How accessibility is a win for everyone

Amy Deschenes, Head of UX & Digital Accessibility for Harvard Library, talks about the value of UX accessibility and what the future state of accessibility could look like. 

Amy Deschenes is the Head of UX & Digital Accessibility for Harvard Library. In this episode, we talk about the value of UX accessibility. Deschenes and her team led an accessibility audit of 14 websites, she shares what they learned and what the future state of accessibility could look like. 


ALFONSO DE LA NUEZ: Welcome to UXpeditious! A show that brings you quick, insightful interviews with design, product, and UX leaders.

DANA BISHOP: In each interview we dive into how UX research impacts user insights; shaping the design and business strategy of some of our favorite tech tools and products.

ALFONSO: I’m Alfonso de la Nuez, Chief Visionary Officer and Co-Founder of UserZoom.

DANA: And I’m Dan Bishop, VP of Strategic Research Partners at UserZoom.

ALFONSO: And we are your hosts

ALFONSO: We enjoyed Season 1 so much, that we are back for Season 2.

Joining us on this episode is Amy Deschenes, Head of UX & Digital Accessibility for Harvard Library. There’s about 57 Million people in the world with some sort of disability or impairment making it hard or impossible to use some mobile apps and websites. A disability could be a visual impairment like color blindness or a learning impairment like dyslexia.

DANA: Amy led a team that conducted an accessibility audit of 14 digital systems. We dig into what they learned in this massive undertaking and she shares some really great tips on how teams can start tackling accessibility.

DE LA NUEZ: Thank you for joining us today! Can you please take a moment and introduce yourself?

AMY DESCHENES: I'm Amy Deschenes and my pronouns are she/her and I'm the Head of User Experience and Digital Accessibility for Harvard Library. My work is focused on making the library more usable and accessible for everyone. And I'm involved in projects like if you've used a library catalog or ever looked at a digital exhibit online, making sure those things are usable and accessible. And I'm working with over 500 staff members of librarians and archivists on different UX projects and making sure, that all our things are accessible. And I also oversee the User Research Center, which started life as a traditional usability lab about seven years ago and now is basically our virtual hub for all the library's UX and accessibility work.

DANA: Wow. Quite an undertaking. Sounds exciting.

AMY: It is. It is. I really love my job.

DANA: From your perspective, why is UX accessibility important from a business value perspective?

AMY: So whenever you make something more accessible, whether it be fixing it so it works with the keyboard or making sure your contrast ratios are right, it's going to enhance the overall usability of your product. One example that I like to share is that over a hundred studies that have been done show that adding captions to videos actually improves learning comprehension. It makes it better for everyone.

And I think the other thing business value wise is you want to be able to reach the largest audience possible. You can't do that if you're leaving out people with disabilities. And it's also practical to design and build with accessibility in mind than to pay for remediation or, forbid, lawyers afterwards, after the fact.

In my own work, when I think about B2B models, when I am looking at user research products and different things that are out there, I have to adhere to the Harvard policy, which is there is an accessibility writer and a lot of companies now have guidelines for their staff about purchasing accessible products. Actually it came up recently because we moved to a new research repository. And I'm looking at, is there an accessibility section on the website? Is there a VPAT, which is a Vendor Product Accessibility Template? Or if they don't have those, even looking at their FAQs or their customer support forums and seeing when there have been questions about accessibility, how well does the support team do at answering those questions? So all of those things really come into play in thinking about when I'm spending my company's money, but also in terms of making sure that everyone I work with can use the products. And that way, when we do our studies, everyone can participate fully as well.

DANA: When we think about a future state, will accessibility efforts be even more important? And if so, why do you think that?

AMY: Yeah, absolutely. So there's this phenomenon of global aging that's happening. People are living longer than ever before. I think we're on track to... I think I read the statistic over 25% of the world's population will be over 65 by the year 2050.

All of us are aging and we are all using technology for our work, for our personal lives, and we're going to expect these things to work for us. If I develop arthritis and start using the keyboard instead of a mouse, I want to be able to fill out a form in the same way as if I use a mouse and I'm tabbing through. I don't want it to jump from first name to phone number to last name to back to address. It should follow the visual order. So it's those little things. I think we are all going to be expecting them to work as they currently do. So you shouldn't have to work any harder just because you're choosing a different mode of input.

ALFONSO: You led a team that did an accessibility audit of 14 different digital systems. Can you tell me a little bit about that. What did you find and what did you learn through that process? That was a lot of work by the way.

AMY: It was a lot of work, but it was really important and really rewarding for the team who worked on it. I will say I did lead this project. There were a dozen staff members. So I think it speaks to how seriously we were taking the new accessibility policy we had at Harvard.

We found all kinds of different accessibility issues. I think one thing that was surprising was some of the magnification issues. So when you increased the size, you ended up having to do some extra horizontal scrolling, which is annoying if you're low vision or you just forget your glasses. You want to increase the size you shouldn't have to scroll back and forth and up and down because you're resizing the page.

And I would say the other issue that comes up a lot is the misuse of ARIA. So ARIA is a set of HTML attributes that make functionality available to anyone, especially aimed at assistive technology users. So if you're using a screen reader, you'll get some extra information read to you through the use of ARIA tags. But if it's misused it actually makes things way worse.

So there were some things that we needed to adjust in terms of our ARIA code and then make sure that we are using it appropriately. And I always say to folks, "If you are unsure about ARIA, just don't use it." You can make things accessible without using ARIA or get the training you need before trying to dip your toe into using the ARIA tags.

ALFONSO: And just a quick note to our listeners ARIA is shorthand for Accessible Rich Internet Applications. You can add ARIA to HTML elements that define ways to make web content and applications accessible to users with disabilities and those who use assistive technologies.

DANA: You're trying to do a good thing but misusing them actually makes the situation worse.

AMY: Yeah, because it can just lead people down the wrong path. It can just completely break things so you can't even use it. So maybe without ARIA it was harder to use and then you added ARIA incorrectly and you're not able to use it at all. So just make sure you know or your team knows in terms if you're going to be using ARIA that they're using it the right way.

DANA: And can you share some best practices from that effort and what you learned and what you share out in terms of those best practices?

AMY: We knew that this information was going to be used by a variety of audiences. We knew that developers were going to be looking through our audit. We knew that content creators from all over the organization were going to need it. So we provided a couple of different artifacts. So we had a spreadsheet of issues that developers could dig into if they wanted to, say, fix everything to do with ARIA or fix all the keyboard access issues. And then we also had just without any of the technical stuff that the developers would've used just best practices for the person who owns the content for the website, for instance, just to make sure that we are writing our content in accessible way.

And I think the other big thing was that anyone can do this kind of review. So we had this team of 12 people. Only four of us had done an accessibility audit before. Everyone went through some basic training to understand the basics of accessibility, the WCAG criteria, and how to do the testing. And we were all very successful in auditing the different systems.

I think the other best practice is making sure that you go beyond the automated checkers that are out there. There are automated testers for accessibility, so Siteimprove, WAVE Toolbar. There's a lot of browser extensions that you can use for testing for accessibility. Those are actually only evaluating around 30% of the WCAG criteria. You can't test all of those criteria in an automated way, for instance, checking if a video has captions and if the captions are accurate. That is something you need a person to test.

So we had checks. We had everyone use the automated checker. Then we had some manual tasks that everyone had to do, like checking for media accessibility, keyboard input, alt text accuracy, because you can have alt text but it can be incorrect.

DANA: So it's sounding to me like this audit is similar in like a heuristic review. So you've got a checklist. You've got a format that everyone's following. I assume you also are using a severity rating along with that as well?

AMY: Yeah, exactly. We actually developed a prioritization process based on writing from Karl Groves, who's an accessibility expert, and from DQ. And we had high impact, medium impact, and low impact issues. So high impact issue meant person was unable to complete the task or unable to understand content. Medium impact was they could perform the task, but with difficulty. Low impact was that they might be inconvenienced by it.

And we paired that with also thinking about the ease of repair, because some things... Maybe they were medium impact, but they just made sense to repair them at the same time we were repairing certain high impact issues.

DANA: I read a couple weeks ago the DOJ is now announced that they are starting the Title II ruling process for state and local government. So many of those sites right now from public entities like state and local governments, which you would think would already be doing this, are actually failing to incorporate accessibility into services and programs and all that information is not currently accessible. Curious about your thoughts about that and the impact you think that may have.

AMY: I think if you are thinking about how to incorporate accessibility into your work, I think that the biggest thing is if you can, just talking with more people who have disabilities in terms of including them in your research. Even going to YouTube, watching a video of how someone uses a screen reader and then trying to use it yourself. Just take an hour of your day and do that and see the cognitive load that that takes... How different of an experience it is to read the news using a screen reader.

The other thing to do is just turn off your mouse for the day and use the keyboard to get around and to try to get your work done and see how different it is. I think anything you can do for yourself and your team that builds empathy like we would do in any other part of our work is really, really important. So I think understanding the expectations and how people are accessing this information through assistive technology or just through tweaks to their own computers, their own operating systems and the browsers, is really, really helpful.

And then I think in terms of process, it's just learning from others who are out there and do a really great job. Look for places you know have to be accessible. Maybe other federal government websites that have to be accessible, really big name news publications, things like that. I think that's another way to just see how people are doing it right.

DANA: Yeah. And what you said about creating empathy really resonates with me because when I've been involved in accessibility projects, even just the shortest video excerpt of someone trying to use a screen reader on a site that is not compliant is really powerful and it doesn't take much or very long for someone to really get it who's maybe not involved in it, but can clearly see the problem.

AMY: Exactly. Yeah. And just like I said, bringing that lens to your own product. Thinking about this isn't a separate thing you need to be doing. Just including the people who have disabilities, who are using assistive technology in your typical research process. Just push your recruitment just a little bit farther. Challenge yourself to make sure you're not just aiming for the average user. So how can you make sure that people with disabilities are included in your research and your design and just in your thinking throughout the process?

DANA: Well, this has been great. I really do have a lot of hope for what that future state will look. We are hearing and seeing so much more about what acccesibilty testing to make sure we are including different audiences, I just love your passion and your perspective and really enjoyed talking with you today.

AMY: Thank you so much.

ALFONSO: Yes thank you for joining us.

That’s Amy Deschenes, Head of UX & Digital Accessibility for Harvard Library.

DANA: Thanks for listening to UXpeditious. Make sure to continue listening to our new episodes each week for quality insights from UX industry leaders. If you like what you heard, help us out by rating and reviewing the show on your favorite podcast platform.

ALFONSO: UXpeditious is produced by UserZoom in partnership with Pod People. Special thanks to our production team: Christopher Ratcliff from UserZoom; and the team at Pod People: Rachael King, Matt Sav, Aimee Machado, Hannah Pedersen, Colleen Pellissier, and Michael Aquino.