All posts by Sarah Horton

Year in Review: A Web for Everyone and Accessible UX

It’s been a year since I made the leap from higher education to a job in accessibility at The Paciello Group, or TPG as we are more commonly known. Here in my anniversary post I reflect on some of the good stuff that’s happened this past year.

Whitney Quesenbery and I completed our book, A Web for Everyone: Designing Accessible User Experiences, and Rosenfeld Media sent it out into the world in January 2014. We’ve been getting great feedback about how accessible and usable the book is, which is just what we were shooting for—to make accessibility approachable and achievable. There’s an excerpt from the interaction chapter at A List Apart and the personas are on UX Magazine.

We included interviews in the book, which we really enjoyed doing—chatting with people in the accessibility community about topics near and dear. We wanted to keep doing that so we launched A Podcast for Everyone, with help from Rosenfeld Media, UIE, TPG, and O’Reilly. We plan to keep cranking out episodes every two weeks, indefinitely.

My work at TPG has been intense—in a good way. I started out doing technical reviews of websites, web applications, mobile sites and apps, desktop apps, even telephone services. With my TPG colleagues—the best accessibility mentors in the world (and who are, incidentally, located all over the world)—readily available in my Skype window, I learned a ton about the technical underpinnings of accessibility in digital products and services. I continue to learn new things from my colleagues every day. Today I learned about taps, swipes, and other touch events from Patrick Lauke.

The other focus of my work at TPG has been on building out a practice of Accessible User Experience. TPG has been doing user research activities for a long time, and when I came on board I was tasked with formalizing and building out those services. Fortunately, TPG hired David Sloan around the same time as they hired me. Dave worked for many years as a researcher, teacher, and consultant at the University of Dundee and is an expert the impact of accessibility on user experience. We’ve been reviewing mockups, wireframes, and prototypes to advise on accessibility implications at the design phase. We had several user research engagements, doing stakeholder interviews and usability studies. We have a series of Accessible User Experience training webinars that teach ways to bring accessibility into UX activities. We had a really interesting and challenging engagement creating a roadmap for integrating accessibility into the culture of a large multinational.

Overall, it’s a great time to be working in accessibility with a focus on user experience. Companies are becoming more aware that accessibility cannot be addressed after-the-fact and result in an acceptable outcome for anyone. The costs are high, for producer and consumer. I look forward to continuing work with my TPG colleagues and the accessibility and user experience communities to bring accessibility into user experience, so that products and services are accessible and enjoyable for everyone.

A day job in web accessibility

I started learning about web accessibility in the early 2000s when I was asked to speak on the topic at a conference. Since that time I have had opportunities to develop my knowledge and expertise, but always as an adjunct to my day job. Web accessibility became a passion that I would weave into my other job responsibilities, and write and present about on my own time.

And I’ve had some really great day jobs, all in higher education, and all having something to do with designing and coding interaction. In recent years I’ve been less of a doer and more of a leader and strategist. I’ve had a great run in higher ed, with wonderful colleagues and countless opportunities to learn and grow. I am very grateful.

But! I have a new position as Director of Accessible User Experience and Design with The Paciello Group. A day job, doing accessibility! And accessible UX and design, to boot! And with TPG, working with colleagues who are the best in the business! (Can you tell I’m excited?!)

I feel incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to combine my day job and my passion into one focused effort, and join others working to make the web accessible for everyone.

Innovating and disrupting, all in a day’s work

Recently I had the pleasure of speaking at the HighEdWeb New England regional conference. What a great bunch of people! I really enjoyed the energy and positivity of the sessions and the side conversations. This is a group undaunted by the challenge of bring order, quality, and new ideas to the fairly conservative yet chaotic medium of college and university websites.

Bringing order to chaos has been my main focus for the last five or so years as a web strategist, first at Dartmouth College and more recently at Harvard University. I spoke about my work on the Harvard Web Publishing Initiative at HighEdWebNE, and it was a great opportunity for me to get my head around some of the more innovative aspects of the project, and some of the challenges.

I started on HWPI in June of last year, as Web Strategy Project Lead. Personally, I love a challenge, and I can’t think of many things more challenging than setting up a centralized governance model, suite of services, and software platform for web publishing in an environment as large and decentralized as Harvard University. The project is ambitious and forward-looking, with strong backing from institutional leadership.

Our approach to HWPI has been enterprising on many fronts:

  • Learning by doing. Rather than engage in an extended discovery phase to learn the requirements for the project, we started with a pilot phase. We redesigned the websites of 10 academic and administrative departments, identifying the requirements for the platform and best practices for service delivery, and setting standards for user experience and design.
  • Guided by strategy. To avoid “lift and drop” redesigns we started each project with a project charter, asking departments to step back and define goals, target audience, and success metrics. We also identified and assigned ongoing departmental resources, particularly for content.
  • Focus on user experience. A consistent user interface improves user experience because visitors can learn the interface once, and then apply what they know to other Harvard sites. We designed common navigation and wayfinding systems for academic and administrative departments.
  • Commitment to quality. HWPI is about quality, and not just on the surface. We hired a digital content strategist to help departments craft their content to best accomplish their goals.
  • Software for higher ed. HWPI is using OpenScholar, a Harvard built Drupal-based open source software platform designed to help faculty communicate about scholarly endeavors. With origins in higher education and developers on the HWPI team, OpenScholar is expanding to include functionality needed for university communications.
  • Responsive and accessible. Early on we realized that a great visual design that works well in different contexts and devices would be an enticement to use the platform. We partnered with Happy Cog to develop accessible and responsive templates for the platform.

By the end of March we were through the pilot phase, successfully launching the 10 pilot sites. But it wasn’t always an easy process, for the team or the clients.

One of my lessons learned about our approach inspired the topic for my HighEdWebNE presentation: that innovative ideas need an innovation process.

An accidental innovator

When I started work on HWPI I thought it was interesting and challenging, but innovative? Not really. I had been working many years at Dartmouth on a similar service and platform. I expected this project to be much the same, only bigger!

As time passed I realized the project was not only innovative but also disruptive because it asks people to change their values. Rather than valuing customization it asks customers to value other factors, like a shared platform with central support, a common look-and-feel, structured content, and opportunities for content aggregation and sharing. I wish I had recognized the disruptive nature of the project earlier because I would have sought ways to adapt our process.

In my HighEdWebNE presentation I shared several books that are important for people involved in innovation projects: The Innovator’s Dilemma, to help recognize a disruptive innovation project, Diffusion of Innovations, to learn how to get innovations adopted, and Change by Design, for a “design thinking” methodology to support innovation projects.

Innovation and disruption may seem all in a day’s work for people working in technology. We don’t generally wake up in the morning and think, “Well, off to innovate!” But the customers we rely on—to adopt and enjoy the fruits of our labors—have a very different perspective. To them, we are asking a lot. We are asking them to change their values.

If you find yourself working on a product that your customers think of as new, first of all, recognize the project as a disruptive innovation. Then, form a small team to work exclusively on the project, surround the team with customers who want and value the features and capabilities of the product, and use an iterative approach of brainstorming, designing, and prototyping to produce a successful outcome.

Presentations slides from Slideshare

Slides from Innovative Ideas Need An Innovation Process, posted by highedwebne on Slideshare:

The Future of Web Accessibility: A Multi-Voice Choir

Back in May of 2011 I wrote an article about a new book project, Universal Design for Web Accessibility. Since then my co-author, Whitney Quesenbery, and I have been plugging away, stealing writing time in between moves, job changes, elections, violent weather, and the many other disruptions that come with living a full life. We are now about 90% of the way to a final draft and are shooting for publication in the spring. (If you are interested, you can sign up to be notified when the book is published.)

The book has evolved quite a bit from our original thinking. We had planned to use the Principles of Universal Design to frame the discussion, but in the end we drew on many principles, guidelines, and approaches to design that can be used to support accessibility. We ended up creating a framework for incorporating accessibility into the design and development process, with the goal of creating accessible user experiences.

One aspect that did not change is our desire to include many voices in the book. Web accessibility is a shared concern, with many viewpoints to shed light on the topic. Each chapter features a profile, where people with deep expertise in areas that influence accessibility provide helpful context and guidance on specific topics. We also introduce a set of personas in the beginning of the book and include them throughout, providing a first-person viewpoint on different aspects of a design.

Now we are working on the final chapter of the book, The Future of Web Accessibility. This is where we set out to inspire readers to put the guidance from the previous chapters into practice, making accessibility an integral part of their process.

We need your help to provide that inspiration. Whitney and I can say plenty about where we see hope and what we believe needs to change. But we are only two voices. Many voices together are more powerful, more inspiring. We would like to close the book with the force of a multi-voice choir.

To that end we created a web form where we invite you to submit your thoughts about the future of web accessibility. We would like to know:

  • What is your vision of a web for everyone, and how will we know we have reached it?
  • What signs are there that we are moving towards that goal?
  • What holds us (and the web) back from that vision?

We would also like to know a bit about you so we can represent your views accurately and provide proper credit. You can share your thoughts via the future of web accessibility interview form or using the commenting feature, below. You can also email me your thoughts at sarah.horton@gmail.com.

We will use the responses to compose a collective argument in favor of adopting web accessibility practices, and together take steps toward building a web for everyone.

Please, add your voice!

Storytelling, empathy, and finding purpose

For me, accessibility was a game changer in thinking about the purpose of design.

As a starving musician, I stumbled into design in the course of trying to put food on the table. Without a design education I was never quite sure of what design was all about. As an interaction designer, I was torn between delighting the eye and quietly helping people on their way—both visible and invisible, imposing and encouraging, shouting, “Look at me!” and murmuring, “You’re on the right track.” I muddled along, confused.

In 2001 I attended a Nercomp conference on Web Accessibility and presented a talk called “Practical Accessibility in Web Page Design.” This was my second presentation on the topic, the first a few months earlier at another higher ed/IT conference. Web accessibility was new to me and new to higher education.

Before lunch, Gerald Neufeld, PhD, gave a talk called “Visually-Impaired Students and the Struggle to Survive.” Dr Neufeld is visually impaired, and he described his time as a student, listening to texts on reel-to-reel tapes. He said that he could not afford to listen to a book more than once because of the time it took. He contrasted his pre-digital experience with his current experience of reading online, demonstrating the unimaginably fast reading speed he uses with his screen reader. He spoke of how digital technologies have leveled the playing field, removing obstacles such as reading and writing time for people with visual disabilities. “In 1980, the mountain I was climbing had no end. Twenty years later, that mountain is no more.”

Dr Neufeld was a compelling storytelling. I felt his frustration and distress, and worried with him about keeping up with such compromised access to primary materials. I also felt worry transform into delight at the world of opportunity presented by electronic texts, and software to read them. And while his access was much improved by electronic documents, he had stories to tell of obstacles he encountered, such as image-based PDFs. I felt discouraged by obstacles that could so easily have been avoided—opportunities that were so close, yet still so far.

Empathy is a powerful learning tool. Dr Neufeld told stories in such a way that encouraged others to step into his shoes and broaden their knowledge and understanding of the world. From Dr Neufeld I learned that the purpose of design is delivering content and functionality, without obstacles, to as many people as possible.

Design and Constraints, Ease and Comfort

Photo of Eames Molded Plywood Chair
Eames Molded Plywood Chair, Courtesy of Herman Miller

I’m reading Graham Pullin’s book, Design Meets Disability. He starts out with a quote from Charles Eames: “design depends largely on constraints.” Charles and Ray Eames designed, among other things, the iconic molded plywood chairs manufactured by Herman Miller.

I love this quote. Much of the work of a web design professional seems to be about explaining and demonstrating the constraints of digital environment. There’s something about the plasticity of digital that leads to an “anything is possible” mentality. After all, in software development most everything is a simple a matter of programming. And though this expression is intended to be ironic, in many ways it is true. Much is possible, given the necessary time and knowledge. But just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s appropriate, given the constraints of the environment.

Many factors constrain the form of a chair: its materials, variability in human form and function, its physical and cultural context. These are broadly understood by designers and consumers. For the most part, even the most innovative designs produce chairs we can sit on.

The factors that constrain digital designs are less well understood, in part because they are in a constant state of flux. Also, digital design is a new profession, unregulated and un-credentialed, and lacks a shared vocabulary and common understanding of the requirements of a safe, stable, and accessible environment. The resulting disorder produces unnecessary constraints, one of the more vexing of which is variability.

I am currently working on an HTML email, nesting tables just like old times, and am dismayed by the variation in rendering across clients and platforms. When software developers do not adhere to constraints, such as the need for consistent rendering, web designers end up spending much, if not most, of their time creating designs that will survive variable platforms.

So I should qualify my endorsement of constraints by saying I enjoy working with real constraints, like a limited font selection and variable window widths. I don’t enjoy wasting time dealing with inconsistent rendering.

The discipline of design is in observing and working with constraints to produce an experience that people can settle into and enjoy, with ease and comfort. The sooner we can bring discipline and respect for constraints to the digital environment, the better.

Universal Design for Web Accessibility

I’m just gearing up to start work on a new book. The book is called Universal Design for Web Accessibility. Whitney Quesenbery is my co-author, and Rosenfeld Media is the publisher. I am honored and grateful to work with Whitney, and to have the confidence of Lou Rosenfeld and the readers who reviewed our proposal. This will be an important book and I am eager to get started.

In many ways I have been working on this book since my first presentation on web accessibility in 2001, 10 years ago. I had been hearing talk of how the design of website elements could create barriers on the web, similar to staired entryways and revolving doors on buildings. I had been building websites guided by concerns other than accessibility. This was at a time when designers like me, who were concerned with layout and typography, used the rudimentary technologies available to coax (or hack) out well-designed sites. The code beneath the designs was not pretty, but the websites were. I was proud of my resourcefulness and my designs – until I learned more about accessibility.

I accepted the invitation to present on accessibility primarily as a push to learn more on the topic. I learned how people with disabilities use the web. I learned how web technologies, when used according to standards and guidelines, open up access to a world of opportunities. And in the process of learning about web accessibility I grew into my role as a designer. By understanding the impact of my decisions, I assumed responsibility for my work that goes much more than screen deep.

Since then I have been looking for ways to provide attractive designs that transform elegantly for different users in different contexts. I have found the universal design principles that guide the best accessible designs in the built environment to be a useful framework for designing digital access. I have also looked to architects and builders to understand how the profession has taken on responsibility for access requirements.

Whitney and I have high hopes for this book. The user experience profession will be asked to absorb responsibility for accessibility compliance. We want our book to provide solutions that are both practical and inspiring. And we want to establish a universal design framework for web development that will give rise to accessible design solutions.

Please help us by participating in the creation of the book. Our book website will be very active during development, and we will follow a reader-centered authoring process. Tell us what you need, respond to our requests for feedback, send us inspiring examples. Let us learn from you!

Putting Lipstick on a Pig

Closeup photo of a pig, Courtsey of Brent Moore, Flickr.com
Courtesy of Brent Moore, Flickr.com

I recently took a trip that involved multiple hotel stays. One of the hotels reminded me of a certain type of internet experience. The hotel described itself as a luxury hotel, and indeed it had the amenities of luxury—the plush white robes waiting in the closet, the thick towels, the Gilchrist & Soames toiletries. However, only one burner of the kitchen stove was functional, the television played only snow, and the pillows were without pillowcases. And the fundamental structure of the building itself was flimsy and old.

Having committed to the hotel, both financially and logistically, I tried to make it work. I made my coffee using the one working burner. I watched movies on my laptop. I found pillowcases. And I tried not to look too closely at the stains, dirt, and cracked paint.

This worked for about four days, at which time I cancelled the remaining three days of my reservation and left. Satisficing ultimately wore me down, to where I dreaded returning to my room—plush robes notwithstanding.

As a web designer, sometimes my job is to dress up poorly conceived and architected websites and web applications—also known as putting lipstick on a pig. Perhaps this self-awareness is part of what made my hotel experience so uncomfortable. It was like I was living inside one of my less glamorous projects—a bit like Being John Malkovich, but without the humor.

If the basic framework is a pig, lipstick does not a luxury experience make. My guess is that this hotel has a high bounce rate, with visitors checking in, staying a few nights, leaving or leaving early, and never returning. They would be better served spending their luxury dollars on providing a solid baseline of service and cleanliness, and making their facilities fully functional. Who wears bathrobes, anyway?

The same holds true for web experiences. A clean interface that supports basic usability and functionality wins out every time over a luxurious yet buggy design (fortunately, there were no bugs).

The experience served as a good reminder. For interaction design, I need to focus on the essentials and do them extremely well, and resist the urge (or the push from clients) to reach for the lipstick until I’m sure it’s not for a pig.

Google (in)accessibility videos from the National Federation of the Blind

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) recently raised the possibility of civil rights violations arising from the use of Google Apps for Education, and asked the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division to investigate. In their March 15, 2011 press release, Adoption of Google Apps Program Discriminates Against the Blind, they claim that both New York University (NYU) and Northwestern University, along with several Oregon public schools, have committed civil rights violations by utilizing these applications that have “significant accessibility barriers for blind people” to deliver email, calendaring, and collaboration tools to their students and faculty.

In following the story I discovered that NFB has devoted resources to preparing (captioned) videos demonstrating the types of barriers encountered by screen reader users in using these tools. As a long-time advocate of accessibility, who has tried countless methods for raising awareness about nonvisual access to webpages, this video collection is a goldmine. The videos illustrate both the challenges of nonvisual access, but also the ease of solving these challenges using good coding and design practices. The issues demonstrated using Google as an example are transferable (unfortunately) to many—maybe even most—web-based applications. Developers should view and learn from these videos, and avoid making the same mistakes.

I have long admired NFB for their work in ensuring equal access for nonvisual users. To admiration I now add my gratitude for providing exceptional content that can be used for education and awareness-raising by accessibility advocates, and to make real the barriers as well as the solutions for the people who code the pages.

Thank you, NFB!