During graduate school I founded the first UX Book Club in Urbana-Champaign with a few friends from my program that shared my interests in research and design. I graduated with my MLIS in the winter of 2011 and moved back to Chicago, eager to continue my involvement by joining the Chicago UX Book Club group. After inquiring whether they were still active, the previous organizer (Gabby Hon) asked if I would be interested in taking over and I agreed.Read More
A new resource from chiDUXX, a women's networking and mentoring organization I help run in Chicago:
Have you ever wished for an easy way to find talented Chicago UX women looking for a job or interested in speaking at an event? Well, we have some exciting news! Starting today, we are launching two directories for Chicago UX women:
We encourage you to add your name and to spread the word. The directories are open to any Chicago women, not just chiDUXX members. Please note, any information you submit will be publicly viewable. You can update your information at any time by following the original survey link. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions: http://www.meetup.com/chiduxx/
"The People Issue is about the significance of individuals—particularly 20 Chicagoans whose contributions to the city are in some cases overlooked. But it is also about the ways in which each of these people connects to a bigger community, and how that community can magnify an already potent force."
Gemma Petrie was moved to find ways to make technology more accessible to people traditionally cut off from it—and found that the work brought her closer to those people than technology ever could: “Those interpersonal experiences, both in the local Chicago community and the global community, have been really powerful. It comes down to people.”
Petrie, 33, is making technology more useful, both globally, as a senior user-experience researcher for Mozilla, and locally, as a cofounder of ChiDUXX (Chicago Women of Design and UX), a mentoring and networking group for women in digital user-experience research and related fields.
Interview by Drew Hunt
Photos by Jeffrey Marini
I studied philosophy at Reed College in Oregon, and I decided that I was interested in law school. I started working at a law firm and decided within a year that I didn’t really like that, so I ended up quitting and traveling for six months. When I came back, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so I started working with some nonprofits around Chicago. I started working at a settlement house. It was a neighborhood group, and we worked on early childhood education. We created nontraditional spaces for people to learn technology skills. I didn’t have a technology lens on anything at that point; I was trying to feel out what I wanted to do with my life. But the time I spent exposed to these technology programs opened my eyes. We worked primarily with low-income immigrant populations, and I saw the truly huge divide between people like me, who have a ton of advantages and exposure to technology, and people who are fundamentally cut off from those resources—and what not having that access or that literacy means. I decided to focus full-time on technology education and learning.
I take a participatory approach to my job. Say you have a small group of affluent people living someplace like Silicon Valley, creating products that are meant to have a national or even global appeal. You can create a product that’s amazing, but sometimes it ignores the fact that there are wild differences between Silicon Valley and other places in the world. It’s impossible to design something for everyone, so understanding that product—or service or experience—and actually working with the population that you hope to serve is the best way to go about it.
This, of course, implies that there are resources for such a thing, and that’s extremely uncommon, especially for small organizations. It’s a huge cost and a huge amount of time, and there are a lot of limitations.
I have the luxury of occasionally working on funded international projects. Mozilla sends research teams across the world to not only learn about current behavior but also emerging trends and needs in these areas. A lot of people are working to be ahead of the curve to make sure we’re adequately developing technology for a broad audience. The idea is to allow the research to inform that development.
Chicago isn’t considered much of a “tech center.” You think of San Francisco, New York—those are the obvious places where one might go if one is interested in tech. But there’s been a shift in the last few years. The Chicago community feels different. There’s a luxury to living in the midwest. It’s a little nicer, people underestimate it, and people have a genuine desire to see others succeed.
I co-organize two groups here, the Chicago UX Book Club and ChiDUXX. With the book club, people recommend industry-related books to read, and then the whole group votes and we pick the book based on that. It’s been a couple years now, and I’ve met some amazing people.
I had met a number of really awesome women through the book club, and then there was this conference a couple years ago in Chicago that had eight presenters who were all men. They were really smart people, but I was surprised there weren’t any women, because I happen to know a lot of women who are at the top of their field. I ended up meeting my ChiDUXX co-organizer, Golli Hashemian, around this time, and she had a similar reaction. Some of the goals with ChiDUXX are to offer an environment for people to try out talks or share projects, and to mentor one another within the field, but the primary goal is to have more women in user experience get to know each other, so that when there’s a job opening, or somebody is organizing a conference, nobody has to go looking for recommendations.
Things should be changing, and the fact that they aren’t kind of highlights a systemic issue. The more diverse things are, the better they are. The tech industry is filled with young people, and young people are at least characterized as being more open, so that’s part of the frustration. The tech industry isn’t some big investment firm that’s been around a hundred years and this is just how things go. If we can point out the absurdities of these very outmoded ways of thinking, eventually it will all come together to help break down barriers and make people more conscious of the choices they make. I’ve never met a straight-up misogynist in my field, and I hope that remains true. We all have a lot to learn about people who aren’t like ourselves, and ideally we’re all paying attention to how we can do better.
The things I love most about what I do include building communities like ChiDUXX and the book club, and also doing the research, really getting to know what someone else’s life is like in a place that’s very different than mine, and hopefully using that information to create better products. Those interpersonal experiences, both in the local Chicago community and the global community of people who have goals and aspirations that I can help them meet, have been really powerful. It comes down to people.
I'm extremely flattered to be included in Crain's Tech 50 this year!* I'm proud of Chicago's tech scene and it is truly exciting to be in such esteemed company. Though, as many people have already noted, it is disappointing that only nine women appear on this list. I wouldn't be where I am today without the support of many generous people, and those that have been my strongest mentors and allies have been other professional women. I will continue to do my part to continue to encourage other women to enter the tech field and I look forward to the day when having a "Wise Men" category on this type of list (seriously, wtf?) is no longer even a comprehensible option.
(*I'd like to note that while I wish it was the case, I did not learn to program as a child. I also wish they had mentioned the Chicago UX Book Club and my MLIS degree, not to sound ungrateful :)
Interested in "empowering the women who design the web?" Consider joining the new chiDUXX meetup group. We are having our first meeting tomorrow (3/5) to get to know each other and define our goals. I'm interested in:
-Seeing fewer local conference line-ups that look like this.
-Encouraging more women to consider speaking at conferences, writing articles, and highlighting their professional achievements.
-Making mentorship connections.
-Having an excuse to get together with some cool ladies in our professional community.
Thank you to everyone for all of your kind words after I was robbed in December. I was especially moved that a few of you even offered to contribute to a new camera fund. I'm happy to say that I was finally able to replace my camera on my own, even though I am incredibly grateful for the generous offers.
A lot has changed over the last few months. I'm happy to be back in my old neighborhood in Chicago after grad school. I love my work and my ever-growing professional network. I met excellent people at the Midwest UX conference in June and the Chicago UX Book Club has continued to be fun and thought-provoking.
I spent a lovely long weekend in the Bay Area in May and I'm heading on my annual Glacier backpacking trip with my Dad in a few weeks. The summer has been busy with six weddings and various out-of-town guests. But, I've still found the time to slow down with warm evenings on restaurant patios and a picturesque sailboat ride on Lake Michigan
In addition to my new camera, my other large purchase over the last six months was finally acquiring a fancy blender. I'd coveted a Vitamix for half a decade, but after quite a bit of research I decided on a Blendtec blender and I couldn't be happier with my choice. I have kale smoothies every morning and I've recently fallen in love with this raw summer soup.
Raw Sweet Corn, Cashew & Avocado Chowder
4 ears sweet corn
1/2 C raw cashews
1 1/2 garlic cloves
4 Tbl good olive oil
1 1/2 C water
2 tsp kosher salt Freshly ground black pepper
Husk the corn and remove the silk. In a large shallow bowl, stand the corn on an end cut off the kernals with a sharp knife. Set aside half a cup of corn kernals. Combine the remaining kernals and the rest of the ingredients in your blender, and blend until very smooth. (I used the "soup" setting on my Blendtec.) Adjust the seasoning as desired.
Pour the soup into bowls and top with the reserved corn kernals and a bit more black pepper. Serve at room temperature, or chill if preferred.
I've been missing the Champaign-Urbana UX Book Club, so I decided to take over the Chicago chapter!
The Chicago UX Book Club was founded in 2009 by Gabby Hon. She decided to take a break from organizing and has passed on the reins. We will be organizing meetings through our Meet-Up page, but you can find more information on the UX Book Club Chicago website and by following us on Twitter.
Join us for monthly discussions and the opportunity to interact with students and professionals looking to share their passion and knowledge of UX, IA, UI, IxD, etc. Each month, we will choose a book or article to read and discuss. You don't have to read the book to attend -- just come with an open mind and an interest in the subject. We are also open to discussion suggestions and presentations by members related to their own UX research, writing, and professional expertise.