Discussing Veterans Affairs (VA) and Accessibility with Martha Wilkes, Designer/Accessibility Strategist at US Digital Service (USDS)
Tell us a little about yourself, including your career trajectory and your role at the US Digital Service (USDS).
I didn’t set out to be a designer. I thought I might like to be a music engineer so that was my major in college. I learned Photoshop during grad school for technical theater, and that was the only job requirement to become a designer in the early days of the web. I spent most of my career at a statistical analysis software company, where I was fortunate to work with colleagues who emphasized accessibility. It’s a total cliché but being laid off turned out to be the best thing in my career because I took a chance and applied to USDS. I have been at VA for 3 years on the modernized VA.gov team. I started as a designer and took on the role of accessibility strategist because I felt like I could help elevate the excellent work that was already happening.
How has the team prioritized accessibility in the platform modernization of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ VA.gov? What challenges did you face in the process?
I can honestly say we talk about accessibility all the time, on every project team. We have a standard development process where we check in and make sure that designs are accessible, even in the earliest research and wireframe stages. Our design system team makes sure accessibility is baked into the components. We run automated checks every day just in case anyone inadvertently introduces an accessibility bug. I think the biggest challenge has been to have enough people to do the work to the high level we all want to achieve. We ask our contracting teams to bring along accessibility specialists because we have such an intense process that requires consideration from the earliest design stages. We find it works best if they are embedded on the development team as an equal teammate. These accessibility strategists are true unicorns and it’s not easy to find folks with their skills to do all the things we ask of them. They are my heroes. I know that they could work at any other tech company, but they choose to join our shared mission to deliver an excellent experience for all Veterans on VA.gov.
What are some often overlooked aspects of making digital projects more accessible?
One of our key design tenets on the VA.gov team is “accessibility first, mobile first.” We believe that by figuring out the mobile design first, embracing its space limitations, choosing the most accessible design, then all of our users will be satisfied. And by the way, this isn’t easy! The end result looks streamlined and the interaction feels natural, but it takes a lot of iteration and collaboration between accessibility specialists, designers, and developers to get there. Another key aspect is working with a content specialist from the earliest stages. I had never heard of plain language until I joined USDS. We have excellent content specialists on the team and so much of the cognitive accessibility of the VA.gov comes from the clarity and the calm style of our language.
Can you speak to your interest in restorative/trauma-informed design? Why is that particularly important for VA.gov?
I first heard the phrase “trauma informed design” in a presentation by Rachael Dietkus a couple of years ago. She is a social worker who is also a designer and she explained how we can be intentional in our research practices and our design choices to be more trauma responsive. This resonated immediately because the tools on VA.gov deal with some of the most intensely personal topics around health, disability, finances, and all of the things that are essential in a Veteran’s life. How might we thoughtfully design a benefit application form that asks a Veteran with PTSD to describe the events that traumatized them? How might we take extra care during a research session with a Veteran to talk about the harassment they experienced without triggering their anxiety? How can we as designers support each other when we hear about a traumatic event during a research session? We have been asked to make sure government services are available to all people, especially those who are disabled or underserved, and that requires even more awareness and compassion from everyone on the team.
How has Drupal made accessibility easier for VA.gov? Are there features you would like to see that would make accessibility easier for your team?
Thank you to all the folks involved in making Drupal accessible. It’s all too rare for organizations to take accessibility as seriously as the Drupal team does. Lately we have been thinking about how to make it easier to create good alt-tags within the editor. We don’t have a ton of imagery on VA.gov pages, but we’d like to help our editors think about good alt-tags at the moment of page creation. If they’ve entered a file name as the alt-tag, can we prevent that from being saved and give an inline message to help them create a better one?
Microsoft has taken on real leadership with accessibility. What can the government learn from their approach?
Our CIO Kurt DelBene used to work at Microsoft, and he graciously introduced me to Jenny Lay-Flurrie, their Chief Accessibility Officer. She gave me some great advice: treat accessibility as you would any other key business initiative. We increased our number of contracting accessibility specialists from 2 to 13 over the past couple of years, and we are now experimenting with having an official “accessibility ops” product manager to help us all communicate and keep track of all the work. One of the things we’re realizing is that it’s not easy to measure accessibility culture, and that is what we’re really trying to get to. How might we make sure that the VA.gov team has a culture where “accessibility beyond compliance” is easy to achieve? It’s more than just automated scanning. It’s early research with disabled folks, designers working alongside accessibility specialists during ideation, not discovering critical issues late in the development process, not burning out accessibility specialists from too much work, etc. When we figure it out, we’ll be sure and talk about it publicly so other folks can learn from us.
How do you want to see the phrase “Nothing About Us, Without Us” apply to disabled veterans?
Our first step is to recruit disabled Veterans from all demographics to participate in our user research. We have a spreadsheet with target percentages that every researcher uses to show who was included in a study. If they see that a particular group was underrepresented, then they’ll know who to focus on in the next study. This year, 12% of our user research sessions were with folks who use assistive tech, and we are striving for more. There’s nothing better than having a Veteran who is blind say thank you for considering their needs in the design of a new product. Veterans are a special group of people, they are mission-driven and want to make things better for their fellow Veterans. We would love to have disabled Veterans as colleagues within our team, and we’re thinking about how we might achieve that. If we succeed, we’ll definitely share how we did it!
Section 508 offices have been leaders in accessibility in government. How would you update their mandate to see that accessibility is addressed earlier in the project management lifecycle?
One of the joys of taking on this role has been creating a true partnership with the folks in the VA 508 Office. They often say that the fact that we have “launch blockers” is the key to our success. If we discover a critical accessibility defect, we do not ship that product until it’s fixed. So empowering a 508 Office in this way seems to be the critical forcing function for changing the accessibility culture in a large organization. If the defects they find during their audits are just put in the backlog to perhaps be fixed someday in the future, then the accessibility culture doesn’t ever materially improve.
If you could offer some advice for designers on prioritizing accessibility, what would they be?
One of our design Slack channels actually pinned something I uttered one day, so I’ll share it here. We were considering various design options and I said, “Let’s not have magic. Let’s just have boring.” You have to truly embrace the most basic, minimal, “boring” design philosophy if you want to create good, accessible civic design. It’s mostly going to be about the content. There may be a lot of white space. You’re going to want interactive elements within the page with icons for visual interest. The impulse to zhuzh is so strong in designers and those interactive elements are not accessible. I challenge you to find design satisfaction from creating something so elegant and accessible and usable that it simply feels natural. Mind you, this is not taught in design school or valued at the typical tech company. It takes a while to adjust, and it requires giving up a bit of one’s design ego. I’m speaking from experience so I know it’s hard!