Product Design: Why Accessibility Needs to Be Prioritized in Product Design

Guest: Laura Allen, Accessibility Program Manager at Google

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It’s a new month, and with it a brand new theme for our upcoming Build episodes! When designing products, we think a lot about usability—how easy to use a product is. But we often overlook another aspect of product design: accessibility. So all this month, we’re going to dive into accessibility.

One reason accessibility gets overlooked is because we think it’s a challenge to prioritize it given a company’s size and resources. We may think accessibility makes sense for a big company, but a startup that is getting off the ground just doesn’t have the resources to incorporate it.

Well, actually, that’s not true.

In fact, when it comes to product design, accessibility may be just the differentiator you need to give your product a competitive advantage and increase adoption!

And in today’s episode, we’re going to explore what accessibility is, why it’s important for companies of any size to incorporate, and show you how to do an accessibility audit for your product.

To help us out, I’ve invited Laura Allen, who is the Accessibility Program Manager at Google for Chrome and the Chrome operating system.

Here’s what you’ll learn in this episode:

  • what accessibility is and how it’s different from usability;
  • how accessibility influences user adoption of products;
  • how companies will benefit by incorporating accessibility into product development process, priorities, and core values;
  • examples of common accessibility issues that impact all of us at various moments in our lives; and
  • how to do an accessibility audit for your product and the four important principles to consider each time.

Here are some additional resources to check out that Laura mentioned in the video:

Finally, we’d love to learn from you! If you have already embraced accessibility, let Laura and I know how your company handle it in the comments below.

Listen to the episode on iTunes!

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Product Design: Why Accessibility Needs to Be Prioritized in Product Design Transcript

Poornima Vijayashanker: We often think about usability when we’re designing products, but not accessibility. In today’s Build episode, we’re going to talk about the importance of accessibility and how to prioritize it regardless of being a startup or a big company, so stay tuned.

Welcome to Build, brought to you by Pivotal Tracker, I’m your host, Poornima Vijayashanker. In each episode of Build, I host innovators and together we debunk a number of myths and misconceptions related to building products, companies, and your career in tech. Now, one often overlooked aspect of building products is accessibility. In today’s Build episode, we’re going to talk about what accessibility is, why it’s important, and how you can do an accessibility audit for your product. To help us out, I’ve invited Laura Allen, who is a accessibility program manager at Google for Chrome and the Chrome operating system.

Thanks for joining us today, Laura.

Laura Allen: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Sure. I know that a lot of times people think about usability when they’re building products but they don’t often think about accessibility. Let’s talk about what is accessibility and how is it different from usability.

Laura Allen: Accessibility is the design of products, services, devices, and environments for people with disabilities. I always like to take that one step further and think about accessibility as really empowering users with disabilities to be productive, to be socially engaged, and to be independent. This is super closely aligned with the concept of usability and also even just universal design and inclusive design. You think about universal design being this idea of building products that are going to be usable by the widest range of people and the widest range of situations. It’s so closely aligned with this, that absolutely includes designing for people with disabilities.

This whole concept of usability, yes it’s critical to be thinking about all the time, of course, but we can make products functionally accessible, we can go through checklists, we can incorporate design principles and what not to make things technically work, but if you don’t think about how is this actually going to be used, what is the experience for someone with assistive technology—like a screen reader, for example—if you don’t think about that experience and usability of that experience it might not be productive or efficient at all. All these things are really closely linked together and they all help to move towards building an inclusive product.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Why is this even important? I think a lot of people would say, “Oh, we have a really niche customers customer base, we don’t think anybody has accessibility concerns so why even bother?”

Laura Allen: Accessibility is something that impacts everyone at some phase or at some point in their life. Fifteen percent of the global population has some form of disability—that’s a huge number, that’s over a billion people. We tend to think about a few different distinct groups when we’re thinking about design. We might be thinking about people who are low vision or blind, people who are deaf or hard of hearing, people who have motor or dexterity challenges. Then people who are, what we consider to be, neurologically diverse that can be anything ranging from dyslexia, to perhaps being on the autism spectrum, to any forms of intellectual disabilities.

When you think about these different groups of people, people might be developing disabilities at different phases of their life, different severity levels, different combinations of disabilities, and then you start to think about, what about temporary impairments? Like what if you break your arm and all of a sudden you can’t type on your computer for a few months? Situational impairments, like what if you’re at a loud restaurant or a loud bar and there’s something on the TV that you want to be listening to, it’s too loud to hear and you have to actually rely on those captions that were there specifically for the deaf population but they’re helpful to everyone. Then, you take it one step further, and you think about this growing aging population, which thanks to increasing life expectancy, which is great, the aging population of people over 60 is growing, and growing, and growing, and the World Health Organization estimates that by 2050 it’ll be over 2 billion people that are over the age of 60.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Wow, so it’s like doubling. Hopefully not, but yeah.

Laura Allen: As we all age, at any point in our lives, we may experience some slight deteriorations in vision, or of hearing, or of dexterity, so these concepts are really, really critical to be building in, in general.

Poornima Vijayashanker: That makes sense. Now, some would say that this makes sense for really big companies with hundreds of millions of users, but does it really make sense for our tiny little startup that’s just getting started?

Laura Allen: I would honestly say, accessibility is something that is critical for all companies, at all stages, all phases. To be totally honest with you, it’s actually easier to build this in four startup-sized companies, smaller teams, smaller processes. Of course, it’s completely doable at large companies as well that have established processes, but at a startup, you’re building from the ground up, you’re defining what you want your product processes to look like, and it’s so much better just to be able to integrate accessibility in at that level, get people understanding what these concepts are, make this just a core part of inclusive design from the very beginning, and it’ll be that much easier as you grow, and grow, and grow.

Another thing to think about here is accessibility because it impacts such a large number of people this presents, honestly, a growth opportunity in many cases. It just opens doors for a lot more business, a lot of growth potentially. One thing that I like to think about, especially for startups and just hiring in general, if companies are focused on actually making their own products accessible then it opens the doors as well for being able to hire a more diverse and inclusive workforce. You can hire assistive technology users and have them come in and be able to use your products and that opens the door.

A lot of us, obviously, at the companies we’re thinking about how do we further diversify? How do we get people in the room who have a diverse set of perspectives? This whole idea of diversity a lot of times we are thinking about race, and ethnicity, and gender, sexual orientation, but disability is a huge part of this. It is a very, very big part of this group and we need a voice.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Making it into your process, your priorities, your core values can really open doors for you in terms of your customer base and make things, hopefully, easier as you grow.

Laura Allen: Absolutely. I will say, too, for a lot of people, like I mentioned before, accessibility will touch everybody at some point and in many cases it’ll make the experience better, and more usable for many, many users. For someone like me, I happen to be low vision myself—

Poornima Vijayashanker: What does that mean, “low vision?”

Laura Allen: Really good question, because it can mean a lot of different things. For me, I basically have a central vision disorder, so if you can imagine all in my peripheral vision is still intact, it’s still clear, but anything I’m looking directly at is this blend of flashing lights, and distortion, and blurring, and whatnot. This all happened for me when I was about 14, happened really quickly, really rare condition. I basically went from having typical 20/20 vision to being what’s considered legally blind within about a week when I was 14. At that point, it was like I’m getting ready for high school, and all of a sudden I’m going to be moving to a bigger school, and then what happens? I couldn’t read a book at that point. I couldn’t see a blackboard. I couldn’t recognize faces in the hallway. It was a huge period of transition for me, and for my family.

For a few years there, it was one of those things where if materials weren’t actually accessible in formats that I could listen to, for example, instead of visually read, I was stuck. I had to literally come home from school and my parents and my brother would read to me. That, to me, was the definition of dependence and I really, really hated it. I was so fortunate to have a family that was able to help me that way. It was just unbelievable the amount of effort they went through to get me through to the point where then I was able to regain my independence through discovering assistive technology like text-to-speech software, or magnification, or a larger mouse cursor, things like that.

It was that period of my life that really propelled me into this world of accessibility and usability, because I saw the huge potential of what technology can do for someone’s life and I just want to help to make that better for the rest of the world.

Poornima Vijayashanker: It’s great to hear you have a personal stake and it inspires everybody out there, but it also inspires you to realize and relate to people who might also be having these recognitions so that’s wonderful to hear.

For people in our audience out there who are building products, how can they get started? How can they prioritize this and gain the benefits?

Laura Allen: That’s a great question. There are a lot of different things to be considering. One thing that I would recommend is doing an audit, understanding where is your product right now, what’s the level? This may vary. If you haven’t really been thinking about accessibility yet, that’s OK. It’s a good opportunity to look at the holistic picture and see what’s going on, and what bugs you may have. I would recommend just going through and leveraging a lot of the different resources that are out there and using those to create your own audit, however that works for you.

For example, there is a great resource out there from the web content accessibility guidelines and we abbreviate that to WCAG. This is a W3C standard guidelines for accessibility. They’ve been really widely adopted by a lot of designers, engineers, companies, and they’re wonderful. They outline different steps and different things to be considering.

For example, they break it down into four different categories: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Each of these things has a lot of different checkpoints, but just as a brief example, when we think about “perceivable,” what assumptions are you making about your users basically? What are we assuming that they can perceive? Are we assuming they have perfect sight or sight at all? Are we assuming that they can hear? Thinking about how they’re perceiving the product and then different design guidelines that go hand-in-hand with that.

“Operable,” similarly, is what are we assuming about the users, how they’re actually operating with the product? Are we assuming they have really fine motor skills? That they can use a mouse, that they can use a keyboard? Are we assuming that they are able to use really quick reaction times, things like that?

“Understandable,” what is the general understandability of the product? Are you assuming really high language skills to be able to navigate? Or the ability to just remember really complex sequences, all kinds of things like that? Then, “robust” is a little bit different in that it talks about how is your product working with assistive technology? Like a screen reader, for example, which would be leveraged by someone who’s blind to be able to listen to the product, listen to the phone, or the computer, whatever it may be, and get that audio output instead of the visual.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Nice.

Laura Allen: The WCAG is a great resource. I tend to think when I’m thinking about checklists and working with designers and whatnot, I break down into a few key groups as well. The first around keyboard and focus, just really taking a quick poll of—let’s say you’ve got a site, how does it work with just the keyboard, no mouse whatsoever? It’s a great thing for engineers and designers to be able to try that out themselves as well. Just try using the keyboard only and as you’re navigating through, can you get to everything that you need to? Can you also see visual focus indication? If you don’t see that and you’re just tabbing through, you don’t know what you can actually take action on. Have you thought about that in the design process, basically?

Then, I start to think about semantics. How do we actually make it more clear for screen reader users what the page is actually all about or what the app’s all about? For example, do we have labels in place for buttons so that as you navigate with a screen reader, you don’t just hear, “Button,” or, “Unlabeled button,” which is not helpful at all. Thinking about how do we just convey that experience and make sure that it’s clear for a screen reader.

Then a third bucket, which I like to call think about in my audits, is just this idea of flexible interface. That can be anything from color contrast—so WCAG actually says we should have a minimum color contrast ratio of 4.5:1 for text against its background color. That’s super helpful because for anyone, like me, with a low vision or just anyone who doesn’t have the perfect 20/20 vision, it can be really hard to actually distinguish those colors, or a low contrast text, so that’s a really helpful usability improvement for a lot of people.

In this same group of flexible UI, you think about things like how does this interface look with magnification at a 200% zoom level, for example? Or are we using just color, or just sound to convey information? Just color, one example there, is if you have an input field and you type an error and all of a sudden maybe just the text will appear red. In that case, people who can’t distinguish color will miss that information, screen reader users, or braille readers will completely miss that information as well. Thinking about how do you go one step further and convey that and make sure there’s also error messaging. You can still use the color red and all, that’s fine but it can’t be the only way that you’re identifying that information.

I like to think through questions like that using the WCAG guidelines and other things that help there—like I know Vox Media has a really great checklist—and just get a sense of where’s the current level? From that point, you may have a lot of different bugs, you may have different things that you want to be able to address, and the next step is naturally to work on, “How do we triage this? How do you prioritize?” I think one really helpful thing to do there is just to think about each of these bugs, what is the typical user impact? How critical is this? Would this bug stop somebody from being able to actually interact or take action on your site and your core purpose of your site or your app? I like to think about that, and help to prioritize, and just go from there.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Wonderful. We’ll be also sure to include the resources you mentioned below in the show notes.

You’ve mentioned a number of things that happen during the audit. What happens after the audit?

Laura Allen: I think the next natural step, of course, is going through that triage and prioritization process. Then as you’re solving these problems, as you’re fixing bugs, continuing to go through and help to honestly integrate accessibility into each step of the process. I think that’s the really critical step. One holistic audit is not going to take you all the way. We have to start bringing this into our development process and building it from the ground up. Then, honestly, getting out there and working with users, understanding what the feedback is. I think that’s a really critical component to understanding how to improve.

Poornima Vijayashanker: I know in the next episode we’re going to be going into a little bit more detail and boiling it down for viewers out there. Thank you so much today for joining us Laura.

Laura Allen: Thank you.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Now, Laura and I want to know: how does your company handle accessibility? Let us know in the comments below.

That’s it for this week’s episode. Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel to receive the next episode where we’ll dive in a little bit deeper and share three key tips that you want to think about when designing for accessibility. Thanks so much to our sponsor Pivotal Tracker for their help in producing this episode. Ciao for now.

This episode of Build is brought to you by our sponsor, Pivotal Tracker.


Build is produced as a partnership between Femgineer and Pivotal Tracker. San Francisco video production by StartMotionMEDIA.