E085 – Interview with Jessica Ivins – Part 2

Jessica suggests that accessibility is a competitive advantage. The more people can use your product, the more likely they are to spend money on it.


Thanks to Twilio for sponsoring the transcript for this episode.

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Nic: Welcome to the Accessibility Rules Podcast. This is episode 85. I’m Nic Steenhout and I talk with people involved in one way or another with web accessibility. If you’re interested in an 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.

Nic: Twilio connect the world with the leading platform for voice, SMS and video at Twilio.com. In this episode, I’m continuing my conversation with Jessica Ivins. Last show was really good. Do check it out if you haven’t already because we spoke about important stuff, but particularly around education and designers and how the Center Centre, where Jessica is working incorporates accessibility throughout the curriculum, rather than give one accessible classes somewhere less than the end of the program, like so many other schools do. So welcome back, Jessica.

Jessica: Hello. Thanks for having me again.

Nic: We finished last week talking about what your greatest achievement was. Let’s start this week with what’s your greatest frustration in terms of web accessibility?

Jessica: My greatest frustration in terms of web accessibility? I would say, that’s a good question. I have to think about that for a minute. I don’t know that it’s a frustration. One thing that’s been on my mind lately is all of the… So I think there’s a double-edged sword going on here. I think there are good things and bad things about this. But there’ve been a lot of attention lately in the past year or so in particular, about accessibility lawsuits and companies kind of having the CYA reactive measure to the commonality of lawsuits now. How they’re doing across accessibility audits and they’re trying to basically retrofit their designs because they’re afraid of being sued.

Jessica: While I think it’s a good thing that lawsuits are raising awareness of accessibility, I also really hope that as the awareness is happening due to a legal reason, I hope that the awareness evolves and that more companies, especially not necessarily design professionals and developers, but the people above them. The people who have the power to make decisions and the people who control the money. I am hoping that what this kickstarts is that, those people in power start to see accessibility not as a liability and something that they have to comply with to keep from being sued, but more like a part of good design practice.

Jessica: Because, as you know Nic, that when you make something accessible, you tend to make it more usable for everybody. So it’s part of good design practice and part of just the right thing to do. I’m hoping that we start to see a shift now that, instead of lawsuits becoming more prevalent, that companies are trying to CYA and protect themselves. That maybe this will kick the snowball down the hill and as that snowball gets larger, more and more people, and especially people in the companies who have the power to make decisions and the power to spend money, will start to invest in accessibility.

Jessica: Not because they’re afraid of lawsuits, but because they want to produce great design that works well for their customers and brings in money, by the way. Because it’s not just about making things that are easy to use, it’s a competitive advantage. The more people can get done with your design and the more they can accomplish, the more likely they are to spend money on your product.

Nic: It’s this thing that, we were looking at accessibility from the legal compliance perspective or the business case perspective. But we also have to look at it from the corporate social responsibility, that more and more companies are starting to espouse. So I think that doing it because it’s the right thing to do would be wonderful if that was the approach.

Jessica: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah and we’re starting to see… So there’s this thing called design maturity, which you may or may not be familiar with. Design maturity, there are all sorts of design maturity scales that you can look up out there. There’s articles about it and everything. Design maturity is essentially a way to measure an organization’s investment and practice of design.

Jessica: So there’s usually a scale of one to four or a scale of one to five for design maturity, where one is basically the dark ages of design. Where design is just about making things pretty. All the way up through five and five is we have a mature design practice, we have a mature UX practice, we take accessibility seriously. We invest in accessibility because we understand that it’s not just good for business, that is good for people and it’s not just a liability, it’s a benefit. We have a robust user research practice because UX and accessibility are very, very closely related.

Jessica: So anyway, you have the scale of maturity on a scale of one to five and there’s more and more executives, in talking about the people in power and large organizations, are starting to see the value of design. It used to be that UX designers had to go out of their way and bend over backwards to prove their worth.

Jessica: Now, that’s becoming less of a thing and more people at the top, VP’s, even executives, are bought into design. So I think as we see the maturity continue to grow across organizations, I think understanding of accessibility will grow with that. And again, that people will start to see accessibility as a benefit to the business and not just something that they have to do to prevent lawsuits from happening.

Nic: Jessica, what do you think the number one reason is for most people to fail… to succeed at implementing accessibility?

Jessica: I was just reading an article about this, this morning. I’m guessing that it’s just lack of awareness or lack of skills. I read this article this morning that made me laugh out loud and it said, most developers don’t wake up in the morning going, “Okay, I’m going to go to work today and I’m going to build something that 20% of the population can’t use.” Right?

Jessica: I mean, I don’t know anybody who does that. I don’t know any designers who do that. Right. “Well, I’m going to design something that people who are colorblind or people who have low vision can’t use because that’s my goal.” I really don’t think that that’s happening. For the most part, I think folks just don’t have the skills and the experience that could really benefit their ability to make things accessible.

Jessica: Again, that’s what excites me about our program at Center Center so much, like I was telling you about in our previous interview, because we do bake accessibility throughout the courses in our curriculum. We are now taking advantage of this time we have in between cohorts of students to take another look at the curriculum, take a deeper dive and look for opportunities where we could bake it an even further. So that as our students learn to be designers, they’re just applying accessibility at every step and it just becomes normalized. It becomes just as important as user research. It becomes just as important as knowing how to prototype. Just as important as knowing how to write good content and all of these other skills that students have.

Jessica: It’s just something that happens every step along the way, where it just becomes part of what you do, rather than something you have to go out and figure out on your own or hope that somebody else takes care of or try to remember only at certain points when you’re coding or when you’re making the visual design. It’s just something that you apply to every decision you make.

Nic: What would you say the greatest challenges for the field of accessibilities are moving forward, looking down the road, five years, 10 years down the road?

Jessica: Yeah. I think it’s going to be equipping everybody on the team to have that broad knowledge and to know how to bake accessibility into all the decisions that they make. I think it’s awesome now. I’m seeing more and more companies have a dedicated accessibility expert on the team and I think that’s awesome. At the same time, I don’t think one person can do it all, right?

Jessica: Because one person can’t be in every meeting, they can’t be involved in every decision. So for example, I have a friend who now just focuses on accessibility and she was a user researcher for a long time and she works at a large financial company. She works on a very large team that works on lots of different products in the financial company and she’s the one accessibility person.

Jessica: So if she’s out on vacation or if she’s not in a certain meeting or whatever, decisions are being made without accessibility kept in mind. I’m sure, knowing her, that she’s doing the best to equip her team and spread her knowledge and spread the skills. At the same time, I think if the organization isn’t invested into spreading that knowledge around, I think they might just depend on this one person. While having that one person is awesome and that’s a great start, I don’t necessarily think it’s enough to make sure that the broader team is equipped to make good decisions about accessibility. So I’m hoping that, that begins to change going forward.

Nic: That would be awesome. I think perhaps that requires a complete paradigm shift for everybody out there or just about everybody. I mean, some companies are already doing the accessibility dance at every step of a project and they even have a accessibility mindset, accessibility culture. But most of them I think, are barely on the stage of even having an accessibility champion, a dedicated one. So how do we make that paradigm shift happen? How do we convince a bunch of companies, government corporations, small agencies, to think accessible? Other than obviously, the good work you’re doing at the school.

Jessica: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, I think there’s lots of different ways to tackle it. I mean, we talked earlier about the fear of lawsuits. Which, that’s not my go to approach. Like, “Hey, CEO, make this accessible, so you don’t get sued.” I mean, that might actually get the CEO’s attention because I guarantee you the CEO doesn’t want his company to be sued or her company to be sued.

Jessica: But again, that brings me back to what I was saying earlier, where accessibility is not just about a legal liability. It’s about making good business decisions and making good designs that will support the business. So I think there are a couple of different ways to approach it. One could be starting, by hiring an accessibility specialist.

Jessica: Now, like I said earlier, I don’t think it’s the best way to address the problems, but I think it’s a great start, right? If the company’s willing to pay one person a salary to focus on accessibility, then that’s a great start. Another thing that I’ve seen done in large-ish organizations, I haven’t seen this done at the enterprise level, but 100, 200 person-level organizations, where you just kind of start small and you find allies.

Jessica: People who believe in accessibility and are invested in accessibility. When you’re working with them on a project, you put a lot of time and energy into working together as a team on how to make this project accessible. So it could be one feature that you’re working on. I think if you start doing that and you get a small group of people invested, it’ll kind of have the ripple effect. The next time you work on a project, let’s say there was four of you who worked on this one project and you took a really deep dive into accessibility and shipping this feature that was accessible as you could get it.

Jessica: Now, the next project that you work on, the four of you are going to be even more equipped to make the next project accessible because you’ve already been focusing on it. As you spread out and work on different projects with more people, you can spread that knowledge to them and it kind of has this ripple effect and grows from within. And I’ve seen that be really effective before in organizations because it kind of happens from the bottom up and it takes time, obviously. You can’t do this overnight.

Jessica: But eventually, VPs and executives and directors, they start to catch wind of this and they start to see it happening and they see, “Oh, this is actually a great for business because these new features that are shipping, they are usable by our customers with limits.” So I used to work somewhere where we had a customer support team and when we did focus on accessibility and ship new features or update features and address accessibility concerns, we had fewer calls coming into the call center.

Jessica: So again, that’s a way to measure success, right? I mean, that’ll get a CEO’s attention. If you’re getting a bunch of calls because your design’s unusable and therefore, probably inaccessible. But you address the usability and the accessibility issues, then you’re saving costs because people aren’t calling in about the problem anymore. But you can start to see change happen in that way or even not necessarily the call center example, but a CEO or a VP seeing that, “Wow, we’ve shipped this and it’s really easy to use and we’re actually getting more conversions than we were with the previous feature.”

Jessica: Chances are, because it’s easy to use, it’s probably more accessible and so on and so forth. So it just kind of grows. I don’t necessarily think it’s an overnight thing. If you’re at a small startup and you’re in the really early stages and somebody with a lot of accessibility knowledge comes on, I think you can enact change pretty quickly at that point.

Jessica: But not in a larger organization and not… I mean, I’ve worked in organizations before where it felt like pushing a boulder up a hill. I started small and I did my best and this one particular organization, by the time I left, there was much more awareness about accessibility and there was at least more effort. Developers and engineers, in particular, were starting to think about it more and include it in their practices. So I was really proud about that.

Jessica: So I made it better. There’s no such thing as a perfectly accessible and inclusive design. I don’t know of any, if they’re already out there. But we can still strive for the best that we can do and if we can get it 80% accessible and inclusive, that’s better than the vast majority of designs out there. We can always just strive to do the best we can and then during the next iteration strive to do even better.

Nic: Yeah. I often talk with people that tell me, “Oh, I can’t make my site comply a 100% with WCAB.” And I tell them, “Nobody can.” The idea is to open as many doors as possible, but there’s always going to be a barrier somewhere for somebody. So we shouldn’t abandon the idea of implementing accessibility because we can’t get everyone through the door at the same time. We just need to chip at that rock a little bit at a time.

Jessica: Yeah. That reminds me of the old mantra that, perfect is the enemy of done. Right?

Nic: Yeah, exactly.

Jessica: So if you can ship a really good product that’s very accessible, but it’s not perfectly accessible, ship it. I mean, that’s the way I see it. Because it’s kind of like how you’re never… I have never seen a piece of software that has no usability issues whatsoever. I’ve never seen a piece of software that works smoothly and swimmingly for every single user who uses it. I’ve just never encountered that. It’s a fantasy, as far as I know.

Jessica: But I’ve seen, there are a few gems out there. Really, really good software that is really, really good at what it does and it serves the primary user base really well. It’s not perfect for everybody, but it does a fantastic job at doing what it’s set out to do. I think that’s the principle that we want to apply to accessibility.

Nic: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Jessica: I’d have to think about that. I feel very fortunate that I love what I do. I feel like I was put on this earth to be a UX designer because I’m just so nerdy and in love with it. So I’m very, very lucky, in that regard. I mean, if I were to win the lottery and didn’t have to work anymore and I could just work for fun, I don’t know, something with nutrition. I’m really into wellness and eating well and eating good food and making, talk about accessibility actually, making good quality, organic, real food, more accessible to people who don’t have a lot of money. So maybe something in that regard.

Nic: So you don’t eat at McDonald’s very often then?

Jessica: No. No. Not My cup of tea.

Nic: Who inspires you?

Jessica: Great question. Who inspires me? I recently watched a TED Talk not too long ago and I can’t recall the woman’s name and I heard about it on a podcast. It might’ve been this podcast or another one and it was about… It’s the woman who founded, Girls Who Code, I believe. She talked about how she’s really trying to encourage women and young girls to embrace challenges rather than striving for perfection.

Jessica: Because she talks about how women and young girls tend to be socialized to be perfect, where men and young boys tend to be socialized to embrace challenges and go for challenges. She said that because of the cultural expectations that we have of girls and women, that girls and women tend to be very self-limiting. She has seen young girls trying to code who threw up their hands and give up because they can’t get it perfect. Even though, when the instructor comes by and goes to look at their code, they were so close. They just had one little piece that was off, which is normal with coding.

Jessica: Like anybody who codes will tell you that it happens all the time. But because these girls, they were learning to code, but they were so hard on themselves because they didn’t get it perfect, that they were willing to throw up their hands and give up and walk away. She’s written a book on this topic as well, and I just can’t for the life of me recall her name, but it was just a fantastic talk.

Jessica: I really admire people like that who are pushing to make the world better, pushing to give opportunities to people who are marginalized. Whether it’s women or people of color, people who have disabilities, immigrants, whatever it is, that is something that I really admire. That people who put their energy into making the world a better place for other people who don’t have the advantages that everybody has.

Nic: I think this is an important topic to explore. I wish it was more out there. I mean, I see it a little bit in my bubble or on Twitter and other social media, but I really wish that it was much more prevalent out there.

Jessica: Yeah. The world’s never going to be perfect. The world is always going to have problems and that’s the pessimistic view. But the optimistic view is that it gives us opportunities to work toward making it better.

Nic: Jessica, what’s the one thing people should remember about accessibility?

Jessica: So the big thing would be to keep it in mind at all times and try to incorporate it into every stage of the project that you work on. Like I said in the previous episode, and I think I touched on it in this episode as well, that accessibility, it’s not a one stop thing. It’s not like, “Okay, we’re three quarters of the way through the project, so now it’s time to make it accessible.” It’s something that just needs to happen from the early inception of the project all the way until it launches and even after launch, when you’re maintaining and iterating on the design. It needs to be applied there.

Jessica: So just needs to be at every stage of the process. I love your quote. I heard it in one of your podcasts a month or two ago and I love it where you talk about blueberry muffins. Where when you’re baking blueberry muffins, you can’t bake the muffins and then add the blueberries. You have to add them in from the beginning and you have to make sure they’re mixed in at the right time or else, you can’t go back and retrofit it and designs the same way.

Jessica: It’s extremely difficult and expensive to go back after you’ve already designed and coded something and try to make it accessible then. It’s much easier and more feasible to just consider accessibility from the beginning and it doesn’t take that much more time. It doesn’t take that much more money. That’s another myth about accessibility, is that we don’t have time or money for it. But again, it’s part of good design. So if you’re making your design accessible, if you’re being inclusive with your design, then you are opening it up to more customers and you are opening it up to people who don’t have disadvantages and don’t have disabilities as well. You’re usually making it better for everyone.

Nic: Jessica Ivins, thank you so much for your thoughts and the conversation today. I look forward to chatting with you about these things online a bit more.

Jessica: Thank you, Nic. It’s been great being a guest here. Thanks for having me.

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 shout out 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.