A transcript of Episode 211 of UX Podcast. James Royal-Lawson and Per Axbom are joined by Laura Kalbag and talk about accessibility and disruptive design patterns..
James Royal-Lawson: Before we start, we just wanted to say up-front thank you for listening. If this episode or UX Podcast, in general, gives you joy then please visit UXpodcast.com/support and say thank you by giving us a little or as much as you’d like from just a few dollars to hundreds of kronor.
Per Axbom: By funding UX Podcast together with James and myself we can hopefully bring you 8 more years of an independently curated UX Podcast. Thank you for being wonderful.
Per: You’re listening to UX Podcast coming to you from Stockholm, Sweden.
James: Helping the U.X. community explore ideas and share knowledge since 2011.
Per: We are your hosts Per Axbom.
James: And James Royal-Lawson.
Per: With listeners in 184 countries.
James: From Quebec and Canada to Jalisco in Mexico. Laura Kalbag a friendly designer who is one half of indie a not-for-profit striving for social justice in the digital age.
Per: Laura is from the U.K., currently lives in Ireland and while she was living in Sweden wrote the book Accessibility for Everyone.
James: And straight off the stage Laura joined us backstage at From Business to Buttons for a chat about accessibility and disruptive design and inclusion.
Per: Laura you mentioned on stage that you’ve been talking about accessibility for 7 years. Do you feel hope about the future? Is anything changing because I see a lot of the same accessibility presentations around the speaker circuit and it seems that we’re giving the same type of advice all the time but are people taking note?
Laura Kalbag: Yeah, I’ve even been talking about it for even longer than that. I’ve been talking about it for maybe 9, 10 years now and even talking about it before then to the people I worked with and the people I studied with and it’s frustrating. It feels like an uphill battle and I think that in that time we’ve had some progress but really not enough. I think part of it is that we’re just not incorporating it into how we build things. We’re not incorporating it into how we work; we’re considering it an add-on at the end.
Laura: And so, we really need to turn it from being that sort of additional line item into part of the practice with everything that we do. So in the same way that you might consider—or when we think about branding; you consider that you make sure you get that done and you make sure it gets incorporated into every part of the work that you do and so we have to do the same with things like accessibility and inclusivity and make it part of that process and part of a mindset.
James: Exactly. I actually did think that the laws that we’ve had for recent years would actually make a positive difference but my feeling at the moment is it actually just emphasizes that it’s a box we need to tick that we need to comply with that law.
Laura: Yeah it is.
James: That was a bit—when I realized that’s how it felt, I was a bit disappointed.
Laura: Yeah and I think we do need those laws and we need the potential punishments for not following them as motivation because a lot of people won’t care unless there’s something like that attached to it. But I think collectively as a community especially the kinds of people who are interested in improving their practice, we have to be more proactive in doing it and not waiting to be told what not to do. I think as Kim [Goodwin] said in her talk today that we shouldn’t be sitting around waiting for ethical guidelines to come in to tell us how to do things. We need to be doing them for ourselves because these things are never going to move fast enough to meet the pace of technology.
Per: I think a lot of people are still unaware about accessibility it seems. I sometimes joke that I still meet clients who are surprised by the fact that blind people use the Internet. That to me is scary because we’ve had the internet for a long time now and when it came out a lot of people were talking about the democratization that it was contributing to that actually people were not able to use it and that was what got me into loving and being passionate about accessibility is that so many people cannot use the Internet in equal terms. And then we just destroyed that for some reason. I don’t understand the full circle of that but how can we make people more aware because I’m seeing it being missing from the curriculum at school as well for designers and developers alike.
Laura: Yeah that’s certainly one way to get started is by putting it into education. And I think if you think about how we spread our practices today like how we spread the kind of best practices and new ideas like things that are hot right now, when you think about things like design systems, it’s a very hot thing right now. Well those things are spreading so is there a reason why we can’t take things like accessibility and write about them and argue for them with our peers and stuff like that? We can do that in the same way. I think one of the things that holds people back is if they’re not disabled themselves and they don’t have experience with anyone who is, they feel frightened to talk about them. They feel ill equipped. They’re worried that they’ll say something wrong or do something wrong. And I think we have to not be scared in that way. I think we have to defer to people who are disabled and we have to listen to people’s experiences and always not assume that we know better than they do about their own experiences because that would be ridiculous.
But at the same time, we can’t be scared to talk about these things because in doing so we’re doing people a huge disservice. And as you said a lot of the things, around the web are quite accessible by default. Browser makers and operating system makers actually put a reasonable amount of effort into making these things accessible and then we build things on top of them and take that accessibility away. And so, it’s not too difficult to kind of get started we just have to be more comfortable talking about it.
James: Yeah and normalize the things that we do that support more accessible inclusive designs. Often, we have the thing with colour contrast. I think maybe instead of saying for good accessibility you have to have this kind of contrast we started showing like well in all this user testing or all these A/B testing you want to go down that route these are the ones that won and high contrast wins.
James: So, if we could always prove that for everyone these certain things benefit, give a notable benefit, a measurable benefit then perhaps that would be an easier sell for us internally.
Laura: I think one of the greatest things about accessibility is that it is so closely interwoven with usability. So many of the things like high contrast will not just improve it for people who have low vision or have difficulties but its people using a device in a bright room, its people using a low-resolution screen. These have really positive impacts and the majority of things around accessibility will improve usability. And in that case, it’s an easy sell because that equals: you make more money; it’s very straightforward.
And there are statistics out that can sort of say this is statistics on how many people are in our locality that are disabled—I mean you’ve got to be wary that some statistics don’t acknowledge like crossover people with multiple disabilities and things like that. But you can find those statistics and use them to advocate for it if you’re the kind of organization that needs metrics to push these things. But just pushing for usability through accessibility can really help. There are some needs that kind of accessibility wise make reflect with each other but very few and so we can broadly say accessibility is really good for usability.
Per: I also liked how you defined accessibility in your talk because it’s not about people with disabilities; specifically, it’s about including everyone and that’s really important to understand. I think as someone in charge of a digital solution or digital service is that you’re trying to include as many people as possible and that’s why it always becomes an add-on because you think it’s about a particular group of people at the end.
Laura: Yeah, we need to build things that are flexible and adaptable and can accommodate people’s needs to give them options for how they prefer to consume things. That’s a good way of doing it. And of course it can seem intimidating if you’re thinking I’ve got to make it work for blind people, I’ve got to make it work for deaf people, I’ve got to make it work for people with dyslexia, and you start sort of running this huge list that’s going to of course sound very intimidating but when you start realizing that these needs often benefit from the same things; it’s making things easy to see – regardless of impairments, make things easy to hear, make things easy to understand, and make things easy to use.
Laura: And everything falls under those categories.
James: Now I’m just thinking now about the attention society, and the way that we’re using advertising and so on, grabbing attention with an advert that was flashing – given as an example today. Sometimes how those also conflict that you’ve got business drivers, you got revenue drivers maybe it seems like distracting you and it seems like accessibility-wise we don’t want to be doing that, that turn it down. So, it comes to think oh God it’s that accessibility thing again they’re fighting against us so you’ve got that dichotomy.
Laura: Yeah but then there’s parts of usability as well and you want to try to keep the people using your products on site. And if you’re doing something that’s annoying like flashing things not only is it going to potentially cause seizures and things like that but it’s just going to irritate everyone. And if you can’t focus on what’s actually on the rest of the page because this ad is just flashing away, this one is like one of my pet peeves. It drives me nuts having to see that all the time like just in my periphery while I’m trying to read something. I mean I’m lucky I could go into developer tools and hide that element but a very few people have that ability to do so… and so yeah; we have—I think the problem lies where our business goals are pitted against what’s best for the people using our products. That’s where we’re going to find it very difficult to make progress because if our business goals are to addict people, are to annoy them and grab their attention then I mean we can dress it up as much as we like but we’re not going to make things a great experience for people.
Per: And that’s what I struggle with so much is that yes, we can put so much focus on making it more usable and more accessible but what if, like you said on stage, what if the business model is broken or is bad? Then you are actually working to lead people to harm.
Per: I think we see this now with GDPR and news websites, I mean we have the GDPR law that says you aren’t allowed to kind of collect data . So, we’ve got all these pop ups with all the permission things and a lot of newspapers and made them so inaccessible and so complicated. I mean no one can actually go through and say no.
Laura: And that in itself is against GDPR.
James & Per: Exactly.
Laura: They have very strict rules. I think they actually had—in France, they had a ruling where a particular company had to redesign that consent dialog so that it was compliant with GDPR and they did so. I mean it’s not a fun experience by any means because to consent to lots and lots of stuff at once is never going to be an enjoyable experience, but the default is that everything is off, that’s an important thing so it actually is easy to just hit exit because the default is that everything is off and there are designs for these things.
James: Yeah and then you have the problem with the exit then leads you away from the site in some cases because they’re basically using—
Laura: Yeah. It’s that problem.
Per: In some cases, yes. But I’m surprised by how often I can actually click on deny and I can still use the website and I don’t think a lot of people are aware that. You can click deny and sometimes that website works.
James: Well sometimes I notice as well is the way they use the language and the way they have primed their design with the buttons, the sizes, link or a button. It really isn’t designed with your best interests in mind.
Laura: No and they will get caught up with eventually I think but of course there are so many complaints already for GDPR so the regulators have a lot to handle. I mean for me I actually make tracker blocker that blocks tracking in the browser.
Per: I’ve used it for years.
Laura: Thank you. And you can quite safely a lot of the time just close those boxes because they’re redundant because we’ve blocked the underlying trackers because we can’t trust these companies. And actually, really, I hope that browsers will start enforcing those rules for us and will start blocking trackers by default too because we can’t trust businesses to do what’s not in their best interest so they’re unlikely to change it.
James: Exactly while the underlying business model is still as it is for the majority of like, news website for example, they aren’t going to change their behaviour because it means the end of what they’re currently doing and they haven’t reached a position to transition to something else yet.
Laura: Yeah. Well there’s a very interesting case Axel Springer in Germany they’re fighting this big case against ad blocking and their lawyer actually said that the tracking is their business. The content on the news site is just the means to getting people to click on the ads. And you think how upside down is our world is when the sites that we rely on for knowing what’s going on, they don’t see that as the business model. They don’t see journalism as the model, it’s how do we get people to click on ads.
Per: That’s crazy.
James: And sad. We’ve brought up this point a few times the whole thing about the dreams, the ideas, the hope we had for the Internet 20 years ago or so. And it’s kind of turned into the opposite of some of the things we’ve dreamt about.
Laura: They are. I go into it for the same reason. I love the idea of the democratization of information that you could—not only could I learn about whatever I wanted and sort of spread and share knowledge. Everything I needed to learn about building for the web I could learn from the web which is just so cool. And I don’t think that’s gone away and I think that there’s still a lot of hopeful projects out there. I think we just have to understand how business affects it. And we need to just find different business models where we can make technology work for social good as well.
James: Hopefully we’ll just see this—we’ll look back in history at this kind of maybe 10-year period as the dark period and there’ll be a much brighter future when we got through it.
Laura: Yeah. They say the pendulum swings from sort of dark to light and back again so I don’t know, hopefully but I think that we can expect it to do it without us doing anything. And we have to intervene we can’t just go on with a little hope it will swing back. We’ve got to take our responsibilities for it.
Per: And also, I mean being informed as a consumer is crucial because the people who are informed can make demands on these companies who are misbehaving. But it seems now that most people are just not aware. They’re not understanding what is happening with their data and what type of terms they’re accepting.
Laura: Yeah and that’s because a lot of these businesses are spending huge amounts of money on sort of marketing campaigns and dark patents and all of the things to cover these things up so we don’t hear about them. And yeah, they provide us with cool, free stuff and so it’s very hard to fight against convenience. And I think that’s why a lot of it starts with the people who are capable of building these products to build alternatives that are more ethical because we can’t tell people to leave unethical technology if there is no alternative.
Per: And do you believe in the certification or industry or professional.
Laura: I think it can be valuable to understand qualifications between each other, but I’m not sure there are many systems that can’t be gamed.
Per: Fair point!
Laura: I think that we just need to hold each other to account and call each other out. It’s not fun being confrontational and I think both Swedish and British cultures are not cultures that enjoy being confrontational but I think that we do need to do it. We need to bear in mind there are plenty of people in the world who are happy to carry on doing things as they do and unless we call them out, they’ll keep doing it.
James: And so, if you got any more advice that if we want to make sure that we’re not just this sort of things like accessibility side specifically what are the things we need to really be doing?
James: Apart from calling the people out.
Laura: Yeah, I think we need to try to educate ourselves about these issues and I think a lot of people kind of think well advertising that’s not my responsibility and accessibility oh the developers will deal with that. So, we need to sort of it’s that idea of being the T-shaped design or the idea that you have a broad understanding of much of your field and then you have a deep understanding of something. Because once you have that wide understanding of oh maybe this could be an accessibility problem, as long as you’re aware of it you can go and find out how to fix it. But there’s so many resources out there, there are so many brilliant accessibility experts who share resources for free and so it’s not expensive; the expense is your time but it’s very easy to get educated in it and you don’t have to spend any money doing it. So, we just need to make sure that you have those inputs that mean that we’re aware of what the issues are because once you’re aware you’re much more able to dig into things deeper.
Per: There was one thing that happened on the stage today that’s interesting because sometimes I mean you use it for that effect as well, the smart dildo which makes people laugh but it’s an incredible invasion of privacy, the example you’re describing and people laugh about it maybe nervously but how do you feel about that because it should be so much more serious than actually instigating laughter?
Laura: Yeah well part of it is to provide some relief because people are feeling increasingly tense by all of the things that I’m showing them that are quite terrifying. It’s like an episode of Black Mirror and so yeah you kind of make the laugh initially because it’s all ha-ha or something, it’s a funny sex toy. And then you actually make people think about oh but the data that comes from that is incredibly intimate and it’s that way of starting to just help people think about things that they use in their everyday life that could be affected. I didn’t even mention smart speakers. I think that’s the most prevalent right now in people’s homes, aside from their mobile devices.
James: Which are in effect the same thing when it comes to it.
James: How they actually record, listen, no it is even worse because they move around with you because it’s got the GPS.
Laura: Yeah, I think the mobile devices provide the GPS. and the small speakers provide the listening and yeah between them and of course because they are very easy to connect both of those things to you it can build a very broad picture of what you’re about and what you do.
Per: So, with your experience of different cultures why do you think it is that smart speakers haven’t become as prevalent in Sweden as it has for example in England where it seems that a lot of people have smart speakers but I don’t meet a lot of people that have them here.
Laura: I do wonder whether a part of it is that thing about inclusivity and how a lot of it’s designed for English speaking people. Like the difficulty in trying to communicate with things can be really hard because if they don’t necessarily recognize—I’m very lucky, I got a very boring standard British accent; very easy for voice recognition, but then when I try to say my partner’s name and get it to call him I mean does it understand what Aral is? It’s not an English name and so I have to give him all of this different kind of different names in my contacts so that I can actually get it to him when I’m driving. It is ridiculous.
James: It’s kind of like a shotgun approach.
Laura: Yeah and so often it doesn’t work for people but yeah, I’m sure that the cultural differences lead to all different kinds of things and I’m not very good at speaking to what Swedish people do so much because I’m not one. As much as I lived here I can’t—a lot of it is subconscious. We don’t think about why we make the decisions that we make like that.
Per: True. But I think you’re on to something because I don’t think it’s a privacy thing that people are not buying them because of privacy I think that it’s actually something else.
Laura: Oh no, I mean I’m sure it’s not. I found it very difficult arguing on those issues in Sweden because I think a lot of things like having date about you publicly available is something that’s very common in Sweden because a lot of the government systems are built around that. And yeah, it’s harder to argue the case for these things when a lot of it’s already happened because then you’re talking about removing power and taking it away. It’s much easier to get there before you give the power to somebody else. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. And GDPR. gives you the ability to say remove my data.
James: Yes, I’ve been the annoying person a few times even the companies.
Per: Oh, you’ve started doing it. I haven’t done yet.
James: I kind of use it as a punishment thing if someone keeps on spamming me with SMS. or something then—I get frustrated by some of these marketing things. They require you to SMS. back to tell them to stop.
James: And it’s a premium SMS.
James: And that pressing my button so then I end up contacting them via other means and say take me away and they go you can just SMS. No you can take me away.
Laura: Yeah. Oh, I had that. I was trying to cancel subscription and they were insisting on I had to phone them and I said you don’t. I had sent them an email and I said I do not have to phone you for you to cancel the subscription. And it’s a dark pattern that you make that a requirement on your site. I mean you think about people who can’t—don’t have access to phones, people who find it difficult to use phones. I mean that puts even more onus onto some them. It’s just not fair.
James: Again, to not having the right—and not uses human interest in the center.
James: Someone else’s doesn’t mean something else’s.
Laura: Yeah. I think one of the greatest tricks we played on ourselves over the last few years is the idea that we’re actually human centered and that we actually care about people. We keep saying it, we talk about empathy but actually a lot of the time we’re using it as an excuse to do other things.
Per: That is so true and so sad.
Laura: Sorry not the best things to say to UX Podcast.
Per: I’m trying not to end under dystopian note there. What are you hopeful about?
Laura: I’m hopeful about the fact that there are so many people working on alternatives. I think these are not necessarily groups that are well funded but there are a lot of people who really care about these issues and want to be able to particularly protect vulnerable people. And that gives me a lot of hope that there are a lot of people out there who are doing hard work, not making money doing it, and just genuinely care and what’s better than that about humans.
Per: Wow thank you.
James: That’s a much better note to finish on—I feel hopeful now.
Laura: Bit more cheerful?
Per: Yeah. Thank you for joining us Laura Kalbag.
James: In that little interview we went from accessibility through inclusion all the way over to intrusion and the way that organizations use their business models or kind of really breaking into our private lives.
Per: Yeah that’s what I really like about Laura’s message and her presentation is that she really is tangible with all the examples from accessibility but shows us how this actually also, of course, dovetails with how we are being exploited by the bigger companies. It’s just very messed up all of it.
James: Yeah. I mean from her from I talk she gives the example of Captcha which most of the people know is that it’s a thing where you’re presented with a task to do like writing some text or choosing some traffic lights or crossings to prove that you’re not a robot. And Laura points out that this is a terrible thing for accessibility which is understandable when you think about it. And how do you—and if you’ve got accessibility needs which almost all of us have then that’s a real challenge. What Laura pointed out was that many of the times that Google’s latest version kept Captcha 3 you don’t even—it decides already because you’ve included this service script on every single page. It already has decided if you’re human before you even answer the questions so I felt a little bit kind of betrayed when she was telling me all this.
James: Because I realize now those times where I get asked to pick out traffic lights a 2nd time when I’m trying to confirm I’m human isn’t because they were no human it’s because I was probably really good the 1st time and they thought well we can get even more data.
Per: Yeah that is a really scary thought. I mean we’re just being exploited all the way across the board. And it’s just not transparent, it’s nobody knows about what’s going on. Everybody is subjected to it and its lucrative also for these companies to maintain their prejudices. It’s just—the dystopia we got to in the end just really messed with me because I realized that are, we screwed, how screwed are we, and it seems like we don’t have a marketing problem for accessibility. We have a listening problem where these companies just aren’t interested in listening to us and our real needs and it’s based on entitlement and privilege and prejudice and they just love exploiting us because it’s profitable. And how do we ensure that it isn’t profitable to exploit us?
James: Yeah. We kind of half joked about the pendulum swinging where we get really dystopian and dark but yeah, a lot of it points out in her presentation. The advertising platforms which maximize clicks to maximize profits are bound to—they’re programmed by default to reinforce prejudices and stereotypes.
James: I mean it can’t do anything else. So, the business models are broken.
Per: And those of us who have figured it out at least have partly figured it out, I mean I guess it’s our jobs then to make it apparent and transparent when people are exploited and excluded. And I love the point Laura was making at the end actually about we need to learn to be more confrontational. We need to be able to speak up more and hold each other to accounts and she made a good point about actually people in the U.K. and Sweden maybe not being so good at being confrontational. And this is something we have to work on because that makes me think of how many people are complaining about politicians these days but without wanting themselves to get into politics. It’s easy to point a finger but it’s harder to actually get in there and do something.
James: And we have this point before about how conversational can you be if the country you work in doesn’t protect your rights as an employee as well as maybe other countries. I mean this has come up before it has been an international conversation. Especially Americans seem to be a lot more worried about saying the wrong thing for fear of losing their jobs. So, this we can get very physical, very quick about the solutions to this but I think Laura pointing out being T-shaped which is something we’ve talked about many, many years. One of the many important skills as a U.X. designer is knowing a little bit about lots of things.
James: Because when you’re faced with some of these things, we have to evaluate business models. We have to not only evaluate the potential solutions or scenarios; is this accessible, is it inclusive, is it for the greater good of mankind? There’s a lot of skills beyond what you consider the traditional visual skills maybe of like interaction design or research that we need to make use of. The T skill is essential.
Per: And as Laura points out, obviously there are a lot of people who care about these issues so there is at least some light at the end of the tunnel. It seems that we are in a moment in history where we are calling out these behaviors and are becoming aware and learning to actually start fighting them as well.
James: Yeah. I mean if we go back to the kind of more the less controversial aspect of our conversation when we talked about accessibility in itself, in its pure essence of implementation. And one of the things that Laura talked about was contrast; color contrast. And I reflected over the fact that this is still the case where many organizations don’t have pallets for their—the branding pallets don’t have contrast ratios that are good enough. And that made me think about how that—I think that’s still because the style guides, they have their roots in printed media or traditional media. So, we often inherit style guides from companies when we do design work and they haven’t considered the web properly and fully.
Per: And it goes back to where we started with the conversation really that we keep saying and telling and teaching how you do it right but we keep doing it wrong. And this is a big frustration for me that I’ve also been talking about accessibility for many, many years and it’s just why is it not happening? Why is such a simple thing as you’re saying such a simple thing as choosing colors is still not based on accessibility?
James: Yeah, exactly. I mean it is so simple to fix but at least we fix the kind of root causes. The root cause is that style guides at companies are built for the wrong purpose. They need to be web 1st. But then on top of that, I was thinking this morning about how web browsers are becoming more and more strict in the implementation of certain things. We think about how we’ve done with certificates now with HTTPS and so on that you get—Chrome you get a very prominent set page now; a middle page that says this is unsafe and you have to click on two links whatever to kind of go to the website if it doesn’t have certificates.
James: Why don’t we start doing this with contrasts?
Per: I like that.
James: Why can’t a page fail to load if there are a contrast ratios for any element on the page which aren’t compliant I mean okay if someone then is going to create a web browser which is deliberately non-compliant to just get around it but I think for Chrome, for Opera, and for Firefox this should be something that you could probably implement without rocking the boat too much.
Per: Yeah or at least I mean display a big warning sign at the top of the page about how they’re not compliant with …
James: But I think it’s kind of banner effect that some of the people is going to click it away or whatever I mean if I think to make companies properly understand I think you’d have to feel their pitch.
Per: The problem is that 90% of the Internet would just not be visible anymore.
James: And what’s wrong—what is bad with that?
Per: Oh, that’s a good point as well.
James: Because if the ultimate goal is to get contrast sorted, we’d fix it in 1 release. Because everyone then would be running to fix the color contrast because suddenly their website, their product, their service doesn’t work anymore.
Per: I love it. I think it’s an excellent idea actually.
James: Let’s see if we could make that happen.
Per: Who do we talk to? Talk to someone who develops a web browser.
James: If anyone knows get in touch with and tell us who we need to talk to.
James: So, thank you very much for spending your time with us today. Links and notes from this podcast, this episode can be found on UXpodcast.com if you can’t find them directly in your podcast playing software of choice.
Per: So, if you want something else to listen to then we recommend episode 196, accessibility for designers and episode 118, which is inclusive design with Sara Lerén. Remember to keep moving.
James: See you on the other side.
James: Knock, knock.
Per: Who’s there?
Per: Rhoda who?
James: Row, row, row the boat gently down the stream merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.
Per: You did that in your Hull accent. I like that.
James: Mm-hmm. It’s Rhoda but I said it with a Hull accent. Roah-deh.
Per: Well, I was thinking of the microphone brand it’s why I said it like that. Ah, that’s it, the back story.
This is a transcript of a conversation between James Royal-Lawson, Per Axbom and Laura Kalbag recorded in May 2019 and published as Episode 208 of UX Podcast.