Interview with Mark Palmer, an accessibility consultant who works as part of the User Experience team in a large public sector organization in the UK. Mark and I talk about the importance of building awareness and education for developers, designers, and everyone involved in web development. We also discuss how difficult it can be to find the right accommodation because very often people with the same impairment have different needs.
Nicolas: Welcome to the A11y Rules Podcast. You’re listening to episode nine. This episode has been sponsored by patrons like you. I really do appreciate your support. I’m Nic Steenhout. I talk with people involved in one way or another with web accessibility. This week, I’m speaking with Mark Palmer. Hi Mark.
Mark: Hi Nic, how are you?
Nicolas: Pretty good. Thanks for joining me for this conversation about web accessibility.
Mark: No problem at all.
Nicolas: I like to let guests introduce themselves, so in a brief elevator pitch introduction, who’s Mark Palmer?
Mark: I am … What am I? Who am I? I’m an accessibility consultant with 11 years experience. I’ve worked in both consultancy, both as an employee, freelance. I currently work in a large public sector organization in Edinburgh, where I work in the user experience team. My main focus within that team is web accessibility.
Nicolas: Wonderful. Thank you. To get started, let’s get away from accessibility a little bit and tell me one thing that most people wouldn’t know about you.
Mark: That most people would know about me?
Nicolas: Would not know about you.
Mark: Oh, would not know about me. I have a passion for role playing games, both video games and table top.
Nicolas: What’s your favorite video game?
Mark: I hate to hark back to the past, but World of Warcraft still holds a special place in my heart I guess. It’s one of those games that just catches you at a time in your life. I still go back to that now.
Nicolas: I think that’s a good game. I’ve never played online, but I have spent a few hours and days and weeks on the old versions of the game when it was just PC based.
Mark: I’ve wasted away too much of my life on that.
Nicolas: There’s a lot of people defining web accessibility in many different ways. How would you define it?
Mark: I would prefer not to define it as a separate thing. I think web accessibility is just good user experience. It’s very tempting to think of it as something separate from a good user experience and something that you should approach separately or should be given a separate level of priority. I think you can’t create a good user experience without considering web accessibility. I think it’s part and parcel of user experience.
Nicolas: It’s something that we’re hearing more and more. I really think that’s a mission critical way to look at things. Given that, do you think there’s a separation line between accessibility and UI/UX?
Mark: I think there is in the sense that people with accessibility needs will encounter all of the good and bad elements of the general user experience of something that they’re using, whether it be an application or a website, but they will also have their own distinct layer of issues and needs that are over and above the standard user experience issues that you might encounter for instance.
Nicolas: What would you say to the UI and UX specialist who are oblivious about how to make a site accessible?
Mark: I always come from the position that I don’t have an expectation that … I wouldn’t put pressure on somebody or be critical of somebody that doesn’t know how to make the user interface accessible. I think it’s great … Where I work, I work very closely with developers and with other user experience professionals, who maybe don’t necessarily know as much about accessibility. As long as they’re willing to learn, as long as they’re willing to put into practice what you show them, what they see when they observe sessions, whether users with impairments, then I think that’s great. I don’t think that there’s any need to be critical or particularly abrasive with anybody that doesn’t know how to do it as long as they’re willing to learn, as long as they’re willing to implement what they’re learning. I think that’s great.
Nicolas: There’s a difference between being ignorant and being willfully ignorant I think.
Mark: That’s right, absolutely.
Nicolas: That’s what you’re touching upon.
Mark: I’ve yet to work with anybody who’s been willfully ignorant, although I have seen some terrible implementations that were done with the best of intentions. Sometimes a little knowledge can be dangerous.
Mark: Just enough knowledge to be dangerous.
Nicolas: What brought you to the field of accessibility? How did you get your start thinking about these issues?
Mark: It was a guy called Dan Cederholm. I was a web developer working for a bank in Scotland, who really just were so behind the times in what they were doing. I picked up Dan Cederholm’s book, Web Standards Solutions. It wasn’t a book about accessibility, but it did mention accessibility. From that point, that sparked my interest in web accessibility. I very soon moved onto work in a consultancy in Edinburgh. The next six years of my career were spent being that organization’s accessibility specialist. I got to work with great companies like the BBC, Channel 4, Emirates Airlines, all manner of different things that really broadened my experience of web accessibility. I’d gone from reading Dan Cederholm talking about how to make a table accessible to screen readers, and how to make it degrade gracefully as it was in those days, to working with the BBC and working on products like iPlayer, which was a fantastic experience.
Nicolas: What kind of barriers did you find learning along and being the lone ranger in these big companies?
Mark: I was in a slightly unusual position in that I was the lone ranger coming from a smaller company to the bigger company, as in I was working for a small consultancy who would work with big partners. I guess at that point, I’m talking 10 years ago, the biggest challenges really were around getting the budget. An organization may have a large user experience project and then they tag on two days of effort at the end for an accessibility review. It was very hard within … I could see how it was difficult within their organizations. In terms of getting budget for their project, it was very difficult for them to justify, prioritizing accessibility maybe over bigger design features, the wider usability of the site.
That was always a challenge because the organization that I worked for, they had to pay the bills. They have to keep the lights on. The relationship was compromised in that sense in that you’ve got to go with what the client is looking for. You can advise them, but at the end of the day, the client’s deciding the budget and you’re going to take it or you’re going to leave it. That was always a bit of a challenge.
Nicolas: Money is a big area.
Mark: Yeah, and there’s a significant change in the last 10 years. 10 years ago, organizations would ask whether there’d be a two-day accessibility review or a five day or however many days. I even did reviews as low as half a day’s work, could you believe? The big driver at that point was a fear of being prosecuted. I think that’s a big change that was seen in the 10/11 years since is that organizations are now leaning towards doing accessibility because it’s the right thing to do rather than out of some fear. I think that’s a very positive step.
Nicolas: Do you think that’s something that’s happening more in Europe than in North America or do you think that’s something that’s pretty much everywhere?
Mark: Having never worked in North America, I can’t really say. I’ve only ever worked in Europe and in the latter days, in the Middle East I worked as well, which is an entirely different story again. Certainly in Europe, there’s a huge awareness. In the UK, there’s a significant awareness. I think it’s great. The way things have changed in the last 10 years is phenomenal. I now work in a large public sector organization and we’re taking accessibility into consideration right from the point where somebody sketches something on a piece of paper.
Mark: 10 years ago, clients would be coming to me with something that was completely built and due to go live next week. Even when you find accessibility issues, you get into this awkward negotiation. You have these 100 things that just don’t work for people with impairments and they say, “Yeah, but we launch next week.” You say, “Yeah, but there’s 100 things.” They say, “But we launch next week.” Whereas, we’re actually sitting in work and we’re drawing on a piece of paper and be like … Just from hand-drawn sketches, we’re working out things like keyboard tab orders, where the focus goes. That’s really fundamental stuff that we wouldn’t have been doing 10 years ago in that kind of environment. I think that’s fantastic.
Nicolas: It does sound fantastic indeed. I hear you say people with impairments. A lot of people here talk about people with disabilities. I’m always fascinated by the language of disability. Why do you say people with impairments rather than people with disabilities?
Mark: I don’t know. I’ve used a number of different terms. I’ve talked about disabled users, disabled people, people with disabilities. I tend to chop and change, but I feel that people with impairments is less … It’s not less anything. It’s more accurate because I know guys who I do regular usability testing with who you couldn’t call them disabled. These are guys that jump out of airplanes and I don’t jump out of airplanes.
To use a phrase that would suggest that they’re somehow less capable than me, when they jump out of airplanes and I don’t, just seems a bit odd. It’s not really a conscious decision. I’m not trying to be politically correct or avoiding being politically incorrect. I use a lot of these phrases. There are certain phrases I don’t use. I would always avoid words like handicapped and so on. Maybe that’s more of a North American thing actually. You don’t hear that so much in the UK. I tend to talk about impairments a lot. That’s the way I deal with it. It’s the way I phrase it. Does that make sense? I hope that [crosstalk 00:12:12].
Nicolas: Yeah, that makes sense. I think it’s a very healthy approach. Personally, I like to think in terms of people with impairment because in general, disability is caused by the environment around the person who has an impairment. I use wheelchair. That’s not a disability. It becomes a disability when I have a flight of steps and that’s the only way to get somewhere. I’m always curious to see why people use that kind of language.
Mark: I think that just using it feels right sounds … I’m not in a position where … I don’t have a disability, I don’t have an impairment. I could almost do with some guidance actually as to just exactly what is the right way to express. I do work. I do talk about users with impairments. I do talk about impaired users, disabled users, and I’m never really sure of the correct word. It would be good to get some advice on that one. Do you have a [crosstalk 00:13:15]?
Nicolas: [crosstalk 00:13:14] and talk a little bit about that maybe at some point.
Mark: Do you have a text line? You could ask people to text in to the podcast?
Nicolas: Maybe something I’ll consider for future editions.
Mark: Maybe later.
Nicolas: Mark, what would you say your greatest achievement is in terms of web accessibility?
Mark: I guess I did a lot of work on a tool called My Display, which was a tool that the BBC were looking to implement. It was a grand vision really that the BBC had and it never came to fruition because they lost funding. I worked with a really great guy at the BBC on that project, a guy called Jonathan Hassell. He works in London and he no longer works for the BBC, but it was fantastic. It was a fantastic experience working with Jonathan.
We worked on a thing called My Display, which was a really great idea. It was a way of tailoring the BBC web experience to your requirements. You could change things like font size, color, contrast, the background. You could change the space in between the paragraphs. Anything you could think of, you could do. You could change the font. Most of it was about the presentation layer, but the idea was that you would then save that setting. You could sign into any BBC service from any machine anywhere in the world and it would immediately come back with your pre-set preferences rather than the existing experience with the BBC at that time, which was you would have to go across all the different BBC services and make any adjustments, whether that be on your native machine. We were talking still back in the days where you had the little letter As in the corner.
It was a really big fancy version of those now. I think maybe looking back, the better idea would have been to try and fix the myriad of BBC sites, but I think that was just that that just wasn’t really something that was on the table at that point. The BBC were also I think looking to sell this as a product so they were looking to create my display for their use on their site initially, but they were then looking to take that out and pass it to other organizations within the UK, other large organizations, they could then build on that technology.
It’s probably quite a dated approach, but we are talking eight, nine years ago at this point. It was still a huge achievement. It had its ups and its downs and good points and bad points, but it’s certainly the largest project of that nature that I’ve been involved in. We did a lot of usability testing. We did a lot of diary studies. It was fantastic and I learned so much from it and I learned so much from working with guys like Jonathan, guys that live and breath accessibility. It was really good for me in that sense.
Nicolas: What lessons did you learn from that project even though it didn’t go anywhere that you’re using today in your accessibility work?
Mark: I learned an awful lot about doing research. I think that’s set me in good stead. I had to really step outside of my comfort zone because so many organizations had talked about limited budget. So many organizations with limited budget would recruit half a dozen blind people and people with visual impairments, but they would never really get to the lesser known impairments or the less widely considered impairments. You talk to any developer in any workplace, who you’re trying to talk to about accessibility. They can immediately understand the implications of being blind. They can’t maybe necessarily live it like a blind person would, but they understand that the crux of the matter is not people who see.
On that project, we were working with people with ADHD, with dyspraxia , with brain injuries, with learning disabilities. That almost made the project more difficult by could maybe meet five people with dyspraxia and no two of them would have the same need. To some extent that was the downfall of the project because it was very difficult to create … The whole crux of the interface was a number of different preset suggestions, and it was very difficult to create those preset suggestions when you had such a diverse range of needs within the one disability group. That probably created more challenges for us than we would have liked I think, but it was very interesting.
Nicolas: It does sound quite interesting. It sounds like …
Mark: Like I say, it taught me an awful lot about conducting … There’s no bigger client in the UK than the BBC. You’d better be spot on with your research, with some BBC observers on the other side of the glass. It really taught me to be very thorough in my research. It taught me to make sure that also when I presented the findings that I made sure that I had the findings to hand to present. It was like moving from the Second Division to the Premier League in soccer terms.
Nicolas: It’s funny. I spoke with Denis Boudreau a couple of weeks ago. He talks about a similar moment, but he used a hockey analogy, going from the Minor Leagues to the NHL, the National Hockey League. It’s funny that you use a similar sports analogy.
Mark: Denis is Premier League, though isn’t he?
Nicolas: Yeah, I think he is. Tell me, Mark, what would you like to say about accessibility that’s really controversial?
Mark: That I don’t believe in guidelines. Does that sound radical?
Nicolas: It is a bit radical. Can you expand on that though?
Mark: I do believe in guidelines. I’m problem being facetious. I try and focus on experience. When I’m evaluating, I always consider guidelines. Obviously, I’m evaluating against guidelines. The guidelines are there because people have done so much good work. There’s so much good advice in the WCAG guidelines. It’s the de facto standard right across the board. However, as soon as you start talking about guidelines, certainly with a group of developers or with business, project managers, project owners or whatever, immediately everybody’s focus becomes about ticking the boxes and making sure they meet the guidelines rather than considering the overall user experience.
I dislike the guidelines because everybody has the guidelines in their head and everybody bandies expressions about, “We’re going to meet WCAG AA.” Nobody really knows what it means. Their project manager banging on about in some meeting. They don’t really understand what it means, but if you phrase it in terms of we’re going to create a user experience for users of all abilities. That’s your starting point. It shouldn’t be about ticking boxes because as soon as you start ticking boxes, you start making poor design decisions I think. That’s something I’m always keen to avoid.
Nicolas: I find it fascinating that this sentiment seems to be echoed by a lot of people I’ve been speaking to, especially those that have been involved with accessibility for 10 or 15 years. It seems the more we grow into accessibility, the less we see the guidelines as the be all and end all of accessibility.
Mark: It’s certainly, for me … In the organization that I work in, we’ve built a user experience lab. We want to get users in there, both users who don’t have impairments, users who have impairments. We want people to see them as the end user of the product. We don’t want them to see them as, “This person requires each of these guidelines in order to have that … ” We want to see, “What does Dave need? How does Dave interact with our site or whatever or Jennifer or whatever the name of the person is?” I guess in our organization, I just don’t want people to see the end result as having complied with a bunch of guidelines. I want to see that they’ve made Dave or Jennifer’s life easier, that they can interact with our products and services more easily in the way that they want, in the format that they want, using the technology that they need. I want to turn it into being about people rather than being about guidelines.
Nicolas: Mark, on that note, I think we’re going to wrap this segment of our conversation. Thanks for your fantastic answers.
Mark: That’s great. Thank you.
Nicolas: We’ll finish our chat next week.
Mark: Perfect. Always a pleasure to speak to you, Nic.
Nicolas: Always a pleasure to speak to my favorite Scotsman. Thank you for listening. Until next week, that’s all. Before I go, I want to thank my patrons once again. Remember that if you need a hand ensuring your site’s accessibility, I’m available. Contact me on my website at incl.ca.