All posts by Gail Swanson

Why I Support Codes of Conduct

This summer, I helped organize a two-day conference with a great group. One of the things we made sure to do was have a code of conduct. We thought it was the right thing to do.

As organizers, we volunteered our time to gather colleagues to build friendships and learn from each other. None of us are security experts. Balanced Team is a self-organized bunch without a legal team or much of a budget. We are like most meetups and professional communities. Hosting an event takes a lot of work. We focused on curating a good program and covering the necessities for a fun gathering of people. Making sure everyone felt safe was a part of that.

I have training in managing sexual harassment incidents as well as victim assistance. Something I’ve learned is that a healthy community requires a safe way for people who don’t feel safe to reach out to people who can help. If there is no readily available way to share concerns or get help, victims rarely report incidents. The likelihood of a victim to make a report is also impacted by the victim’s assessment of what may happen if they do make the report.

An attendee takes a risk trusting people with professional clout when reporting an issue with an attendee, speaker, or staff . If a person has already been put in a position of vulnerability, they need some commitment from those organizers that they will treat the reporter with respect and put safety first. Otherwise, that risk may be too great to report a threat before until it escalates into an assault or something requiring legal action.

As organizers, we set the standards for our communities. We signal the culture we intend to collectively cultivate, the behavior we value, and that which we discourage. A code of conduct is a tool for the group to consider these things in a way that hasn’t been commonplace in the tech industry’s past. Even when a CoC gets copied and pasted, someone has thought about these things more than was historically common. We are encouraging good behavior.

A code of conduct is a signal to everyone that the standard of behavior at an event is mutual respect and inclusivity. We know there is a problem with active discouragement, dismissal, and harassment in our workplaces. How could we possibly believe those same people do not bring those behaviors with them to events?

At our event, we didn’t have a rigid process set for handling reports but we did have a point person, security and police information and established communication streams within the team. We had an agreement among the organizers that if something was reported, we would address it. We communicated that we wanted attendees to tell us about anything that made them uncomfortable and err on the side of safety. We communicated to everyone that the culture we were cultivating was inclusive and supportive. Other behavior was not welcome.

We did have an incident, of a type we weren’t expecting. Someone actively discouraged one of our speakers shortly before their time slot. It wasn’t illegal behavior, it wasn’t sexual harassment. It was unmistakably malicious and violated the code of conduct. Our CoC gave us a thing to point to that told people, in advance, what would not be tolerated and what response they could expect from us. We could confidently confront the individual and administer a warning. We had a mechanism for actively discouraging someone being shitty to another person at our event.

Our code of conduct helped us as organizers. We used this increasingly common practice to prepare and then act to keep our event a positive, productive gathering. Without it, we would have felt terrible for that presenter’s experience but likely would have done nothing. We would have missed an opportunity to call someone out on the type of crap that makes good people leave our community. Our speaker would not have been supported. Instead, we proactively stopped intimidation and we had our speaker’s back.

That’s why I’m not going to attend a conference or speak at one that doesn’t have a code of conduct.

Presenting for Impact: A Guide to Presenting Information Architecture to Stakeholders

I’ve had the privilege of observing many stakeholder presentations as well as doing a plethora of my own. Through those observations, I’ve noticed a pattern between the ones that go well, propelling a project forward, versus the unproductive presentations that devolve into opinionated debate:

1-Narrating your deliverables and then asking for feedback as if your stakeholder is grading your homework sets up a disorganized critique wherein your stakeholders look for errors. This approach invites spin and reduces confidence.

2-Using the presentation as an opportunity to gather richer input from your stakeholders and work closer to the goal together through collaboration. This sets you on a path of productive progress.

I made the following poster for IA Summit 2015 as a guide to IAs and Designers to conduct productive presentations for our complex, abstract work.

Presenting for Impact

Download the poster: Presenting for Impact

Hold on to children symbol

Growing UX Leadership

What’s it like learning how to lead in a field as nebulous and broad as experience design? There are a lot of ups and downs. On a day when I get it right, I can feel it. I’m certain I’ve made a good contribution, helped my team and my clients. When it happens, it’s something to celebrate.

Most days the answers are less definitive. From moment to moment I make decisions on how to move forward in a complex environment where it’s easy to make mistakes. There’s no how-to guide for being the bridge between designers, clients and the business of UX. Like the majority of UX leads, I’ve learned by doing. It’s unfortunate that the uncertainty of this process breaks many potentially great leaders before they find their way.

Similar to colleagues who started careers before ‘user experience’ was a thing, much of my career has been spent as the UX lead in various contexts reporting to someone who is not in the field. I didn’t have exposure to successful UX role models to witness leadership done right. Instead my mentors were books and blogs and happy hour debates with peers.

The design world is not great at cultivating leadership. It’s largely considered a character trait; something you either have innately or will never develop. I believe leadership can be taught to those willing to develop self awareness. Many good leaders don’t start out well. But over time and with coaching they learn from experience and develop their own feedback loops.

Baptism by fire leadership training is not a method that has a high success rate. Especially when the risks to the business are high.  We want to serve our teams better.  We are hungry for guidance. A robust UX community has emerged full of people eager to share the lessons we’ve learned. We work together, making the way easier for others. It’s something that I’m honored take part in. I also look forward to the future when we actively train leaders and can set them up for success.

My tools that I rely on to navigate the uncertainty that comes with being a UX lead:


  • Trust in your ability to make good decisions.
  • Motivation to elevate others so that they can be successful. That means creating opportunities for talent to shine and intensely coaching under performers.
  • Humility to accept feedback and focus on solutions instead of blame
  • Wisdom to be open to someone else’s idea being better than your own
  • The fortitude to try and fail and try again and change and adapt
  • NEVER STOP trying to be better

What works for you?