Accessible Design for Everyone

Voice of Design: Episode 22

Erika Hall
Mule Design Studio


“Accessibility makes good designers great, and bad designers obvious.”

(Full transcript. Lightly edited for clarity)

Erika: Okay. Okay, are we all ready to go here?

Mike: Yep.

Elle: Except you’re kind of cutting out and stuttering. I’m hoping that this power cord will fix that.

Erika: Okay. You sound good. You’re coming through good on our end. All right, cool. Hello, and welcome to the voice of design 2020 I’m Erika hall.

Mike: I’m Mike Monteiro.

Erika: And we’re coming to you from our basement headquarters.

Mike: That sounded weak.

Erika: That sounded weak?

Mike: That sounded weak. It’s 2020. Twenty. Twenty. I don’t know what the hell that means.

Erika: Yeah, what is that? What are we, strong? 2020 strong!

Mike: You know, this year went to shit in like 48 hours.

Erika: Yeah. Everybody was so excited. 2019 is over! Then all of a sudden everything’s going on.

Mike: Hi, Everybody. It’s shit! We have a guest today. We should probably…

Erika: Everything’s gone to shit! I guess except for our lovely, lovely guest today.

Mike: Don’t say lovely guest. That’s really sexist.

Erika: Sorry. Everything’s wrong.

Elle: I can be lovely! I like being lovely!

Mike: I know, but remember when Nathan was on, did you introduce him as lovely?

Erika: Guests are lovely. Just in general.

Mike: You didn’t introduce Nathan as lovely. You probably mentioned him as a five-time author or something like that. Bad feminist!

Erika: Wow. The strong and powerful Elle Waters is with us. Thank you for joining us in the Mule Dome.

Mike: She’s quite lovely.

Erika: Oh my God. We thought we’d turn 2020 around by having a conversation about an important topic with one of our favorite people. And Elle, that’s you.

Elle: Oh great.

Mike: I was confused, honestly

Erika: So, Elle leads live training for Level Access, an accessibility consultancy. Accessibility is a really important topic and I’m sort of shocked it’s one of the many topics we’re still talking about in 2020.

Mike: How are we still having to convince people this is a big deal?

Elle: Because there’s this constant friction between the love of standardization and the need for creativity and the feeling that people have on any given day in their jobs “Is it good enough?” Accessibility demands the best of us. And if you drop that attention and that focus for a second, something will happen. And that’s where it becomes quite difficult. Until we get to the point where things are just accessible by default, it becomes a lot of pressure to put on individuals to be able to be that focused 100% of the time in their jobs. That’s where it’s tough.

Mike: I want to go back to what you said about creativity. What’s that got to do with it?

Elle: Because um, you don’t want to standardize something to where it no longer allows for innovation, in my opinion. And so there needs to be a certain amount of messiness and sandbox and the ability to experiment. And failure is a huge part of progress in my opinion. But failure has consequences if it becomes codified as acceptable.

And so if you, say, decide that you’re going to launch, I don’t know, hypothetically speaking, if you’re launching a multivariate campaign because you want to test different kinds of buttons and you just want to throw something out there and get some feedback. That experiment, if you don’t put accessibility into it, can end up becoming the winning candidate. Right. And then you, then you’re inheriting things that you didn’t have time to do before. So it kind of uncovers a lot of messiness in the process.

Mike: I get it. I get, I mean, I hear like in other fields like let’s take architecture for example. There’s certainly been a lot of innovation in architecture, but at the end of the day, that building still has to stand and people still need to be able to go in and out of it.

Elle: Right. And in the physical world, there’s a lot more work that’s been done towards making something universally accessible, but it’s because it’s viewed as non-negotiable.

I think we’re still in a digital space where there are a lot of misconceptions about who accessibility benefits. Until we change people’s understanding and really broaden their understanding about who they’re actually designing for, I think it’s always going to be something that’s considered like an add-on unless somebody really feels it passionately in their work.

Mike: Well let’s talk about some of those misconceptions. So, when I think, accessibility, the first thing that comes to mind is, well, okay, you’ve got users with with visual impairments. ‘Cause you know the web is a visual medium. So that’s the first group that comes to mind.

Erika: Well, no, I would take issue with the web being a visual medium. When the web first started off with the Lynx browser, it was pure structured text and hypertext.

Mike: Which you have to see to read.

Elle: You don’t have to see it to read.

Mike: Alright. See, we’re getting into it now. This is good.

Elle: So here’s the first misconception: Accessibility is for people who can’t, use the internet, for example, in a quote unquote regular way. That’s a misconception because it makes an assumption that the typical process of it being a visual medium is the only way that people ever since the birth of the internet have used and consume that content. And that’s just simply not true.

The web, in and of itself, is about content. It’s about presenting content and interacting with your users. And none of that requires a particular sense in order to be successful with that. I don’t need to see the image if there’s a text equivalent.

The other misconception is that [accessibility] is for a small group of people. And so people think of it is this marginalized “Oh, the poor disabled people…” And the reality is that back in 2011 the World Health Organization estimated that one in seven people had a disability.

And so that was before we had our aging population and before the mobile moment really effectively took hold where so many more people are online. And what we’re really saying is — at the most conservative estimation, 15% of the world’s population has a disability. And the truth is the CDC and some other [sources of] statistics like the US Census and others have really clocked that closer to about 20 to 25%.

And then if you broaden the spectrum of thinking about people who don’t self-identify or receive any kind of assistance or funding as a result of their disability, you’re talking about people who maybe are aging into difficult visual issues or they’re people who have hand tremors, or people who might have had a traumatic injury and maybe that’s not something that they’re living with forever, but it’s a period of time in their lives. It becomes a larger and larger group of people. So one misconception is that it’s for a small amount of people who use the web in an atypical way. And typical is really defined by the user.

Erika: Yeah. I think that’s a really good point, especially now that we have more expectations that interfaces will be multimodal. You know voice is a thing and text messaging has made just pure text interactions seem like more of an interesting and exciting thing to companies that10 years ago were about rich visual media. I think that the real truth is that all of us at various points want to access the same stuff using a different set of our senses, even if we can do that by choice.

Elle: Yeah, I think that there’s a lot of people who think about the web and they think about this situation. When you talk about mobile strategy, most people are not still having conversations thinking that everybody is using a mobile device while waiting for a bus right outside.

That use case scenario has aged a bit. And so we really recognize that people are using mobile devices as part of a multi-device approach to consuming and interacting with content. And so I think your point, Erika, about device-agnostic experiences is really the beginning of understanding how it should be sensory agnostic as well.

My favorite — and I say that as a big old nerd — my favorite accessibility tip when I teach people is to provide multiple ways to do a thing. It’s that simple. The principle behind that means I shouldn’t have to rely on a mouse. I shouldn’t have to rely on sight. I shouldn’t have to rely on timing of media. I should have as much time as I need to complete a task.

All those things really are pointing to “give me a lots of ways to be able to consume that content.”The birth of responsive web has been a huge help to the accessibility movement because of that.

Erika: You’ve probably experienced this because you’re directly working with organizations and helping them understand this…We were doing some work around accessibility for low vision users a long time ago. Weirdly we worked with a lot of eye health organizations. We worked with the Glaucoma Research Foundation. We worked with the American Academy of Ophthalmology. So, we probably know more about disorders and diseases of the eye than your average designers.

It seems like a lot of organizations aren’t prepared to deal with that multi-modal, multi-sensory, think about what you’re offering people across media and devices. People still have departments set up by mobile, versus desktop, versus voice, versus conversational chat interface or whatever.

Elle: It’s interesting you say that because almost always when we’re working with the organizations, accessibility ushers in best practices across the organization. So to your point, if they’re still thinking in this very siloed way about mobile strategy versus desktop strategy, we all know that that’s only going to have a limited life span for them before they’re left behind in their industry because it’s just not the direction that people are going. People are using multiple devices to complete the same task.

And so when we come in and start talking about accessibility, we’re pointing out the need for that device agnostic approach and the idea that you need to support however somebody is consuming your content and that there is no fold—to think about above the fold or below the fold. Who talks about that anymore? Right?

Mike: Oh, so many people still.

Elle: Maybe. But we all know, at least in the technology community and those of us who are in an agency model where we’re, we’re helping and consulting with clients, we recognize that they need to start thinking much more expansively.

And so anybody who’s looking at multinational presence and localization and translation or they’re thinking about an omnichannel kind of customer journey, all of that ends up being something that not only helps accessibility, but accessibility ends up helping that thinking as well in organizations.

Lately in the last couple of years, a lot of the focus that I’ve been placing has been a lot on agile transformation and it’s really about improving the health of the overall it portion and product and design portion of an organization. That’s really the benefit of an agile transformation is there’s a lot of stuff that may not even be directly tied to agile, but it’s about just buttoning up your process and everything. It’s the same kinds of conversations that we’re having with accessibility.

So I would say 20% of accessibility is about the technique and probably 30% or 40% is about the philosophy and approach and commitment to having a customer-centric kind of business. And then the rest of it is all about just buttoning up the logistics and the process. I can teach somebody techniques for approaching a low-vision user needs, which I love that you guys are working with that. There’s 6 to 10, or 6 to 8 times as many people with low vision as are people who are blind in using a screen reader. That’s an important statistic because blind people get a lot of, pardon the pun, but visibility in the accessibility space. It’s because they’re galvanized. They’re very organized as an advocacy group. The issues that they face are very pronounced. What may be problematic for one user could be a completely locked out experience for a blind user. And because they have cool technology and cool tools that people can can look at versus people who have different kinds of cognitive disabilities.

Someone who identifies as neurodivergent, they have so many varied kinds of individual needs that it’s difficult to create an umbrella organization from an advocacy perspective. And it’s difficult because they may or may not want to disclose that they have a disability.

So, we may be working alongside people with learning disabilities who would really benefit from approaching cognitive accessibility issues and making those improvements. But it’s difficult to get our hands wrapped around that and to get momentum at times.

Erika: Right. Because it’s really about making your work or your product or your service, like really welcoming and usable by the largest number of people. And this is something I don’t get the resistance to. Everybody puts so much effort into marketing to make sure that they’re seen or experienced by the largest number of people. And there’s this whole other way that you might be blocking out or rejecting or purely just being hostile to people who might be your users or your customers. And it seems like anybody with any sort of business or any sort of resource that they’ve put an investment into creating wouldn’t want to do that.

But it’s like accessibility seems like a scary word to a lot of organizations.

Elle: It’s scary because it has so many layers. I think it’s also firmly entrenched in the idea of inclusion and to be inclusive is uncomfortable. I mean it really is by definition to be inclusive is to get outside your own worldview and to consider other people. And so it asks of you a few things. It says, I don’t want you to think that you have all the answers without thinking about other people who might approach it differently. So from a design perspective, the problem solving that you have to do, you have to acknowledge that you are not your user. And I know people always say that, but no for real, you’re not your user in this case. And so it requires you to be a humble servant in design and as opposed to the diva sitting at the desk and putting everything together and pixel perfect. And so it shifts that mentality and that’s uncomfortable. The startup costs for accessibility—because it does touch on so many different parts of the business—can be pretty expensive in the beginning if you don’t have a design system, if you don’t have any kind of test automation, if everybody you know, is kind of doing their own thing. And it’s kind of a hot mess when it comes to your overall brand and the way that you produce digital content.

Accessibility will require that some of that gets standardized. And so that’s an upfront cost. So the cost isn’t minor in the beginning and then it requires you to be better at your job. I know this is that awkward moment that I have when we’re doing training and I said accessibility makes good designers, great and bad designers obvious.

Mike: That’s a great line. So why is this still optional? I mean we’re talking about this stuff as if we’re talking about having to convince people to do this stuff. So one problem, you’ve got the Creative-with-a-capital-C designers who you know, don’t have to think about this stuff and that’s certainly an issue. But, but, but I don’t think that’s as big an issue as having a corporate culture where this isn’t as important,

Elle: It’s interesting, I think the United States being a particularly litigious country has set a pattern to where we have to Sue in order and get enough of a, of a groundswell of litigation and settlements and things like that in order to be able to capture people’s attention to say it’s required. You guys know me well enough to know that I have a particularly anti-corporate stance in my personal life about corporations—when too big become less accountable for their own actions.

And as a result of that, I think unless we hold them accountable, there is no easy way to be able to get these changes made. I think that we were headed in our previous administration, we were headed in the right direction and not only was there awareness, there was a real focus and emphasis placed on accessibility. And that’s about the same time that we had things like chief accessibility officers at large companies starting to get stood up, which is what it needs.

I’m not a big fan of having a C-level for everything, but I do think that there needs to be that kind of visibility for somebody to know accessibility is important enough that if you’re going to have a Chief Innovation Officer, you should have achieved something. Inclusion, accessibility. And over the last four years we saw a trend the other direction where it’s much more sort of pro corporate protect the company assets and because of the lack of understanding and awareness about accessibility in general.

I don’t think they understand how short term of a solution that is. Ultimately they’re spending a lot of money to get a lot of customers that can’t access their site. So that’s kind of a backwards way of thinking. One thing I am seeing recently is HR trying to redefine itself in the diversity and inclusion space. And I think that that’s going to be a very unique and interesting change in the future. A focus on inclusion in the workplace will help pave the way for accessibility to become just part of the DNA of an organization’s culture.

Erika: Oh, that’s interesting. I like that because, a lot of times when I talk to designers—especially about research in organizations—I help them deal with the fact that they really need to focus on understanding.

They like to talk about empathizing with people outside the company, but never treat the people they work with like they’re the same sort of human beings that they need to understand who have habits and different behaviors and things like that that really influence the potential success for any sort of design project.

And so the idea that here’s what it means to be inclusive and that’s the same inside and outside the company. You need a philosophy that permeates that weird artificial boundary between how you think about humans and what your mental model of human nature is, which is strange—inside and outside the organization can be really different.

Fun fact. Going back to what you were talking about, I was reading about the history of corporations earlier today actually cause that’s what I do for fun over my coffee and the one of the, the key reasons why corporations were invented. And I think we take them for granted now so much and they’re kind of the default and it feels like they’re the default entity with political power in America. The reason why corporations came into being is so that all of the shareholders could participate in litigation together because it used to be really cumbersome. When you had to sue somebody or somebody sued you, when you went to court, you had to name every single shareholder in a company.

So if you had a hundred stockholders, for example, you’d have to individually name each one of those people. And so a corporation was a way to round all these people up and say this entity stands for all of those people and also acts as a shield against personal liability. And then it was construed as, “Oh, because a corporation stands for all these individual people, then a corporation is a people.” And that’s kinda how that happened. That’s how that happened in America.

That was the rationale. But the article I was reading said that was not the intention of the founding fathers in America. The corporations in America were sort of modeled after those in England where they started, but they did kind of rethink them. They thought that corporations should have more of a public responsibility as well. The workers were also a stakeholder, and the public was a stakeholder. The corporation had a responsibility and it was never intended that a corporation was a person. It was definitely not, according to the founding fathers. And yet here we are. Overturn Citizens United please.

Elle: I think it’s an interesting thing too because so much of the digital world comes from the United States. I think it’s very easy for us sometimes to assume that our culture and the struggles that we have for things like accessibility are exactly what we see around us.

And there’s a little bit of irony I guess in that—if we were to look outside the United States—it’s a different picture as far as the challenges and the things that are easy with regards to accessibility. So in Europe, there’s legislation that’s been in the books for a long time related to human rights and they’ve really outlined how to be more inclusive digitally, um, in different European countries. And so the EU has some legislation that’s gone through recently, both for public sector and for private sector in the works.

The challenge they have is really not the digital stuff. That’s actually because of the way that European countries tend to view the rights of their citizens—in my opinion, in a more respectful way. And they use words like dignity and things like that. Canada does that too, for their human rights legislation. The biggest challenge in Europe has to do with the built space because it’s so much older. The edifices are ancient and something that they want to preserve, and yet access to those buildings. And those historical places are a huge challenge.

There’s also not nearly as much real estate that you’re working with, so it’s not like you can say, well, we’re going to put a ramp together and have that ramp at the right gradient for someone who uses a wheelchair and know that that’s going to be something that we would establish across the entire country. It’s completely variable depending on where a particular landmark is placed and what things are around it. And so that’s really the bigger challenge that’s being actively discussed within European countries right now and that has just as much impact to people with disabilities. It’s just a different kind of challenge.

So representation within legislation is probably one of the biggest areas that could pretty much unite just about every country. There are a lot of advocacy groups that are trying to have traction in, say, Brexit discussions that aren’t necessarily getting the kind of response that they need in order to ensure that when all this happens with England, that a lot of the protections that were held as a part of being a part of the EU, that people with disabilities have the same kinds of protections and affordances afterwards in the country of England. That’s a thing. And yet, you know, Scotland has a tremendously robust accessibility program as a government.

So it’s really very different looking at different countries and the challenges they have, they’re not nearly as litigious at least in those countries. Whereas, I had a conversation with somebody in Italy and she says, “Oh Italians, we sue for everything. I have five lawsuits pending right now.” And it’s like, really? Wow. And apparently it’s a very common thing to do, but it’s all these really small, almost like what we would consider like small claims court kind of stuff.

So none of that sort of bubbles up to the national view saying, “okay, this is something that needs to change.” And instead they’re taking their cues from the EU for that. The EU web accessibility directive for public sector has basically said all 28 member states need to now go create national legislation for accessibility. That aligns to our overarching kind of umbrella requirements. And so it’s an interesting dynamic to see how it all plays out.

I wish that it didn’t have to happen so much within the courts and within laws, but I think people need that kind of pressure and those requirements. I’ve spent the better part of my professional career trying to teach people and encourage them to do the right thing, whatever that might be. And that’s challenging to give somebody a reason to do good is hard. That’s not easy.

Erika: Yeah. I’d say especially in public corporations with the responsibility to the shareholders having primacy. I think the only way that we got discrimination laws and sexual harassment laws on the books was through lawsuits. You know, a lot of terrible things go on for a really long time and corporations do make noise about being socially responsible and policing their own conduct. But the truth is people do what they’re incentivized to do and corporations are just going to maximize profits if they’re for-profit organizations and find ways to get around the things they don’t absolutely have to do. And so, if there’s no threat of a lawsuit or a fine because of regulation, they’re simply not going to do those things.

Elle: And yet that’s actually a challenge I love taking on when asked to teach and I’m teaching like an executive team. A certain part of it is definitely stick and a certain part is definitely carrot. And so it’s a requirement because no one, let me say this, no one who has ever been sued for accessibility, has come out of that lawsuit—whether they settled or they actually took it all the way to the court —and said “we’re so inspired now to be more inclusive. We have completely seen why people do this. And we will go back to the drawing board and really think about hiring inclusively and the whole thing. Bring it on! We love it!” That never happens.

And so unfortunately when you’re an accessibility agency, people come under duress and they’re anxious. And they feel angry. And they feel vilified. And they know the least amount that they’re ever going to know about accessibility. And they wind up on our doorstep. And so we say, great, okay. So now we need to review the five stages.

Mike: Oh my God. You’re like drunk driving class!

Elle: A little bit! Not unlike that.

And so I actually love that challenge, because to me it’s about some sort of transformation that I want to help someone have. So that they understand that accessibility can be very selfish. Teaching executives about the market value of accessibility. I love being able to have those conversations with them because you can make the business case that accessibility ushers in so many good practices. It includes 15% of your market that you may not have had before. And it establishes you as a market leader in that space.

So if you do have a government contract or there’s something that’s a requirement that accessibility is in your RFP that you establish that. It allows you to open up new markets in other countries without worry about meeting those requirements because you’re already doing it as a matter of practice. There’s all kinds of incentives that you can build in to encourage people. So starting with the requirement, this is the law, and following up with what the incentives are from a very selfish point of view.

And then along the way, something happens and it’s great to see. A lot of people end up moving past even those selfish motivations. They move into recognizing maybe that their nephew is autistic or their grandmother is aging into failing eyesight or hand tremor or things like that. And they start seeing it as very personal. When that happens, then it changes how they do their work.

Erika: So you mentioned something earlier about people getting older. I know people are generally always getting older — we hope. If you’re lucky you get older. And I know we’ve got the boomers coming up and I would hope that we’d see that doing this as soon as possible is in all of our best interests. We’re all going to need—at the very least—the type to be a little bit larger.

Elle: A little darker, a little easier to hit. A target that’s not too small. I think it’s really because before I got my start in accessibility proper I was always a big human rights advocate. That was just part of the overall mission of inclusion I felt very much drawn to, but specifically digital accessibility because I was working on a Medicare website and it’s a requirement of the Center for Medicaid and Medicare services for anyone who operates on behalf of the government to offer Medicare plans. They have to be able to make it what is called Section 508 compliant, which is a federal procurement law and that’s essentially making it accessible to people with disabilities. Their target is because of the fact that most people who are looking at a Medicare or Medicaid policy or either somebody who might need it because of a disability or they’re aging into, you know, 65 or older, that kind of thing.

And what is interesting is doing the research. Every usability study that we did was with an older population. And it was essentially like doing usability studies with people with disabilities. In 2010 the US Census did a study about disability prevalence by age and when you get to age 70 over 50% of people, people who are 70 years or older—I think it’s like 70 to 75 have a disability and about 35% of those have a severe disability. And the, the definition of disability changes according to what data you’re collecting, how you define it, that kind of thing. But it’s fair to say that if baby boomers are getting older — we used to call it the silver tsunami when I was working at Humana. It is like a giant tidal wave of people who are older. They’re aging into disabilities and they’re using technology more and more. It is like a perfect storm of need when it comes to inclusion.

And so that is something that is very close to my heart, not only because of getting my start in accessibility, working within the Medicare space, but also I have elderly parents. I’m working with them every day in my personal life. I’m seeing that we are not even coming close to meeting their needs.

I helped my mother-in-law last week pack for moving into a retirement home across the country and she was understandably terrified because she’s moving from the great state of California all the way to Pennsylvania to be with her daughter, the wonderful retirement community. But I spent an entire week helping pack up her life after 50 years of living in one house, printed out individual webpages to file into a filing cabinet because she didn’t, and it’s not because she didn’t trust there is a certain concern about security with older people. It wasn’t because she didn’t trust that there was like security to help her with passwords and things like that.

She didn’t feel capable of refinding that information on the website. So once she found it, she would lock it by printing it as a hard copy and then she would file it into a filing cabinet. She had three stacked full filing cabinets of things that I would think, why wouldn’t you just use her name and password, put that thing in there and you’ll see all your banking information. And she was like, Oh my routing number. She prints it off and she would look at, you know, here’s my checklist for moving. She would print it off and file it. And it’s just, it’s astounding to me because because of the need for older people who are having memory loss.

It’s a very interesting dynamic because, I don’t know if you guys have done this before, but in order for people to get comfortable with downsizing, you kind of remind them that the thing is not the memory and you say, okay, so you don’t need these things to be able to keep that memory.

Elle: And yet you kind of do if you suffer from memory loss. So if you get rid of something, you don’t have a physical reminder of that thing anymore. To be able to, to remember it. You’ve lost the memory by getting rid of the physical object. And so I find that an interesting dynamic and it’s something I’m hoping to really explore and improve about both what I do, maybe what our company does, but we as professionals to really cater to the needs of an older population. So it kind of goes even beyond just the typical functional accessibility needs. Like can I actually log in if I’m only using a keyboard or if it was the font size too small. But it comes to down squarely into the work that you guys are doing when it comes to task flows and how to be able to make persistent sticky things online so that people don’t feel this need to attach themselves to physical objects because they’re afraid of forgetting things.

Erika: Yeah, I mean that’s really interesting because memory is really spatial and that’s why we you know, you walk into a room and forget why you walked into that room. Yeah. So maybe open plan is better for memory, but information architecture and the way you categorize things is so connected to — you’ve got to create these conceptual spaces for things. And I don’t know that people think enough, especially when there’s so much like associative navigation. Yeah. Really think about how to support somebody and their memory and their, especially their associative memory is a really an interesting topic. And, but this is why, you know, even like younger people will have a hundred tabs open. It’s the same thing that’s like keeping webpages in a filing cabinet.

Elle: It’s exactly the same. Like I’m looking right now and I probably have 50 tabs on my browser and I’m thinking if I get rid of that tab, I will completely forget to ever visit that again. Even though I think it’s interesting. It just may not be critical or maybe it is and it’s not critical yet. So I just, I think there’s a lot within the design community that we, a lot of work we need to do specifically regarding older populations. And I think that accessibility is kind of almost a bit of an operational, narrow and functional definition of some piece, but I think it definitely speaks more towards the idea of thinking inclusively about mental models and the way that people process information. For sure.

Mike: Let’s talk about one of my favorite topics, worker responsibility. So we have covered why corporations or companies don’t want to pay attention to this. We have covered why, you know, the dilettante designer doesn’t want to pay attention to this. What is my responsibility as a designer who wants to do good work and wants to practice good accessibility habits to lead the charge in my company to make sure that we’re doing this correctly? At what point is that my responsibility? Because I figured I get hired to design things and I know how to design things and designing them to be accessible is one of those things that you need to be able to do, right? So it doesn’t matter where I go to work, it’s my job to make sure that that place is designing accessibly. Now hopefully I’m at a place that believes that that’s important. But if I’m not, isn’t it my responsibility to make sure I’m designing accessibly anyway? Like I certainly can’t just throw up my hands and roll my eyes.

Elle: Yeah, it’s, it’s a designer’s responsibility and I’ll say that it’s not a very popular statement to make, especially when we’re doing training, but UX is the only role that actually has “user” in the title and like pretty guaranteed that they have to be a champion for the user. If they’re not going to champion users, then I’m not sure what they’re doing to be honest, as a role. So yes, I would say full-stop responsibility.

Mike: You said that’s not a very popular topic in your training.

Elle: Yeah. It’s not.

Mike: What have you heard? What are people saying?

Elle: People have a certain amount of learned helplessness, especially in large corporate environments. And the diffusion of accountability is rampant and it’s not restricted just to accessibility. But I think that there’s a lot of reasons why they can’t do something that…you know, respectfully, I’ve been in their shoes and so I can’t say that I have a lot of sympathy for saying “I can’t do this because I get pushback from my design manager.” I think that is your role.

You and I’ve talked about this before too, and you mentioned it in your book many times. It is the role of somebody who’s a designer to be able to represent the user in those conversations. So you should expect pushback. That is a healthy sign that you’re doing your job because you’re supposed to hold the line and push it forward on behalf of the user.

And I think that people with disabilities are no different. It looks complex, as accessibility does from the outside, but, but if you take it by your role and you say, okay, you don’t need to understand, not really, you don’t really need to understand Aria. You don’t really need to understand how to be able to make an Angular single-page app accessible in that sense from a developer point of view. So if you take the development pieces, the very technical parts of it out of the mix and you say, what am I as a designer responsible for? There are probably five things. I’m going to guess five things that you really should be thinking about. How you use color is a big piece. The number one issue that we log when we’re doing these audits for accessibility — there’s one number one design thing and one number one dev-related thing.

The design thing is always color contrast always, and it’s so simple when you think about it. The actual implementation side of it, it’s a hex value. It’s the politics behind it. When talking to your brand team to talking to outside design agencies who haven’t thought about it and who have sold the chief marketing officer on a particular palette. Those are the conversations that they have to participate in and they have to push that forward and be able to explain that they’re locking people out. When we were talking about six to eight times, many people with low vision, those are the people who get impacted by low color contrast.

Mike: And I would say put their foot down. I cannot and will not do this.

Elle: We cannot release this brand palette for this major redesign you’re talking about without putting together combinations that are actually have enough color contrast for people to be able to see the texts that you’ve so diligently put together for this web page. To me, we need to get very comfortable being able to tell people, I will not do this. I think so. But I think that there’s, I don’t think it has to even get to that point when it comes to accessibility because truthfully those decisions are made when the effort to make it accessible versus not is the same. So you’re not even telling somebody I’m not willing to do a thing. There are a lot of design decisions that are much harder to wrestle with than accessibility.

Mike: Hold on, I’m going to challenge you on the use of the phrase “I’m not willing to do this” because my kid isn’t willing to do a lot of things, but this is a question of professionally “I ethically cannot do this,” which is a big difference.

Elle: Yeah. But I’m saying I don’t think it should get to that point. I think when it comes to accessibility decisions, most of the time designers consume what somebody else who doesn’t know their job as well as they do, will give something to them. And what I’m saying is they have to be involved in the discussions early enough to where they’re not handed something and told to do something that they say yes or no to.

Mike: I totally agree and, and I think if a lot of those people knew that that was, that that was the next doorway that they would pass. Like if people knew that the repercussions of us trying to get these crappy non-accessible colors through is that the design team will not build, would probably keep that conversation from happening a lot.

Elle:100% agree. It kind of goes back to that whole thing when you’re looking at making a change and you’re making a rat like a small but radical change. You know that question of if not you then who? And I think that there’s a misconception. Another misconception is that accessibility is primarily a developer’s responsibility and 100% I disagree with that because usually developers inherit crappy design that’s not accessible and then they are tasked to create some sort of gymnastic brittle solution, leapfrog, cobble things together with duct tape. And then people wonder why it’s not say cross-browser compatible and things like that. And there’s a lot of ways to duct tape your way through a dev solution. That was originally a design problem, but it doesn’t really ever get you to fully accessible or fully inclusive experience. It almost always starts with design. They have so much more than they are willing to acknowledge sometimes.

Mike: Yeah, and as a designer, even if I’m trying to do the right thing and be as accessible as possible. If something got past me, I would be thrilled if a developer caught it and told me about it.

Elle: We’re teaching developers to push back on designers when they’re being given designs that are like if they’re taught accessibility, the fundamentals and they inherit a design and they can’t immediately see how they can make it accessible. We’re teaching them to ask the question, is it because it’s not accessible? Like in other words, if you don’t know the technique, is it possible because it’s so atypical and so unusual. Like for example, we have dealt with business owners who’ve told designers to create check boxes that look like radio buttons.

Mike: Wait, say that again.

Elle: We have had business owners tell designers to create checkboxes that look visually like radio buttons. So I spent a good hour in training most of the time with designers and developers and everyone to explain that conventions are there for a reason because things communicate function and that if you are looking at something that looks like a radio button, you’re going to assume that you can select only one and if it’s actually a checkbox, you’re very, you’re confusing a user and what becomes, we would say that’s a usability fail, but usability fails are often accessibility barriers.

Elle: And so we teach designers to push back to business to say, I don’t care if you sell it this somewhere on your social media program or whatever it is, like wherever you saw it. This is not the way that these conventions and these elements work. So if you want to select just one, we’re making it radio buttons. If you want to select many things, we’ll make them check boxes and that you’re helping your user. Then if it gets through design and they back down and they end up doing something shitty, then we teach developers to push back and say, I’m not going to create a custom control that emulates a checkbox but looks like a radio button. That’s an actual circumstance. Yeah, it was an airline.

Mike: People who keep you in the air.

Elle: Yeah, the same like, like I’m surprised I still fly sometimes after two years of working with airlines. They mean well, but sometimes I think that their risk aversion has gotten to the point where they’re unwilling to continually groom and garden and work on the actual hygiene of their websites. So when the air carrier access act came out and the DOT was telling them, make no mistake, you have two years to get this together. And of course they waited til the last six months because that’s how people do. And when we’re working with them on that, it was, it was probably the messiest stuff I’ve ever seen under the hood. Like it was spaghetti all over the place. It was fractured design, it was everything.

And the only way through to the other side is a design system. It’s the only way to get to the other side of that. But in a design system, you can start thinking about pure concepts that actually have purpose and why are you building this element? You’re kind of looking at it through a different lens instead of the rapid pace that people are getting new features thrown out there and they’re not even given the full picture of what this is ultimately going to be.

I think that a lot of it has to do with agency and ownership from a design perspective. Designers need to take much more authority in what they do.

Mike: Yeah. So my fear here is that a design system without agency, the agency to stand behind your work is, isn’t going to get you anywhere.

Elle: Agreed. Agreed. It’ll just get you like shitty patterns instead.

Erika: And I’ll take this back even further cause I think one of the things that is a huge, huge contributing factor is the way that design is taught.

I’m not going to speak for every instructor in every school. But if you go back to all of the kind of foundational information on the use of color, and color theory, and color and brands and stuff like that, it’s very rare if you’re not on an accessibility specific site or using an accessibility specific resource for that to come up at all.

This is one of the problems in how we approach design and technology in general. We start from a place where humans don’t have bodies. When we think about users or think about people, we think about these disembodied minds so much.

When we think about the use of color, if you go and look at classical color theory, you look at the color wheel, you look at color pairings and this sort of thing. Accessibility is so rarely mentioned and it absolutely should be because part of being a designer is dealing with constraints and color is total perception. It’s totally like the operation of the rods and cones and whatnot in your body that’s highly variable from person to person.

When you teach somebody how to use color at the very get-go, when you talk about color, and color and culture, and all this other stuff, you should be introducing the idea of how people see color and where there might be limitations so that people don’t get this idea that there’s this aesthetic ideal.

I think this is what you were talking about with creativity and people perfecting things and caring about quality—there’s this abstract ideal. And then accessibility diminishes this ideal.

Mike: I’m so tired of creativity.

Erika: We need to reset the sense that there is one a norm and I think all of the work around neurodivergence has been fantastic to say, you know, it’s not that there’s the normal person, the right way and then everybody else is less than. I mean this is what was so great about the work of Oliver Sacks, right? He’d say, well there’s the most frequent way that people might use their brains and then, Hey, there’s something that’s really interesting and different but it’s not less-than. I think we just need to change our whole approach to say, well, if you want to include people like that’s you want to do, it’s a positive thing for your problem solving ability for your creativity to come up with the best solution that is the most inclusive. That’s it. That’s fantastic. It’s not that, Oh my design would be beautiful and perfect except I’ve got to modify it because there are some people who don’t see as good. That should not be the way visual designers think about that.

Elle: I think he’s redefining what we qualify as beautiful too because people like to talk about what is beautiful, but unless they are artists, it’s really not about that personal interpretation. It really is about what other people are able to do with what you build and it’s unfortunate that human-centered design needs human-centered at the front of it. It shouldn’t be that it should just be design in and of itself should include human beings, but I think it extends even beyond, I love the idea of thinking about color theory and how abstracted that is from human beings. I think it’s the same thing when you think about, say you’re designing something for a mobile interaction and people assume that everyone’s got one thumb hanging out and cruising around at different parts of the screen on a mobile device. That is just not how everybody uses it. Not even people who wouldn’t classify themselves as someone with disabilities. It’s very different kind of interaction pattern that people may have and so it’s bringing the people and the human beings back into understanding what design really means.

I will say this though. I am incredibly encouraged. I have a son who’s an artist who’s 21 and I am very encouraged by his generation because of the fact that there is an expectation—and some people would call it entitlement. I think it’s much more about empowerment, but an expectation of diversity and an expectation of inclusion that I’m really encouraged to see

Some of this comes out through discussions on race and discussions on gender, that intersectionality is important when you’re thinking about people with disabilities as well, because inclusion is an expectation that they have.

And so I feel encouraged and I feel like that’s going to change. As the workforce starts to change, we’re going to get a lot more agency, a lot more expectations of keeping people, you know, everyone is invited to this experience instead of locking people out of the experience. So that makes me happy when I see that.

Mike: Yeah, the kids know what they’re doing. We need to just let the kids take over this shit.

Elle: As long as they’re equipped with the knowledge. And to your point, Erika, I do think that traditional and non-traditional design programs fail miserably at teaching about different kinds of disabilities and needs. And it’s because it’s been viewed as a very operational, ugly kind of, I dunno, functional need instead of a way to be able to make more beautiful designs, accessibility when it’s appropriately used acts as a catalyst for better design.

Mike: Absolutely.

Erika: Yeah. And there, I mean there is, there is a philosophy of universal design, which I think should be baked into all design curriculum, but probably isn’t it,

Mike: I mean to me one of the biggest problems that we’re still dealing with is, is how many designers are frustrated artists.

Elle: Yeah. There is that.

Because, because this, I mean this is a skill that for the most part is being taught in art schools and it’s your fallback plan. It’s your fallback plan. Like your parents will say, okay, you can go to art school but you’re going to have to take some useful classes and then they get into design and people are still out here trying to do self-expression bullshit, which, you know, this is not the time not the place.

Erika: Yeah, that’s true. In many cases it still is like design is taught coming out of art schools. But I think that’s, I think that’s also starting to change. But I think academic institutions change more slowly. Universal design is a thing that’s been a concept since 1963. There is a book “Designing for the Disabled” by Selwyn Goldsmith, the dude who came up with the curb cut, which is the most, I think in the physical built environment, that’s probably the most common example that we encounter. And it’s like, Oh, the curb cut is great for wheelchairs, but it’s also great for everybody else, too.

Elle: We use that analogy quite a bit when trying to teach people about the expanded benefits of thinking inclusively in the work that you do digitally. You’re basically creating the most usable and functional and delightful user experience that you can for the most amount of people. And without the need to have to have separate website experience. I mean I could go on and on about what a terrible, terrible idea and how it is not at all equal, separate as a different experience when people talk about, well can’t I just. That’s usually the first, please make this pain go away and this learning away. And so we use the curb cut example about would you be building other roads that you know, have these ramps or have them specifically for people who might have mobility challenges and they would be like, no, because a curb cut works for a lot of people. And so that kind of analogy works really well to kind of point to both of those. Some countries, specifically Nordic countries actually had universal design as a law. So I think it’s Norway that has universal design built into the way that they approach their work. Not surprising.

Erika: Yeah. Fantastic. Like we should, we should all, we should aim for that. If you’re a designer, the whole point why you become a designer is because you want to solve design problems and you should welcome, the constraints that make design good. Yeah.

Mike: As I think we screwed up when we started calling this inclusion, by the way, it’s only inclusion. If you’re already on the inside, you’re debating who else you’re going to let in with you. The real problem here is that we’re excluding people exclusion. That’s an ugly word. That’s something that we need to fix. It’s like when we changed from climate change to like climate change, like that doesn’t sound so bad. Climate crisis. Now you might be talking,

Elle: I think accessibility has suffered from a branding problem since its inception. I had the opportunity to speak with Wendy Chisholm at a technology and accessibility conference several years ago and we did a talk called accessibility is the new black because our, our intent was to say that right now accessibility is a limiting word. Inclusion, to your point, is kind of a limiting word. And if you say inclusive design, it doesn’t necessarily make a technologist or developers feel like they’re a part of that conversation. There’s not a great way to wrap our heads around this and use terminology that people really get, how much this applies to every human being on the planet. And that becomes difficult.

Erika: Onward to universal design.

Mike: Where can we find out more about universal design, Erika?

Erika: Uh, the internet. I know, don’t put it in the show notes.

Mike: Let me Google that for like, we’re here to teach people. Let me Google that for you. Like if that was the answer to everything, like why would anybody do anything right? If everything is Googleable,

Erika: We’ll put a link in the show notes.

Elle: I think there’s some links that I can provide well that are specific to digital universal design.

Mike: Fantastic.

Elle: Specifically for people who do design, but also people who might be tapping into other development kind of things or people who are in somewhat of a management role and they know that they help team members get where they need to go.

Mike: All those people are designing.

Elle: Yeah, exactly. Everyone’s a designer. My hope is that the people who are really responsible for clearing roadblocks and really removing impediments for people to do their best work will be equipped to be able to know how to be able to have those conversations with leadership. So that, so that you don’t have to invite me to do that. So that is my wish.

Mike: And remember that you’re a leader too. You were hired to lead the design process, so lead it.

Elle:Yeah, exactly.

Mike: I’m going to get emails about shaming people again.

Erika: Universal shame.

Mike: Oh my God, I can’t believe I actually have to earn my paycheck.

Elle: I will say that when we work with designers, it is another, another misconception. And I think you touched on this, Mike, is that accessible design is ugly or that it’s less than or limiting. And I think that it’s very interesting to me that we’re still having those discussions because while I understand that there’s really broke ass ways that people have put some stuff together in order to be able to be compliant, it really reveals their lack of understanding about their own craft more than anything else.

Mike: Yeah. And let me just say this, who cares? Who cares if it’s ugly? Who cares if you think it’s ugly. It’s not about you. It’s about the people who need to use it being able to use it. And by the way, I have seen some attractive, attractive, accessible work.

Elle: I mean, I love to point to Scribd as an example, just because full disclosure, they were a client, both at Simply Accessible and at Level Access. But the reason why I love to point to them is because they were very publicly pulled out onto the carpet. The National Federation for the Blind sued them and said, you know, you say that you want to be basically the eReader or the Netflix for books and you have a presence in 70 different countries and you have millions of customers, why aren’t you thinking about people with disabilities? And their biggest concern was they felt like it would change the design aesthetic of what they were presenting because every example that they had seen was something kind of ugly. And they didn’t know what they were going to have to change. And so they were pretty resistant at first and yet they had no choice to move forward.

And now they are huge champions who support accessible design because they have seen that it improved all of their processes. It made them better, made them make better choices from a design perspective. And now they’re speaking at conferences about how they made accessibility a habit and it’s part of what they do and it’s baked into their DNA and their culture.

And so, you know, anybody who talks about that—granted at the end, I would rather it be accessible and ugly—But I don’t think that people need to sit with that and say this is what I have to inherit.

It is an awkward conversation that you have to have with yourself, which is why, why are you making it ugly? Just to be able to make it accessible. There some other skills that you might need to invest in to figure out how to make truly beautiful

Mike: That might hold a little bit more water if all inaccessible designer was beautiful. But holy shit have I seen some inaccessible turds? Yes. So anyway, this seems like a good place to end. Yes. can we call this “Inaccessible Turds”?

Erika: I mean, that sounds like a fantastic band name, but I don’t want to name the podcast with our lovely guest Elle “Inaccessible Turds”.

Elle: I mean, I think, I think I would, every designer I meet, I, it depends on how many drinks I have with them before I’m able to be completely candid, but I want to tell them, do better. I mean they can, there’s no reason why you have to choose that hex value over another one.

Mike: Oh, I’ve, I’ve, I’ve achieved the ability to be that candid without drinks. I think it’s just being from Philly. Yeah. It’s a Philadelphia thing.

Elle: Yeah. But I mean designers can do better and it really does start with them more than any, more than any other role. It is their charge, their mandate.

Mike: Most designers practicing today should not be in the field. They just shouldn’t. They shouldn’t.

Elle: They’re there and I’m teaching them so…

Mike: Well maybe convince them to move to another industry.

Elle: Maybe you should be in product.

Mike: You know what, if you want to make people happy, make sandwiches. Everybody loves a good sandwich.

Erika: I don’t want bad designers going into sandwich making. I really like sandwiches and I couldn’t really tell when a sandwich has been made by an uncaring individually. So I absolutely do not want bad, lazy designers to go into sandwich making. Thank you very much.

Mike: Oh my God. They see they would apply all the ingredients by color.

Elle: It would look great.

Mike: Like those, like those people who have, who arranged their bookshelves by color.

Elle: Uh, yeah, they’re great Instagram posts. They’re great at planning, but the actual food quality would suffer. So yeah.

Erika: Okay. How about this? Aim higher than not sucking. Make good sandwiches. And make your design universally accessible and cool.

Mike: And if you don’t agree with these things, get the hell out of the field.

Elle: If you’re not in it for the user, pick a different career. Yeah.

Mike: It’s hard enough. It’s hard enough to train the people who actually care and want to do the right thing because there’s a lot that, that, there’s a lot of training that everybody needs, but having to deal with the people who don’t care is exhausting.

Erika: Yeah. But I’m trying to figure out where to send them. The Pacific trash gyre? We put them on an ice flow because we don’t have ice flows anymore.

Mike: Send them to Mars with Elon Musk.

Erika: Ah, there we go. Offworld colonies for you.

Mike: Go terraform Mars and fuck off.

Elle: Didn’t Douglas Adams do that. We’ll put them on the B ship for hitchhikers and have them just launch.

Erika: No he said those were the aliens who founded Earth — the telephone sanitizers and other useless people who came here on the B ship while everybody smart and useful stayed on the home planet. And then do you know what happened? Everybody on the home world died because of unsanitized telephones.

Mike: And we don’t even use phones anymore. Can we end this thing? I have to pee.

Erika: We have to accommodate Mike’s need to urinate.

Mike: I have a small bladder. This is known.

Elle: This is fun.

Erika: Yeah. Thank you so much for uh, for explaining so clearly what all of us need to think about. I’d say no matter what kind of work we do. And thanks to all of the listeners out there for joining us and you can find us on Twitter at VOD, V O D underscore, R O C K S. VOD rocks. And please do tell all of your lovely friends and rate us wherever you can rate podcasts.



Erika Hall
Mule Design Studio

Co-founder of Mule Design. Author of Conversational Design and Just Enough Research, both from A Book Apart.