Good Services out now!

Just over a year ago I wrote a blog post about what we mean by a ‘good service’ and how strange it is that we don’t have a better understanding of this.

The book is now finished (all 190 pages of it!) is available for preorder now

You can sign up for the newsletter to get 20% off until the 20th Dec 2019.

It has stories about some of the best (and worst) services out there and contains 15 principles that both designers and non-designers can use to design services that actually work.

The book’s been designed by Daly-Lyon there are also two awesome forewords by Mike Monteiro and Marc Stickdorn, alongside contributions from lots of amazing people – including the 3,000 or so people who commented on the original principles (thankyou if that was you!)

Why this book needs to happen

I wrote this book because after almost two decades of ‘Service Design’ as an industry, most of the services we use everyday are still terrible.

They’re terrible for lots of different reasons, but chief among them is that they aren’t designed to meet our most basic needs. In fact, most of them haven’t been designed at all.

Confirmation emails aren’t sent, explanations aren’t clear and appointments aren’t flexible, meaning that despite our best efforts, our lives are more difficult to navigate than ever before.

The vast majority of our organisations have a kind of ‘service blindness’ – where we don’t even recognise what we provide to as a service in the first place.

Those that do, often rush to create new and innovative experiences whilst overlooking the one crucial thing we need from services: to be able to do what we set out to do with as little friction as possible.

The resulting bad services don’t just add friction to our lives, they can put us in danger (there are lots of examples of this in the book).

Knowing what good looks like for services isn’t just a nice to have, it’s vital if we are going to finally see services as things that need to be designed, and provide them in a way that is safe and sustainable, both for us and the world we live in.

As Marc says in his foreword, “this book is long overdue”.

The resulting 15 principles of good service design in this book are the things that are universal to all services – whether that’s booking a flight or getting medical care.

This is book is not about ‘great services’, ‘unique services’, ‘thrilling’ or ‘magical’ services. It won’t tell you how to ‘wow’ your users with something they didn’t expect, or build something that the world has never seen before.

This book will tell you is how to design a service that your users can find, understand and use without having to ask for help.

It will tell you how to not disappoint your users, and make sure they can do the thing they set out to do. In a nutshell, it will help you to make services that work.

Onwards! From government services to the built environment

Today, I’m excited to announce that I’m going to be taking on a new role as Director of Design and Transformation for planning and land development for the UK government, based at Homes England.

We have a housing crisis in the UK, but that problem doesn’t start with houses, it starts with land, and the rules and regulations around how it’s used and by whom.

At the same time, our environment has never been under more threat than it is now.

We need to democratise the process of using land and create a world where urban development is both sustainable for humans and for the environment.
That means bringing design back into the heart of planning in the public sector and fixing the dark matter and systems that are contributing to a housing and land market that doesn’t work.

In 1976 49% of architects worked for the public sector; in London it’s now 0.13%. We need to change that. But beyond improving the design of our built spaces, we need to take a design led approach to the infrastructure that underpins the built environment itself. That means taking a long hard look at our data, services and policy objectives, and bringing together the fragmented parts of government that underpin our ability to take a coordinated approach to sustainable development in the UK. I’m excited to take on that role.

I’m not the first to attempt this, and I’m looking forward to working alongside some amazing pioneers in this space – the likes of Public Practice, Architecture 00 and Dan Hill. This sits alongside all of the fantastic work ongoing in government that I’ve had the privilege to watch grow over the past few years at places like Defra, Land Registry, MHCLG, Homes England of course (and many more that I don’t know about I’m sure).

My time at GDS has been brilliant, and I’m incredibly proud of things I’ve been able to help the government achieve.

Back in 2016 I wrote a ranty blog post that never got published. In it, I complained about the fact that government needed a central function to support service design across government. I never published it. Instead I turned it into a £5 million business case to build a programme of teams working on service transformation across government – including the Service Standard, Service Manual & Service Toolkit, design patterns, GOV.UK Frontend, accessibility and inclusion, cross government service design and community development.

We now have Service Designers in government where previously there were none; a community of over 3,000 people in user centered design; training in design for all public servants and a dramatically different landscape of standards and patterns for government services, including the wonderful GOV.UK design system.

I’ve spoken to enough governments around the world to know how lucky I’ve been to get backing and support for this and that’s a testament to not only the strength of vision GDS has, but also the incredibly talented people I’ve worked with and the determination of the Civil Service itself.

Doing this has meant I’ve been able to share that privilege by establishing the International Design in Government community (if you’re not coming to one of the 3 conferences we’re running this year get yourself a ticket!)

Digital services were the first frontier for design in government, now it’s time to take the same approach to our built environment.

If you’re doing exciting work in this space, get in touch, I’d love to buy you coffee.

Hackney Council destroyed my garden, here’s why

Yesturday morning a team of council maintenance workers moved into my community garden and destroyed it.

I’m still in shock.

Since drafting this post Hackney Council have just called to apologise, and have promised to help find another site, but this story says more about the failures of government to manage common land, than it does about what happened to me as an individual.

I live in a tiny one bedroom flat in Hackney. It has no outdoor space – not unusual in London – where less than 50% of homes in have a garden.

I’m not complaining. I chose to live in Hackney because I love the area, but last year year, like most people, our rent went up. As did the price of food, and pretty much everything else.

Several years of austerity have taken their toll on my life, and on the lives of everyone else in the capital.

When I was growing up, supermarkets collected tins to send to developing nations, now, those tins get sent to food banks in the UK.

A combination of these factors, and a hope that I could alleviate some of this problem not just for myself but also the local community lead me to think about starting a community garden.

Our cities are full of small, unutilised pieces of land – around the base of buildings, on the side of roads and between houses. These pieces of land are too small for development, but too large if you add them all up for most local authorities to do anything with within their current budgets.

One of those patches sat outside our flat for over a year. A 4 x 3m area of bare earth between some long-dead rose bushes. After an extensive search revealed no clear ownership, I set about improving the soil and planting vegetables. Nothing I was doing was permanent, and would only have improved the site for whoever owned it.

The garden literally blossomed, and by summer was producing enough vegetables to keep us and our neighbours fed. Wildlife moved into the once desert-like space – even common blue butterfly which has seen a 60% decline in numbers since the 1990s – and I met more neighbours in 4 months than I have done in my entire 15 years of living in London.

Together we started to hatch a plan to expand the garden and turn it into an official community space.

And then someone complained.

I received an email from our estate agent with a snippet of text they had received from the holding company of our building, informing me that the plants I’d grown there constituted “trespassing” and that would be prosecuted in 10 days unless I removed them.

I was shocked, but more shocking still, was the revelation that this notice had been sent by Hackney Council. An organisation who have publicly proclaimed support for urban green space.

Still optimistic, I thought as long as I could explain the situation to someone at the council they would see reason and grant permission to keep the garden. Since they were so supportive of using under-utilised space for urban greening elsewhere.

I emailed all of my local councillors – none replied.

I phoned the number of of the person who was supposed to deal with urban greening projects – they had since left and their number had been reassigned.

I even messaged the Mayor on Facebook (sorry Phill)

All in all I sent over 27 emails, made over 100 phone calls and got 2 replies. Both messages were the same – although I am a Hackney resident, I wasn’t a resident of a council estate, and therefore had no right to use the land. I had to find someone from the estate to run the garden or it would be destroyed.

I documented every one of my failed attempts to get help. It’s a long list.

One reply was from a housing officer who is part of the Debdale estate. I finally managed to get in contact over the phone and we agreed to halt this process so I could collect signatures to make the garden official, but to be honest there was a lack of any clear process and the authority of them to take forward a trespassing claim. I have to make it explicitly clear here that she had my name, contact email and phone number and followed me up a couple of months later to which I replied to her let’s catch up and update you on the interest I’d built from the estate. At no point did I cease to engage with her but she stopped replying to me despite me following up twice to engage in conversation.

I tried to work with the process. But 4 months later, after a long winter when only the most trepidatious gardeners are thinking about gardening, I was struggling to find anyone in the estate to put their name to the project.

Many were keen to be involved, but it’s one thing to be involved in a community garden, and another to run one. Particularly with the possibility that if anything went wrong with a project like this, their tenancy could be in jeopardy.

I couldn’t blame them, so I contacted the housing manager on the estate to let them know that I’d try again in spring. Since no reply came, I assumed everything was ok.

Then, yesturday without a single phone call or email from the the housing officer I’d been speaking to for months, or anyone else at Hackney, I looked out of my window to see the garden being destroyed. With the housing officer I’d worked with in attendance.

It’s important to reiterate here Hackney had my name, email and phone number and I had engaged with them throughout the process. To have no contact from them and to wake up to this is astonishing. What makes it more heart wrenching is that the housing officer I’d been working with was standing watching over the process.

A notice had apparently been posted ‘in plain view’ asking me to stop my “unauthorised gardening”. In fact, the notice was obscured by rose bushes, was a long way from the garden, and had been posted just 4 days earlier.

Why, when like any other resident I contribute towards hackney council managing publicly owned land on my behalf, would would it be the case that I had no right to use that land for the benefit of the community?

The answer is a broken business model where the residents of council estates pay for the upkeep of the land immediately around their buildings. Land which is almost all grass, and which local authorities have no resources to change.

In fact this land isn’t even seen as public land and, as the the Mayor pointed out on Twitter – “it features in individual leases and subject to different laws and regulations”

This means that estate residents pay for land that is often poorly managed, and other local residents have no rights to use it.

But who owned this particular piece of land is a minor point.

Even if there were equal rights to use that land, it would be almost impossible for either group to navigate the required bureaucracy to do so – the department that dealt with urban greening at hackney has since been shut down it seems, the form you need to use to get your space officially recognised is an inaccessible PDF, and the email address to send it to bounces. And that’s nothing compared to the social capital required to get more than 5 of your neighbours to sign a form before you’ve even started growing, on top of the worry that if anything did go wrong with the space, their tenancy might be in jeopardy as a result.

In short, the odds are stacked against even the most enthusiastic, privileged person setting something up an urban garden.

Right now I fit into that category, but for me, living rented accommodation that I don’t know if I’ll be able to afford from one year to the next, a process like this would mean missing the growing season, even if I was eligible to take part.

I don’t blame the person who complained.

They were a resident of the estate that pays for the land, and they saw someone using something ‘they hadn’t paid for’. No matter how much that land was improved in the process you can understand how someone in the right frame of mind might take offence.

But I do blame Hackney Council and every other local authority that works in this way.

Not just for providing a broken service full of dead ends, I’ve seen enough of these, but for supporting a broken business model that has lead to what amounts to social segregation of communities, and precious land not being used productively.

The notice to remove my “unauthorised growing space” so that it could be “returned to grass” was left the day before hackney council – along with 27 other London boroughs – declared a climate emergency.

Aside from Hackney Council’s contradictory policies, the bigger problem lies in how land is managed by local authorities and who gets to use it.

The biggest problem is a lack of open data.

It is almost impossible to tell who owns a piece of land as small as my garden was in the UK, especially if it is unoccupied by a building. All my searches revealed were the ownership of the buildings in the area, not the spaces between them. And I’m a civil servant, if I can’t find this out, there’s very little chance that anyone else would be able to.

Our second biggest problem is a lack of open rules and regulations

Even if you did find out who owned this land, your route to understand who had the right to use it, and for what would almost certainly involve a lawyer.

This is now a country that is literally starving, yet there are growing spaces in our towns and cities that are not being used because no one knows what the rules are for using them. Worse still the people who really need to use them, can’t afford to take the risk of using them without knowing the rules, as I did, for fear of falling foul of a system that’s already stacked against them.

What I went through wasn’t just a traumatic mistreatment of a citizen as a result of a bureaucratic gaff, but one example of an endemic negligence of the root causes of social segregation and food shortages.

If local authorities and other public bodies are reading this and wondering what they can do to improve this;

  1. Stop talking about digital transformation and fix real problems;
  2. Open up the data you have on land ownership in your area
  3. Make it clear where land can be used, and what it can be used for
  4. Provide a fast, clear way for people to get permission to use that land
  5. Treat your residents like human beings. Appreciate when they want to do something good and don’t threaten them with legal action or destruction of their property if they try.

As I said at the start of this post Hackney have now apologised for destroying the garden without any warning, and offered to find a new site for it. For which I and the other users of the garden will be grateful if it happens.

That’s some solace, but it doesn’t make up for the fact they destroyed a legitimate communities hard work and plants without notice or an inch of consideration for allowing those things to be harvested before they were destroyed. To add insult to injury though, some of the workmen did this themselves and took some of the veg home with them.

No new garden will change the damage this has done to me, the community or the root of the problem at hand – a culture that is built to avoid risks over and above supporting its citizens to live better lives.

I’m writing a book about good services

I’ve decided to write a book about good services.

I’m not doing this because I have a burning ambition to write a book – but because I feel like this is a book that needs to exist.

I wrote more about why here, but in a nutshell – after 15+ years of service design as an industry, the fact that we still don’t have a definition of what a good service is is holding us back.

To try and plug this gap we have become collectively obsessed with methodology – it’s now how we sell our wares when our clients ask for any kind of certainty of the outcome of our work. But without a way of explaining to others what it is that we’ll achieve there’s no way we can say anything more reassuring than just ‘trust the process’.

Because of this, we often spend more time convincing the people around us to let us do our jobs than we do designing services.

I’m not against guides on methodology, there are some great ones out there that form a valuable way to get newcomers up to speed, but there is a gaping hole on our collective bookshelves where the answer to the fundamental question of  ‘what do we mean by a good service’ should be, and that’s the problem I want to fix.

Some of this is basic – like how we collectively talk about what services are. I wrote a bit about this here back in 2016

Other things are more complicated, like how exactly we understand and set expectations for users. Or how you make your service findable.

The book will be based on the 15 principles which have been open and on the internet for a couple of months and were shared by Fastco back in July.

So far there have been over 2000 contributors to these, so thankyou to everyone who’s given their thoughts, please keep them coming.

I don’t want this book to stop these principles from being a community resource that is owned by the community and changes and grows over time, so the principles will stay under a creative commons licence under ‘Attribution + Share Alike‘. Please adapt them, use them or add to them however you like.

If you’d like to help with the book, let me know. I’ll be looking for contributions and case studies for each principle so if you feel passionately about any of them, or you think the thing you’ve been working on is a great example of one or more principles, let me know (my DM’s are open on Twitter).

I’m excited. It might take a long time to do but it feels like something that needs to happen.

15 principles of good service design

Good Services the book is out in November 2019. Find out more here

What is a good service and why are we so afraid to talk about it? I’ve been asking myself this question a lot recently.

In a bid to find out, I tweeted this a few weeks ago and – bar a couple of people also wondering the same thing – got pretty much tumbleweeds in return.

Screen Shot 2018-06-14 at 10.15.24.png

I’m not surprised. I’ve asked this question many times and had the same response, silence.

Not only do we seem to have no discernible professional standards for service design, but more than that, we don’t seem to think this is a problem.

Before we go on, I don’t mean professional accreditation, or some kind of kitemark for what makes a good service or service designer – I mean the kind of standards that give you an answer when someone asks you ‘how do you know if you’re doing a good job?’.

With almost 80% of the UK GDP generated from services, and an industry that’s (depending on who you ask) between 15-20 years old I find it shocking that we can’t answer this question when so many other disciplines of design can.

Ask a graphic designer to tell you what makes ‘good’ graphic design and you will get a different answer each time, but at least they’ll give you an answer. That answer will crucially be based on well known industry-held ideas of best practice that are taught in design schools across the world – things like the grid system, basic principles of typography or use of iconography.

Ask most service designers this question though, and they’re likely to say something like ‘it depends on the service’ or ‘it’s hard to generalise’.

In the 15+ years of our existence we haven’t yet developed a language to talk about what we’re trying to achieve when we design a service.

Instead we’ve defined *how* to design a good service, leading to endless books and courses filled with diagrams and methodologies and no answer to the most basic question – ‘what is a good service?’

This question is so fundamental to our industry that we don’t even notice it’s missing, but without it we’re spending vast quantities of our time fighting for legitimacy.

This isn’t just a problem for service designers

This lack of ‘professional standards’ has forced us into an industry-wide existential crisis where we’re never quite sure of our own expertise in relation to everyone else around us.

We criticise the stakeholders we work with for not being able to identify the problem with a given service, whilst in the same breath claiming that service design is a skill that can only be achieved by professional service designers.

Without professional standards we will continue to expect those around us to be able to do more than they can, and not expect enough of ourselves.

We need to understand that most people can spot a bad service, but won’t be able to tell you why it’s bad or how to fix it. This is the same with graphic design – where most people will be able to identify a bad road sign, but won’t be able to tell you that the kerning is too tight. It isn’t fair to expect them to do this, just as it isn’t fair for us to charge for our services as designers if we can’t.

I have lots of theories on how we got into this situation – one of which being that as an industry historically dominated by agencies, it’s never been in our best interest to claim any universal standards when we can charge each client to do this for their ‘unique’ service. Or that fundamentally, we have a collective crisis of confidence where we are afraid that if we tell other people what makes a good service – they won’t need us anymore.

Either way, we need to move beyond this. We need professional service designers to design good services. But we need professional service designers who understand the standards they’re trying to meet.

Not so that we can replace designers with standards, but so that we have an idea of what we need to design.

So, in the absence of anything else, here are 15 principles on what makes a good service. They’re based on years of working on bad services, and trying to build good ones.

You might not agree with them all but I hope that it’s a start to many more competing views.

If you’d like to contribute your thoughts, here’s an open Google doc to start the conversation.

15 principles of good service design

A good service must:

1. Enable a user to complete the outcome they set out to do
A good service enables a user to do the thing that they set out to do from start to finish – be that start a business or learn to drive – in as much of a seamless stream of events as possible. This includes the moment that a user is considering a task to the moment they have completed it – and any necessary steps or support, change or amendment thereafter.

2. Be easy to find
The service must be able to be found by a user with no prior knowledge of the task they set out to do. For example someone who wants to ‘learn to drive’ must be able to find their way to ‘get a driving licence’ as part of that service unaided.

3. Clearly explain its purpose
The purpose of the service must be clear to users at the start of using the service. That means a user with no prior knowledge must understand what the service will do for them and how it will work.

4. Set the expectations a user has of it
The service must clearly explain what is needed from the user in order to complete the service and what they can expect from the service provider in return. This includes things like how long something will take to complete, how much it will cost, or if there are restrictions on the types of people who can use the service

5. Be agnostic of organisational structures
The service must work in a way that does not unnecessarily expose a user to the internal structures of the organisation providing the service if those structures run contrary to the task a user is trying to achieve.

6. Require the minimum possible steps to complete
A good service requires as minimal interaction from a user as possible to complete the outcome that they’re trying to achieve. Sometimes this will mean proactively meeting a user’s needs without them instigating an interaction with your organisation. This may occasionally mean slowing the progress of a service in order to help a user absorb information or make an important decision.

7. Be consistent throughout
The service should look and feel like one service throughout – regardless of the channel it is delivered through. The language used should be consistent as should visual styles and interaction patterns.

8. Have no dead ends
Regardless of whether or not a user is eligible for suitable for a service, the service should direct all users to a clear outcome. No user should be left behind, or stranded within a service without knowing how to continue, or being provided an easy route to do so.

9. Be usable by everyone, equally
The service must be usable by everyone who needs to use it, regardless of their circumstance or abilities. No user should be adversely unable to use the service more than any other.

10. Respond to change quickly
The service should respond quickly and adaptively to a change in a user’s circumstance and make this change consistently throughout the service. For example, if a user changes their phone number online, their phone number should be recognised in a face to face service.

11. Work in a way that is familiar
People base their understanding of the world on previous experiences. If there’s an established custom for your service that benefits a user, your service should confirm to that custom. For example, users who have signed up to a new service often expect an email confirmation acknowledging their sign up. Avoid customs that negatively affect your user (such as pre-selecting a ‘send me marketing emails’ tick-box) or following customs that are inefficient or outdated.

12. Encourage the right behaviours from users and staff
The service should encourage safe, productive behaviors from users and staff that are mutually beneficial. For users, the service should not set a precedent for behaviors that may put the user at harm in other circumstances – for example, providing data without knowing the use of that data. For Staff, this means they should not be incentivised to provide a bad service to users, for example through short call handling time targets.

13. Clearly explain why a decision has been made
When a decision is made within a service, it should be obvious to a user why this decision has been made and clearly communicated to the user at the point the decision has been made. A user should also be given a route to contest this decision if they need to.

14. Make it easy to get human assistance
A service should always provide an easy route for users to speak to a human about an issue if they need to.

15. Require no prior knowledge to use
A service should not use language that assumed any prior knowledge of the service from the user.

Why it’s never a good time for service design

Picture the scene: you’ve just joined a new team, they’re doing good work but they’re plugging away at the wrong problem.

You bide your time, thinking of ways to bring them round. Maybe weeks go by as you work on each stakeholder one by one, until one day someone calls it – “look” they say to you, “I hear what you’re saying but it’s just not the right time to do [the very sensible thing you’re suggesting].We just need to do [the wrong thing to fix the wrong problem] and then we can do what you’re talking about

Sound familiar?

This has happened to me 100s of times. I have spent years either chasing trains that have ‘left the station’ or ones with no intention of moving.

The reasons I’ve been given have all sounded perfectly reasonable – we can design the service, but only once we’ve moved off this piece of legacy software / delivered this MVP / have more buy in / don’t have this crazy deadline.

In short, it is never the right time for service design.

But the problem isn’t the urgency of these situations – when people are in difficult situations it’s understandable that the last thing they want to do is take a step back and consider the bigger picture.

The real problem is the inertia that precedes this urgency.

Like someone who’s always late to things because they thought they had ages to get ready, we look after Business as Usual, whistling ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ until something falls over, someone dies or it hits the press.

Suddenly someone senior gets involved and boom, as if from nowhere you’re surrounded by ‘burning platforms’ and have no time to solve the problem because you have to ‘deliver’….something. Anything.

My dad used to have a sign on his desk at work that said ‘poor planning on your part doesn’t constitute an emergency on mine’.

I’ve always wished I could say something like this but that won’t cut it with service design, because whatever that thing is that needs to be delivered, it’s going to get delivered whether it’s good or not.

In that situation you can either walk away, or stay and make that thing marginally better in a hope that you might catch the next train before it leaves the station.

Sadly though, that day rarely comes because that next train will be just as fast as the last one.

This has a profound effect not just on the service an organisation is trying to deliver, but on its culture and ability to design in the future.

Designers are like doctors. We can’t just give people what they want, we have to give them what they need. That’s our job.

But the reality is that our ability to help is increasingly limited when things get urgent. Just as it does for a doctor in an emergency room.

All we can do in these situations is stabilise the work and hope for recovery, for ourselves and the project. Cue burnout for designers and subsequent organisational churn that’s off the chart.

The way to tackle this isn’t by fighting back against this urgency – you will never win. Instead we need to tackle the inertia that comes before it, and that is caused by one very simple factor – fear.

We’re more afraid to try and to fail than we are of doing nothing. The trouble is that this ‘doing nothing’ eventually results in failure anyway.

Our services get more expensive because they’re unusable, which means we have less money to spend on improvements. Carry on like this and we’ve got a ticking time-bomb for failure.

In order to break this toxic cycle of inertia-failure-panic, we need to make doing nothing as risky as change. That means acknowledging that the slow failure of providing increasingly unusable services is as bad as the fast failure that follows.

As an industry, we need to start talking about slow failure, and that means holding ourselves accountable to the data that proves it exists.

Only once we have this can we decide when the train leaves and where it’s going.

And most of all, kill business as usual.

How to talk about gender at events


I love what I do, and I love talking about it.

I’m lucky enough to be able to speak about it publically on a reasonably regular basis, but there’s one thing that makes me feel deeply uncomfortable at conferences – and that’s how they talk about gender.

Most studies of tech conferences seem to estimate the average rate of women speaking at tech conferences is around 25%. That’s pretty terrible, however, no one has ever bothered (as far as I can tell) to do a similar study into the numbers of trans and nonbinary people either attending or speaking at conferences.

You might think that’s because there are less of us, but let’s be clear – with around 12% of the US population under 35 defining themselves as trans or nonbinary – this is widespread, institutional ignorance we’re dealing with.

Unfortunately, for all their ‘best efforts’ many event organisers actively encourage cis-gender diversity in a way that excludes trans and non binary speakers and attendees.

This is mostly due to ignorance rather than malice, but almost always has to do with the language that is used to talk about gender diversity.

So, in the absence of anything I can point organisers to on the internet, here are 5 principles to make sure you’re including gender diversity in the thing you’re organising, whatever it might be.

Here are five things to think about


  • Sex and gender are different, don’t confuse the two


A person’s biological sex (what chromosomes and genitals they’re born with) and their gender (the way they feel) are not the same for a lot of people. These people may be born ‘female’ but identify as a man or vice versa.

Biological sex is indicated by the words ‘male’, ‘female’ and ‘intersex’, whereas gender is indicated by the words ‘man’ or ‘woman’

Using words that refer to someone’s sex like ‘female’ as synonyms for words that refer to someone’s gender like ‘woman’ makes the presumption that the two are the same, and that in order to be considered a woman you must be biologically female. This excludes transgendered people (people whose gender and sex are different)

Don’t say
This event is to celebrate the female pioneers of technology and to chart how they have acted as role models for other women (and men, and other genders).

Do say
This event is to celebrate the women pioneers of technology and to chart how they have acted as role models for other women (and people of all genders).


  • There are more than two genders


The genders of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ exist on a spectrum.

Some cis-gendered people (people who are born female and feel like women) feel completely like a man or a woman in a very binary way, and so do some trans people.

But, there are a lot of people whose gender fits somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. These people are genderqueer or nonbinary and can sometimes refer to themselves as trans-masculine or trans-feminine.

There are also a lot of people whose gender changes depending on how they feel that day, week or month. These people are genderfluid.

Accommodating these people means not using binary definitions ‘men’ and ‘women’ but talking about all (read plural) genders.

It’s important that everything at your conference reinforces this openness, so think about changing the bathroom signage of your venue for the event to create gender neutral bathrooms. Avoiding the use of honorifics (eg. Mr, Mrs, Ms) on badges, and making sure all of your assistants, sound engineers and comperes are respectful of your speaker and attendees genders and use of pronouns will help hugely too.

Don’t say
Welcome ladies and gentlemen!
We want representation from both genders!
We need a 50/50 split of men and women at this event!
We should have at least one woman on the panel!

Do say
Welcome everyone!
We need fair representation from all genders at this awesome event!


  • Do not assume people’s gender


How someone expresses their gender can often look different to their actual gender (or sex).

For example, someone can look traditionally ‘feminine’ but define themselves as genderfluid or non binary.

Gender roles (eg. women wearing skirts and men wearing ties) are a social construct, and some people who are trans or non binary deliberately don’t conform to what is traditionally defined for their gender.

Others might try to assume a traditional gender role but look biologically more masculine or feminine than they feel.

Rather than assume someone’s gender, it’s always best to ask what pronouns someone uses. This is likely to be she/her/hers, he/him/his or they/them/theirs but the person you’re talking to might have something else they use.

Some less confident trans or nonbinary people might be reluctant to do this publicly for fear of being stigmatised so make sure you do this in a way that they feel safe to answer honestly – don’t ask people to pick up a pronoun badge at registration for example.

Likewise for those who are genderfluid, this might change closer to your event so if you’re unsure, the best thing to do is to be as gender neutral as possible.

Don’t say
Thanks for agreeing to speak Lou, it’s awesome to have another woman at this event!

Do say
Thanks for agreeing to speak Lou, it’s awesome to have you at this event! By the way – how would you like to be referred to at the event? she/he/they or something else? You can let us know nearer the time if you like


  • If you’re running a ‘women’s’ event, think long and hard about why you’re excluding other underrepresented genders


Trans and nonbinary genders are often far more underrepresented than cis-women in pretty much any industry you care to think of.

Partly that’s because there are less of us (but not by that much, as I said earlier).

But a lot of this has to do with a significant lack of education or transphobia, sadly. Where a lot of cisgendered men are now more aware of their gender privilege, many cisgendered women aren’t, meaning that events organised by cisgendered women targeted at ‘women’ (often only cisgendered women at that!) exclude trans men and nonbinary people.

Issues to do with equal pay, representation, systematic prejudice and cis-male normative culture apply equally to the trans and nonbinary community as they do to cis-women, so if the reason you’re running your women focussed event is to address these sorts of issues (and not just to celebrate the awesome ladyness of ladies) think seriously about opening your event to celebrate all underrepresented genders.

Don’t let your lack of privilege make you ignore someone else’s further lack of privilege.

Don’t say
This event is to celebrate the women pioneers of technology and to chart how they have acted as role models for other women (and people of all genders).

Do say
This event is to celebrate the gender diversity of technology pioneers and to chart how they have acted as role models for everyone.


  • Do not ask people who are trans or nonbinary to educate you on how you should deal with gender.


This is a tough one. I feel strongly that I need to help people understand some of the issues that trans and nonbinary people face, but it’s personally exhausting and requires confidence, time and ultimately privilege to do so.

Almost every trans or nonbinary person will be glad you asked how they like to be treated, but although they might be comfortable enacting their own gender, it’s another thing entirely to have the confidence to teach people how to behave towards others.

Your education is your own responsibility, so please respect your present and future trans and nonbinary peers by educating yourself on the issues they might face.

If you got to the bottom of this post, well done, that’s a start.