E11 – Interview with Vasilis van Gemert – Part 1

This week, I talk with Vasilis van Gemert, a “reformed” front-end developer at a large agency who now teaches digital product designs to the next generation of designers and developers. He has a strong focus on accessibility.


Nic: 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 Nic Steenhout and I talk with people involved in one way or another with web accessibility. This week I’m speaking with Vasilis van Gemert. Hi, Vasilis. Thank you for joining me and talking about web accessibility. I like to get things started by letting my guests introduce themselves. In a brief elevator pitch, who is Vasilis?

Vasilis: Hi. Thanks for inviting me. It’s an honor to be here. Usually I host my own podcast about quality, so usually I’m the host. First time being a guest on a podcast, so I’m excited.

Nic: Okay.

Vasilis: I’m a lecturer at University of Applied Sciences in Amsterdam in The Netherlands where I teach the next generation of web developers and web designers about designing digital products. I’m focused on accessibility. I also do a study, a master’s course at the university in Rotterdam in design research and my subject is accessibility.

Nic: Wonderful.

Vasilis: That’s what I do.

Nic: That’s what you do. That sounds like a full plate for you.

Vasilis: Well, yeah, yeah, yeah. Studying and lecturing at the same time. That’s pretty busy. Before this, I used to be a front-end developer at a large agency, but I’m glad I don’t do that anymore.

Nic: Right. We talk about accessibility and there is about two billion ways of defining web accessibility. How would you define that? What’s accessibility for you?

Vasilis: Well, for me the reason why I’m into accessibility is suddenly I found out that the web, actually one of its core principles, is that it’s there for everybody. I think that’s an incredible principle that’s fantastic. I mean that’s not common to many other media out there. I mean a book for instance … Well, you have to have eyes to read a book. I found that fascinating that we can make stuff that’s accessible for everybody. Just the reason that it’s possible is more than enough reason for me to try and achieve that every time you make something.

Nic: Just because it’s there you want to make it happen?

Vasilis: Yeah. Yeah. Once you know it’s there, it’s just weird not to do it.

Nic: I wish more people had your kind of attitude about it because I’ve met a few people that know it’s there, but they say, “It’s so hard or it’s too expensive or I can’t be bothered.” What would your message be to these people?

Vasilis: Well, that’s a hard question. I can understand them. It’s hard if you don’t know how to do it. That’s one of the things I’m trying to solve is teaching the next generation that it’s possible and that you can create accessible websites. For everybody who’s a front-end developer or who used to be a front-end developer, you might remember that in the ’90s we used to create websites with tables and we were pretty good at that. Then suddenly people started telling us that, “No, that’s wrong and you should use DIVS.” we say okay, maybe DIVS is not the best thing, but okay, DIVS and CSS. Then semantic HTML use and that was hard, right, in the beginning. For me at least it was very hard. I didn’t understand any of that.

I was very good at laying out things with tables. Once you’ve mastered laying things out with floats and other things and now with Flexbox and a grid layout, then it’s not that hard. It’s actually easier. There might be something like that with accessibility as well that yes, it’s hard when you’re trying to figure out how things work, but then things get easier once you know how to do them. Of course, there are things that are really, really hard because for instance, it’s probably harder to test if you’re not disabled yourself. Where do you find these people who are willing to test for you, right? I guess that’s a hard problem to fix.

Then there are other problems like money. It’s expensive. Where do you get the funding? That’s actually something I’m really curious about how to solve that, the how do you sell accessibility to higher managements, to senior level people who have different goals than user experience designers. I’m not sure yet how to fix that.

Nic: I use an analogy. I tell people if you build a house and you put in a narrow door with three steps in front of the door, it’s going to be very expensive to transform it and make it accessible for people in wheelchairs. You have to break the hold, break the wall and then widen the door and that gets really expensive. If you had built the place to be accessible in the first place, the increased cost could have been relatively minimal and I find that’s usually a good introduction to the idea that accessibility yes, it’s expensive, but it’s not that much more expensive. It’s a small cost of doing business.

Vasilis: Absolutely true. Maybe it’s expensive now that we’re figuring out how it works, but once you know how it works, it’s not more expensive. I mean it’s just you do things differently. I think that’s a good one. The fact that rework is much more expensive than thinking things through in the first place. Yeah, definitely, but then still it might be more expensive than simply fixing something with duct tape in the first place because that’s what most agencies do anyway. At least what I see around me is that the quality is not that high and management is often … They have a very short-term goal. Fix things in two weeks. Fix things in three weeks. Then high quality is not high on their priority list.

This is a very hard question and it’s something I’m trying to figure out for my master’s study, how do you get these things onto higher management. For instance, what’s it called? The environment, right? Environmentalism and thinking about the environment and making sustainability part of the business somehow that got into the business, but I think that’s a similar issue. It’s not really something that on the short-term we’ll get very rich with. If money is your main goal, then why would you put a sustainability into your business? Yet somehow that got into many businesses. If it worked with that subject, why not with accessibility? We have to find good reasons to do that.

Nic: I like that. You’re teaching about accessibility. How else is your role getting involved? How else do you do accessibility? Do you just teach or do you keep your hands dirty at coding? What do you do?

Vasilis: I do write some code, but only for myself. I make websites only for myself, but then again I always try to think about how to make things accessible. Four years ago when I switched job, when I turned into a lecturer, I had some spare time and I made a few art projects where I generated random rectangles of random colors because I had to teach about color and I didn’t know anything about color. I decided if I generate these random colored rectangles, maybe if I look at them long enough, I start learning a thing a two about color. Well, maybe it worked out, but then I thought okay, so now I have these rectangles, but what about blind people? I generated a script that turned these colors into spoken English or a spoken language.

RGB color is pretty hard to switch from … RGB color is hard, but HSL is actually something that people can understand. I wrote this script that translates HSL color into human readable language. These are the little things that I’m always working on. For instance, another project I did was turn a physical illustration into an HTML and CSS illustration. Then I made sure that it was semantically correct. If for whatever reason you cannot see the illustration, you can still read it or listen to it.

Nic: Right.

Vasilis: I’m always looking at things like that. Well, maybe not the most obvious things.

Nic: There’s a lot of people working on the most obvious things. It’s good to have a few people working on the not so obvious things.

Vasilis: We have these websites for a minor program at our university. I did about 20 commits that were completely invisible to make it just a little bit more accessible.

Nic: When I speak to people, businesses and people working on project, I always tell them that accessibility needs to be designed from the … Accessibility needs to be considered from the earliest stages of design. You’re teaching design. How do you present that to your students? How do you sell that concept that accessibility is not just a coding issue, that it is really part and parcel of all stages of development?

Vasilis: Not just development, design as well. Yeah, yeah, yeah, definitely. That’s one of the issues with accessibility I think is that it’s considered in many places still considered to be a development afterthought. It’s a but list after we’re done. There’s a few things. For instance, check if the contrast is high enough. Very easy. Not just test the thing with your mouse or with your finger, but test it with a keyboard as well. Well, that’s one of them. Look at copy, right? Make sure that the links are not just read more links, but actually the copy is saying something. Make sure that the heading levels make sense. Yeah, things like that. Make sure that you can navigate the thing with your tap key. These are the basics.

When I look at many designers out there, these basics are not obvious to everybody while they should be. I try to teach these as the obvious basics in the hope that these are non-debatable in the future, that these are just the things that they will do, that they will … This is the default.

Nic: You’re forming the new designers with this thinking about we have to do these things because it’s part of our jobs. How do you convince today’s designers that are out there that are saying, “We’ve always done it this way. There is no real reason for us to start looking about color contrast and copy and usability and these kind of terms.” How do you convince those people?

Vasilis: That’s one of the reasons why I quit my job and became a lecturer. They are very hard to convince. They’re very hard to convince at least in The Netherlands. I’m not sure in the rest of the world. There is a problem here. There was a problem with education here. There was a very low awareness of accessibility and of the web in general, how it worked technically, what the possibilities and the limitations were at least in the design world. It was not just a lack of knowledge. It was even a lack of interest. They didn’t want to know. This was a design philosophy that said, “If we know the possibilities, than we’re limited in our creativity,” which I think it’s completely insane to think that way, but this was really the way they worked all to design.

There was a very high focus on originality and on novelty, things we haven’t seen yet instead of making things that work great for a lot of people. These people are now art directors and creative directors. There is a seniority problem. There really is at least in The Netherlands. I’m not sure how that is in the rest of the world. For instance, a few years ago when the first version of GOV.UK was live, right, the English government website, which is a fantastic example of accessible design if you ask me. They won a prize. The art director I used to work with back then, he got mad. He said, “How can this website win a design prize?” He didn’t understand because he thought design had to be flashy and fashionable instead of usable.

It’s hard talking to them is one thing, publishing publications, but that’s one of the things I’m looking at, how do we convince senior management to change.

Nic: One of the conversations I’ve had with Sina Bahram and also with Mark Palmer earlier revolved around this idea that we really need to teach the young generations about this and inform them in terms of making sure it’s something that gets sunk into their core and they understand it and they activate it. I like that you’re saying you got fed up with the situation, so you went and you started teaching. I think that’s a really powerful statement to the importance of forming the younger generations.

Vasilis: That’s one part of course. I think that’s something that … Starting from the bottom up is a good one. The problem I have and maybe I’m too cynical here is that once they’re done here, so they’re going to work as a junior designer or junior developer at an agency or at the company, what if senior level there says, “No, that’s not how we do things.” Then I guess in have a year you can destroy this whole education and say, “No. We have to make novelty stuff.” I’m not sure.

Nic: It is an interesting challenge to consider the idea that even if you teach people, the amount of ongoing knowledge and keeping that knowledge is tricky. I haven’t considered that before.

Vasilis: That’s why I’m also focusing right now … Well, not focusing, but also looking at how do you influence higher senior level. What’s the role of education not just on junior level, but also what’s our role as a design university here in The Netherlands, what should our role be in the design community as a whole? I’m doing things there as well. I organize meet ups, regular meet ups, and I had Leonie Watson come over. That was in end of summer. No, in summer, so a few months ago. We discussed then and it was quite a big audience. 80 people showed up. It was just a meet up in the afternoon. There we discussed what is a delightful user experience for somebody who is blind because we’re actually pretty good at making visual experience that delight at least some people.

It turns out that for Leonie a delightful user experience was if somehow she could make it work, that was delightful. That bar is so low. That would be unacceptable for us, right? Well, for me at least it’s unacceptable this level. Things like that. Doing these kinds of meet ups, talking at conferences, recording my own podcast, these sort of things that I … I’m trying right now, but there’s definitely more that can be done.

Nic: I think you recently run a weekend, an exclusive design principle weekend. Tell me a little bit about that.

Vasilis: I have this podcast here in The Netherlands. It’s mostly in Dutch, so unfortunately for those of you who want to listen to it, well, you have to know Dutch to understand it. There’s a few in English. I invited all of my guests to come over for a Saturday afternoon where we … I called it The Good, The Bad, and The Interesting Exclusive Design Challenge. The idea was that instead of creating, coming up with solutions for target audiences, we would work on solutions for persons. Not for a persona, but for real persons. In this case, these were persons with disabilities. I talked to a blind student of mine. I talked to a friend of mine who is deaf with a capital D. Born deaf. Sign language. Dutch sign language is her first language.

Very specific issues there. Spoke to my father who is turning deaf. He’s almost deaf. Very different problems there. Talked to a friend of mine who is severely motor disabled. Even problems speaking, yet no problems with thinking at all. One of the most clever people I know. I made it very personal. I asked them about the issues they have and some issues they would like to see solved. I described them as a person. What I wanted was to see what would happen if we add personality to the mix. If we design for this person, will it be different than what we design for everybody who is deaf? That was one of the things that I try to achieve with that.

The other thing that I tried was I took the inclusive design principles that The Paciello Group published few ago and I flipped them around. This is just a test to see if these principles hold on. One of the tests to test if a design principle is a good principle is to flip it around and to see if you can imagine if some other agency would use these principles. The interesting thing is when I flip these inclusive design principles around, I could imagine that some more designy design agency could be using these to create novelty websites. These are principles that other people use. What I found interesting is that … I mean these designy websites, they are in their own way really good, right?

They’re technically incredible and they’re wonderful to look at when you don’t have to use them. They have their quality. It’s not that these people don’t know anything. I mean they do good stuff. The thing is I think they design stuff for the happy people, the happy people like themselves with expensive computers and who are under 30 and male probably. I wondered what would happen if we use these design principles and design with these design principles for people with disabilities. It turned out to be a nice exercise. I was happy with the results.

Nic: What was the main learning that came out of it? The main impression that you took out of that exercise?

Vasilis: So far the first thing was that adding personality works, adding the personality of the person. By doing that, we came up with real different solutions than when we would have made the average person with no impairment. For instance, this friend of mine whose in a wheelchair, he lives in the Southern part of The Netherlands and two days a week he works in Amsterdam. He has to go there by train. Going by train, you have to … In The Netherlands, you have to tell in advance which train exactly you’re going to take two days in advance. I don’t know exactly. He wants, just like us, I mean I want to take whichever train leaves, right? If I miss a train, it wouldn’t have to matter at all. I just take the next one. That’s not an option for him.

That’s a silly little thing. Another thing that he had problems with was he had no problems with kids. He has two kids. He brings them to school and the kids in the class of his kids they look at him and they say, “Wow. What the fuck is that?” Then they ask, “Wow. What the fuck is that?” Kids don’t care and they ask. Then they get an answer and they’re happy, right? They say, “Oh okay. Oh, so you can’t move? Oh, that’s interesting and you have this chair. Wow. That’s a cool chair. How does it work?” He found that adults have the same questions, but they’re afraid to ask. He wishes that they would just ask when you have this question. All these things added together, they came out with this Monster …

He personally likes Monster Magnet, the band, which is space rock. Instead of a wheelchair, they came up with a walking chair, so he can walk into the train, right? You’ve seen these new robots that can walk. Why not use these walking things instead of wheelie things? They’re much better at walking up to things. This will solve that problem. If you make it a Monster Magnet style, maybe people would start talking to them easier. Well, it could scare people off as well of course. Then they thought about Lego Mindstorms because he adds things onto his wheelchair himself because he’s a programmer. For instance, he made a big button that he can press. Sometimes he presses it when he shouldn’t press it.

It only works when he’s right in front of his door and then it opens the door. He knows how to program this stuff. They came up with okay, we should have add-ons. Make it easy to work on this chair and let his kids play with it as well. A combination of his musical style, his abilities to program stuff, and the fact that he has kids. Without this personality, I don’t think they would have come up with this kind of solution. It would have been a completely different solution. I like the idea of adding personality to the mix.

Nic: That’s quite interesting. The concern it traces for me though is that we would be starting to look at really custom solutions on a one per one person where that might not actually be really effective to make the web more accessible for more people with a minimum amount of effort. How do you deal with that?

Vasilis: Agreed. I think the end goal should be inclusive design, but there’s a problem I have with inclusive design especially on the web where we assume that we’re as good in designing interfaces for people with disabilities as we are in designing interfaces for people without disabilities and we’re not. We’re very good at designing interfaces for ourselves, but we haven’t even touched designing interfaces for people with disabilities as I showed with … Well, as Leonie Watson told me this. I think we should start studying interfaces for people with disabilities and one way to do this is to make it personal. Just design stuff for one person because I think this …

Well, not everybody would want a wheelchair or a walking chair in Monster Magnet style, but I think many more people would like a wheelchair where they can add things on, right? This idea came out of a personal design project, but it turned out to be good for many more people.

Nic: I’ll buy that.

Vasilis: Thinking about it, I’d like one of those chairs as well.

Nic: Yeah.

Vasilis: Of course. Why not?

Nic: Why not?

Vasilis: This exclusive design, it’s more of an exercise in inclusive design, to get better in inclusive design.

Nic: Nice.

Vasilis: That’s the reason.

Nic: Thank you. On that note, I think we’re going to wrap this segment for now. Vasilis, thank you for your fantastic answers and your thought provoking ideas that I hadn’t really come across before. We’ll finish our chat …

Vasilis: Thanks for having me.

Nic: We’ll finish our chat next week. Thank you.

Vasilis: Okay. Thanks.

Nic: Thank you for listening and until next week, that’s all. 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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