I’m off-white, so I’m used to people assuming rather strange things about me. The big one I am forever explaining is that no, I really am Canadian. Yes, that’s where I’m really from. That’s where my ancestors are from too. I’m biracial, but even the “immigrant” side of my family has been in Canada for well over 100 years, and the other includes united empire loyalists. Really.
Sometimes people assume I don’t speak English when they see me teaching at the university. Sometimes they assume I speak French after proclaiming my Canadian-ness. (I do, but most Canadians don’t.)
When people see my name, especially associated with my geeky pursuits or with my academic or professional work, they sometimes assume I’m male. Hilarity ensues.
But the weirdest assumption I ever encountered was that because I was a girl, I would somehow know something about computer usability. People would get me to test things. People would ask me questions. People would assume I could do design. People would assume I wanted to work at the interface level.
You think I know what?
When I was a fledgling programmer, I stayed as far away from interface as I could get. My first real programming job had me working on an SQL query optimizer and tracing bugs through threading libraries on old unix systems. I worked with email at the text-only, server level in my spare time. I lived off the command line. I didn’t know anything about interfaces, and was irked that people kept assuming.
But… I watched how people used things. I saw how sometimes, it wasn’t their fault that they couldn’t unsubscribe from the mailing list when you had to do it by clicking a button labeled “Edit Options” (yes, as a Mailman developer, I made sure this was fixed.)
Hm… maybe I should learn some usability after all
I wanted to be able to help prevent this sort of nonsense. So I fit some human factors and user interface courses into my schedule. I read books. I angsted over whether this was “girl stuff” that I shouldn’t be doing lest I never be seen as a core programmer again, as Mary mentioned in her post. (There’s other girl stuff, but that’s not part of this story.)
But then I got into computer security, and in the course of my study, started to realise that a lot of “security flaws” come through people misusing products. I read Why Johnny Can’t Encrypt: A Usability Evaluation of PGP 5.0. (Yes, the SSL cert fail you get when you click that link is pretty funny in context.) I realised that it didn’t matter if usability was “girl stuff” — it was core, it was important, and people who ignored it were just being foolish. I finally embraced my “girl stuff” as part of security.
The happy ending
I won’t claim to be a usability expert, but I’ve got a lot more training and a lot more curiousity. It’s made me a much better software developer, and it’s made me a significantly better security researcher. (Most people in my research lab would argue that without understanding what users do, you can’t really understand computer security!) My open source project of choice, Mailman, is slowly benefiting from my increased expertise. And all starting with a really strange little assumption that usability was girl stuff. I still don’t understand why it’s girl stuff, but I understand that it doesn’t matter.
Turns out, when you assume, you don’t have to make an “ass” out of “u” and “me” after all.