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Aaron Eiche
Aaron Eiche

Posted on • Updated on

Building systems that don't match your worldview

I wrote a programming article recently that started out describing an example problem: How many girls are in a class? The intention was simply to have a value to filter against. Almost immediately I was struck that, in 2017 there are lots of people who don't identify as male or female.

I tossed this around in my head for a few days, and every time I looked at it I was a little uncomfortable with what I was writing. I'm a straight, middle-class, white man living in America. In a lot of ways things couldn't get much easier for me. Sometimes my world-view paints a picture that we can all have the American dream if we work hard enough. Intellectually, I know that's not true. We don't all get the same opportunities, and we don't all start out the same way. However, in the past I've built systems that better match my worldview.

As developers we wield a tremendous amount of power, usually unbeknownst even to ourselves. We have the power to shape the way the world functions. The way we design our systems can powerfully affect the way that other people can utilize them. Consider the ubiquitous img tag in HTML. Have you ever forgotten to include and alt attribute in it? It can be easy to forget, and you would probably not notice it wasn't there. If you used a screen-reader though, you might be missing an awful lot. According to MDN This attribute defines the alternative text describing the image. This information may provide a screen-reader the ability to describe an image to a sight-impaired individual.

Have you ever thought that you could marginalize an entire group of people? I don't usually feel like I have that kind of power. If you're the one designing the database you might have the power to make that gender field one that has 3 or more enum values, instead of just 2. If you're the one writing the webpage, you might have more power than anyone else to write in the base support for i18n translation. Does your site work for people who have really low bandwidth? What about people who only have mobile devices? What about people who don't have mobile devices?

You may think that in your organization these decisions are made before the project gets to you. "There's no budget for that" or "That hasn't been approved" is an understandable response but as developers I think we have an obligation to take these questions back to "stakeholders", if for no other reason than to ask "have we thought about this?" If they have thought about this, you might be adding your voice to others - strengthening the argument.

Back in 1990 in the US, President Bush(H.W.) signed into law The Americans with Disabilities Act. It made it a legal requirement that buildings accommodate people with disabilities. Buildings had to have wheelchair ramps, and elevators, and braille placards. It didn't affect me as far as I knew (I was quite young), but in 2005 my father suffered a stroke that left him wheelchair bound. Suddenly, I was very grateful for the ADA. My dad was able to get into buildings without someone holding a door, get on a bus without someone having to carry him on, go to the 2nd, 3rd, or 34th floor of a building, without issue. I can say without a doubt that if the ADA hadn't been a law, he could not enjoy the autonomy available to him.

When we sit down to write code, or design systems, if we spend just a little more time considering who might be among our users we can make the world more accessible for more people.

Top comments (9)

jpstone profile image
Justin Stone

"Sometimes my world-view paints a picture that we can all have the American dream if we work hard enough. Intellectually, I know that's not true."

There was a time when the vast majority of people in our country (and those migrating in) believed it was in fact true. E pluribus unum. Then more sinister political forces (blowing in from the left) convinced people it wasn't true, which is the true cause of the polarization and division you see in this country.

You lost me at white privilege.

haraldson profile image
Hein Haraldson Berg

So ignorance is bliss, after all.

taggervng profile image
tag hatle

Wow, I didn't realize the ADA was as recent as 1990. The changes we've seen in society in just the past few decades are amazing! I really like how you talked about this, and how not-buzzword-y it is. When it comes down to it, we just need to respect and empathize and care for one another, and if we know and have the power to help others there's no excuse not to use that power. Thank you for the reminder!

pavsaund profile image
Pavneet Singh Saund

I enjoyed this article greatly. It isn't easy to be self-aware enough to realise how your own world view limits you. How much power we really have when showing empathy for people who may not have our same world view.

I also really appreciate your call to action. We have the power to make things better. At the same time, it's the small things, and asking the right questions.

Thanks, Aaron

danielfavand profile image
Daniel Favand • Edited

This is so, so important.

For the gender example - I think most systems don't even need this information to operate. However, I suspect the info can be useful for understanding who is using the system (or more importantly, who isn't). I know some non-binary people may disagree with that latter assessment though; I'm not sure it's a settled issue. It's definitely something I need to understand better.

evanread profile image
Evan Read

Yes, thanks Aaron.

As much as things sometimes suck in 2017, the fact that such an article would be written shows how far we've come (despite how far we have yet to go).

wizmer profile image
Benoit Coste

Inspiring article, thanks!

22samuelk profile image

Thank you!

ben profile image
Ben Halpern

Wonderfully said, Aaron.