005 - Accessibility: the Anti-Buzzword, with Kristin Patterson

This week I had the honor of sitting down with Kristin Patterson, CPACC - and we talk about all things Digital Accessibility. Interestingly enough, for one reason or another, Digital Accessibility has become a dirty word, or at the very least gotten a bad rap. And yet... the topic couldn't be more relevant and important for designers and businesses alike.

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Tony: Friends, welcome to the podcast. I'm your host, Tony Daussat. If this is your first time listening, thank you for checking it out, and if you are a returning listener for more... Hey wasssssup?! I've missed you. As always, if you're digging what I'm digging, I would truly appreciate a subscribe or a review wherever you happen to be tuning in. This week- I'm speaking with Kristin Patterson and we dive into accessibility. A topic in design that is too often overlooked and yet is paramount to truly being an empathetic designer and as we find out... Vital for business. So without further ado, let's jump into the interview.

Tony: Kristin Patterson....

Kristin: Hi!

Tony: Hey Girl! First, thank you so much for coming. It's a real pleasure having you here. Kristen is a colleague of mine. Um, before we get into the topic of discussion, who are you? What are you doing here? How did you get here?

Kristin: Well, first, thanks for having me, Tony. I'm really excited to be here. I am a Strategist here at Bottle Rocket and it's just one of those fortuitous things where maybe I did something right in a past life and I'm alive right now where strategy and user experience is a viable and an endlessly possible vocation. I originally double majored in psychology and studio art at a liberal arts school and then ended up through a winding path graduating from a math and science school, um, with a technical background. So here we are.

Tony: So when we talk about accessibility, you've got some, an acronym after your name on Linkedin. What does that acronym mean?

Kristin: So that is a CPACC that's a Certified Professional Accessibility Core Competencies. I am a very lowly on the totem pole of the niche body of knowledge, but, um, that is just denoting that I have been tested over five bodies of accessibility criteria, including the one, you know, we in the biz are most familiar with WCAG, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. And then, you know, various treatments that uh, the legal and political systems have 14 different countries have with regards to digital accessibility.

Tony: Wow, that's a lot.

Kristin: It took me a minute.

Tony: And not just one country. So what is accessibility? How, how would you define it?

Kristin: I, I would define, um, digital accessibility is just a way of making our digital experiences more sensitive to the human condition. And, and that is we're not at our best all the time. We're not 100 percent fully capable, physically, emotionally, mentally, all the time. So what considerations can we make in our line of work and in our communication with our colleagues, neighbors and loved ones to, uh, to really make sure that we're paying attention to have everyone's needs.

Tony: Where did this passion come from for accessibility in sort of your role here?

Kristin: Well, um, I actually discovered that, uh, WCAG the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which have been in existence since 1999. We're getting their first update in over a decade last Christmas. And you could watch this unfold online. It was fascinating. It's this global body of professionals and experts volunteering their time to help craft these guidelines. And the, the update was going to include considerations for cognitive impairment, which I think is wild because in a technical field we quantify things we want specific bits and bites, specific levels of contrast ratios. But how do you quantify consideration for cognitive impairment? So, um, that was where my interest was peaked and then the more I've gotten to know it, um, the more uh compelling but disparate motivations I've found, for example, the, the, the legal treatment state side has been like the wild west. So it's kind of morbidly fascinating to watch that unfold. And, um, it's, it's also really inspiring to see what other professionals are doing with these new accessibility considerations in the, the new technology we're, we're uh learning to experiment with and master everyday.

Tony: What is considered a cognitive impairment?

Kristin: So cognitive impairments can range from anything as basic as you're in the airport, in the crowd, rushing to your gate, you're distracted, you're stressed, your cognitive load is taxed at that point, unique to that situation. So at that point, you're acutely cognitively impaired, versus clear head, clear mind, clear heart, looking at your ticket, calmly making your way to your gate. That's never the case with when we travel, some more severe cases of a cognitive impairment can be defined clinically with regards to Alzheimer's or dementia or ADHD, dyslexia, um, something called Dyscalculia, which is where people struggle with symbols and numbers, so the, it's just where our cognitive load is not optimal.

Tony: Are they considered disabilities?

Kristin: So this is where it gets a little interesting with regards to the treatment of the word and how we parse it. So, uh, it depends on whom you're talking to, if we're going to call it a disability with regards to political and financial consideration, that varies every year. So as an example, autism is also a cognitive impairment and the way that is clinically defined actually gets changed, has been, has been changing year over year. So some years you will qualify as on the spectrum and you will receive a financial or governmental considerations for support in that arena. When the definition changes that may exclude your specific condition with autism. So that-

Tony: How do they do that? How did they change the spectrum like that?

Kristin: It's just changing the-

Tony: As they learn, they change it or-

Kristin: Yeah, they're just changing the definition.

Tony: Wow. I mean, I, I have family that has autism and so things like accessibility really mean means so much to me. And something that you've said in the past is that we all know someone who has some sort of cognitive impairments. Okay, so let's step back back a little bit.... WCAG is... Say it again.

Kristin: They're called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

Tony: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. There's nothing dry about this! And ADA what is ADA?

Kristin: Uh, the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, that is a federal law that is unique from WCAG, but there is still a one directional relationship between the two. While WCAG is a body of, let's say, guidelines that are recommendations for folks in our field to follow, um, crafted by a global body of experts. These are guidelines for how to make your technical experience, uh, accessible. The ADA, however, is a US federal law with considerations for making places of public domain accessible to everyone. Um, Title 3 specifically deals with places of public accommodation and with the inception of the Internet and the technical age that now includes digital spaces, but it's not specifically cited in the federal law. So what judges and litigious bodies have done is just defer to WCAG because it's the best we've got right now. Um, it's actually the specific standard of WCAG. So to satisfy WCAG, there are AA and AAA standards; that's bronze, silver and gold. The creators of WCAG had asked that most people for general accessibility satisfy AA standards like middle of the road. And so the federal courts, state courts and other legal bodies have deferred to AA standards for WCAG to satisfy the legal considerations in the spirit of ADA.

Tony: So as designers we talk about empathy all the time and a lot of times I find that designers treat accessibility as like a dirty word and is this scary thing that they don't really want to think about. However, they will stand on a mountain with a flag that says empathy all day long. So how should designers start to thinking about accessibility as part of empathy?

Kristin: So, um, I have noticed as well that typically in the, in the design space, accessibility is, um kind of the wet blanket of, of our call to action and our craft, but I think that stems from um more anchoring the concept in brutalist design where it has to be so heavily- the design needs to be so heavily diluted that it lacks any spirit or character and therefore surely it must be accessible. Um, but I think that's a false correlation just born out of the brutalist design trend. And, um, I, I think the shift in perspective that folks in our field can take to really add more substance to their, uh capacity for empathy is to better hone the personas for whom they are designing.

Tony: And when we talk about personas - What do you mean?

Kristin: So when you're trying to envision this thing I'm going to create as an experience designer, a user experience professional, an art director, um, I want it to bring surprise, delight, and optimal utility to my end user. Who is that end user? That end user is going to be one of a series of personas that you can create to make sure that you are in fact measurably satisfying their needs and wants. So this persona could be, if we are building a ride sharing app, we are going to envision ideally the spectrum of people who will most likely use this and get value from it, so that could be a 14 year old child who may now also include considerations for autism and ADD which are cognitive impairments, and this can include an adult who is 70, who may have previously had a stroke and therefore suffers from poor motor function. So we need to maybe dial down the animations or make our touch targets a little bigger um on our digital experience, but the personas are just a way of being a little more tactical with regards to how you're approaching your design goals.

Tony: You're designing for actual human beings.

Kristin: Yes, that's correct.

Tony: So what- What kind of numbers are we talking about with people with impairments?

Kristin: Earlier this summer, Forrester published an article citing that uh 1 billion people globally suffer from impairments. People with disabilities constitute the largest minority in the world, often overlooked, especially in a lot of the things that are designed today. And what's even fascinating about that is the American Institute of research has also quantified the fact that, um, Americans with disability holds $490,000,000,000 in disposable income annually. And that money being left on the table, it's on par with other minority communities that we do openly now as a, as a, as a community and a society acknowledge need unique consideration or special consideration for inclusion. And the African American community controls $501,000,000,000 in disposable income. And the Hispanic community, uh, American Hispanics control $582,000,000,000 dollars in disposable income.

Tony: So there's kind of two ways. What I'm hearing right now is in order to get accessibility, sort of injected into the culture of an organization or a design team or even an individual designer. In my head, there's a couple of different ways, and correct me if I'm wrong: one is this empathy route, and one is this financial sort of, there are implications here where we're missing out on some dollars because we're a business. Is there another like- what are some legal ramifications that we can see coming if there are any?

Kristin: So with regards to WCAG's kind of unofficial relationship to the American with Disabilities Act.... Um, there, there is the threat of lawsuit if you do not comply or take into consideration these measures to make sure that the good or service you're providing is available to all. And uh Title ADA lawsuits if taken all the way to the federal court and found in favor of the prosecutor- Um, this, this could range in the tens of millions as far as fines and legal fees because the ADA is a civil rights lawsuit. So it doesn't necessarily allow for a recovery of damages. But when found guilty, the guilty party does have to pay uh fees- And then, um, fines.

Tony: I have a feeling that a lot of companies, a lot like HIPAA violations, they just think, oh, it's not going to happen to me. It's fine. Like I'm not going to be audited. But have there been some suits in cases as of late that could have people sweating?

Kristin: There have been so many suits in cases that, um, during October of last year... So, sorry, I'm jumping ahead of myself. Um, the, the trend of increasing Title 3 ADA lawsuits started to reach such a growing degree that the Department of Justice back in 2010 released an official statement with their intent to write our own WCAG. We will have the American WCAG and it will be law, but uh December 26th of last year, the DOJ released a follow up formal statement saying, "nevermind." So with that, the lawsuits are still continuing to grow year over year, uh, such that October of, um, I'm sorry, I misspoke. The DOJ rescinded their intent in December of 2017. So at October of last year, 103 congressional members from both sides of the aisle wrote a joint letter to the DOJ playing them to reconsider just because the lawsuits are so off the charts.

Tony: What do you think the best way- who needs to, who needs to start baking this into the culture as it, as being something that is important?

Kristin: So I think with the motivators being number one, altruism or number two, uh fear of legal ramifications... Or number three, tapping into previously overlooked markets with regards to the disposable discretionary income of people with disabilities. Um, I, I think this is a chance for everybody to start taking it into consideration. I ask that everybody call on someone in their life who, um, maybe suffers from Alzheimer's or dementia or dyslexia.... Poor eyesight is something that these guidelines take into consideration, um, which both of us being glasses wearers, we can, we can, we can get onboard with that. But, uh, just just call to mind someone in your life whom you love and care for with a disability covered by WCAG, which I, you know, as we discussed a billion people nationally that's going to be someone in our lives and do it for them and have a discussion on their behalf with someone in your office.

Tony: When you say that, it reminds me of- Not at Bottle Rocket obviously because I think everyone here is on board with it- But in instances where I've worked with designers before, like we mentioned, they think it's this dirty word, they, they don't really have any consideration for it- I just want this idea of that number. You said a million people all in one room and then I want the designer to say, "I'm not thinking of you," you know?

Kristin: Wow. Yeah.

Tony: And I think that, I think that's what really sort of put me over the edge. Because I would be lying if I said I didn't think of it before. It wasn't necessarily talked about a lot and it's getting more, it's getting more talked about recently. But I started thinking about those people. And you can't design for everyone, but you should try as hard as you can to at least meet these guidelines- and as dry as this topic can be, it's so vital.

Kristin: So I do agree in the- and that does call to mind. I think one thing we are um blessed and afflicted with as designers is that we do have an innate sense for uh sense for beauty and perfection in our craft. And we can't achieve that when designing for accessibility. You can't make something that's 100% accessible and this has, come on high from the Worldwide Web Consortium who created WCAG - And you can find it everywhere. And an example of that is if you're designing for someone with low vision, um, which were the population that WCAG was originally crafted for back in 1999, you're going to want a stark contrast white background with black font. Let's start there. Perfect. Check that box. Except now we're also considering people with cognitive impairments which include those with dyslexia. So if you do have a white background and black font on a digital screen, the way dyslexia processes, the kind of input that's like turning background noise when someone's trying to concentrate up to 150%, it's very jarring. So when you are accommodating one disabled population, you may be hampering another. So this is where we have an opportunity to, to get more specific with our personas. So for compliance, my most reliable go to and the farthest our technology can take us today is a screen readers. So if you're on a mobile device, turn on every, every phone comes with one- Now uh turn on your screen reader and try and swipe through maybe one of your favorite apps to get an experience for what it's like to be a user with very poor vision. Uh, an interesting stat is that the iPhone 6 is actually the iPhone model that most of its users do necessitate the font enlargement feature. That's a stat that apple has released.

Tony: Interesting...

Kristin: Yeah. Um, so with screen readers on your mobile device, maybe if you're on your computer, try and tab through your favorite site. Just use the tab button and see if you get a big bright outline around the focus area and see if you can complete one of the tasks you normally go through. Unfortunately, technology has only taken us so far to where the more automatic tools only catch about 25 to 35 percent of errors and that's a stat from the User Experience Professional Organization International body, um, but such tools are still helpful if you're trying to get going. So there's accessibility scanner on Android, X-Code on iOS and um, iPhones and then Google Lighthouse has an extension of Chrome for desktop.

Tony: Awesome. It is wild to me- and I think what will help inform designers are doing the very things you just mentioned- because when you try to- it's hard. It's like really difficult to do. And if that's your everyday life, how do you imagine that feels? You know, and, and so for designers, do you think the impetus is on them or do you think the impetus is on the leadership of the organization? Like is it chicken and egg?

Kristin: So I do think with regards to any business environment, um, for the sake of honoring the fact that while we love it, and this is our, our dream job, this is still a means for us to put money on the table and keep the lights on. Same thing with leadership. They need to ensure not only that they keep the lights on, but they can keep the lights on for their employees whom they have worked hard to retain. Um, so with that nodding to dollars and cents, this will be good for business. And then having that come down from leadership as this is imperative to our business processes I think is most effective with regards to seeing institutional change quickly and broadly. But I do think there's opportunity and kind of a call to action for designers to account for these characteristics in our personas and in our craft.

Tony: Most of this conversation has sort of been circling around mobile devices or screens, things like that. Are there implications outside of those experiences that we can start thinking about as we start designing for things like voice or VR or AR and things like that? Or is it just so the wild west that it's unknown?

Kristin: So, um, yeah, another reason I've kind of enjoyed, the Sisyphus challenge of mastering all the knowledge that this pertains to is just that. It's still like the wild west. So, um, so while we do have a mobile guidelines, majority of the legislation that's out and legal precedent that has been set pertains to websites, but that hasn't stopped lawsuits from coming from mobile apps. They just don't make it all the way to federal court. Most most companies settle outside of court. So, um, a lot of the guidelines for these and kind of the broad reaching call to actions only pertained to websites right now, which we are technologically advancing far beyond.

Tony: You said Sisyphus earlier.... What is that?

Kristin: Oh, I'm sorry, I'm nerding-out, uh that, so back in Greek and Roman mythology, I'm one man who slighted the gods was doomed to push a boulder up a hill for eternity.

Tony: Ah Sisyphus of course!

Kristin: Yeah and he would never reach the top of the hill.

Tony: Okay. So now that I got us into Sisyphus- I like to end on a question that really has nothing to do with anything. What object that you own or possess, non digital, has had the most impact on your life or means the most to you and why?

Kristin: Oh, I've got one right now actually. Um so is it, it's not digital, but it's electronic, is that-

Tony: That's fine!

Kristin: Okay. Uh, so for Christmas, my, I have a twin sister who lives in Colorado and younger brother who lives in Washington. And then parents who, who live far away as well. Um, my sister got all of us these lamps, they are rectangular lamps with beautiful stained glass patterns on the side. But the material in between the stained glass frames is white. When you tap the top with your four fingers it will light up and then it will light up the other lamps in your network to let them know you're thinking of them.

Tony: Oh, that's cool.

Kristin: You can assign yourself or other people colors on your lamps. So when my brother taps it and it lights up Fuchsia, I know you say hi.

Tony: Oh, I like that.

Kristin: So it's just a really fun thing we do when we're like running around town between errands and work in the gym and just tap it and thinking about you and carry on with your day.

Tony: And it means so much more than, or not more but different than a text that just says, hey.

Kristin: Yeah. Yeah, it's, it's a quick- There's, it's noncommittal with regards too. I'm not asking you to respond or take time out to read this. Just letting you know I'm thinking about you.

Tony: From Sisyphus to lamps. Thank you so much Kristin.

Kristin: Thanks Tony, it's been a pleasure.

Tony: Where can people reach you? Where can they find you online?

Kristin: Oh, well, um, I am on Linkedin and I actually do prefer that to curate uh more industry related and professional articles and contacts. And then I'm also on twitter, but selfishly that's kind of my own personal RSS aggregator, I just, your know star and re-tweet things that I want to circle back to later. I'm on twitter, it's Kristinloup and on Linkedin it's Kristin Patterson, K R I S T I A N

Tony: And I'll have it in the show notes. Thanks so much.

Kristin: Thank you, Tony.

Tony: That's a wrap this week. By the way, a quick edit when I was illustrating my metaphor of every person standing in a room with a designer, I said a million people when actually, as Kristin said, it's a billion people with cognitive impairments... So woof. Imagine that. Again- Thank you to my guest, Kristin Patterson, and thank you- You beautiful people listening. I can't wait to have you here next week, but until then, friends, stay curious.