E43 – Interview with Val Head – Part 1

Val and I talk about, among other things, animations. Val also points out that approaching accessibility in a positive way is more helpful than scolding people about poor accessibility on their website.


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Nic: Welcome to the A11y Rules Podcast. You’re listening to episode 43. I’m Nic Steenhout and I talk with people involved in one way or another with web accessibility. If you’re interested in accessibility this show’s for you.

Note that a transcript for this show is available on the podcast website at https://a11yrules.com. Thanks to Twillio for sponsoring the transcript. Twillio, connect the world with the leading platform for voice, SMS, video. http://Twillio.com.

This week I’m speaking to Val Head. Hi, Val.

Val: Hi. Thanks for having me on the show.

Nic: Well, thanks for joituning me in and talking about web accessibility today. I’d like to let guests introduce themselves. So, in a brief elevator style introduction who’s Val Head?

Val: Ooh, that’s always a hard one, right? Brief introductions are the toughest. I’ve been working on the web for a very long time. I’ve done a lot of web design in my early days and then about five years ago started my own consultancy around web animation and UI animation, taught people a lot about that.

Most recently I have just joined Adobe Design as part of the design practices team.

Nic: Excellent.

Val: I love my new team. They’re the best. We’re like a small team. We all have different specializations. But we have a common goal of elevating the level of design and design discourse both within Adobe and the community. And along with that we keep the product teams nicely connected with the design community.

Personally since my background is in the web and UX space I mostly work with the XD teams since XD is all about designing, prototyping, which is things UX designers do a lot.

Nic: Yep.

Val: And I still do a lot of work around UI animation and web animation, too, because that’s the thing that impacts prototyping and UX and all of our work, so it’s a really fun combination of all my favorite things.

Nic: Wonderful. Thank you. Now we know a little bit about who you are and let’s get warmed up and ask you, tell us something that most people would not know about you.

Val: Oh, I love that question. I was like, which thing should I reveal? But I think one thing that a lot of people don’t know about me is one of my favorite current hobbies is actually power lifting and Olympic lifts.

Nic: Wow.

Val: Yep. I can lift heavy things.

Nic: Cool. So I saw you just finished your first half marathon yesterday.

Val: I did, yeah. My legs are very sore. I’m glad this interview we can do sitting in chairs.

Nic: Fair enough. So talking about web accessibility every time I talk to somebody new I’m hearing a different version of what is web accessibility. So, to your mind’s eyes how would you define web accessibility?

Val: To me I think web accessibility is about making the web usable for the widest range of people. And I realize the definition probably sounds a little bit influenced by the current talk about inclusive design, but that’s how I like to think about it. It’s like opening up the web to as many people as possible.

Nic: Yeah, I think it always kind of goes around that, but this concept of inclusive design is really important. I actually gave a talk, keynote, at a conference last month, month before, where I basically was saying forget accessibility. Think inclusive design. I think that opening the web to everybody is much more inclusive than making the web work for people with disabilities.

Val: Right, right. It’s so nice the way inclusive design kind of encompasses, at least my understanding of it, it encompasses everything about accessibility plus a bit more that just kind of makes it… I don’t know. I feel like there’s something about inclusive design I think is really important in the timing in the kind of work we’re doing right now. So I’m really happy to see it getting some traction.

Nic: In that work that you’re doing right now can you give me ideas or examples of things that are done from an accessibility perspective but that would benefit people without disabilities, for instance?

Val: I think a lot of things… I find these sorts of things come up a lot in our discussions about data and AI, machine learning stuff, like the ethics around there. It’s like, well, what sort of biases are sort of hidden in your data that might be excluding certain groups of people or putting them at a disadvantage? And that might not necessarily be a group that is any way disabled, which is generally what you associate with accessibility.

That might be people from a certain socio-economic background or of a certain race or something like that. That’s definitely beyond accessibility but very much part of inclusive design.

Nic: Yeah. I think we tend to forget people with different socio-economic backgrounds, people that can’t afford the 26 inch screen with gigabyte internet and… We tend to forget about these people when we do so much work focusing on what we do. So, I’m glad to hear Adobe’s thinking about those folks. Nobody left behind, right?

Val: No, no. There’s been a lot of internal discussion around it, inclusive design. Actually I think he’s a friend of yours as well, Matt May is kind of heading up those efforts. We’ve had a lot of great discussions.

Nic: Yeah. Matt’s a great guy, yeah.

Val: Yeah. He’s pretty smart! He seems to know a lot of stuff. These inclusive design discussions have been really interesting and really eye opening for me.

Nic: Cool. Obviously you don’t do accessibility day in and day out. Where would you say your role falls within that continuum of accessibility, inclusive design, UX, UI, and so on and so forth?

Val: Right. I think as a designer a lot of my role is being aware of accessibility and what those kind of concerns or points of … I’m not sure the best way to put it, but points where it might most be impacted. Like what sorts of things, what sort of interactions may need some additional consideration for accessibility or how to kind of build those in first.

So I think a lot of it’s like awareness and just kind of being able to identify those places. And I think sometimes, too, it’s like knowing when to call in maybe an expert or call an expert for some advice on how to handle things. I know me, personally, I am not really good with ARIA roles and all of that stuff. But, I know other people who are.

For me it’s like knowing when those come up or when those are a thing and maybe call up like my friend Marcy or something. Be like, help!

Nic: Yeah. Yeah.

Val: Read some articles.

Nic: I think a lot of people tend to forget that you can be an accessibility hero without being an accessibility expert.

Val: Right.

Nic: It’s as you say it’s about finding the moment, being aware of the moment where you actually need to reach out for somebody who can give you a bit more information. Yeah.

When did you become aware that accessibility existed? And how did you realize it was an important kind of thing to think about in design and development?

Val: I think that those two things sort of happened at different places. I know very early on in my career I heard discussions of web accessibility, I heard it mentioned, read some articles about it, but never really… I guess I never considered it a thing that impacted what I did so much. I don’t think that was the correct assumption, but I was like, oh, that sounds hard and on the edges of things and that’s not what I do. I design things.

But then a few year later, actually, this was fairly recently this happened and it was kind of a reminder of the importance of accessibility. I went to a local accessibility meet up and there was this guy who was presenting. He was showing us how he used his college’s newly designed website. And he interfaced with computers and web with this whole DynaVox set up.

Not totally familiar with all the details of how those different systems work, but he had a whole system for interfacing with computers. And this college website had planned in this brand new carousel. And that carousel, of course, auto played, auto changed between slides. And it also moved the Read More link because the amount of text would change.

This guy was like, oh, here’s my new college’s site. And he would like go to try to move the mouse to the Read More link, and then just before he got there it would switch slides and the next one would have the Read More in a different place because it had an automatic text above it. And he did that for a couple of minutes and all of us in the audience were just like, oh, no.

I think probably every person in that audience had designed a similar thing or had been on a project that had a similar carousel. It had no keyboard control, it had no focus control. There was no way for him to pause it. It was just really awful and we were like, oh, yeah, accessibility is important all of the time.

Nic: It’s a bit of a painful moment when suddenly you realize just the impact it has on people beyond the intellectual understanding of things.

Val: Right. And some of it’s things that could be such small, easy changes. There wouldn’t have to be, for that particular carousel, there wasn’t a lot of changes that would have needed to be made to make it so he could actually interact with that without it being this horrible never ending, never being able to get the link. There’s small things we can do that can avoid those big negative implications.

Nic: Yeah. Low hanging fruits, right?

Val: Right, that’s the word. I’m like, there’s a word for this. That is it, low hanging fruit.

Nic: Yeah. You’ve been doing accessibility, what, for five years or so? 10 years?

Val: I guess technically throughout pretty much my whole career. So yeah, lots of years, maybe doing it better or worse depending on which stage of my career I was in.

Nic: How have your views of accessibility changed over that time period?

Val: I think initially my views were kind of skewed negatively mostly because I felt like a lot of the articles or talks I would see on web accessibility were kind of all taken from this angle of like you’re doing it all wrong. You’re a terrible designer for not thinking of these things. I know better than you and you should… Basically it just made me feel really bad and just seemed to be just coming from such a negative place that it made it really hard for me to want to care about accessibility.

Because I’m like, oh, when I read about accessibility I feel like I’m just getting in trouble and I’m getting yelled at. Like, who wants that? But I feel like that’s changed a lot over the last few years. I feel like the accessibility talks I see at conferences now and the articles I see now cover a much more positive place with the intention of let’s all work together to make it better instead of let me tell you why you’re bad.

Nic: Yeah.

Val: I think that helps so much because it’s like no one can know everything. There’s just no way. The stuff we do on the web and in design is just too broad. So when you read an article that’s trying to help you be better as opposed to scold you for being bad it just makes such a difference. That makes you want to learn more. It makes you want to do more and kind of fill in more of those gaps.

I’m very happy to see that attitude change. I think it makes accessibility a thing that more people can participate in and not have to feel bad before they do.

Nic: Yeah, I think that’s a fascinating perspective. I had not heard that voice quite that way before. It’s very interesting. Looking at talking to newbies to accessibility I’ve reached out on Twitter and Slack and all these places. I have about a dozen people that are new to accessibility. I’m going to be interested to ask them if they find that there’s this negative perception. Because you’ve been around. You started with this oh my god, it’s such a chore.

Val: Yeah.

Nic: Am I bad person? And I wonder if maybe your experience with it has lightened that approach? Or it’s really that the accessibility community as a whole is really changing the approach.

Val: I think the accessibility industry in general is changing the approach. From other folks I’ve talked to about this I think there’s definitely some people taking that negative approach, but I think more people are taking that more positive, let’s just be better together approach. It’s very refreshing.

Nic: Apart from that aspect of negativity that you encountered when you got started what kind of barriers did you face when you wanted to learn about accessibility or developing skills in implementing it? And how did you get over that?

Val: I think a lot of it was knowing when to bring it up in a project. Accessibility wasn’t a thing especially back in my agency days earlier on. It just wasn’t a thing that came up as part of a project plan or a kick off meeting. It’s like people were never, like, and now let’s talk about the accessibility part.

That was just never a part of a meeting. As maybe one of many designers working on a project, I think one part that was really tough for me is knowing when to bring this up or when to talk about this. Eventually, I just kind of figured out that the earlier on the better, like in these design presentations and even some of the meetings talking about what features you’re going to include and those kinds of things. That’s the time to start sneaking that in here and there.

And the more it comes up even just in little places the more it’s like a thing that everyone’s okay with or onboard with. I don’t think you can wait until the end of the project and be like, okay, now let’s make it accessible. That’s going to be tough.

I think it was finding where to bring it up, because that was just not in place in the teams I was working on. It was not a thing that came up unless someone kind of forced it in the conversation.

Nic: Yeah.

Val: Thankfully, that’s changing a lot with the work I’ve been doing lately. So, now that’s less of a thing, but back in the agency days earlier on that was definitely a barrier.

Nic: So how did you overcome that?

Val: Just by trying to bring it up earlier in the design process. When I was presenting designs I would try to mention something about accessibility, whether it’s like, oh, and this thing will have a pause button. Or, people will tab between these form fields, you know, just sort of the small things like the low hanging fruit stuff that I knew about that I’m like, all right, if we talk about this while we’re talking about design then it becomes part of it. It becomes a thing that we just do, hopefully. It didn’t always become a thing we just did, but that was my attempt at making it so.

Nic: So, a little bit of general accessibility, you know, just short engagements here and there and plant a seed. I think it’s a good way to do it. We often find people that are saying, I want to make accessibility happen in my agency. And they don’t know where to start. And I think what you described there is a great way to get started with it.

Val: Yeah, it’s really similar to the advice I give people when they’re like, we want to make animation part of our design process. Because it’s like if you try to make some big, giant change in any sort of team that’s generally not… If you’re the only person behind it that’s going to be really, really tough.

But if you start with these little small steps you can kind of rally other people who are also… They might start talking about the accessibility implications, too. And then there’s two of you. And once you’ve got two people that’s twice as many as one person. It becomes more and more a part of the process.

So I think any of these big changes, like whether it’s accessibility or animation or anything else it’s starting with these small steps is the way to go. And just keep at it and change will happen.

Nic: Yeah. You mentioned animations. It’s getting more and more used all over the place. I know it’s causing some issues for some people. If I tell you, Val, animation, accessibility. What’s the scoop?

Val: Yeah. I think a lot of people assume that animation and accessibility are always opposed to each other, that any animation instantly means a lack of accessibility. That’s definitely not true in my experience. And I think just generally not true at all.

Because animation can have, like UI animation, specifically, can have both positive impacts as far as accessibility goes as well as negative impacts, much like many of our other design tools. We can use animation in really purposeful ways to help reduce cognitive load of using something, how people know what’s happening, help draw their attention to places that should be, which could be really great for someone who has any sort of disability that might make it harder for them to focus on things or keep track of things on a screen. Or, even people who are distracted to get a little more inclusive design on that, too.

But, also, we can make things that are harmful for people. Animation does have, the kind of one area that it can cause harm that other things generally can’t, which is for folks that have any vestibcular disorder that might be triggered by something visual. And that can cause people to feel dizzy or somewhere along that spectrum that’s even worse than that, and actually physically make people ill.

But a lot of the things that cause those greater reactions are kind of like really large animations that take up a lot of your screen size, make a really big movement, or move really far in 3D or really fast. Not every UI animation falls into that category. It’s one of those things where it’s like we need to have a level of awareness around it, sort of like certain colors are going to be fine. And other colors are going to be problematic for people with any sort of color blindness or something like that.

There’s a similar spectrum in animation where some things are going to be fine and won’t be triggering. And other things might be. It’s kind of up to us as designers to understand that range and figure out where on that range the work we’re doing currently is and what we can do to mitigate that as best as possible.

Nic: Yeah. I’m curious about this concept of animation actually helping people that have attention issues or are easily distracted. Tell me more about that. How do you use animation to help them focus rather than just throw something else that’s distracting?

Val: Yeah. I know it’s true. A lot of it’s pairing up animation and like the power of animation with what actually is important. Historically, a lot of what we’ve done with animation is try to distract people, right? If you think of the whole reason behind why banner ads are animated it’s to distract you from the content you’re trying to read.

But if you use that same power, that power that, like, hey if something is moving it’s just got this extra pull for our attention. If you associate that motion and that animation with the thing that actually is important, like with the thing that’s most important on the screen maybe some sort of update. Or if it’s like a shopping cart experience the end of the experience, or if there’s any important feedback or thing you need to communicate, if you pair motion with that then suddenly you’re drawing peoples’ attention to the thing that’s actually important to them and perhaps to the thing that’s most important to them for that specific interaction.

It’s like when you start using this stuff through the lens of what the user’s goals are and what’s good for them, as opposed to what’s good for you, it can make such a positive impact.

Nic: Wonderful. Thank you. That’s an area of accessibility that I admit I don’t know all that much about. I, obviously, know the basics, and I refer to the experts when I encounter animations that are puzzling me. But, I think it’s a great approach to think about animation in ways to improve accessibility. Just like for a number of years we used to say Java Script is just going to kill accessibility-

Val: Right.

Nic: All together. But now we can actually use Java Script to improve accessibility.

Val: It’s all in how you use the thing, right? It’s never the thing necessarily. It’s what we do with it.

Nic: Yeah. That’s cool. Last question for this week, what’s your favorite word?

Val: Oh, I thought about this one a lot. I think my favorite word is chocolate because chocolate’s really good. It’s also just a really nice word to say.

Nic: Chocolate.

Val: Very satisfying, isn’t it?

Nic: Chocolate is very satisfying in many ways, yes. Right, Val, thanks so much for being a guest this week. I’ll let you go for now and we’ll reconvene for next week’s episode.

Val: Great; thanks so much for having me.

Nic: Cheers; thanks.

And thank you for listening. If you enjoyed the show please do tell your friends about it. You can get the transcript for this and all of the shows at accessibilityrules.com.

And thanks once again to Twillio for supporting the transcript for this episode.