The Hottest Thing at SXSW You Learned it in Kindergarten

Alex Johnson

This year at SXSW Interactive, there was plenty of excitement around the “latest and greatest” ideas — virtual reality (VR), machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots and the like. But amongst all of the buzz, one other word was floating around. Just as buzzy; far more elementary. It’s not a new concept. In fact, it’s a principle you and I both probably learned in kindergarten: Inclusion.

This was my first time at the Interactive conference (my coworker Chelsea Li and I had the chance to attend after winning a design competition with our company, Pariveda Solutions). We were both surprised (and jazzed) when, in session after session, we were urged to design in a way that’s more accessible and inclusive to all.

“Is this a theme every year?” We wondered, “Is it a response to the current presidential Administration?” Or could it really be that inclusion — that thing we’ve been talking about since grade school — is harder to solve than teaching a machine how to write a news article and sound like a human?

I consider myself a cautious, “grandpa” techie, and there were definitely SXSW topics that had me “get off my lawning.” For example, this chatbot that trains itself to sound like you and then acts as your therapist? Impressive, but no thank you. We’re already struggling to combat our personal echo chambers on social media, the last thing we need is more parroting.

In the wrong hands, many of these “buzzwords” — VR, voice, etc. — could become technology for technology’s sake (or tech for money’s sake). At SXSW, these were the edge cases, though. Designers, developers, VR thought leaders and filmmakers alike mentioned empathy-building and human connectivity as goals. I left feeling hopeful and excited for tomorrow’s world.

Accessible Design

“Design and inclusion are inseparable,” said John Maeda in his 2017 Design in Tech Report session. He’s held the position of Global Head of Computational Design and Inclusion, a self-requested job title to “highlight how cutting-edge design requires the capacity to embrace human differences”, at Automattic for the past 8 months.

Many hands-on sessions also nudged attendees toward empathy. We listened as screen readers navigated us through a website task, we viewed websites through goggles that simulated color-blindness, and we attempted to text with mobility-restricting gloves on our hands.

While the exercises were helpful, there’s a better way to tackle inclusion in tech. It’s not enough to design for those different than us. We need to design with those different than us. The need for inclusivity in design/development spotlights the diversity issues that the tech industry is still struggling to address.

Virtual Empathy

Many of the VR/AR (augmented reality) panelists were also grappling with making VR a meaningful, relational experience.

Maureen Fan, CEO, and co-founder of VR animation company, Baobab Studios, gave the example of seeing someone crying. If you watched someone cry in a film, Fan said, you’d feel sad, but you’d simply watch. If you spotted a character crying in a video game, you would talk to him because he might have a clue about leveling up. In VR experiences, Fan hopes to meld the sympathies felt in film with the activity available in video games — she wants to essentially train players to turn their empathy into action. To do this, she gives VR players the choice to help other characters — it’s not a win/lose-defining action — but if a player does help a character, the character’s behaviors toward the player change.

You can’t help but wonder — will this VR training spill over into real life? Should we hope for that?

Global Mobile

Alex Russell, a senior engineer at Google, was thinking globally when he urged developers to shy away from native mobile applications. His preference is offline-first progressive web applications (PWA), a term he coined himself. With capabilities such as “add to home screen” functionality, offline caching, and push notifications (on Android), offline first progressive web applications would be a mistake not to implement, according to Russell. Why? The world’s “next billion web users” will likely be accessing the web via mobile devices — some that can retail as low $3 in Latin American and African countries.

Developers need to design around parameters that might not affect them personally — battery life, data consumption, and storage space.

“This is about whether we want to be accessible for everyone,” Russell says.

We do want tech to be accessible to all. After all, we live in a world that has declared the Internet a basic human right. Not only is it the right thing to do, it also makes business sense. So, why is it so difficult to stop designing/developing/building and even politician-ing for the people who are just like us?

Perhaps because empathy is not something you can automate; it’s a practice. If you’re anything like me, it’s something you’ll fail at regularly. “Mastering” inclusion requires bursting bubbles, expanding worldviews, talking less and listening more. Again, this becomes a whole lot easier if your workplace is diverse, to begin with. Yes, rules and mandates can force adherence to standards, but the best solutions will happen when accessibility and inclusion aren’t viewed as design constraints but opportunities for creativity.

Whether you’re in AR or HR, you’re needed as a voice reminding your company and team that it’s worth the effort to move toward a more diverse, inclusive, and emotionally connected world … Hmm, perhaps I need a chatbot for that.

More resources

Holly Gibson and Sara Inés Calderón’s starter guide for inclusivity and accessibility on the web
How to cultivate empathy

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