A day of Girl Geekness in Manchester

Around early May there was a certain something, a frisson disturbing the still waters of online girl geekdom. A new javascript framework? A working implementation of Quantum Computing infrastructure applied to knowledge mapping Big Data sets? Bless you, no – the Manchester Girl Geeks Barcamp was back!

I’ve been attending the Manchester Girl Geeks barcamps since 2013 and they’ve pretty much become one of the highlights of my year. Each one gets better and better – I get to listen to a variety of fascinating topics, meet very clever and hardworking women from a wide range of backgrounds and get to eat amazing cake.

manchester_girl_geek_header

This year obviously I had to travel up from Warwick which meant getting up ludicrously early on a Saturday following a very tiring and stressful week. Still I arrived on time, even though it seemed not that many others did. Anyway, undeterred I checked out the speakers already signed up on the board and took a comfortable seat ready for the launch of what promised to be a day of girl geek amazingness. Not least because we were given adorable mini hemp goodie bags (obviously I took a purple one).

Musings on UX and email encryption

The first talk I attended was on the benefits of email encryption, one of those things I’d heard a lot about but assumed was really fiddly to do and would require a whole weekend to get set up. It turned out no, most email clients have plug-ins available (including Google…) and although it isn’t as simple as ticking a checkbox, it’s not quite as time consuming as one might imagine.

Still, it raised some interesting ideas about the impact of good UX. One of the barriers to using encryption is the lack of user-friendliness to the process, especially for those less tech inclined or those who are generally too busy to be frank. Although I think there’s a whole research project on the impact of good UX simplifying complexity to the extent that it ‘dumbs down’ the user (something which I do think is an important issue, though not in the alarmist way often discussed), it’s also important to stress the fact that bad UX is not just about preventing horrific 90’s style websites or reducing repetitive stress injury, but can be crucial in protecting people from the abuses of, well not to sound too much of a conspiracy theorist, state and society. In many ways, the lack of ease when it comes to securing our online presence is as much an example of an anti-pattern as the kind we see on dodgy online insurance websites.

All about the Squat Life

The next talk I attended was an introduction to geocaching via the lovely and bubbly @glkiernan. It was much less technical than I had hoped, as I’ve been thinking of creating a quick little app for some art hide and seek activities for MancsterCon, but it was still pretty cool to hear about how the game has grown and developed a community around it. Food for thought, especially considering my own geo-located web app project.

Following that was a session led by Jacky Hall on experiences living in a (legal) squat which brought up some really interesting discussions on topics from housing to living off the grid to public and personal perceptions of living off benefits. As someone whose interactions with the benefits system left me doing whatever I could to get off them as soon as possible, ultimately leading to me taking low paying roles that left me worse off than if I were on benefits, the issue about personal perceptions of benefits resonated quite deeply and I was surprised by how this seemed to be one of the most befuddling things to some of the others.

It was also odd because I’m someone who thinks the current system is a one of many examples of our neo-liberal social moral crisis. The fact that I am in many ways worse off than a Medieval peasant in terms of what I get out of my earnings and contributions to society makes no sense – or rather, it makes complete sense under the current system, but what makes no sense is why we maintain the system which enables people to hoard up property and let it go empty with no sense of reprobation, whilst whole boroughs are filled with rotting apartments and houses, gutted of a population. Clearly I spend too much time with Anglo-Catholic Distributists and Anarchist Communists because the lack of outrage puzzled me – there seemed to be more of a pushback against illegal squatters than the reality of our corrupt system. It annoyed me, especially considering that in the last election, the propaganda against immigration really centred on this idea of a lack of housing stock available for new migrants (which I did eventually summon the courage to say).

Anyway. One good thing was the resultant discussions about living off grid and I was pointed towards the Centre for Alternative Technology which sounds right up my street. So far my experience of self-sufficiency has consisted of not killing off my tomato plants, but it is one of the issues I’m really keen on getting more involved in if I can.

northwestzinefestZine-time!

After lunch, I attended a talk on Continuous Delivery (I’m trying to get up to speed with all these new methodologies) which if nothing else reaffirmed that the BBC seems a pretty cool place to work – anywhere that has dedicated research departments is a-ok with me – and then I headed off to quickly check out the North West Zine Fest.

I’d first heard about the fest courtesy of Kellie Huskisson @k_doodles_art, a fellow member of the Birmingham Laydeez do Comics. Initially I had no idea it was on the same day as the Barcamp, but it’s not that I minded – it felt like I was getting good value for my ticket to be honest (there was also a vintage kilo fair on but I had no way of getting to that in time).

PrintedClassicLitZine
There was this awesome too! printing my own Women In Love zine by @cerebralpig @nwzinefest! #mindblown pic.twitter.com/IUs2S8SmxV — ali fletcher (@dotsandfreckles) May 30, 2015

There was a lot of cool stuff – poetry, art, comics, activism: everything that makes zines such a brilliant medium. Special mention obviously goes to The Common Swings to always making me giggle with their Monty-Python-esque mashup of the vintage and surreal, but I also discovered Jan Hopkins @cerebal pig who makes these really cool paper electronic zines – think wearables only, readable and low tech. She also had this uber neat raspberry pi powered contraption called the PIGBOT which draws out sound waves transcribed from drawings and I just genuinely thought it was the coolest thing ever. I was inspired, friends, truly inspired! I’m following her on twitter so hopefully I’ll be able to see what else she’d up to and catch up with her future projects.

Pigbot
I’ve brought PIGBOT to #nwzinefest at The Star & Garter in Manchester. Taking a line for a walk. pic.twitter.com/4ZEbSFR7AD — cerebralpig (@cerebralpig) May 30, 2015

I did my circuit around the venue twice before hurrying back to the Barcamp to get there in time for a talk on usability on the web. I failed miserably but thankfully Providence allowed me the opportunity to vent my feelings on UX in the next talk…

Why UX and Back End Developers are really on the same side

I haven’t been long in UX but I’ve been doing it for long enough that I’m beginning to become familiar with certain issues that are forever coming up, or at least are always getting articles written about them in UXPin/Smashing Magazine.

As I was saying, I got back in time for a talk on how/why UX developers and back end developers should work together. In some cases, it seems neither is sure exactly why they should be dealing with each other or how. I mentioned that I partly suspected the all-too frequent confusion between UI and UX (and front end, half the time) development is key but that it also demonstrates a slight misunderstanding of a UX developers primary goal – or one of them at any rate. Essentially, for me, any interest I have in the UI is to enable the user to get the data they need.

This is why for me, the back end developers are my best friends, and we’re really tag teaming each other to encourage the utmost out of our front end/UI developer buddies. I don’t like war analogies because I don’t think that’s what’s really going on – it’s more like that kind of social anxiety brought on by a lack of standard etiquette which results in people seeming really rude, when in reality they’re just terrified of you – but the fact they’re often the most apt probably betrays our mutual passion for getting things done right. However, this energy should be used to shape an amazing product, not against each other.

As a UX developer when faced with a complex system, I need to understand a) what data is available and b) what data the user wants to see. That impacts the user journey, the interactions they take to get the data (not necessarily on the screen either. Someone else brought up the brilliant example of using well constructed URLs to simplify the user journey) and ultimately how the rest of the UI is developed, but crucially, I’m not thinking about the UI as something abstracted away from the backend. In many ways, the UI can be thought of as a human-readable/touchable visualisation of the back end so my interactions with the back end developers is absolutely crucial to our project’s success.

That was quite fun, but it was the last talk of the barcamp. The next was a bit of math based comedy, followed by a raffle (I won nothing, as is always the case) and then I made my way home. This was not a pleasant journey and I very nearly missed the last train back to Warwick. But hey ho. I had a pocketful of zines to keep me company.

Conclusion

Being a mini-barcamp, this year’s event was a bit smaller than the 2014 barcamp but I liked the venue, being situated right next door to HOME and not that far from the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. Even though I didn’t achieve my fantasy of winning a Raspberry Pi, I still had a lot of fun and got to meet some really cool people. As always there were a lot of talks I missed that I really wanted to go to, but that’s how you can tell it’s a great event.

Special mention goes to @trialia for taking the time to catch me up on the discussion she led about web accessibility which I missed when I went off zine-festing. Also to @NatCLiberty for some inspiring chat and project ideas. It’s always nice seeing more WoC at these events although it also made me think about the importance of doing more non-pub related socials for people who don’t drink alcohol (I just find that similar conversations have been happening in the tumblr LGBTQ-verse as well, especially for those of us keen on providing safe spaces for younger and more vulnerable members of the community so it’s good to keep things intersectional).

Well done to everyone for all the hard work involved and I’m really looking forward to next year!

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