A Spotlight on AnswerLab’s Newly Certified Accessibility Experts

Posted by AnswerLab Research on Jan 24, 2020

Two of our very own AnswerLab researchers, Alex Albericci and Daphne Villarreal, recently passed the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP) exam to become Certified Professionals in Accessibility Core Competencies. We sat down with them to talk about what they learned, why they’re passionate about accessibility, and what this means for not only our clients, but also UX as a field.

First of all, tell me a little about IAAP. What is this certification and what does it mean for you and your work?

Alex: Unfortunately, accessibility is a newer topic for many companies and businesses, and there’s no age old book that people can go to for accessible design principles and guidelines. From our research, IAAP seemed like the most established group in terms of setting standards, and the exciting thing is that they are really trying to build out what is “right” and “wrong” when it comes to accessibility standards. It’s a group of professionals that care about advancing the world in terms of accessibility. We both took the CPACC exam, which certifies us as Certified Professionals in Accessibility Core Competencies, which is really a baseline understanding of accessibility.

I wish everyone had to take this exam and learn this material as a fourth grader. You learn about the different kinds of disabilities, assistive technologies, guidelines for how to behave, what’s appropriate and what isn’t in terms of etiquette, learning disorders, and laws and guidelines companies need to abide by to ensure they build products and experiences everyone can use. It’s really a baseline education for true inclusivity.

Let’s back up a bit to why you wanted to become certified in accessibility. Why are you passionate about this?

Alex: Helping people with different abilities and needs was the reason I got into this business in the first place. Thinking about how we can use technology to help people who are blind, who are deaf, or who have mobility issues is really powerful. For example, Seamless is an awesome convenience for someone who can walk downstairs and go to the store, but doesn’t want to on a lazy Sunday. But for someone in a wheelchair who can’t physically access some storefronts or someone with social anxiety, Seamless is how they can get their dinner. How can we make sure that products open up a whole new realm of possibilities for people? That’s powerful to me and why I joined UX research.

Daphne: It feels cliche for us to keep saying we want to make the world a better place, but we really do. It’s important to just be good humans, but aside from that, doing this kind of work makes my job fulfilling. If we can help create a website that will help someone in a wheelchair get fresh produce into their third-story apartment today when they wouldn’t be able to otherwise, then that’s what I want to be doing. Having a better professional understanding of accessibility can help us do that.

Alex: It used to be that to pay your phone bill, you would receive the bill in the mail, you’d get a stamp, and put it in the mailbox. If there’s someone who doesn’t have the mobility to do that, the fact that they can pay their bills with their phone is powerful. And, I use it too! It’s easier and more efficient to pay online, but for me, it’s just more convenient. For others, it can be empowering.

It sounds like taking this exam and getting certified was the perfect next step to being able to turn this passion into action you can take everyday. Is that why you went through this process?

Daphne: The certification process definitely gave us a clear path for what kinds of topics we needed to understand to become accessibility experts. Not only did we learn a lot about the opportunities to create accessible experiences, but we also have access to tools and resources through our membership with IAAP. Having this certification gives us a level of credibility when talking to our clients about the importance of accessibility and shows the value we can bring as accessibility professionals. The depth of knowledge and training we got throughout this process will allow us to bring this mindset to more projects. 

What was the certification process like from start to finish? How did you prepare? 

Alex: In June, we assembled a group of people within AnswerLab who were interested in taking the exam. We studied through an online textbook with different chapters. Each week, we’d decide on the 2-3 chapters we would review for next week. We utilized our study group to talk through specific questions we had or topics we thought would be good to share with our peers.

Daphne: Our study group kept me accountable, and that really helped me in this process. Everyone brought in supplemental research to help explain different concepts. We tried to point to previous AnswerLab projects that might be relevant to some of these concepts, used tools to understand how this applies to research, and talked through how it relates to our clients.

What kinds of topics did you learn about? Was there anything you found surprising?

Daphne: There was a lot of content we worked through, but I think the most important piece is the types of disabilities and what that means in terms of limitations if you’re designing a website or a digital product. We also learned what assistive technology is out there to help with specific disabilities.

The statistics really shocked me. 10-20% of the world has some form of disability, but we don’t have specific numbers because some countries and some cultures see it as a stigmatized problem. There’s no census to find out the real numbers. Even glasses are considered assistive technology. I had never realized how many things can help people with so many different challenges, from audio on crosswalks to the bumps on the sidewalks and train platforms.

“Building a better world for people who have different accessibility needs is by no way limiting people without disabilities.”

How do you see this applying to your work at AnswerLab? What do you want our clients to know about accessibility?

Daphne: Aside from this being the right thing to do, this is how our clients will be able to reach their audience, stay out of trouble legally, and avoid fines by following standards, laws, and regulations. We learned a lot about POUR, which is a methodology of assessing how accessible something is, which I think can easily be applied to UX research and design. It asks the question of whether it’s Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust? Basically, what this means is, can you consume the content? Can everyone consume the content? We should be asking this with every product or experience we’re testing.

According to POUR, to be truly accessible, your product has to be:

  1. Perceivable:
    Can you perceive the information through all three different senses (sight, hearing, and touch) we use to understand information?
  2. Operable:
    Can the user actually interact with the different elements, controls, navigation, buttons, etc.? Do your links actually go somewhere when you click on them? 
  3. Understandable:
    If somebody is trying to explain something that's really complex and they're not using the most simple or most efficient way of explaining something, is it understandable? Is the experience consistent in how it’s presented and designed so users can understand and remember how to use it?
  4. Robust:
    To be robust, it has to be compatible with assistive technology like screen readers so users can choose how they interact with it.

Alex: We think POUR is the first step to understanding if your product or website is accessible. The next step is using the Universal Principles of Design, which originated in physical design and architecture. If you find out through POUR that something isn’t quite right, then you can use the Universal Principles of Design to make it better. Something can pass the POUR assessment, therefore, meeting the minimum requirement of it being accessible, but using the Universal Principles of Design is what makes it a delightful experience.

For example, let’s say the turnstile gate in a train station opens and someone with a wheelchair can theoretically pass through it. That meets minimum accessibility standards. But, wouldn’t it be much better if it was bigger and wider so they don’t feel like their wheel might get broken or stuck? We can use the same principles for digital experiences. 

What is the biggest opportunity you see for the UX community to create more inclusive and accessible experiences?

Alex: The first step is of course, making web and mobile experiences more accessible, but there’s also an opportunity to think about their physical stores and in-person experiences as well.

In general, it never hurts to include people with diverse opinions in your research. Do a study with people who have hearing impairments or who are blind and evaluate what works and what doesn’t. You’ll discover things about your products you would not have considered otherwise. There are laws to follow, and there are very few websites that actually do everything right. If you are a company that’s known as accessible and inclusive, that’s a great way to gain significant market share.

Daphne: On the topic of market share, our generation is much more conscious of accessibility and inclusivity, and, as we’re finding in our research, the younger generation is even more so. Some of the biggest drivers for Gen Z consumers are how accessible, inclusive, and even environmentally friendly companies are. 

Alex: It’s important to remember that these design changes will not hurt the customers you already have. In the 1960s and 70s, wheelchair user and disability rights activist, Ed Roberts made it his mission to ensure all sidewalks had a ramp at the end to help him and other wheelchair users to move between blocks more easily. Obviously, this is tremendous for people in wheelchairs, but it also really helped new parents pushing strollers or people with shopping cards for example. We now know this as the curb cut effect. The changes that make experiences more accessible for people with disabilities can not only not hurt people without disabilities, but actually enhance their experience. And this applies to digital experiences, websites, and mobile apps; all of the things our clients are working on every day!

"In UX research, we talk a lot about how it's important to consider users and usability at the beginning of the design process and that’s how good products are made. We need to make sure that in those conversations about users, we also talk about accessibility."

We’ve talked a lot about physical experiences, but how do you see these principles playing a role in technology and design, or even in how we conduct research?

Alex: Accessibility wasn’t always at the forefront of product and website design, but that doesn’t mean we should continue that way. That needs to stop. Accessibility needs to be top of mind throughout product development. 

Daphne: Technology is developing so differently than we ever thought it would. Ride sharing apps, for example, are relatively new technology. But, are they wheelchair accessible? Is their app or mobile site friendly to those with disabilities? How do people with service animals use it? When building any new product, you have to be asking these questions whether they’re in-person or digital experiences.

Alex: In UX research, we talk a lot about how it's important to consider users and usability at the beginning of the design process and that’s how good products are made. We need to make sure that in those conversations about users and user insights, we also talk about accessibility. Designing something that’s both beautiful and accessible is first of all, totally possible, and second, even more rewarding. There’s a perception that by making things more accessible, you’re making them look worse, but that’s not the case. Designing for accessibility isn’t going to hurt you or your product; it will only enhance it for an even broader user base.

For more about accessibility research, check out our 6 Steps For Conducting Successful Accessibility Research From Start To Finish. Questions? Contact us!

Shortly after we published this story, two more of our team members passed the IAAP exam and earned their CPACC certifications. Congratulations to Dana Douglas, Senior UX Researcher, and Lisa Vissichelli, Head of Visual Design, for joining Alex and Daphne as certified accessibility experts! 

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