February 28, 2022

🍨 The Inside Scoop — Soren Hamby 🇺🇸

🍨 The Inside Scoop — Soren Hamby 🇺🇸

This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Soren Hamby, one of our NYC metro ADPList mentors.

Soren is a Senior Manager of UX and Digital Design at Benjamin Moore. Soren designs inclusive and accessible systems, communities, and products. They most recently have been spending their time helping big brands to be more inclusive and mitigating Inequality. They also guest speak, educate, consult, and write about inclusive design, employee equity in tech, and accessibility.

Do you want to find out more about Soren and their mentorship style? Keep reading for the Inside Scoop!✨

Anna interviewing Soren

To start out, can you share a little bit about yourself and how you got into accessibility and inclusive design?

I’m Soren Hamby, I use they/them pronouns, and I am currently a Senior Manager of UX and Digital Design. I really love UX because it’s objective, and that’s how I got into it. I was doing brand design, like WordPress installations and websites for companies, and I got to thinking about how my designs would be received by people (instead of just catering to the one person that was ordering a design). I got really frustrated with creating things for one person and to their tastes and I wanted to make a change. I think that’s why a lot of people get into UX — because they want to make a change in how they’re interfacing with people, they want to make a change in their life, and they want to make a change in other people’s lives. That kind of problem-solving and change-making is a really common theme for me.

What has kept you in this specialization? How has your approach to accessibility changed over time?

Definitely, the thing that’s kept me is that there’s no limit to learning. There’s always new stuff to learn. There are always new technologies that you have to fold in, and the field keeps getting bigger because of that. There are more things that are encompassed in UX and more experiences to designing.

I think another thing that keeps me here is that I can see the impact that UX has. Especially as I experienced some accessibility issues myself with apps and services, I see how important it is — and that’s what got me into accessibility as well. I was having some access challenges and barriers to access having low vision (and at one point I had almost no vision). I couldn’t imagine why this was still a thing, and I was just very passionate about fixing it. And I was like, well, if access is a problem for me, then it must be a problem for other people with other access challenges like being heard of hearing or deaf. So, I wanted to learn as much as possible about accessibility. I took as many online courses and training as I could, read as many books and articles that I could find, and just followed a bunch of people that I knew was doing good work. I have invested a lot more in training programs and credentials as I’ve gotten later in my career, which has helped to give me a little bit more structure in the accessibility space. And as far as inclusion, I think learning more about myself and getting more involved in things like design justice and social good organizations and communities has really helped. The more we look at our own biases and the lenses through which we’re looking at the design, the more that we can start to see how that impacts our work, and what areas we need to work on or ask for help in.

What people or communities have you found the most useful in your learning?

Well, Twitter is an amazing tool for finding people that are providing community leadership and resources. There are a lot of people that are very active in disability Twitter, and trans-Twitter is also a really great place to find resources. I tend to look for people that have multiple marginalizations like Crutches & Spice is one of my favorite Twitter accounts. The amount of people that are just putting content out there because they love the field is staggering. I definitely don’t think that creating content should be a requirement to be a leader in the field, but there are so many people that are out there, making content, giving it everything that they have all the time. If you have the privilege of having internet, then you have access to it. So, it’s really amazing that we have that now.

There are a lot of niche communities out there on Slack as well. So, if you want to be in a more closed community, there’s Out in Tech, Where Are the Black Designers?, Queer Design Club, and Stark has a whole list of communities for people that want to get into accessibility. There’s just a bunch of really great communities that are out there depending on what you want to get into and what region you’re in. I feel like there’s something to be said for joining a community that’s local to your geographical area —  especially inaccessibility, there are a lot of differences in specific country laws, regulations, and things like that.

What are the 3 most common questions you usually get as a mentor, and how do you answer them?

  1. “How do I get my first UX job?”
    It’s really, really hard to find the right first UX job, and the best advice that I can give people is to aim for something in the middle between a really small team and a really giant team. If you find a team that is always hiring and there are tons of people, you can get lost in the shuffle and end up not understanding the end-to-end process. With really small teams, you may be expected to operate more independently because there are not as many people to cover all the bases, so you may actually be responsible for your own product coming out the gate. So aiming for something in the middle is definitely a way to increase the likelihood that they’ll have a built-in structure that lets somebody come in when they’re earlier in the career and also increases the likelihood that you’ll get what you need from that first job as well.
  2. Portfolio reviews/how to interview/how to do whiteboarding challenges
    This is a big one. I often try to help people strategize for these because whiteboarding actually isn’t a great way to see if people know how to do UX design, it’s more for UI. So it’s important to strategize how to ask and how to answer questions in an interview and whiteboarding challenges. You need to say to yourself “How do I answer in a way that actually tells them what I want to say?” It’s a little bit tricky, but it’s, it’s a really useful skill to learn.
  3. The last thing that people usually ask me is not about getting a job. It’s about dealing with the job.
    I specifically like to work with people that are marginalized in some way, because I feel like some of the tactics and tools that I’ve developed over my career are helpful to other people that are marginalized or underrepresented. It’s just a different way of operating in the workplace — there are some places where you have to lean in a little heavier and some places where you have to be lighter. Sometimes I think people get imposter syndrome or wonder if something is “normal” in a workplace, if they are being reasonable, or if everybody else would react the same way. If it’s your first job, I think sometimes it’s great to have somebody to learn some tactics from or to bounce these things off and say, “Is this is something that I should normally be asked to do, or that people would treat me this way?” I try to give people the best advice that I can without influencing them too much, and let them make their decisions. I think I would have really benefited from having someone like this when I was early in my career. Just somebody to tell me, “that’s not normal behavior from your boss, maybe you should talk to HR.”

If there is one piece of advice you could tell every mentee you meet, what would it be?

One of the best things that you can do for yourself is to learn people management skills. I can send anyone videos on any number of technical skills that can be quickly learned, but people skills take a lifetime to accomplish. If you can learn soft skills like people skills and lateral management skills, then you’ll be an invaluable member of any team and there’s a lot of room for mobility in your career.

Do you have any tips to help junior designers advocate for accessibility and inclusive design with stakeholders and within their teams?

I would say the first thing to do is to employ some of those people skills to find out what’s important to your stakeholders. Find out what motivates decision-making: saving money, being compliant with local laws, or feel-good decisions (like donating money and DEI, except accessibility). Then, you can use this to decide the model of accessibility you want to put forward and what kind of benefits you want to highlight to them. For example, if you tell a stakeholder that is really concerned about market share that “it’s the right thing to do” you’re probably not going to get buy-in. But instead, if you tell them “We are excluding 1/5 of our audience right out of the gate by not including people with disabilities.” They’re going to be listening at that point because you just told them that they could increase their market share by 20% just by designing the product so that people with disabilities could use it. So knowing how to speak to them, knowing what they’re concerned about, and just doing that little bit of digging and social research. Even if you’re new on the team, you can still find out some of that information by relying on some of the institutional knowledge that exists in your product teams, then you can craft that pitch. And after that, the ball is in their court if they want to absorb that information and make a decision on it. With some people, you still have to lean hard on legal compliance, but that’s my least favorite. But I would say that most people really respond well to their values.

What is one thing that you think tech companies typically get wrong about accessibility or is there something that you wish they understood better?

One of the things that they get wrong is thinking that automated testing is enough, but really it only uncovers about 40% of errors. You need to also do manual testing with people that regularly use assistive equipment or assistive technology. Another thing that I wish they understood better is that just because you haven’t experienced it doesn’t mean that it isn’t a problem. I’ve had several people tell me “Well, I’ve never had a problem with filling out these forms” and I’m like, “Okay, well, I’ve never filled out a form that actually has all of the correct options on it for me.” This creates an atmosphere where it feels like empathy stops at the observation room for the user experience interview. I wish that they would extend that empathy to their teams, outside of that very specific listening case. We should be open to considering how feedback impacts our tools, but also use a little bit of discretion to know when it’s a social issue that’s being brought to our attention and when it’s just an edge case user preference. I think there are clear markers of that.

What gets you excited about the future of design?

I get so excited about new technologies. Sometimes some of the ways in which technologies are being applied without considering some of the ramifications get me a little leery, but I think there is so much potential here. Like the idea of being able to solve things like financial inequality and being able to involve people that have disabilities in spaces or events. We’ve seen a huge leap forward in the last two years due to this global pandemic, but I think this has shown us that we can make huge leaps forward and that we could continue to do so. The idea of VR, the metaverse, XR, AR, all of this really gives me a lot of hope that it could be used to involve people more rather than make them feel more separated from the world. I don’t think technology is the thing that will save us — I think humans are the things that will save us — but we can use technology as one of those tools.

Let’s switch gears to some more personal questions to get to know you. Tell me something that would never come up in conversation?

Probably my obsession with space. I grew up in a NASA town, so I have a bunch of space tattoos and I have two cats that both have astronaut names. One is Yuri, after Yuri Gagarin, and the other is Michael, after both Michael Burnham from Star Trek Discovery and Michael Collins, who was the astronaut who stayed in the capsule when the moon landing happened. Aldrin and Armstrong got to walk, but Collins orbited the moon and kept the car running — he deserves the namesake.

The unsung hero! Love it. Do you see a future where space is accessible, and what would that look like?

Well, I do think there are certain conditions of space that make it super accessible. Not having gravity could make things easier for people that have some mobility disabilities or degenerative tissue disease. I think that things like this could make space really accessible for people (once we figure out the whole getting there and living there thing). So I see a great future there, but again I worry about what we do with it if the people that are able to go there are mostly worried about their own interests and don’t have social interests in mind. I think that there’s a bright future for space but I don’t know if I’ll see it in my lifetime. But then again, I don’t think my grandparents thought that we’d walk on the moon!

What is your go-to book? (Design and/or non-design)

Hmm, that’s a great question. I would have to say one of the ones that I recommend to a lot of people right now is Demystifying Disability. I also really, really love Kat Holmes’ Mismatch. It’s a really good simple read. Both of them are very short and they’re both really good for understanding accessibility. Demystifying Disability is really more about understanding the disability community and some of the terminology, so I recommend both.

What show are you binge-watching?

Space Force!

What is your guilty pleasure?

I absolutely love dairy-free ice cream. Ben & Jerry’s has so many flavors. I am obsessed.

Thanks for reading this article! I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed my conversation with Soren.

Check out ADPList and book a mentorship session with Soren today! You can also find them on Twitter or LinkedIn.