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Training Dev Teams in Accessibility: An interview with Allison Ravenhall

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Transcript

Gerry Gaffney

This is Gerry Gaffney with the User Experience podcast.

My guest today is a senior accessibility specialist currently working at an Australian telco called Telstra. She’s previously worked in a range of roles, including web developer, UX consultant, and one whose title I particularly like, which is “digital accessibility sensei” at a company called Intopia. She’s written and presented on accessibility in a range of forums.

Alison Ravenhall, welcome to the user experience podcast.

Allison Ravenhall

Thanks Gerry. It’s great to be here.

And I’ll remind listeners before we start, as always a transcript of this episode is available at uxpod.com.

Allison, how did you get interested in accessibility? And then how did you get involved in accessibility?

Allison

It’s been quite a journey. I started my career as a web developer around 20 years ago now. And I was always in the front end and I was always looking at screens and how things were presented to users.

And that eventually took me into usability which is what the field was called before it was user experience. And from there I gradually specialized and went into the more niche area of user experience which we call accessibility where we’re looking at, you know, addressing the needs particularly of folks with disability and using assistive technologies. It was probably about eight years ago now that I went into accessibility full time. And I’ve worked in a few different roles within the accessibility space in that time it’s been. It’s been good.

Gerry

Okay. Now I only recently came across a presentation you delivered last year for CSUN 2020, that’s the assistive technology conference run by the California State University Center on Disabilities. Is that right?

Allison

Yes. That’s the one. It runs over in Los Angeles every year.

Gerry

And it was in March, 2020. So did that get COVID effected?

Allison

Yeah, sure was. It did still run in person. I was over in the US in February and March, 2020. I did attend the conference, but by the time it rolled around in mid-March a lot of the news was all about COVID and it was time for everyone to pack up and go home. So the conference was about half empty, half the attendees and half the presenters chose not to come. And I’ve got to say that after my presentation was done to a half empty room I packed up pretty quickly and, and scooted on home.

Gerry

Did you get under the radar here, did you beat the quarantine here? What happened?

Allison

It was a close thing. My flight was actually the first one that was subject to the two weeks home quarantine. So yeah, I was one of the early adopters of quarantine. [Laughter.]

Gerry

Very good. Now that presentation was about training developers at a major grocery retail chain in Australia which you had done as part of a previous role in Intopia. Can you tell us about the retail chain’s interest in accessibility?

Allison

Sure. So this particular retailer, this grocer had a bit of a checkered start to their accessibility history. They were taken to court in 2014 by a blind woman who struggled to use their online grocery portal with the use of her screen reader, which is a piece of assistive technology. She couldn’t shop independently, or it took her hours or sometimes a couple of days to place an order, one order. So she took the retailer to court after a period of mediation. You know, nothing was resolved, everything was taking too long, in the meantime, she’s having to work around the fact that she can’t shop online.

They eventually settled out of court and I’m very happy to say that that particular retailer, that grocer has actually performed an absolute 180 degree turn with respect to its attitude to digital accessibility. They have installed an in-house team. There are accessibility specialists in that organization permanently now, and they also regularly engage third party specialist organizations like Intopia to come in regularly and perform audits and do training and make sure that all of their online web presence and their apps are up to scratch and accessible for people with disabilities.

Gerry

It’s hard to do audits isn’t it? I often notice that you know, there’s a lot of checklist-based activities that people carry out for accessibility and, they are obviously of value in and of themselves, that every image has got a whole text or blah, blah, blah, or whatever it happens to be and tab sequences and, and, you know, colour used redundancy and so on, but it’s very hard to do a proper audit of accessibility I’ve found. Do you agree?

Allison

Yes, absolutely. You know, as you say, there’s a lot of people who swear by a checklist. A lot of people swear by what we call the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which is a standard published by the W3C. And those of us who’ve worked in accessibility long enough will absolutely tell you that while those guidelines and those checklists are a great start, they in no way guarantee that a website or an app is actually usable or enjoyable to use. So yeah, there’s way more to it than, than checking the boxes.

Gerry

And I guess a lot of people, you know, naturally I guess when they think about web accessibility, they are really thinking about just vision impairment, aren’t they rather than other sorts of impairment?

Allison

Yes. that’s definitely a common attitude that I come across when I’ve delivered training. The developers who’ve heard about accessibility naturally emphasize and, you know, concentrate a lot on the visuals because they’ve been told about screen readers and they’ve been told about colours. I’m here to tell you there’s a lot more to it than that. In accessibility, we’re trying to address the entire spectrum of disability. You know, we talk about the five core, the five personal characteristics, only one of which is vision the others being vision, cognition, mobility, and speech, and all of these things can contribute to a person’s ability or not to use your website.

Gerry

That’s only four. Sorry, vision…

Allison

Hearing.

Gerry

Hearing. Okay, great. Thank you.

Allison

The irony.

Gerry

Yeah. People always forget something in a list. It’s funny. [Laughter.]

Okay. Thank you. To get to get into, I guess, the area that I’d like to focus on specifically with you. I mean, obviously accessibility is a huge area and we could get into any particular aspect in great depth, but you did the presentation you did was about the accessibility training that you did for this particular client. And initially it was presented as a one-day course. Can you tell me firstly who you were training and secondly, what sorts of issues arose because of that format?

Allison

So I regularly conducted training with this client for their developers, both web developers and native app developers. And basically I was trying to cover virtually all of the accessibility principles and the accessibility techniques that a developer needs to be aware of in order to make an accessible website or an app. And I’ll tell you what, it’s, it’s a lot of content for a day, even two days. And the feedback that I was regularly getting at the end of these full-day sessions was, the theme was overload. It was just, it was too much, it was too fast. It was where do I start? It was so many things and basically people were going away overwhelmed because it was, it was just so big, and I don’t blame them.

Gerry

So what was your approach to improving that situation?

Allison

Okay, so this particular client they had identified in this past feedback that the overload was an issue and they asked that I rework the training and deliver it in a different way so that it can be taken in more gradually and people had time to digest all of the topics. So I reworked it and I presented it as a series of two-hour sessions rather than a whole day. And those two-hour sessions were delivered twice a week over the course of four or five weeks. So there ended up being maybe eight to ten sessions depending on the person’s role. And it meant that the people had time in a, you know, in a two hour session, it was a manageable chunk of content and the spread of days meant that they had time to go away and think about it.

The other aspect of it was that each session I only presented to one or two people at a time rather than a classroom format. And that enabled the conversation to be a lot more personalized. It meant that beginners weren’t lumped in with people who were experienced and getting impatient. And it also provided the comfort and the opportunity for people to ask questions. There weren’t many people to embarrass themselves in front of. We could go off on segues, we could deep dive into topics of interest. And we just meandered through the topic in a way that best suited each individual participant.

Gerry

That sounds like it might’ve been significantly more expensive than doing the one-day sessions.

Allison

Yes, that was one of the drawbacks.

Gerry

And the client was okay with that?

Allison

It was costed upfront. The client did sign off on it. They, they understood that the trade-off for the deep learning was an additional cost.

Gerry

Just, without any numbers, but as you know, was it sort of twice as expensive or four times as expensive? Like, how much more effort was, was involved in them?

Allison

I wasn’t involved in the numbers myself, but I got the impression that there were orders of magnitude involved. It was a significant increase.

Gerry

And you’ve mentioned a few of the things that worked well. One of the quotes that I liked in your presentation is somebody said “I didn’t fall asleep, even though it’s an afternoon session,” which I though was high praise indeed. [Laughter.]

Allison

You know, the session after lunch, it’s a brutal one!

Gerry

It’s a tough time all right, yeah.

Now, one of the things you did mention though, in your presentation, that you were disappointed that the reference material that you had produced and worked out of your colleague had produced and worked on was not used, but surely Alison given your background in technical communications as well, you would have expected that nobody would read the manual?

Allison

[Laughs.] Yes. It was disappointing. So as part of preparing for each of the lessons I wrote a lesson plan, I had all the topics I was going to talk on that particular day or that particular session. And my colleague Ricky, he put together a fantastic resource, which was part of the scope of work. The client actually requested a knowledge base as, as part of this training that they could keep and they could develop and they could use as a reference material going forward.

And my initial intention was that, you know, folks would come to my session, we’d have our two-hour chat, we’d talk about our topics and they would go away and read that reference material because it related directly to what we were talking about. It had worked examples and blog posts and videos. It wasn’t just dry, you know, academic reading, like we tried to make it fun. And I’m like, this is fun. People will do it. I hope against hope really. And yes, reality struck and I got to the end and I said, did anyone use those fabulous reference materials and to a man and woman they all said actually, no. Yeah.

Gerry

Yeah, it is a bit disappointing. I mean, have you got any strategies for, if you were doing it again or if you’ve done it subsequently, but with perhaps other clients, I mean, obviously there’s not much point producing something that’s, doesn’t get used at all. So what, do you have any alternative strategies that you’ve explored for that?

Allison

Well, I think these materials become relevant in situ. They only prove their worth when people are working with the topic when they’re actually building the component, when they’re actually writing the code for the screen.

To ask them to just read it as homework in between sessions was a bit of a stretch, really. So I think structuring it so that it is a lookup resource that’s available, you know, in the future as they go to a source of truth or whatever you want to call it, because Ricky made the very good point, my researcher, he was saying there’s a lot of rubbish on Google. And if you Google accessibility topics, you can get a lot of rubbish. So we’d rather put together this curated, checked, verified set of resources that we know are right, that we know are up to date that we know are reputable and have them go to that. So that was the intent. And I think that’s still a valid point, but I think the point of time in which I was expecting them to use it was wrong. So I feel like in future, when they were doing the code, they would realize the relevance and the usefulness of the content.

I may still be hoping against hope, but, but yeah, you know, all the devs were saying, if I want to look up something about accessibility, I go to Google and we want to sort of influence that behaviour away.

Gerry

Yes. Unless you’ve got sort of code snippets and literally things that people can take and run with it becomes very, very difficult because it’s extra work, then isn’t it?

Allison

Ideally that’s, that’s where I would have loved to have gotten to. But the scope of work, just, you know, obviously the time and effort involved in standing up basically a pattern library would be monstrous.

Gerry

Yeah. I’m also wondering, you know, when you’re talking about the additional expense of doing it with them, one-on-one two-hour sessions, as opposed to the, you know, with one or two people, as opposed to the all-day session with multiple developers, is there some kind of middle ground where you do some sessions with multiple developers and then have a small subsets? I presume you’ve put some thought into that subsequently.

Allison

Yes. So while most of the, most of the sessions I ran were these small scale one- or two-participant sessions, we had two sessions upfront, which was all of the participants together. And one of those sessions was excellent.

Well, they were both excellent, but one of them was particularly excellent because we had a gentleman come in, his name was Scott. He is blind. He uses assistive technologies, screenwriters and such every day. And basically his session was an open demonstration of him using their website and their apps and them getting a real-life demonstration of what it’s like using the website and the apps as a blind person. And the second half of the session was given over as as a free-for-all Q&A, where they could ask Scott whatever they liked about, you know, what’s it like being online as a blind person, you know, what are the common issues that you run into? What can we do better to help you know, folks using screen readers? And having all of those people in the room, bouncing ideas off each other and, and sharing that experience, I think was really, really valuable.

Gerry

Yeah. There’s nothing quite like watching people use, you know, use particularly their own systems to access your service, whatever it is that you’ve built.

Allison

Oh, I love destroying assumptions.

Gerry

Yeah. Yeah. I spent some time in the field doing testing just with visually impaired people for a particular thing I worked on when I saw, like, you know, if we’d brought people in, we would have sat them down with a computer with a screen reader set up on it, but we saw people doing all sorts of weird and bizarre things and having a screen reader and, you know, as a zoom magnifier on another screen and, you know, just completely breaking all the norms, it really is quite educational.

Allison

Yeah. It’s pretty good.

Gerry

So what’s the future of digital accessibility. Do you think it’s realistic to have development teams, for example, have accessibility expertise?

Allison

Oh, goodness. Look, there are, there are some, some unicorns out in the field. There are some developers who are very invested in you know, accessibility patterns. You know, we’re seeing the development of frameworks with more and more accessibility in mind. The quality of those varies but the intention is good. I think the continued future of accessibility is awareness. I think a lot of the developers that I encounter in my training, were hearing about accessibility for the first time. And so a lot of the work of accessibility is actually explaining that it’s a thing. And it’s not an add-on ticket thing. It’s part of the base quality of your code. It’s about having developers and the rest of the technical team treat accessibility as equivalent to security and performance. You wouldn’t ship something that’s insecure or low performance. I’d love to get to the point where we don’t ship things that are inaccessible.

Gerry

I guess, thinking of this particular client that that case study was about. Did they announce the accessibility as a cost or do they see it as a business opportunity I wonder?

Allison

They do. I mean, obviously accessibility can be sold using the carrot and the stick. They do see it as a customer benefit, and they do see it as an opportunity. They do have other accessibility related programs where, you know, they see themselves as tapping into new markets because they’re doing accessible things. So yeah, no, they’re, they’re seeing the power of the disabled dollar. It’s definitely a thing.

Gerry

Now to go completely off sort of digital accessibility. You and I are both in Melbourne and Melbourne is one of those cities that oddly did not rip up its tram network in the 1950s. And we have a tram system that was supposed to be completely accessible by the end of last year. I think that it’s still only like 15 or 20% there. Have you done any work on that or any thoughts on that?

Allison

I haven’t done much work in the physical accessibility space. I do have some former colleagues who were pretty strongly involved in that. I do look forward, you know, to the tram network extending you know, those, those accessible tram stops outside of the CBD [Central Business District] and outside of the major centers you know, to service more of Melbourne they are a valuable resource. Absolutely. And you know, more should be done.

Gerry

Do you want to tell us the link of the presentation we talked about in regard to the training that you ran and the modifications you made to improve it?

Allison

Probably the easiest way to see the slides of that presentation is to go to Notist. You’ll find me on there. The full slides are on there with, with some notes as well, as well as a bunch of other presentations I’ve done about accessibility in all sorts of random places.

Gerry

Okay, great. Well, Alison Ravenhall thanks for joining me today on the User Experience podcast.

Allison

No worries, Gerry. It was a pleasure to be here.

Gerry GaffneyTraining Dev Teams in Accessibility: An interview with Allison Ravenhall

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