Why We Still Need Girls Learning Code Events

A group of girls and parents sit at laptops in front of a projector screen learning HTML/CSS.
Girls Who Code Workshop, 2017.

I had the great experience of mentoring at Girls Learning Code event this weekend. The event was for girls aged 8-13 and their parents to learn HTML/CSS and build a website in one day. One of their core beliefs that I really support is that they don’t want to make it seem strange that girls are coding—they just want to show them how to do it.

I was really excited to be a part of this event for a number of reasons. I have always enjoyed teaching (my English degree was originally setting me up for teacher’s college). I have been a coach/trainer/captain for horseback riding, soccer, and ultimate frisbee since I was a teenager. I was one of the first captains of our first women’s league with my local ultimate league.

I love teaching/coaching everyone, but I’ve found it particularly rewarding to work with women and girls.

To bring it back to technology, I taught myself how to code, and when I did have the opportunity to take both a computer engineering class and a computer programming class in high school, I was the only girl there every year. In my career, I have often been singled out for being a woman working in tech, especially once I moved into a management role—I once had an HR manager tell me I was her favourite because I counted favourably in her diversity statistics.

At the event today, I worked with a 10-year-old girl and her 7-year-old brother who was also attending. I didn’t want him to feel left out any more than I wanted any of the girls to feel left out, so I made sure he also had a laptop so he could participate. Both kids were great, but I couldn’t get over the microcosm I experienced in one afternoon of some of the underlying issues I see with getting girls into equal roles with boys.


This is definitely in part because of the age difference, but the boy needed a lot of more of my attention, and he was not afraid to demand it of me. It took more effort to keep him focused on the task, and he spoke up quickly to ask questions. The girl was much quicker to pick up concepts, and much quieter. It took about an hour before she would shyly ask me anything, and, even then, it was usually me pushing her to try different things as we built her website.

Showing Off

When the day was over, the girls were invited to put their website on the big screen for everyone to see. The girl I was working with was adamant that she did not want to go up in front of the group, despite encouragement from me and her dad, multiple times. Her dad asked her brother once and his response was “YES!”

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with either reaction. And there were lots of other girls there who couldn’t wait to show the group what they had created. But that moment of not wanting to stand up and be proud of what she had done hit me hard. This video from content creator and author, Louise Pentland states a similar experience:

I often find myself downplaying my technical skills by saying things like “I’m not a developer” or “I’m really a content person,” or by explaining my job to people who don’t understand the industry by comparing it to more traditional editorial roles at a newspaper or magazine. But the truth is I have a lot of technical skills, and years of experience behind them, and there’s no one holding me back from saying that but myself.

Adult Commentary

This is an area I try particularly hard to correct in myself. The kids’ dad (who was also great), made a comment about how his daughter wanted to be a vet, but “you know, you have to be a very strong person to do the difficult side of that job.”

Now, I have no idea what kind of conversations he might have had with his daughter to reach the conclusion that being a vet might not be for her. But I do know that when I was a bit older than she was, I wanted to be a vet too. I even went on a co-op trial day at a veterinary clinic. That’s “trial day” because I discovered that I definitely did not have the stomach for surgery that day when I almost passed out from the smell alone. I told them that story, but I also told them about my amazing cousin Katy, who is a vet tech, and is most certainly strong enough to do all aspects of animal care.

After the event, I stopped at the mall to pick up something, and as I was walking through, I passed a little girl running ahead of her family holding a shopping bag. Her (presumably) grandmother saw me smile at her and commented, “you have to teach them young!”

And that’s why we need to keep having events like Girls Learning Code. Because the ways we shape girls’ perspectives about their worth and their potential are subtle and pervasive, and most people don’t even realize they are doing it.

4 Things You Didn’t Know About The Web

The digital world operates in its own timezone and it can feel hard to keep up. These quick facts point to important trends in our industry and we all need to strive to do better.

1. “If your site takes more than 3 seconds to load, users will abandon loading it.” @yeseniaa

Ready to feel old? According to Craig Hyde, CEO of Rigor, the size of a web page today is about the same size as an MP3 file. Do you remember how long it used to take to download a single MP3? I do.

Fast sites build trust, and slow-loading sites are abandoned. According to the New York Times, if your competitor loads 250 milliseconds faster, users will use that. In fact a mere 160kb added to page weight meant a 12% increase in bounce rate on Etsy.com for mobile users (source).

2. “There are 8 billion mobile devices in the world today.” @beep

Think about the last time you purchased something online. If you think about it, I’m betting you may have checked it out on your laptop, maybe compared places to buy from on your tablet, and maybe finally pulled the trigger from your mobile device while you were waiting for the bus. More than 40% of all online U.S. users start an activity on one screen and finish it on another.

More and more, users are becoming intolerant to differences in experience between accessing your digital product. As digital designers, we no longer have the luxury of not holding every channel we manage to the same standard. We cannot rely on driving users to our preferred platform. As Jeffrey Zeldman says, “No one wants to download your app when they come to your website.”

3. UK.gov saved £1.8 billion in support costs by redoing their digital knowledge base. (source)

Every time Walmart can reduce their page load time by 1 second, they see a 2% increase in conversions. On the other hand, Amazon loses $1.6 billion if their pages load one second slower.

Good websites save money. Efficient and user-driven content strategies mean an easy interaction for your users with your brand, and that directly affects your company’s bottom line. Keep that in mind when you’re deciding who you want to run those properties and when you’re pitching digital projects to your upper management.

4. Microsoft.com has 15 million pages, 4 million of which have never been visited.

Websites are not document repository systems – over and over I have this debate. It is easy to fall prey to the idea of putting something on the website “just in case someone needs it” but this is how we end up with cluttered, unfocused content.

Suspiciously, more often than not the “just in case” content is a PDF. Karen McGrane calls PDFs “content blobs” – not responsive, not searchable, not accessible, and ultimately, not truly digital. PDFs are essentially content coffins; if there is valuable content inside your PDFs, bring it out and make it useful.

3 Things I Learned At An Event Apart Boston

The 2016 An Event Apart lunchbox.

The 2016 An Event Apart lunchbox.I was lucky enough to attend An Event Apart (Boston, #aeabos, this time) for the third year in a row this week. Once again, it was a great experience: industry-leading speakers, engaging content, and only one very loud venue emergency alarm (everything was fine!).

It sounds corny, but I really do look forward to this event every year. It’s remarkably comforting to spend time with hundreds of other people who get the web. From the Javascript debugging happening out loud at the breakfast tables to the appropriate audience gasp when a speaker points out that IE8 loads every imported font, even those that aren’t used.

I always learn so much every year, but here are a few of the themes I took away:

  1. Honour Thy User
    The biggest lesson I learn again and again in my work is that the user is always right (even when they do very, very strange things). Users are flooded with information and choice – if you don’t serve them a) what they are looking for and b) what you set them up to expect, they will hightail it back to Google for another option. Identify the core goal of a user of your site and then value what your user wants to do. Or, as Jeremy Keith put it:

    1. Identify the core function of the product
    2. Determine the base level of technology you can use to deliver the core function
    3. Enhance!

    Be critical about your site – if you are a news site, what’s the most basic way you can deliver your core user goal (reading the news)? It seems simple, but I’ve found spending the time to clearly identify and agree on what that user goal is will help simplify all of the choices you make going forward.

    I find the “staggered” (progressive, but deliberately so) load strategy really interesting. My bank actually does this (unintentionally, I believe) on their homepage but, unfortunately, one of the last events to fire resets the form input for your card number, which means every time I end up typing in half a number, having the page erase it, then typing it again.

    “No one wants to download your app when they come to your website.” @zeldman

    Jeffrey Zeldman nails it again. As a member of Team No App (yes, I know I’m in the minority), I will try every possible avenue to avoid downloading your app. I don’t want it. But more than that, I want to be met where I’m at and interact with your product the way I choose.

    This is a lesson I reinforce with my social media team all of the time: if they tweeted a question, don’t answer by asking them to email us. And in my favourite example of this, don’t answer a tweet about a lost cell phone by asking them to call us (yes, that really happened).

  2. Be A Good Ancestor

    “We need to be good ancestors and leave behind a web that’s resilient and will last.” @adactio

    This idea really resonated with me as my team grows. How can we make good decisions now that our future selves (or future members of our team) won’t curse us for? Of course, the concept of future-proofing and/or progressive enhancement fits the bill here, but we need to also consider the not so fun but highly necessary need for documentation. Call it a style guide or a pattern library, but aspire to build something like Mailchimp, Starbucks or Devbridge Group, which is my new favourite example.

    I know, I know – you’re creating a website to document the needs of your website. But putting in the effort here will save you from inconsistencies and hours of unnecessary cleanup. Whether you’re a team of 30 or running the show solo, this exercise is incredibly valuable for putting thought into your daily decisions.

  3. What If Someone Doesn’t Use The Web Like I Do?
    Ethan Marcotte posed this question, and it came up thematically in a number of ways. At this point, he was explaining the importance of respecting the content hierarchy in the HTML, regardless of how it appears once styled. As beautiful as your design might be, a screenreader needs to find the content in the shortest and easiest way possible. Or, if your enhancements fail to load, your content will still be visible and easy to comprehend.Eric Meyer spoke about this topic through the lens of Compassionate Design. Most of us can probably think of a time when a form asked us a question that incited a very personal reaction. How about a question about gender that doesn’t offer a chance for you to respond with the term you prefer? Or a question about marital status for someone who is recently separated from their spouse? We make a lot of assumptions about our users, but if we take just a little time to consider different perspectives, our word and design choices can be kinder and more aware.Josh Clark approached this with the idea of calm technology – something I’ve been thinking about lately but didn’t have a term for. I don’t think we’re addicted to our devices; we’re addicted to the connection with and flow of information.

    The goal is to deliver on a real human need. Not just to make things talk but to improve the conversation. Design calm technology that doesn’t vy for our attention, but instead helps to enhance what you’re already doing. Move data gently rather than making it a constant nag. Make screens caption our lives instead of frame them.

    I couldn’t have put it better. It’s the reason I get uncomfortable when we talk about the applications of Beacon technology – I worry we’ll limit ourselves to pushing context-aware ads and miss the opportunities to create real change for how someone lives.

I can’t wait for next year. If you’re so inclined, I tweeted like a mad person during the conference.

3 Things I Learned at An Event Apart Chicago

It’s #aneventapart time again! This year, I picked An Event Apart Chicago to attend because I’ve never been to the city and because the A Day Apart workshop was put on by Karen McGrane and Ethan Marcotte. I would listen to them teach how to dust properly, but the workshop actually focused on Responsive Design, which I’m about to undertake with my main client. If you haven’t been to An Event Apart, I can’t recommend it highly enough. I learn more there than I do all year. I took eleven pages of notes, but here are the top takeaways I will be able to immediately use:

  1. “The customer is no longer King – they are Dictator.”Gerry McGovern This was my first time hearing Gerry McGovern speak, and he was excellent (plus the accent adds +10 to the entertainment factor). This quote echoes another one I heard last year at An Event Apart Orlando – your users will decide how they want to use your site; you have no say. I see this all of the time with my clients – the internal expectation is that a user will follow your navigation from top down, yet so many simply google the business name and the search term and bypass your information architecture altogether. It’s amazing how many clients seem to want to hide the meat of their content inside a lot of words, buried far down the page, or deeper in the IA. This is something I encounter with students as well – there’s an urge to really spend a lot of time and characters setting up the conclusion, instead of leading the strongest information. Don’t make your users work for the information because they won’t – they will simply go to Google.
  2. “Responsive design won’t fix your content problem.”Karen McGrane Hallelujah. During An Event Apart Chicago’s A Day Apart, Karen walked us through some high level steps to take when moving to a responsive design. She suggests that a content reduction of 60-75% isn’t uncommon, and I completely agree. So much content makes it to the site as either an archive function (put it there just in case) or without ever putting it through the test of “is this valuable to the user or does it just check a box for us”.Doing a content audit like this is hard work, and will no doubt result in a lot of testy conversations with internal clients. In much the same way that an editor becomes a therapist, so too does a digital content specialist. My personal suggestions here are to be sensitive to the attachment many clients feel to their work (it is theirs, after all) and to really find out what their goal is for the content. When you take the time to really hear what they want to achieve, you can make a lot more headway by suggesting the best ways to help them get there.
  3. “Your customers’ top tasks are often not the same as your organization’s top tasks.” or Top Tasks vs. Tiny Tasks – – Gerry McGovern How often do you find yourself in this situation? You’re spending all of your time posting information to your website that you know no one will look at, while the pages with the highest traffic remain unchanged or even looked at. For my main client, this came in the form of spending so much time adding information to pages that occupy less than 0.01% of the overall traffic, while the mobile platform, of which 73% of my users were hitting, received virtually none of my attention. Our top traffic pages (excluding a forced routing page) have not been touched in four years.I’ll be the first to say this is crazy.

    I’m betting I am not the only one who has experienced this. It is my primary goal right now to try and right the balance in this equation, and what I think will be my strongest weapon is the simple idea that right now, we’re yelling into empty rooms. I find there’s a real fear clients have of stopping a practice because of that “just in case” reason, but really, it’s just a waste of everyone’s time to shout at people who aren’t there.

Bonus quote: “Imitating paper on a computer screen is like tearing the wings off a 747 and using it as a bus on the highway”Karen McGrane

Amen. Thanks, An Event Apart Chicago.

The Web Is Not A Piece Of Paper

I have the privilege in my day job to work with three extremely talented in-house designers. I also work with many in-house clients who, while great to work with, often see the website as the last checkbox to check on a project and nothing more. I am often asked to simply “put it on the web,” and I bet you have been too.

This request often comes in the form of a cringe-worthy acronym: PDF. Just take those beautiful designs those amazing designers did and toss them into a PDF on site. While PDFs certainly have their place, I believe it should only be for documents that are intended to be printed (hence “Portable Document Format”) or in cases where (let’s be realistic) recreating the design is cost or time-prohibitive. On the latter, I try to only use this as a true last resort. One of the greatest lessons I learned at AEA Orlando was that not every viewport has to have the exact same design; they have to have the same type of experience. The same can be said for static graphic design and the web – don’t aim for twins, aim for siblings.

TO2015 Graphics in Terminal 1, Toronto Pearson.
Screen capture of TorontoPearson.com/TO2015
Siblings, not twins.

This experience is not only limited to visuals – text can suffer the same fate. Take for example an awards program. The program description was already written and saved out as a PDF, so the ask was simply to add the PDF to the site. But this is a bad user experience, especially in an increasingly mobile environment. Why should I make my users download and open a PDF, rather than providing them the information right there on the page? You could make the argument that the nomination form itself should remain a PDF, but that only works if you user base is known to prefer working with paper copies, and that you as the awards program administrator, are okay working primarily with paper submissions.

How to Champion Web Standards And Other Unsexy Ideas

You might work in a small team managing your website or you may be flying solo as a freelancer. Either way, it adhering to web standards and accessibility standards can be a tough sell with either your client or your manager. So how do you go about selling the super sexy idea of web standards?

Connect Standards to Other Goals

Web standards are amazing things – coding with good web standards looks eerily similar to coding with good accessibility standards, so you’re already solving two challenges in one. But to make your client or boss care about them, you need to find a problem they are having that will be solved by web standard coding. Coincidentally, this is also a great approach when you’re writing cover letters. Think about job postings as a list of problems the hiring manager is having – how can the skills you have make their lives easier?

Web standards can help in a number of ways, but a few heavy-hitting reasons you can use are:

  • Allowing users of all sight and motor control abilities to read your content.
  • Allowing users on any platform or device to use your site.
  • Allowing users on any internet connection speed to see your products.

Remember to pitch your standards project as future-proofing – clearly coded content will be much easier to integrate onto other platforms in the future. Think about digital signage or audio-based platforms like Google Glass, and likely platforms we haven’t even dreamed of yet. The cost of letting your code stay as is will just get higher the longer you wait.

Start Small

Once you learn about web and accessibility standards, the task at hand can seem daunting. But the truth is, you can start small. Make a checklist of everything you want to do with every new piece of content you build and, if time allows, apply the same list to every older piece you go in and modify. Set a goal of a small section per day or per week and track your overall progress to see how far you’ve come. This is also a great method for selling your boss or client; the project doesn’t have to come with a big upfront cost if you stretch it out over time.

Come Armed with Data

This could be audience analysis data (how many users aren’t able to get to your content because of accessibility concerns or an older device?) or a demonstration of how your small changes are making a big difference. Bringing data to the table is like having an impartial, third-party judge; it can help keep egos out of the conversation.

Don’t give up – even if you’re a one-person team, your work can make a world of difference to your users.

3 Things I Learned from An Event Apart Orlando

A white samoyed dog wearing Mickey Mouse ears.

I just got back from An Event Apart Orlando: Special Edition 2014. It was my first AEA and it definitely won’t be my last. But as my new friend Jessica neatly summarized, the “conference bubble will only last so long. I have pages and pages of notes, but here’s what my experience at An Event Apart Orlando taught me:

  1. Design for everyone.
    Between the global lens Ethan Marcotte drew to our attention to the accessibility angle hinted at by Derek Featherstone (full disclosure, I saw his Web Accessibility talk at #RGDaccess), we can’t continue to design for English-speaking, desktop users using a single browser with broadband internet connections and no challenges with sight or fine motor control.Here’s where I can dump a lot of web design’s favourite buzzwords: responsive design, device agnosticism, progressive enhancement, elegant degradation and fallback. All of these terms are exceptionally valuable (and they let me sound extra smart when telling my clients or bosses what we’re working on), but I’m finding it easier to concentrate their goal into this one concept: design for everyone. We can build sites so that while the experience may differ by browser, connection speed, device and physical abilities, the content can still be delivered effectively. Websites don’t have to look the same in every browser, but every browser should have access to your content.
  1. Simplify.
    A text-only screen of an older model Nokia cell phone.
    How would your website look on a phone like this? Image courtesy of: http://flic.kr/p/7tsJfN

    Ethan Marcotte pointed out that an average size for a webpage in 2009 was 320mb; in 2014, that number has doubled to 1.8mb. Well, so what? That’s not surprising given the trend of full bleed images and active scripts, animation and video. But what are the implications for the users in developing countries and cities? Ethan pointed out that in Africa, mobile penetration is now 60%; that’s 700 million users, most of whom are using basic devices that render only in text.

    Simplification also means enhanced performance. Users expect a page to load in two seconds or faster; anything longer and the perception is that the page is broken – 40% of users will leave. Streamlining is also the key for mobile-first development; if you take the time to organize the content and user experience and optimize it for the mobile experience, you can build out to the larger screen. And speaking of users…

  1. Put the user first.
    As Jeffery Zeldman said as he kicked off day one, “we don’t design for browsers; we design for people.” Who is using your site? And what is the job your site should do? A powerful talk by Eric Meyer put this in sharp perspective – we design for a relaxed, savvy user seeing our site in an optimal viewing environment, but we must consider how our site is used by everyone, especially those in crisis. And these considerations are not static; content priority changes over time and with location, and Kate Kiefer Lee reminded us that voice and tone must change based on content type but also user mood.

It has taken me a week to distill my notes into these points and, believe me, I know it doesn’t do the conference justice. But if this summary at least peaks your interest in the topics, that will be enough. I can’t wait for An Event Apart 2015!