E22 – Interview with Jeffrey Zeldman – Part 2

Continuing my conversation with Jeffrey Zeldman. Among other things, Jeffrey talks about how accessibility needs to be baked in from the very start, and how retrofitting accessibility into a project just doesn’t work.


Nic: Welcome to the Accessibility Rules podcast. You’re listening to episode 22. This episode has been sponsored by patrons like you, and 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 continuing my conversation with Jeffrey Zeldman. If you haven’t listened to the first part, you really ought to because it was dynamite.

Hey, Jeffrey, putting your designer hat on, how much accessibility knowledge do you think is enough for a designer to wrap their head around that? Because there’s a lot of information out there about accessibility. And, you know, at what point does it become too much? We stick to just general heuristics or do we want to refer people back to standards and requirements?

How do we specifically work with designers on that front?

Jeffrey: I think, like everything else, everyone working in the field should have some general knowledge. We have a great book called Accessibility For Everyone by Laura Kalbag that we’ve published at A Book Apart. Which is an easy read, but does everyone have to memorize that and get deeper into it? No. Everyone should have a basic … Everyone who works on the web should have a basic understanding of semantics, a basic … Should know what WCAG is. Doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re the expert.

Nic: Yeah.

Jeffrey: It depends on the team size and everything else. I have just enough knowledge to know who I need to work with, and to know what kind of tests with real people I should do whenever the budget allows.

Nic: Yeah.

Jeffrey: Right? I don’t think there’s some golden standard of how much you … I think it depends on the individual, how big their team is, their role in the team. I also think you don’t want to ever make it seem so frightening that people say I’m not even going to bother, it’s too much. I’m overwhelmed, I’m quitting. I think it’s just how many frame works should I know. How many programming languages should I know. That stuff is terrifying.

I like to say, everyone should be familiar with HGML and CSS. You don’t have to be the best CSS coder on your team, you might not even write much of the CSS that goes into production. Right? But, you should know enough about it to understand how it works. And to be able to evaluate when someone gives you something, or to be able to, if you’re a designer and you really don’t write the CSS, I mean most designers do these days but if you don’t you know enough that you can speak the same language with the front end coder. I think it’s that way with accessibility to. I think, also, heres the thing. Design is problem solving.

So, you know, if you’re thinking about okay we’ve got this map, what a great solution. Wait? What if someone can’t see the map. How do we do it then? Do we use words? Do we … I mean what do we do?

I think keeping in mind … Basically, again, Sara Wachter-Boettcher and Eric Meyer wrote a book together on inclusive design and talked about having someone on the team be a designated dissenter. And say, yeah, but what about this?

I think, general, you can be that for yourself to. Or just always have someone on the team go, okay we’ve really solved this. What about people who … Is this to touch reliant? It’s the same kind of thing. We’re doing this on hover. But, what about all the platforms where there is no hover now? Which are like 60% of our users are now using devices that don’t support hover.

So, should we really be hiding the instructions on hover? Maybe we thought that was cool five years ago, maybe it doesn’t make sense now. I think if everyone just … If it just becomes part of … If you make it part of your thinking, I don’t everyone is going to be an accessibility expert. It takes a passionate few, I think, who are really dedicated.

It’s always going to be, I think, like … It’s like not everyone is going to be a type designer.

Nic: Yep.

Jeffrey: That takes a passionate few. And great ones are rare. But, everyone who works in design should know something about type. Should know about how hierarchy’s function. Should know basic types of fonts. Should know basic things like curly, friendly fonts, have one kind of brand feeling. You know, tight serifs have a different kind of brand feeling. Just know those things.

Nic: Yeah.

Jeffrey: It’s like, you don’t have to be a color theorist to know an all black website is going to have a different feeling from a colorful, from a rainbow colored website. From a playschool colored website, from a pastel website. They all have different feelings, speak to different audiences. I think it’s like that. Know enough to know what you don’t know.

Know enough to know that you should be thinking about it, know that it’s okay if you’re not an expert. No one really is in this field. What I love about this field, we all feel like we’re faking it. Every day.

I almost didn’t take this interview with you out of panic because I thought, what do I have to say? I’m not an accessibility expert.

Nic: Jeffrey …

Jeffrey: So, but maybe that’s the point. Seriously? Two minutes before I was like, what am I even doing? I don’t know anything about accessibility really. I think, the point is, we all don’t know enough.

Nic: Yep.

Jeffrey: But we all know enough to know we should be thinking about this. And we should make efforts. And we should work with people who know a little more.

Nic: Yep.

Jeffrey: The same way someone who is a little better at design works with someone who is a little better at code. They’re both good at both, but one is a little better than the other at their specialty. I think every product should have an accessibility person. Accessibility should be part of product design from the very beginning because that’s the way that it’s affordable.

Nic: Yeah.

Jeffrey: And that’s the way that it’ll get done. Retro fitting it doesn’t work. I think every product should, when they prototype, there should be a phase where you test with people who have different abilities. And see what happens then because there’s always something that you can’t think of. You can’t think of how this sounds to someone else. Like, I could make a joke that maybe my friend who is from the same background thinks is funny.

And not realize that that joke could be offensive to someone from a very different background. And in the same way that we’re getting woke about that stuff. And going, yeah, that was just my privilege. I should really think more.

I think the same thing is true with, all right, I have this particular ability right now. So, I take it for granted, but not everybody can. So, let me think a little more. Does that make sense?

Nic: It makes perfect sense. I like to present it in a way that, you know, we have ideally on a team we have one person who really lives and breathes accessibility and understands it well. But, that person cannot do everything, and we have to have every stake holders from the designer, to the quarter, to the QA testers. And even the bus, need to have, a minimal understanding of what accessibility is about because, as you say, if you don’t build it from the start, you end up with something that’s just too expensive.

Jeffrey: Exactly. I’m working on a presentation right now for next years An Event Apart, with a similar theme but of a project management. Just because I have a project manager on the team, doesn’t mean I can offload all the managerial responsibilities. Nobody on the team can offload all the responsibilities. We all have to help with product management.

Nic: That’s right.

Jeffrey: I think we all have to help with accessibility, we all have to help with design. You know? Sometimes it’s not the designer who sees something that needs to be fixed, sometimes it’s someone else on the team.

Nic: Yeah.

Jeffrey: I think making the work part of everyone’s job is exciting too. I think it makes our jobs more fun, not just more challenging but more fun. And more … Getting back to the question of how much should you know? I think the really exciting thing is to know that you’re always going to be learning new stuff.

Nic: Yeah, the more you learn, the more you realize there is to learn.

Jeffrey: Yes. Right. So, by the end I would … Didn’t Einstein say he felt like a child who had been playing by the sea shore? Who’d found a pebble by the sea shore, and that there was this giant ocean of knowledge that he didn’t even know was there.

Nic: Something like that, yeah.

Jeffrey: Something like that. I think that’s wisdom.

Nic: Yeah. What’s the one thing you think people should remember about accessibility?

Jeffrey: I think everyone should remember to always plan for accessibility. And to remember that we’re not all the same. Just remember that we’re not all the same. My friend Ethan Marcot in a presentation he gives he said, “What if someone uses the web differently from the way I do?” And it changed how he coded.

That simple question that he asked himself, what if somebody uses the web differently from me? And guess what, people do.

Nic: Yeah.

Jeffrey: Yes.

Nic: The moment you do user testing, you realize that people use your sites in ways that you totally didn’t expect.

Jeffrey: When I was new at this in the 90’s, I used to get frustrated with users. Like… Well, of course the logo is the home button. I’m not going to put the word home there, I’d be insulting your intelligence. Obviously, anyone with intelligence knows that the logo is the home button.

Then you stop doing that. You realize that, no, guess what. Just because you spent 18 hours a day thinking about the web doesn’t mean your customer does.

Nic: Yeah.

Jeffrey: They’re just trying to get something done, and get one with their life. Yeah. I think it’s the same. I think usability should just be part of design. Design is I have to make something that works, that solves a lot of problems for humans. And that’s a complicated job, it’s never simple. It’s never easy.

Nic: Yeah.

Jeffrey: Thinking about people who have different abilities from me is part of that. And I really like to go back to the thing, again, I think Derek Featherstone calls this extreme design. Which is, if you design for the extremes of the bell curve, you’ll make a better product for everybody.

Nic: Yeah.

Jeffrey: So, if you make a form that a person with narrow vision can see, and scan. Then it’s going to be easier to scan for everybody. I think that’s an important take away.

Nic: Yeah. Thank you for that. Talking about accessibility and UI, and UX. There’s some people that see the two as separate. There’s some people that see UI, UX, as an overarching category of accessibility. Where’s the line between accessibility and UI, UX?

Jeffrey: Is there a line? Isn’t it a continuum?

Nic: Yeah. I think it is. But, it’s always interesting to hear the perspective of people that are in the field, that may have other perspectives.

Jeffrey: Well, maybe this is another way of looking at your question. In a way, I can make a comp of a page, and that’s a completely … One completely valid representation of a web experience. But, it’s only a partial representation. That comp represents one page, on one screen, at one particular step in an interaction journey. Right?

So, that’s not the complete thing. If I say to my client, here’s this comp, and they go, “Okay, sold.” They don’t really know what I’m going to make. They may be very surprised when they click a button and it goes somewhere else because we didn’t talk about that. Or they may be very surprised when something changes color, or changes size, to indicate the state has changed because we didn’t talk about that.

So, the comp is valid. And there’s a line you can draw and say, this is a comp. But, it’s part of a continuum. I think this is the same. Part of our design is how does it work for people who can’t see this? How does it work for people who can’t touch it? How does it work for people who can see it but have difficulty? And all the other things … Color blindness is a whole other thing too. We have a book on that as well, at A Book Apart by Jerry Cody.

Nic: Yeah.

Jeffrey: You know, how the heck to do you … I mean, it’s challenging and frustrating for a designer. You go to school, and study all this stuff about color. And then, yeah, but some people can’t see it like a lot of people can’t see it. Or they don’t see it the way you do.

And there was that horrifying purple and gold, or black and white dress thing.

Nic: Yeah. That was fascinating.

Jeffrey: Last year. It was fascinating, it was horrible to realize and you go, okay. Everyone doesn’t see things the same way. That’s the bottom line. It’s not, there’s normal people and people with disabilities. No, there’s a range of experience.

Nic: Yeah.

Jeffrey: There’s a range of experience. And to people who theoretically are able bodies, experience something differently, see something differently. So, keep that in mind and good luck.

Nic: Yeah. Jeffrey, arguably you’ve inspired a whole lot of people out there with all the works you do. Who inspires you? What’s your source of inspiration and your push to get up and go?

Jeffrey: Okay. Well, four inspirations. The client and their problems. The user or customer that the client serves, those are huge. The people I work with, who are usually smarter than me, and better than me at least some aspect of what they do. I feel like the befuddled generalist working with a bunch of specialists who are better than me. And my daughter. My daughter is 13, she is an artist. She has a unique way of seeing the world, always has.

The way she speaks, the way she jokes. It’s incredible. I feel like I’m constantly being challenged in my assumption. Which is, I think, one reason people have children. It’s not just biology, it’s also because it’s another phase of learning about life. All of them are why I get out of bed in the morning.

Right? I also get out of the bed in the morning because I like breakfast, and I like my cats, and I like my friends. But, I think I get out of bed in the morning because I’m like, I’m thinking about my clients challenge or my clients customers challenge and how do I present that to my client? I’m thinking about the specializations and interests, and quirks of the people I work with.

And I’m looking forward to the next hilarious thing my kid is going to say to me.

Nic: Cool. Thank you.

Jeffrey: My pleasure.

Nic: It’s been a great chat. Before we wrap up, is there anything else you’d like to add? Any last tidbit of wisdom about accessibility you think you need to share with us?

Jeffrey: Nicolas, I don’t know if I have any other extra wisdom about accessibility except to say, just generally, let’s be kind. These is brutal times right now. So, let’s be extra kind to each other.

And I think accessible, inclusive design is part of that. It’s part of wanting to be kind to others. It’s the golden rule. Let’s do that. Let’s make stuff and actually care about the people we’re making it for. I think everyone listening to this does.

I think we all do or we wouldn’t be designers, developers.

Nic: Yeah.

Jeffrey: But, given that, let’s rededicate ourselves in these tough times to being extra kind, and extra thoughtful.

Nic: I like that. Thank you.

Jeffrey: Thank you, Nicolas. Have a great day.

Nic: You as well. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thank you. Bye, bye.

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

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