very moment. Instead of promoting only the cross sells or upsells stakeholders think customers should buy, the widget enables customers to see what appeals to the people within their affinity community and be persuaded — or not — by their own observations, giving them credit and entitlement.
Tens.co provides a visualization of what other customers are buying in real-time.
The term ‘soft’ data underestimates its merit. Observed data, in conjunction with numerical data, can be more impactful on a human level, because it reminds us that we aren’t nameless hash marks; our personalities, opinions, and stories are as important as our buying power.
Data, after all, is people.
Another big talking point for speakers was to mix up power structures. Fear, paranoia, the feeling as though we are being violated by giving up data without consent — when nearly our every move is always recorded, it’s hard to not feel disempowered by technology. Add on disenfranchisement and biases that stem from a lack of diversity among the engineers who write algorithms, and it’s no wonder that an atmosphere of mistrust is brewing. And yet! We all still carry our little glowing rectangles with us everywhere anyway.
The message from many speakers at EYEO is that objects of power are only powerful when we put them in the right hands. But how do we make data less disempowering and more empowering?
Or, as Carmen Aguilar y Wedge of Hyphen-Labs asked: “What is it you need from me to see you as human?”
One way is to think of data analysis as a service rather than self-serving. Use data to diagnose actual problems and identify the right tools and people to fix them, instead inventing solutions to problems that weren’t there to begin with and may produce even more problems over time.
For example, when we take on clients with existing sites at SD, we evaluate their site data as it is and recommend technical debt remediation before launching new marketing initiatives. Broken components and security breaches make customers feel confused and unsafe. We show the clients the holes in their system and offer a step-by-step roadmap to fill them. By tackling the backend problems first — issues customers can’t see but that hinder them from completing tasks — we’re indirectly improving the front-end user experience and flexing our expertise to serve our client’s and their customer’s best interests first.
Another way to do good by data is to mix up power structures. If advancements in technology are predicated on the confines of the platforms and languages we use, how do we use that technology to tell stories that are not written by the marketing department of larger corporations? How do we tell new stories?
Start by bringing new voices to the table, listening, collaborating, and giving those voices due credit. In a panel on diversity, one speaker noted that HR departments don’t have a pipeline problem, they have an effort problem. One reason I’m personally proud to work at SD is that while at first I had little web experience, the managers who interviewed me saw my perseverance and history of work ethic as an advantage, and that as an outsider, I brought another perspective to the creative team. Over the course of my tenure here, I’ve witnessed SD making great strides in recruitment and retention, giving all employees the freedom to directly interact with clients, communicate their ideas, and release their code, strategies, and designs out into the wild right away. New voices that cross cultural, racial, gender, and age lines help organizations approach problem solving at multiple angles, because how each of us sees the world is path dependent and, most importantly, valuable.
Diversity — and openly discussing diversity — within an organization equips teams to be more aware of the needs of users who might otherwise go unnoticed. EYEO speakers also called on those who represent the majority to assert their privilege to protect users who don’t always get the same protections. As a web agency specifically, we need to think about the safety of every community and every individual interacting with our work by:
2. Prioritizing data security.
3. Designing not just for personas, but for representation.
What if frequent visually distracting pop up notifications distress users with PTSD? What if we QA test a site on broadband internet, but it is intended to be used in a region wherein access is more limited? What if a brand aims to market their products to ‘everyone’, but the lifestyle images they display on their product pages persistently only show models of one demographic?
This leads me to:
4. Ask questions. A lot of them.
It’s a mistake to assume anything is instantaneously understandable. Coming up with a thorough checklist as a team and asking as many questions as we can is how we break free from expert mind — what we already know or think we already know — and how we prevent faceless data from amplifying our biases. This is how we get closer to actual personalization, the kind that isn’t invasive or creepy, but is humble and constructive. Questioning leads to iteration. Iteration lead to prototyping. Prototyping leads to an evolving product that continually becomes more usable for everyone. It is yet one more argument for making slow observation and human feedback a part of our professional practice.
Go Forth and Do Better
For their encouragement to humanize data, get empowered, play with new people, and to find as many ways into a problem as possible — overall, to just do better! — I can’t thank the EYEO festival speakers and organizers enough. And I encourage you to visit eyeofestival.com to meet the speakers and watch videos of past talks.
I leave you with one last scribble from by trusty yellow notebook: Find delight in the work that you do. For me the delight comes from being able to inventory the data of my own life and add a point on that graph, however its modeled, for the invaluable learning opportunity EYEO afforded me to become a better designer and advocate for SD, our clients, their users, and you.