Kat Zhou on speaking to motivate impactful change

As part of our #WTDSpeakerStories, we spoke with Kat Zhou about her journey as a public speaker and how her beginnings way back in middle school and high school prepared her for her career now. She highlighted her experiences speaking in and out of the public sphere, how she finds motivation in the change she wants to affect in her industry, and the importance of asking for what you deserve. 

In our Women Talk Design Speaker Stories series, we’re interviewing Women Talk Design speakers about their journeys and experiences. We talk to speakers who are just getting started, speakers who have had their fair share of speaking mishaps, speakers writing books, and speakers curating events. At the end, we offer an opportunity for folks from the WTD community to ask their own questions and connect with each other. Visit our events page for more information about the series and RSVP for our next event.

Kat (she/her) is the creator of the Design Ethically project. Which started out as a framework for applying ethics to the design process and has now grown into a toolkit of speculative activities that help teams forecast the consequences of their products. She has worked in the tech industry for years and serves on the board of the YX Foundation, a hybrid coalition-design lab focused on the intersections of AI/ML and critical race theory.

Through her work with Design Ethically, she has spoken at events hosted by the European Parliament (2022) and the US Federal Trade Commission (2021), as well as an assortment of tech conferences. She has also guest lectured at various institutions, such as Harvard University (Spring 2021) and Duke University (2019). Kat has been quoted in the BBC, WIRED, Fast Company, Protocol, and Tech Policy Press.

Outside of work, Kat is pursuing a Masters degree in AI Ethics and Society at the University of Cambridge, with the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence. She lives in Stockholm with her adopted husky, where you can find them running around.

On why she speaks and what topics she’s speaking about…

Kat started off by discussing how she gets her motivation from the issues she sees in the design and UX industry and her need to help fix them.

“I’m angry and there’s a lot of important things to speak about and a lot of problems that we have to bring to light. Over the last few years, I’ve been on the speaking circuit in the UX industry. A lot of it’s been raising awareness of systemic, fundamental issues that we have either in tech or broadly that we want to focus on and direct our energy towards. I largely talk about design ethics and tech ethics. And it matters a lot to me, because it impacts all of us, from our day to day jobs to our loved ones that are using the products that we make.”

“When I started out talking about design ethics, it was largely looking at what we as designers can do to intervene, and how we design our products and tech and to focus more on making ethical products rather than harmful ones. Nowadays, I’m talking a lot about deceptive design patterns, which is raising awareness within the policy sphere as well. Legislators in the US, as well as Parliament members, are starting to pay more attention to the kinds of manipulative and deceptive designs that a lot of companies employ and a lot of designers have either played a part in, whether they intend to or not.”

“I also care about representation in the tech industry and what it means to be inclusive. How can we increase representation and do it in a way that’s not just face value but actually meaningful and actually impactful? I’ve had that experience with companies where you say all the right words, you see all the right things, and it sounds wonderful but it’s not really, truly making that difference.”

On her first speaking experience…

When talking about when she began, Kat told us she got started young, and those early experiences helped her come out of her shell, paving the way for a speaking career.

“Informally, my very first [experience] was in fifth grade in the musical of the year. It was Wicked – I was the wicked witch of the west and I got it because of my laugh. I was able to pull off the cackle so they cast me. It was one of my favorite experiences.”

“Then I ended up doing speech and debate in high school  so I did a lot more speaking. I was one of those nerdy kids in that group and it taught me so much about having to put yourself out there in these really long, intense debate tournaments and whatnot. It taught me how to be okay with making a fool of myself. I mostly did it for my friends, because my friends are involved, and then I ended up learning how to get out of my shell in that way.” 

“My first design speaking engagement was when I was in uni and my college had a design conference that they were hosting. I gave a really quick Sketch class – back when people used Sketch. I did a little tutorial, and I remember I was nervous because I had to not only speak, but also do some prototypes and mockups. I was more nervous about that part.”

On how she finds speaking engagements and decides where to speak…

Kat explained how her process for finding engagements has evolved from reaching out to fielding requests and her decision-making has also changed to consider compensation more heavily.

“In the beginning, it was me applying to stuff. For example, when I spoke at South by Southwest, I went through their formal application process to do a workshop. At the time, they asked you to send them your pitch and also send in a video of you talking for a minute. And then there were a couple of other conferences that I reached out to back then.”

“For the past 2 years, it’s been people reaching out to me either through Twitter, or LinkedIn, or my website. They’ll send me, ‘Here’s a conference that we’re having – we’d love to have you.’ Then we typically have a chat about what the conference is like – who else is speaking there?”

“Compensation is also really important. I was a little bit late learning about how to ask for what I deserved. Nowadays, there’s so many great resources on how to ask for compensation. In terms of now, what I think is important is that if I’m doing a conference that’s for profit, if they’re making money off of the tickets, then I definitely have my compensation expectations.”

“When it comes to certain speaking events that are either for policy or for a government agency or nonprofit – something that’s a volunteer kind of situation – then I’m more open to doing pro bono events. If the community is something that matters to me, that’s something that I will make exceptions for.”

On her experience speaking in government…

Kat also talked about her experience outside of the design and tech circuit, speaking with US and European government agencies. She highlighted some ways those engagements differ from general public speaking and the meaningful impact they have.

“It’s fascinating because it’s such a different sphere from what I’m used to. I didn’t do much in policy or public spaces – I’ve mostly been in tech this whole time. When you’re in events like a Parliament hearing or the US Federal Trade Commission, you’re surrounded by other policymakers, lawyers, etc., and they’re speaking from a completely different angle. In those two particular events, I was representing industry and design. It was, in some ways, intimidating to be in a group of lawmakers and policy folks talking about a lot of legalies and stuff that kind of went over my head. But it was really cool, too, because I was bringing in a new perspective.”

“Especially as we’re talking about design ethics and tech ethics, we need to bring together all of these different folks that are in tech and design and academia as well as policy. And so I think that was really fascinating to be at that intersection. They’re very strictly time boxed. You’ve got this many minutes to talk about this many things. So it was a lot more organized in some ways than typical tech conferences.”

“When I’m speaking in a place like that, I’m thinking of the overall goal of it. For the European Parliament hearing, it was to learn more about deceptive designs so that they could later on regulate it in their digital services act. That was super exciting because it was this huge government entity that was looking at manipulative designs and thinking about how to regulate them better and make sure that they’re not going to be harming future users. It was such an honor to play a part in shaping that kind of legislation and trying to inform them how the tech world operates and what drives us and what drives companies to act in the ways they do.”

On her process for developing talks…

In discussing her process for developing talks, Kat said she starts from the perspective of the audience, using what she expects they’ll want to learn as a guide for fleshing out her topic and flow.

“I typically start off with who’s my audience? Who’s listening? What kind of story do I want to tell them? I start from their perspective – what they might hope to learn in my talk. Then that’s how I build up – I start listing out the kind of questions that I want to address and the topics and I put them in a logical order. Depending on how long or short the talks are, I’ll make sure to either keep it really concise or ysprinkle in a couple of anecdotes here and there.”

“The part that I really enjoy is designing the slides themselves. I think there’s so much creativity that you can infuse into that and bring your slides to life.”

After developing her talk, Kat said she practices in the mirror or by recording herself – a habit she picked up from high school debate.

“When it comes to practicing my talks, I do the whole talk in a mirror. I’ll just talk and do my thing like 4 or 5 or 6 times over. When I was in speech and debate in high school , we’d film ourselves, which sounds kind of weird but you’d stand and give your talk while filming yourself so you can see what you look like, what you sound like. It’s always so cringy, but it’s really helpful to know how you carry yourself and how you gesture. When we were speakers, we have to think about all of that – Where are you going to stand on stage? Where are you going to walk for each point?”

On how she handles speaking mishaps…

Kat said she’s had her fair share of things go wrong on stage but her main takeaway is that you have to give yourself the space to grow and move on from those experiences.

“When something goes wrong or there’s a mistake, it’s important afterwards to just be forgiving of yourself. Don’t be hard on yourself. Forgive yourself, give yourself that grace and that space to grow and learn from that. Or to just completely forget about it and erase it from your mind if that’s what helps you as well.”

“I think partly because I’ve done so much stuff like speech and debate in high school, every embarrassing situation has already happened to me before. When it comes to speaking, nothing can phase me now. I’ve already been there.”

“There’s been everything from tech errors, where my mic would go off, to just my own brain, where I forget something or slip. For me, what’s easiest to do is just to laugh it off. We’re all human at the end of the day.”

For more on how speaking has impacted her career, her advice for new speakers, and what she thinks about presenting for work versus external audiences, check out the full video below.

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