Building an Accessibility-Centered Product Culture: Insights from UX Leaders at Google, Sony, Meta, and Uber

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Posted by AnswerLab Research on May 26, 2022

You’ve heard of accessibility, and you probably agree it’s important, but how do you foster an accessibility-centered product culture? To help bring awareness as we celebrate Global Accessibility Awareness Day this month, we spoke with UX leaders from Google, Sony, Meta, and Uber to gather their insights and advice on building an accessibility-centered product culture. They shared how they’re overcoming barriers, reaping the benefits and preparing for the future of digital accessibility. 

Accessibility, often written as a11y to represent the 11 letters in between a and y, is, in short, making products and services that everyone, including those with physical and cognitive disabilities, can easily use and obtain equal value from. In the nearly 32 years since the ADA was enacted, a11y has become self-evident in the physical world. There are handicap accessible ramps and curbs, sign language interpreters at live events, and auditory crosswalk signals. 

A11y in the digital world is a little more obscure. Yes, there are tools like screen readers, voice commands, and eye trackers, but digital a11y is still relatively immature and fraught with challenges. Many UX professionals work in organizations that lack an a11y-centered culture and as a result may struggle to secure an a11y budget, acquire necessary tools and training, and make a large-scale impact. 

In an ideal world, every company would have an a11y-centered culture staffed with a diverse set of UX professionals equipped to integrate voices from every community into their products. The reality is that many companies, particularly tech companies, have inherent biases that prevent a11y perspectives from being top of mind. “The tech workforce tends to be very able,” says Alana Conner, PhD, Staff UXR, Privacy, Safety and Security at Google. “It tends to be highly educated, coming from a particular set of colleges and universities, geographies, disciplinary backgrounds. And so many tech workers face cultural obstacles to thinking about people who aren't like them.” 

Brian Parsons, a UX Designer specializing in a11y at Sony Interactive Entertainment, agrees. “The design tools themselves aren’t that accessible, leaving out people with disabilities from entering the industry and making an impact from the inside,” he says.

Laying the Groundwork and Building a Process 

The prospect of upending the entire tech industry is daunting, but there are small, actionable steps you can take within your own team to work toward an a11y-centered culture. One way to start is by including a11y questions in product documentation to help your team think through a11y issues. “Just asking questions like, ‘Well, how might we redesign this experience if we’re not privileging sight to the extent that we are?’, helps you reconsider the way you have structured the amount and kinds of signals you give people,” says Chris Langston, Research Manager and A11y Specialist at Meta. “This is how you find things like, ‘Oh yeah, actually we do need touch feedback or we do need a click sound associated with that click button.” 

Simply calling out a11y issues with your product is also an important first step in not only holding your team accountable, but in identifying colleagues who share your concerns, are motivated to take action and from whom you can learn and grow with. “I joined a company that was redesigning their Design System, but decided that making their primary button have inaccessible color contrast was an OK decision,” says Erica Ellis, Head of Product Equity Design at Uber and co-author of A Practical Guide to Inclusive Research. “I didn’t know much about a11y at the time, but I knew color contrast. I started to ask around about who was making this decision and why. That eventually led me to a small, but mighty a11y team who took me under their wing.”

Growing Awareness through Research and Observation

Another simple and powerful way to foster an a11y mindset is demonstrating to your team how people with disabilities experience your product. “Nothing is more impactful than having your team watch a customer (or potential user) with a disability use your product and fail because it’s not accessible,” says Parsons. “Bring in a customer (or potential user) with a disability and have them tell your team their personal story, let them show your team how they have the same needs as everyone else. After building that connection with your team, your team will start to truly empathize with that user and see why a11y needs to be taken into account at every step of your process.” 

UXR is critical in building an a11y-centered culture. Ellis recommends both including people with disabilities in every study and conducting disability-specific studies for different disability communities. “While many people have the same or similar disabilities, they are not a monolith,” says Ellis. “They do not all exist in the world in the same way, with the same level of disability, in the same culture, with the same access to technology, with the same economic status. Understanding the intersectionality of disability identity is required to do this work.”

Recruiting the Right Participants

Of course, every a11y study has its own unique recruitment, technical, and logistical parameters, which are especially difficult. “The logistics of [a11y research] can be quite challenging and recruiting can be very, very hard. We have very weak signals in terms of who to recruit from,” says Langston. Langston suggests collaborating with local nonprofits and advocacy groups to identify participants. “While disability nonprofits are often scoped to specific demographics or regions, they're amazing research partners and fierce advocates for their communities. Getting to know the ones in your area can be a huge benefit.”

Partnering with experienced agencies, especially if you’re new to a11y research, can also set you up for success. “Work with research agencies and vendors that are set up to help you do this research right away,” Ellis says. “AnswerLab is one of those.”

Do your homework

Although you don’t have to know everything to make your products more accessible, you should do your homework. The bare minimum is ensuring digital products meet or exceed Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and are ADA compliant. However, an a11y-centered culture requires a deeper dive. “Go out of your way to learn about [disability communities],” says Conner. “Do unto others as they would have done unto them. This is where UXRs are uniquely qualified. Ask the questions and listen to the answers. Go in with an anthropological mindset.” 

Getting Buy-In

Even if you’re impassioned to build an a11y-centered culture, you may still struggle to get resources such as time for training and financial support for research and design. In that case, it’s time to present your business leaders with the cold hard facts on the ROI of an a11y-centered culture. 

First, consider that accessible products benefit everyone. Every. Single. User. “People often think of visual or hearing impairments as some super niche low frequency abnormalities, but we’re talking about large swaths of our users,” says Conner. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are 1 billion people with disabilities in the world and the U.S. General Services Administration indicates that almost everyone experiences some type of permanent, temporary or situational disability within their lifetime. As our global population ages, that number will continue to grow. “Visual and hearing impairments are going to go up, so you’re designing for the future of your products if you think of these populations’ needs.”

In the same sense that a rising tide lifts all boats, making products accessible benefits UX professional development, companies’ bottom lines, and all users. According to Parsons, a11y drives UX team innovation, forcing designers to think through many different scenarios, dismantle old design practices, and replace them with more inclusive ones. “Accessible products will help companies and brands to truly be innovative if they are taking diverse perspectives and usability into consideration when starting the product development lifecycle,” says Parsons. 

From a business perspective, a11y improves a whole litany of brand metrics from customer retention to search engine optimization [SEO] that will more than pay for the investment. Customers are simply more interested in accessible products, which has a direct impact on brands. “You can usually see this at the engagement rate which ultimately drives more interest for your product overall,” says Parsons.

For your users, well, they’re probably already hooked on tech originally designed for people with disabilities and would only benefit more from accessible design. “Audiobooks? Yep. Texting? You bet. Voice assistants? That too,” says Ellis. “Seems obvious when you start to think about it—a11y makes the world better and more inclusive for everyone. I bet you even watch Netflix with captions on—I know I do.”

Although you’ll face obstacles in building a11y-centered culture, look to big tech companies who are ahead of the game for inspiration. “I’ve seen a shift from, ‘It’s legal compliance, we’re going to get sued’ to ‘It’s the right thing to do’ to ‘We’re going to actually build this’,” says Langston. “And the more we can lean in the direction of actually solving the problem, the faster we’re going to arrive at a fully accessible world.”

Your journey to an a11y-centered culture will come with its share of mistakes and challenges, but it will pay off in dividends for you, your team, your business and, above all, your user.

We recently hosted a webinar on building a scalable accessibility practice and how product managers, UXRs, design managers, and developers can come together to make a bigger impact. Watch the recording here.

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AnswerLab Research

The AnswerLab research team collaborates on articles to bring you the latest UX trends and best practices.

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