Industry, Academia, and Accessibility

I attended ASSETS ’18 in Galway, Ireland last week and absolutely felt like a fish out water… except a fish that was determined to get used to dry land and maybe even grow feet and use them to move in a new career direction, idk.

I found a community that feels like my favorite ITP classes expanded into an entire network of coders, makers, designers, and researchers. I found people my age working on their PhD’s, having moved 3,000 miles away to an unfamiliar city to put their noses to the proverbial grindstone.

Academia is quite new to me and this was my first ever conference. I sat in a room filled with inspiring accessibility nerds (I’m convinced they’re the best kind), nervously shuffling around my laptop, phone, and notes, while staying overly hydrated on the free seltzer. I’ve been to industry events, sure, but I have to tell you that I spent many years in an industry that is incredibly good at congratulating itself. When I went to advertising events, it felts more like you were there to promote your own work (feels uncomfortable), talk about your accomplishments (feels arrogant), and suck up to people (totally normal when networking). I never attended an advertising conference- is there such a thing? Maybe SXSW, but I was never cool enough to go and I wonder if it’s just agencies trying to stay relevant and attract young talent. Regardless, this was my first true tech conference.

Moving further into technology hasn’t been without some major concerns. First off, there’s a well-known pervasive tech-bro culture, where women, POC’s, and generally anyone who isn’t a white dude, are few and far between. It sounds frighteningly familiar to the world I wanted to leave- where the often referenced statistic was that only 3% of creative directors are women. So when you become a creative, you are a female creative and it’s something of a novelty. A white, male creative director once introduced me to my new team as “talented and a women”. So I’ll just leave that there.

The accessibility community was different. I picked up on a lot of introverts (Hi!), and people who genuinely cared about and were passionate about their work. There was a strong emphasis on research and methodology. That was lacking in my last career. The process as a creative was mainly limited to ideation- maybe a bit of production- but not much else. That was partially my fault for refusing to identify as a designer, even though I went to design school, and majored in fine art and art history. I had imposter syndrome, sigh, which I’m sure I’ll have forever.

The emphasis was so strong on the process itself, that it’s not just about presenting an idea you have, but that the methodology behind it is way more meaningful. I am so thrilled to have this new way of creating work to explore. I love that, instead of creating something for a target audience similar to myself, I’d be designing for a user whose needs I am completely unfamiliar with.  And I am a complete nube.

The presenters I heard were so committed to HCI and accessibility and the long and diligent process it takes to produce abstracts like the ones at ASSETS. I found myself studying their formula as opposed to their proof-of-concepts. Claire, my mentor and teacher, suggested I practice creating an abstract with the work I’m doing for my internship with the NYU Ability Project. I’m taking schematics of circuit diagrams and converting them to tactile graphics with the Swell Form. I user test with Antonio, a first year, and optimize them for his use. It’s been a fairly casual and once-a-week process, but I’m ready to organize and document. I’m also prepared to submit the abstract for next year’s conference.

I also will have practical skills for my thesis process, which will involve taking User Experience skills I’ve acquired at ITP, combine them with my past experience in creative, and apply them to the accessibility or assistive tech field. I’m hoping that design research and UX will become more of a mainstay in my practice and that I can find a healthy combination of academia and industry that works for me, personally (I learned that the University of Washington and Carnegie Mellon HCI PhD programs are excellent and include accessibility).

I’m so excited to be a fish out of water because, wait what’s the saying… the things that give you butterflies in life are the best because those are the things you always remember. In the meantime, my living room is slowly being taken over by UX, design research, and accessibility books.

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