E10 – Interview with Mark Palmer – Part 2

The second part of my chat with Mark Palmer. Mark talks about the importance of the semantic web and how developers should learn how to write good HTML, how a lack of understanding is a barrier to accessibility and the importance of user research.


Nicolas: Welcome to the Accessibility Rules Podcast. You’re listening to episode 10. This episode has been sponsored by patrons like you. I really do appreciate your support. I’m Nick Steenhout, and I talk with people involved one way or another with web accessibility. This week, we’re continuing our chat with Mark Palmer. You should check out the first part of our conversation if you haven’t already done so.

So hi again, Mark. Shall we continue where we left off last week?

Mark: Absolutely, Nic. Yes, why not?

Nicolas: Wonderful, thanks. I’m gonna start this time with jumping a little bit away from accessibility and ask you, what’s your favorite word?

Mark: It has to be ‘clean,’ doesn’t it?

Nicolas: Ideally, yes.

Mark: ‘Widget.’ I like ‘widget.’

Nicolas: Why?

Mark: Just because, a widget is everything from a little panel in your Android phone to something that you jam in a door to keep it open. I know that’s a wedge, but like, a widget is anything that you can use to do something. Oh, I’ve got a little widget for that. I love the word widget, and it sounds good as well.

Nicolas: Cool. Thank you. That’s not a word I’ve heard, referred to as something that’s a favorite word. I love it.

What’s your greatest frustration in terms of accessibility?

Mark: My greatest frustration is the fact that accessibility issues are viewed like bugs, and are often prioritized as bugs, rather than given higher priority. So I often find that in the past, having raised accessibility issues on various projects, whether that be freelance, in-house, or whatever, that often accessibility issues are prioritized alongside bugs, alongside functional bugs. The problem with that, of course, is that an accessibility issue, a general user experience issue, even, is never gonna be given the same priority as a piece of functionality that isn’t working. And that’s probably my greatest frustration, absolutely.

Nicolas: That makes a lot of sense. Couple weeks ago, I was speaking with Joshua Simmons, a community developer with Google. And he said that for him, one of the issues is that accessibility shouldn’t be viewed as a feature, but the lack of accessibility should be viewed as a bug.

Mark: That’s another way of putting it, yeah.

Nicolas: That makes a lot of sense to me. But you’re thinking in terms of, if accessibility is on the same level as bugs, it’s a problem. So how do you …

Mark: If it’s on the same level as a functional bug, anyway, it’s never gonna compete. Do you know what I mean? That’s, in my experience, anyway. That’s not gonna be everybody’s experience, of course. But that’s my experience.

Nicolas: I find that interesting, because on the surface it seems like both Joshua’s statements and yours are incompatible, but at the same time they both resonate really strongly with me.

Mark: I guess maybe the lesson can probably be, it might be, I’m certainly not expressing it the right way. But often it’s the nature of, the way that organizations that I’ve worked in, accessibility issues are raised through something like JIRA in the same way that a standard defect would be raised. And as a result, they’re looked as two peas from the same pod, and I’m not, I guess would be more the issue.

Nicolas: So maybe the issue would be more that the relative importance of accessibility and functional bugs are too level and not differentiated enough.

Mark: From my point of view, I could definitely express, I could wax political about how a person I would know would be affected by a lack of an accessibility feature. I find it much harder to explain how someone would be impacted by the lack of a functional feature.

Nicolas: Yeah, that makes sense. What is the one thing that everyone knows about web accessibility, its conventional wisdom?

Mark: Alt text. But people make the mistake of calling it alt tags, and that really bugs the life out of me. That’s actually my biggest pet peeve, people referring to alt text as alt tags. It’s a small, pedantic thing, but I’m a medium sized pedantic person.

Nicolas: I guess if we insist a lot on the semantic web, on things that actually make sense, using the right nomenclature to refer to …

Mark: Although I’d rather they were talking about alt tags than not talking about them at all, so that’s … some awareness is better than no awareness, I guess. Although as I said last week, a little information can be dangerous.

Nicolas: A little information can be very dangerous. What’s number one reason most people fail to succeed with implementing web accessibility?

Mark: The number one reason? Probably a lack of understanding. I guess it’s different across different sectors. I know that, for instance, a lot of public sector organizations can really struggle with accessibility because they may purchase a lot of third-party products, which don’t, they don’t have control over the accessibility. So that can be a reason.

But generally speaking, there’s a lack of understanding, both at a management level, a development level, and there are also, like I said before, there are these kind of misconceptions about the importance of accessibility issues versus delivering functionality and so on. And leaving it too late in the day to do an accessibility view when you’re already on your way to launching a product you know yourself from your experience, that’s very easy to fix accessibility issues early in the process. But once you get to the point where something’s about to be delivered, and there’s a huge code base behind it, then fixing those issues becomes exponentially more difficult.

Nicolas: Yeah. So would you say that one of the best ways to avoid failure is really to look at accessibility from the very early stages of a project?

Mark: Absolutely. As I said last week, I really believe in working on accessibility right from the point of when you first start sketching something on a piece of paper. And that, I know a lot of accessibility people will agree with me. But it does sound odd to think that web accessibility, a lot of it is, there’s a heavy focus on making sure that … great semantic markup, good semantic code. So, how do you make something accessible that has no code behind it? And often, the approach is just to sit down and say, I don’t know how you’re gonna do this. I know you’ve got this interface, your interface looks like this, and I don’t know how you’re gonna do this, but if you’re gonna do it, don’t do it this way. Or alternatively, make sure you do do it this way.

So you can give clear guidance on how something should function, where the focus should go, if you press that hand drawn button, what happens when you click that button? Where does the focus go when the modal window opens, for instance? When you close a modal window, where does the focus return to? There’s a lot of things that you can do just drawing on a piece of paper. You would never imagine you could really give great accessibility advice from a drawn sketch, but you can. Absolutely. And we do it day in and day out in the organization I work in.

Nicolas: Getting that kind of feedback from the early wireframe and prototypes, I think, is very useful. But it involves all the stakeholders having a role in the accessibility journey, from the designers to the developers to QA and involving everyone, really.

Mark: That’s right.

Nicolas: I think it’s really fantastic if we can do that. What would you say to a UX and UI specialist that isn’t too sure how to begin on their accessibility knowledge? What would you tell them to do? Where should they go? What should they do to gain that knowledge, that experience?

Mark: I think start with learning how to write good HTML. That’s a good starting place. That’s a difficult question actually, where would you start? I know there are many good books out there. A Web For Everyone’s a good starting place. It’s a book that I find fantastic. But I think you have to have a passion for it, and you have to have an interest in making things. You have to have that initial drive. If you’ve got that initial drive, you can do anything. You can pick up the books, you can start to work more closely with … when you’re doing research, start incorporating people with impairments in your research. Learn more about what they need. Learn more about their assistive technologies. You can do it.

Research is research, right? And if you’re recruiting … and it can be a challenge. And recruiting people with impairments can be really challenging, particularly if you work in an organization that uses recruitment agencies. Very few recruitment agencies tend to do what they call medical recruits, which is a term I dislike intensely. But yeah, start incorporating people with impairments as part of your recruitment profile for all your projects, and you will learn more in one session with a person with a screen reader or a person with an assistive input device than you would learn this, sadly, in all the other sessions put together, as far as I’m concerned.

Nicolas: You talk a lot about research and user testing. What can a small or middling company do to ensure they have access to that kind of information, if they don’t have the networks or necessarily the budget to identify, recruit, and find a couple dozen people with disabilities for user testing?

Mark: I think that recruitment can certainly be difficult. But if you’re creative about it, and you contact the correct organizations, and you contact the charities and make sure you start well enough in advance that information can go out in newsletters, means of contacting you, or do a bit of testing, you know, send an email to this address or phone this number or whatever. You can pick up recruits fairly … you might not get a lot of them, but you will get enough to get you started.

I think it doesn’t have to be expensive. Most of the testing that I do, for instance, I go to user’s homes. Just because, if someone’s using assistive technology, you want to make sure they’re using their assistive technology, and not your interpretation of their assistive technology. But really, all you need to be armed with is your time and a 40 pound Amazon gift voucher or whatever. It doesn’t have to be overly expensive. Something that’s …

Nicolas: Yeah, don’t expect to get people with disabilities to give you their time for free, but it doesn’t have to be very expensive either.

Mark: You don’t need to hire the big expensive research lab. You don’t necessarily need to have half a dozen observers and lay on lunch for them. You just need to go out with a tripod, a video camera, or even your phone, and just record it. Come out, take a colleague out with you and a mobile phone and record the session. It’s all powerful stuff. It’s all powerful stuff, and you play that back in meetings at the office, that really has an impact when you see somebody struggling to use an application that you’ve built.

Nicolas: I like that. I like that suggestion, and I’m probably gonna be making it a lot more with …

Mark: Cheap and cheerful. I’m Scottish, so cheap’s always good.

Nicolas: Cheap and cheerful. Cool, that’s a good tagline.

What do you see as the greatest challenge for the field of accessibility moving forward?

Mark: The overall … it’s complacency. It’s avoidant complacency. I mentioned last week about the fear of prosecution, and it’s always that sense of, is that recedes where we’ll be. Is that fear recedes. Because right now, there’s a real drive to do the right thing, but we’re dependent on that drive to remain. The biggest challenge is to make sure that that momentum is maintained. That’s a challenge that falls on guys like you and I, as accessibility consultants. Yeah, there’ll be advocates for accessibility across all the disability groups, but we are the advocates for accessibility who will also have the direct contact with the people who’re actually building the product. So we have that added weight of responsibility to make sure that it’s done right.

Nicolas: How do we pass that message on to the implementers, don’t become complacent? How do we make sure stakeholders, business owners and product owners, project managers, all these people don’t become complacent about it?

Mark: Well, I just bang on about it until they’re sick of hearing my voice. But I think, as I’ve said before, I think seeing is believing. And I think it’s about getting people into your sessions. It’s about getting that kind of footage out there. And it’s hard. There’s often times where, I mentioned earlier about going out and filming somebody using your service, and when you actually go out to do it, you find out that you’re in the smallest kitchen in the world and you can’t possibly get the tripod anywhere. But I think the impact, the shock factor, will always keep the interest, keep the awareness up.

Nicolas: Quite interesting, that. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Mark: Oh, that’s a question. I would like to be a paramedic, I think.

Nicolas: Paramedic.

Mark: Yeah.

Nicolas: Why?

Mark: I once wanted to join the police, and it feels like an extension of that. It’s all the emergency services. I just think it’s a way to do some good. I can’t imagine there’d be any better feeling than saving somebody’s life, right? That’s gotta be up there with the great feelings that you can have, in a job, anyway. In your day to day job.

Nicolas: I see. Kind of in line with the work you’re doing now. Accessibility does change people’s lives. It allows people to access services, to access shopping, entertainment and all that. So it doesn’t seem to be quite different from what you’re doing now.

Mark: I don’t think what I’m doing is quite as valuable as a paramedic, but I can see how it makes a difference. I think if you can do a job that makes a difference, that’s great. That makes me much happier that people would do a job that makes a small difference than just to be doing a job that doesn’t. That’s a fair comment, I think.

Nicolas: Who inspires you, Mark?

Mark: Who inspires me. My family, really, I guess. It’s fairly easy to say that I’m doing this for the greater good, but ultimately I’m working hard for my family, because they drive me on every day. So that’s who inspires me. My wife, my three children. That’s it, really.

Nicolas: That’s a pretty good inspiration, family.

Mark: Yeah. It’s good. It’s a wonder. My son in particular inspires me. He’s being treated for leukemia at the moment, and he finds strength that I can’t find. He’s a particular inspiration.

Nicolas: I’m sorry to hear about his leukemia. Is he on the way up?

Mark: He’s on the mend, absolutely. Absolutely on the mend. It’s great. He’s doing very well. Thanks, Nick.

Nicolas: That’s great news. Thanks.

Just to finish, what message would you like to leave our listeners with about web accessibility? If there’s one thing they need to remember about accessibility what would it be?

Mark: That it’s about people. It’s very easy to think of it in terms of assistive technologies. Particularly if you’re a developer, you’re always thinking “How do I make that work for a screen user? How do I make that work for somebody doing it with a switch input device?” But I want them to think about how they make that work for John, or Ann, or how they make that work for Nick. Do you know what I mean? That’s what it should be about. Accessibility is about people. And when you put it in terms like that, it becomes less about meeting a technical specification. It becomes less about meeting guidelines. It becomes about customers. If you run an organization that focuses on customers, then people with accessibility needs are customers. And that’s how I would get the message, that’s how I try and get the message across every day. I don’t know, sometimes people just switch off because I talk about it an awful lot.

Nicolas: What a wonderful, strong, powerful message, this. Accessibility is about people.

Mark: It’s absolutely about people. I think if you lose sight of the fact that it’s about people, then you might as well forget it. It has to be about people, absolutely.

Nicolas: Wonderful. Hey Mark, thank you for taking the time to talk with me and giving me some really solid nuggets of thinking about things. This “accessibility is about people,” that’s solid.

Mark: Nick, you’re more than welcome. It’s always a pleasure to talk with you.

Nicolas: So thank you, and everyone, thank you for listening. Until next week, that’s all, folks.

Before I go, I want to thank my patrons once again. And remember that if you need a hand ensuring your site’s accessibility, I’m available. Contact me on my website at incl.ca.

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