E084 – Interview with Jessica Ivins – Part 1

Jessica and I ponder whether low-literacy could be considered a disability, and regardless of the answer, that factor needs to be taken into account when designing sites and content.


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Nic:    Welcome to the accessibility rules podcast. This is episode 84. I’m Nic Steenhout, and I talk with people involved in one way or another with web accessibility. If you’re interested in accessibility hey, this shows for you.

To get today’s show notes or transcript head out to https://a11yrules.com. Thanks to Twilio for sponsoring the transcript for this episode. Twilio connect the world with the leading platform for voice, SMS, and video at Twilio.com.

This week I’m speaking with Jessica Ivins. Hey, Jessica. Thanks for joining me for this conversation around web accessibility

Jessica:     Sure, Nic. Thank you for having me

Nic:    I like to let guests introduce themselves. So, in a brief intro, whose Jessica Ivins?

Jessica:    Sure. I’m a faculty member at Center Centre, the UX design school here in Chattanooga, Tennesse in the US, and we offer a 2-year full-time program that offers you as a student to be an industry ready designer. So you attend school for 2 years. We model the work… school environment more like a work environment, so you’re in school Monday through Friday, 9-5. About two-thirds of your time is spent working on real-world projects. So, by the time you graduate you have almost 2 years of experience, and you have a portfolio, and you are industry ready, and prepared to get a job.

Nic:    That sounds fantastic. We’ll probably talk a little bit more about that, but, one of my pet peeves is that so many design and development courses don’t cover accessibility. Is this part of the curriculum at Center Centre?

Jessica:    Yes, for sure. Accessibility is a big part of what we do. And, back in the beginning when we were designing the school. So, we are a relatively new school, and we built the program from scratch. And, back in the beginning, we were talking about how we wanted to include accessibility in the curriculum, and how wanted students to learn about it because we knew it was important. We wanted to make sure that it wasn’t an afterthought. We wanted to make sure that it was part of what the students did at all times. And, that’s when we arrived at the conclusion that, you know, we have 24 core courses throughout the 2-year program, and instead of making one of those courses an accessibility course we decided to infuse accessibility throughout the program, so that students learn how to make design decisions that factor in accessibility throughout each stage of the design project.

Nic:    I love that. You need to go and speak to every single computer science and design outfit out there in the world and sing that gospel. That’s fantastic…

Jessica:    Yeah. Go ahead, go ahead

Nic:    … yeah, no, I was just going to say I normally get people warmed up by asking them to tell us one thing that most people would not know about you. So, is there something that most people would not know about you?

Jessica:     Yeah, you know, this is a fun one. So, Center Centre, the school where I’m a faculty member, we were originally known as the Unicorn Institute. We called ourselves the Unicorn Institute before we were authorized by the state on Tennessee to officially call ourselves a school, but, before we got that authorization we wanted a way to talk about ourselves so we were known as the Unicorn Institute. And, back when I applied to be a faculty member here at Center Centre we were still known as the Unicorn Institute, and it was so funny that I got the job here to my parents because I was the girl who loved Unicorns growing up. As a little girl, I just drew Unicorns all the time, movies with unicorns in them I watched over and over again. I just loved unicorns. And, then when I tried to tell my parents with a straight face that I got a new job in Tennesse at the Unicorn Institute they were… “What?” they thought I was joking. They didn’t realize I was serious, so that’s a fun fact about me. That I ended up working at a school that used to be called the unicorn Institute and I was the girl who loved Unicorns.

Nic:    Oh that’s awesome. That’s just awesome. So, we’re talking mostly about web accessibility, how would you define that?

Jessica:    Sure, so, we kind of see accessibility as a holistic thing. So, we see it as making… this is what our students learn. Our students learn accessibility is about making your design usable and open to as many people as possible. And, we also talk about inclusivity as well. So we talk about inclusion versus accessibility with the students, and we have lots of conversations as they’re very closely related. Almost 2 sides of the same coin. Inclusivity is more the principle or the mindset of thinking constantly about how can I make sure that people with a disability or people using a non-conventional device or people in a less than ideal situation can use my content, can use my design, and accomplish what they need to accomplish. And, the accessibility is more like the tactical end. So, that’s more like the implementation. Like, okay, we want somebody blind to be able to use this design so what kind of tactical implementation can we put into the design to make that possible. Where the inclusivity part is more thinking ahead, thinking holistically about how can somebody who is blind or how can somebody who has limited cognitive disability… how can these people use my design and accomplish what they need to accomplish.

Nic:    Yeah, it’s an interesting distinction that.

Jessica:     Yeah. You know, we have a lot of conversations about it and there’s been some folks who have written some great stuff on the distinction and I just love how they work together very well because accessibility I think a lot of people can get a very… I don’t know if fixed mindset is the right word or just a very narrow view of accessibility where accessibility is about screen readers. So, we need to make sure our code is compliant and that a screen reader can understand the design and read it aloud to the person who is blind, and that is important but screen readers, and designing for people who are blind is only a part of accessibility . There’s so much more to accessibility there are cognitive limitations that you need to consider, low literacy… here in the US, the statistics are pretty staggering about how many people walk around and get through their day who are low literacy. So we need to make sure our content is written in simple and plain language that’s easy to understand. We also need to think about somebody with a cognitive limitation like somebody who is on the autism spectrum, so they process information differently from somebody whose not on the spectrum. So, how can we open up all of these designs and make them accessible and usable to a diverse population with different needs.

Nic:    I find it interesting that you bring up low-level literacy. Would you say low-level literacy is a disability?

Jessica:    I don’t know that it’s necessarily a disability. It could be due to a disability. It could be a cognitive limitation you have. Like a learning disability. It could be a result of lack of access to education. There could be lots of reasons for it. But, I just know as a designer, I think what’s important for … and what my students learn is that there’s a significantly high percentage of the population who has low literacy so how do you make… how do you open up your content and make it understandable to them? And, we talk with our students about using simple language, using language that the user understands, so, for example, years ago when I was at a different job I was working on a redesign of a hospital website and the main audience for the hospital website was patients and caregivers. So, we actually found during user research that the term heart doctor was much easier to understand for most people than cardiologist. Even though cardiologist is the accurate medical term for a doctor who works with patients on their heart, a heart doctor was much more understandable. So, it’s things like that that are really eye-opening and that help you understand how to make your content as useful and understandable to people as possible. And, a lot of push back that I get when I talk about simplifying content is that people think that you’re dumbing it down. They think, why would I dumb down content for some of my audience or maybe even most of my audience has a college-level degree, so they can read college-level writing so why should I dumb my content down? And my response to that is, it’s not about dumbing it down, it’s about opening it up to all of your customers and all of your users so that they can understand it. And, when you use simple language, even if somebody does have a high reading level… let’s say they have a college degree and they can understand larger words and more jargony words… if you make that language simple for them it’s easier for them to understand because there less cognitive processing that they have to do in order to really understand the content.

Nic:    Yeah. Jessica, what do you think is the designer’s responsibility in making sure developers code accessible pages?

Jessica:    So, I would say as a designer in terms of coding accessible designs, I’m a big believer in knowing how to code as a designer gives you huge advantages. Now, if you ever want to get somebody riled up in the UX field, ask them, should UX designers know how to code? Because there’s lot’s of strong opinions about this. People, are, you know, either they go one way or the other and I’ve seen people get really heated up about this. But, the way I see it is the more you know as a designer the more equipped you are to understand your medium and produce better designs. So, as a designer, if you know how code works then that gives you a literacy and a way… and understanding and you can then work with developers on… you know… collaborating on how to make the code as accessible as possible. Whereas if you’re a designer who doesn’t know how to code and you are working with developers and you are trying to figure out having conversations with them about how to make the design accessible, it’s going to be very difficult for you because you don’t have that knowledge of the medium. So, I think it’s a huge advantage for UX designers who know how to code.

I know I started in the industry as a frontend developer, years and years ago. I was a frontend developer for about four years or so before I moved into UX design. Probably even longer because I was coding a lot in College before I got my first job after college. But, I’m so grateful that I have that background because coding has changed a lot since then but the basics are still the same and I can look at front-end code and I can understand what it’s doing, what it’s attempting to do and I can have conversations with developers. I know what ARIA rules are, I know what all sorts of things are so that, you know, if you put me in front of a text editor and said “code this thing and we are going to launch it into production today” that I wouldn’t be the best person to do that, but because I have the literacy and the understanding of the code I’m much more equipped to talk with developers in making accessible code. And, again, going back to our program at Center Centre that’s why we have so many courses, and we do have at least 2 courses that are focused on front-end development so that our students graduate as well rounded UX designers who know how to code. They’re not front-end developers but they know how to code, they understand it, and they can work with developers.

Nic:    It’s funny, it reminds me of my days when I was younger, still a teen, I was studying to be a chef. And, part of our classes were how to do front room wait staff. We had to learn about that to understand what went into the role of a waiter and, I think it’s the same approach you folks are taking where having the tools really solidify your ability to actually accomplish your work well.

Jessica:    Yeah, I think what you’re talking about sounds like getting a well-rounded education in what it’s like to run a restaurant and to work a restaurant. Right? Just not just in the kitchen but outside of the kitchen, and we strive similarly, we strive for that with designers. You know, what is it like to work with copywriters, as a student here you have a whole class on copywriting and content strategy. And, we’re not producing you to be… we’re not training you to be a content strategist but we are training you to be able to write good content, and also give you the knowledge that you need to work with copywriters, and know why they do the things they do, work with content strategists, know why they do the things they do…. So yeah, it’s… we are big fans of producing generalists here. That’s what we’ve designed our program to do. And then our students go off and they graduate and most of them get generalist positions but if they want to specialize later they can. But, at least if they specialize later in their careers they’ll have that well-rounded foundation and they’ll understand all the different aspects that go into UX design.

Nic:    Yeah….. How did you become aware of web accessibility and it’s importance?

Jessica:     I would say it probably started back when I was a front-end developer just learning about…you know it really started with screenreaders because I think that’s where a lot of people start. That tends to be the focus, or that tends to be the place people go when you think about accessibility and, it started there, and then throughout my career it’s something that I continue to keep in mind and I continue to try to work toward. But, it wasn’t until I got to Center Centre and I was building the curriculum here where I realized all the opportunities you have to really infuse accessibility into the work you do every day. There are far more opportunities to apply it to your work than the more obvious opportunities like frontend development with coding and making it accessible to screenreaders. Or, there’s some more obvious opportunities as well with visual design. So, making sure that you use sufficient contrast with text on the background, making sure that you don’t rely on color to convey information in case somebodies color blind…. So on and so forth. There are a lot of resources about that but there’s also some…. I guess less prevalent ways to infuse accessibility into your design. So, speaking of which, we are, at Center Centre, we are between student classes right now so we are using this time to take an opportunity to take a deep dive into the curriculum and look at places where we can infuse accessibility even more than where we have already infused it. And, we have already found a few interesting opportunities. We have a course on critique, so how to give and receive a critique of design work and we hadn’t infused accessibility in there. So we looked for opportunities and we decided right now we’re talking about, so we are accompanied schools, so you don’t get letter grades here. It’s pass,fail. So you basically have to do all the things on the checklist in order to meet the requirements for the course. So we are adding actually things in that checklist that say when you are presenting your design work for critique make sure that you set … make sure that you request feedback about the accessibility of your design. And, also set expectations about what feedback that you want. So, if you’re presenting content that you’ve written and you would like feedback about the accessibility you’re not going to be really focussed on, can a screen reader read this because you’re just focussing on content, you’re probably going to be focussing on ‘Does this use simple language?’ ‘Does this use terms the user understand?’ So, and then… that’s… although we already have competencies in the copywriting and content strategy course that requires you to write in simple language we are reinforcing it by making sure that you address it during critique as well so that it doesn’t, you know, slip through the cracks. But, even more importantly so it just becomes normalized. And it becomes part of everyday conversations throughout the design process. So, it’s been really interesting going back in our curriculum and seeing even more opportunities to infuse accessibility and, we are even finding opportunities that haven’t been addressed by the industry. So, what I just explained about putting in competencies where students are required to discuss accessibility during critique, I’ve been researching and looking around and looking at books on critique and I don’t find really any resources that directly address how to talk about accessibility during critique. So, it’s pretty cool that we are actually finding opportunities to add value to the industry that other people haven’t addressed yet.

Nic:    How can the accessibility industry help with these kinds of things?

Jessica:     How can the accessibility help with these kinds of things? Or, sorry, how can the industry help with these kinds of things?

Nic:    Yeah. How can we as accessibility professionals help people like you, the educators in making more of that stuff happen?

Jessica:    So, I would say I love the accessibility resources that I find. I’m always listening to your show. I’m always on the lookout for new articles and what not. I would say if you come across an idea… if you have a new idea, something that you want to share… maybe you do have an idea on how you can address accessibility in critique, please, by all means, share it. Because people like me and other people out there like there… excuse me, folks like me and other designers do really care about accessibility and are open to ways to infusing it into their practice. So, I would say if you’re an accessibility expert or you just happen to work in this industry and you have an interest in accessibility and you discover something new… or something that’s already been talked about but you have a new perspective on it… please, by all means, share it because folks like me would love to read it.

Nic:    Thank you for that. So, yeah… I think there’s often this balance between rights and responsibilities. And, I do think that accessibility professionals do have a certain responsibility to help people teach and implement accessibility and I think that hearing that voice from someone like you that’s a little bit on the periphery of things is helpful for me to be able to reinforce that message. We should be helping people helping us.

Jessica:    Of course, yeah. I’m always like I said, I’m always on the lookout for articles. One of my favorite resources, by the way, is the accessibility weekly newsletter which you may be aware of.  There’s a gentleman who puts it together and it goes out every week and he does a fantastic job of just scouring the web for new articles and podcasts and whatnot, about accessibility. He compiles them, basically creates a list of links and sends it out as an email. He finds fantastic stuff. I’ve found so much new good stuff through that newsletter. It’s resources… I review the resources, We meet about it as a staff here at Center Centre and we talk about, ‘Wow, this is a great idea. This article addresses something that we haven’t thought to address yet so let’s talk about ways to fuse it into the curriculum.’ We recently found great ways to add more competencies to our user research practices course to make sure that… we already require students when they do usability testing or user interviews… whenever they have a user research study they have to have at least one participant with some sort of disability. But we are also looking at ways …. We found some great articles on how to moderate a user research session if the person has a disability. Just great tips on how to make the person comfortable, how to communicate with the person what data to collect… to look for because you’re not just looking for how can we make this design accessible to this person who has a disability but what can we learn from this person who has a disability in making the design not only better for them but better for everyone. Because, as you know, accessibility is expansive so the more accessible something is generally the more usable it is for everybody. So we’ve just been… I think it was through that email newsletter actually that we found some great articles on user research and accessibility so we’ve been…. And you know, again, our curriculum is a living thing. We constantly update it, grow it and evolve it with industry. Because this industry does not sit still. As you know it’s constantly moving so our curriculum evolves with it as well. So it’s been a lot of fun actually. It’s been almost like this treasure hunt that I’ve been on lately while we are in between students and looking for more accessibility resources and finding some real gems, and talking about it with the staff and infusing it into our curriculum.

Nic:    Yeah. I find it interesting you mention the accessibility weekly newsletter because just yesterday I discovered that he had included one of my podcast episodes in there. So that was quite a bit of an interesting find to see that the show is starting to reach out to these areas. You know? Where people that I don’t personally know start talking about the show. It’s quite good.

Jessica:    You know, I saw that email today. I read it this morning and I was like “Oh. Accessibility Rules is in there. That’s awesome.” So I did see that today.

Nic:    Has your view of accessibility changed over the last 5 years or so that you’ve been focussing on accessibility?

Jessica:    Oh, for sure. Like I said earlier, I’ve really started to understand the breadth of accessibility and I’ve started to think about it beyond… like I was talking about it earlier, how to make code accessible to screen readers, and how to make your visual designs accessible to people with visual impairments. That’s all important. And, on top of that, I’ve learned to see accessibility from so many different angles. Like writing content, as I talked about earlier. Making sure that if somebody with a motorskill limitation is using your design that they are able to use your design. Making sure on a touch screen that the tap target size is large enough, you know? Like, I think of my nephew, he’s been disabled since birth and he has limited use of motor skills so he doesn’t have fine motor skills and I’ve seen him use an iPad before and he can use it but the touch target areas need to be larger…

Nic:    Yeah

Jessica:    …and making larger touch target areas doesn’t just help somebody with a disability like my nephew but it helps everybody because you have… there’s just more room for error and more room for forgiveness while you’re tapping around and using the design. So, all sorts of ways. To think about it, again, I talked earlier about somebody on the autism spectrum. It’s very helpful if you have a user who is on the autism spectrum to be as consistent as possible throughout your design. Always putting things in the same place when relevant and when applicable. That really puts people at ease and calms their stress levels if they’re on the autism spectrum because it can be stressful dealing with a design that’s inconsistent…

Nic:    Yeah

Jessica:    And again that can help somebody who’s not on the autism spectrum just because consistency tends to create predictability. And of course, we can go down a rabbit hole in terms of consistency because some designers get so focused on making things consistent that they don’t make it usable. That’s actually a thing and I’ve seen it happen before in the industry, but, to back up and just keep it at a high level… it’s good to keep things consistent, not just from visual design and branding and aesthetic perspective but also to ease the cognitive load on your users.

Nic:    Jessica, let’s wrap up this week with a last question for you. What would you say is your greatest achievement in terms of web accessibility?

Jessica:    I would say the thing I’m most proud of is what I’ve been doing the last week here at Center Centre which really is taking a deep dive into really searching between the cracks and looking for more opportunities to help other people learn about accessibility. You know, reinforcing the more well-known approaches that we can take and also looking for newer approaches that either aren’t as popular or aren’t as well known or aren’t even out there yet. It’s been really, really exciting and it’s something that’s been on my mind a lot.

Nic:    Wonderful. Thank you. Jessica Ivins, thank you for being such a great guest. We’ll continue our conversation next week.

Jessica:    Thank you so much.

Nic:    Thanks for listening. Quick reminder, the transcript for this and all other shows are available on the show’s website at https://a11yrules.com Big shoutout to my sponsors and my patrons. Without your support, I couldn’t not continue to do the show. Do visit patreon.com/steenhout if you want to support the accessibility rules podcast. Thank you.