The role of UX design when ensuring digital accessibility

July 23, 2021

In this episode of Here to Help, Chris Hyams is joined by Stephanie Hagadorn, a UX design lead at Indeed, to talk about the role her team plays when it comes to digital accessibility. Stephanie also shares how we can educate people to understand that accessibility is not a barrier to innovation.

- Hello and welcome everyone. I am Chris Hyams, CEO of Indeed. And welcome to the next episode of Here to Help. This is our look at how Indeed has been navigating the global impact of COVID-19. Today is July 19th, we are on day 503 of global work from home. One of the key topics on Here to Help has been inclusion and belonging which is one of Indeed's core values. And today we'll be talking about accessibility and what inclusion and belonging means for people with visible and invisible disabilities. Indeed's mission is to help people get jobs and accessibility is an essential component of our commitment to help all people. And to help us better understand accessibility and its importance, today I am joined by Stephanie Hagadorn, UX design lead here at Indeed. Stephanie, thank you so much for joining me.

- Hi Chris. Thanks for having me.

- Well, let's start off where we always start these conversations by asking, how are you doing right now?

- Oh, I'm good. I think I'm nervous and I'm like just like a really sweaty person in general but also just good and excited to talk to you first thing, Monday morning .

- Well, I'm a nervous and sweaty person also so thanks for sharing that. So before we dive in, we have a lot to talk about today. Let's just start with what it is that you do at Indeed as a UX designer and how you help people get jobs.

- Yeah, so as a UX designer we focus on the interaction between users and Indeed or our products. And so this usually entails a lot of research like listening to our job seekers or employers as they, you know, use our site or products or even prototypes, things like that and we get a lot of information from them. Sometimes, you know, we can do secondary research like look at competitors or, you know, work with product managers to understand the metrics behind the scenes. And then from there we really just generate a lot of ideas on how to solve those problems that we observe and whether that's writing on post-it notes or tech, typing post-it notes now, sketching, white boarding, things like that, any sort of, kind of fidelity. We then work with our product and engineering partners on prioritizing the right ideas, you know, when to work on what and then usually kind of building out the actual design, how it looks, how it works and then kind of working with engineering to get that on to our site and then testing again. And it's a big, big old cycle .

- So that's helpful to kind of set the stage to understand about, I guess, day to day, what UX designers do. How did you end up as a UX designer? What got you to this place?

- Originally, like my mom really wanted me to become an architect, you know, like you're also, you know, we're once planning to be an architect so I feel like we have a little kindred spirit there. But I was a super cool kid who spent most of my time like playing in CAD just like normal eight year olds do. And I actually, my mom gave me a CD. She's a wonderful feminist, always, you know, wants me to kind of push myself and just, you know, dominate whatever field I'm in. But she gave me a CD that was, you too can be a female architect. It was like a little CD-ROM back in the day. And I put the CD rom in the computer, launched the program and it turned out to just be like a JPEG of like women, like stock photos of women working at drafting tables. And I was like, this is not a compelling experience. I was a little eight year old was, hey, this could be a lot better. And I think that just sort of carried me through like I was making angel fire websites and, you know, kind of redesigning my own Myspace. So I think I've been a UX designer for a long time without really realizing it. And when I went to college, we didn't really have UX as a program back then, many moons ago. And so I did graphic design and that really got me into sort of digital design and marketing. I had been working at in-house, doing marketing for a bank and just like really frustrated that like I had to kind of sell like our online banking or like, you know, sell products without really being able to kind of improve the experience of those products. And that's when I got wind of IBM doing this whole big initiative of like bringing UX design to the forefront, creating, you know, a more design centered, user centered product development kind of organization within IBM. And I said, that sounds cool. I need to learn more about UX and so I joined. I was actually one of their first group of UX designers. Eventually they hired like 500. There's so many people there now. But got to sort of be there from the ground up and learn a lot about UX, product development, all the intricacies of working in a company the size of Luxembourg and, you know, how to work with kind of all the different kinds of users that come with all the different kinds of products there. And really probably the most important was just in understanding it and kind of the importance of the responsibility that comes with, you know, designing software for enterprise or for people who need to use that software to do their job and sort of how people of all needs and abilities need to be able to use that software or otherwise they can't do their job. And that is a good way to make money .

- So I know when we were talking last week, getting ready for this, you talked about how important that experience at IBM was. Can you talk a little bit about some of the things that you got from that experience at IBM?

- Yeah, I learned so much while I was there. And accessibility was a really big deal at IBM. They had a whole department dedicated to it like accessibility requirements, although like legal reviews and stuff that go along with it as well as advocacy. And it was probably my first time ever watching someone like use a screen reader, someone who uses a screen reader like daily for all activities. And it was just in incredibly humbling experience to watch, you know, someone be unable to use the product that you designed because you hadn't even considered their needs when designing or making that product, whether that was just like color blindness and we had done status colors and nothing else to indicate it. So seeing that and just being like, oh my gosh, I'm like a horrible person for not thinking of this. So I was just like... I'm like a sponge person, like if you ask me a question I don't know, I'm going to go spend like the next like four days researching it and then come back to you and be like I know everything about that now. So I was just like let's dive head first into accessibility. And at the time I was also working on IBM's first design system. So while we built that and learned about accessibility, it meant also just learning a lot about color contrast, how we were building out the color palette for the entire company to use, keyboard navigation for the components we were building and our design system library, all the different alternative texts that came with, the kind of icons and illustrations that we were developing for the system as well. And we wrote a lot of guidance for teams at IBM to be able to reference. And a lot of those kind of tie back to accessibility stuff so, you know, especially around sort of animation and motion. So I tried to take all of the learnings and research that I had kind of dove into in accessibility and kind of pick those into the design system there and help other people start to learn to be accessible through just using the tools.

- Yes, so that leads into... I want to in a minute, just get into a little bit more of the sort of nuts and bolts of what accessibility for software means 'cause I think for a lot of people this might be something that they just haven't had to think about it all. Well, so you've been a huge advocate at Indeed but also outside of Indeed for more accessibility and design. Can you just talk about what does accessibility mean to you? I mean, that might be a very broad question but what is accessibility?

- Yeah, so to me, accessibility is really, I like to simplify it down is just the ability to access something. And in the context of digital accessibility, it means the ability to access and use websites, products, services and that they're designed and built so that everyone including people with disabilities can perceive them, understand them, navigate them, interact and especially contribute to the web as well. So, you know, that's how I see accessibility. We also like to shorten it to ally, A-11-Y. So if I say ally a lot or if you hear someone else say ally or A-11-Y, they're referencing accessibility.

- And just for people who are not in tech, who don't know, it's because there's 11 letters between the A and the Y in accessibility. So we've been doing that for years in tech. Internationalization is I-18-N, localization is L-10-N so A-11-Y but it was a cool thing to figure out that it looks like it spells ally so I really liked that as the choice here. So let's just talk for a second 'cause I think, again, part of the idea of when we talk about inclusion and belonging, it's creating an opportunity to raise awareness for people who do not have the set of experiences that someone might have coming from some marginalized community where the things that we take for granted every day that just come easy are challenging if not impossible to others. So can you talk a little bit about as a designer what it means, the role that color plays, where you mentioned color blindness. And, again, if you're color blind, you probably don't think about this day to day or what some of the other factors are that, that make software accessible.

- Yeah, so and I think we'll talk about the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. We'll recap a little bit. But it's basically split up into kind of four main categories around how people can use or engage with web content. So color and a lot of visual design choices fall under this perceivable category or basically the ability to see or access the information, whether that's visually or auditory or even through touched, through things like a braille display. And a lot of the perceivable guidelines or recommendations are around, you know, things like making sure images or iconography have alternative texts. When it comes to color, there's a lot of rules, like one just around them. Is there enough contrast, right? So is your text too dark or too light on the background so that people with sort of varying degrees of vision can see it. There's color blindness so making sure we don't use color alone to indicate meanings. So maybe there's an icon to support that color, maybe there's a text label to support the color. But that way, whether you're red, green or total color blindness or blue, orange, kind of whatever different kind of color vision difficulty someone might have. There's always an alternative for them to reference and get that same information, right? So perceivable is just making sure any information that is visual on the page even just like the hierarchy of text, right? You have a big heading, myself and you, Chris can see, hey, that's a big heading, I should look there. But we want to make that information also perceivable to someone who might not be able to see that text and let the computer know, let the screen reader know that, that's, you know, that's a H1, that's a level one heading so I should be able to hear it first or navigate to it first or be able to easily find it just as you or I might be able to easily locate it on the page. And there's lots of other different categories beyond sort of visual but a lot of them tie more back into to how the site or product is actually coded which we want to start considering and thinking about earlier in the design process so that designers can have a huge effect on whether downstream it maybe a more complicated solution to code or any other considerations like we'd want to make for accessibility like even just, you know, the order that you focus through content on the page that we start thinking about those like sooner and during the design phase as opposed to just leaving it up to engineers to kind of like have to solve on their own lots of different requirements. You want some more .

- No, so I think it's super interesting, you know, I've been in the software business for a long time and Indeed was the first place that I really ran into where people were thinking about and caring about this deeply and, you know, one of the things for us that was really interesting. Our color palette, you know, when Indeed first started the, you know, back in 2004, we were not thinking about accessibility and Indeed's colors were bright blue and this sort of radiant orange which definitely stands out and is noticeable. But we used the entire site because we've always actually valued simplicity so we haven't had, you know, as much maybe graphic richness as maybe some other places that we use to text. And in a lot of places, orange thin text was the way that we identified the most important information on the site. And it turns out that there's a decent percentage of the population that cannot see that at all so the most important information was lost. And so we got that motivation, I think pretty clearly, so I guess I'd love to hear a little bit about really the motivation for why people should care about accessibility especially when it comes to design 'cause there's sometimes this conflict between what maybe a designer thinks is attractive and what makes something accessible or from a business perspective because it's extra work, it's an investment. And what is the general case for why this is something that everyone should care about?

- Yeah, I think it's like really easy or maybe kind of like a call out to just say like, it's the, you know, like ethical thing to do but there's also just like, and I'll just start with like business first. It makes a lot of business sense if you can get more users or more customers like that generally means more money for the business. So I feel like it makes good business sense to have more users. And that means kind of supporting the diverse users who would be using your products. And you kind of bring up like people, see accessibility as a burden, it's like one more thing. And I think that it just comes with it being something sort of new. I feel like internationalization and security, these are all similar things that may be, you know, people weren't thinking about, you know, as a small company or maybe as like their responsibilities. But as we grow and, you know, we need to start thinking about people in other countries or maybe start thinking about people who are blind or can't hear our video content, right? So I think it's just making sure that it's like baked into our process more. I think a lot of people can kind of think it's like, oh, it makes my design ugly or it's something I have to do. They think about it at the end. And anytime you retrofit requirements, like it's going to make things messy or make things more complicated. As opposed to thinking about those requirements or constraints from the beginning then those are things that we can respond to and be a starting point for ideation even more kind of jumping off points or room to ideate. And that's when it doesn't feel tacked on, that's when it doesn't feel like, oh, I had to change all my texts to like dark gray. And now it's like really hard to see or like, you know, this is the only color and the color palette I could use because I had enough contrast as opposed to like let's think about that whole color palette and find more colors that we can use or create more combinations that work and have the proper tools. So I think it's more about accessibility just becoming like top of mind for us or like just part of everything else we consider. And that's when I think it will feel less tacked on, it will feel less burdensome. It's just part of our responsibilities like everything else on our plate.

- Yeah, you know, I think that the other thing that we've certainly seen a lot is that all of these things people tend to think in sort of extremes but there's a spectrum. And when you think about accommodations, anything that we can do from even in our physical building if you have a ramp to get in, yes, you might be building that for someone in a wheelchair. There's a whole host of people for whom that actually might be an easier way into the building then going up the stairs. And I think the same, you know, there's people who wear glasses and who might find actually something that's higher contrast a little easier to work with whether or not it makes it even just possible to use. And so, you know, and it was also staggering to me early on in some of this work just to look at some of the numbers. These might feel like sort of fringe issues but there's numbers that I've seen thrown around that says a quarter of the U.S. population suffers from some disability or another. And that's really significant when it comes to thinking about how many people might be left out of an experience.

- And I think, Oh, I'm sorry I cut you off . And I think that that number is super like under, but that's an underestimation, right? And that's maybe people who I identify as disabled or with permanent disabilities but I know you've kind of talked about mismatch before but just that I think at some point every one of us will experience some sort of disability, whether it be permanent, long-term or just temporary. And I know like personally I love captions. Captions are amazing especially if I'm watching like a British TV show where I'm just like what are they saying? Or I don't know, I love in case I missed something, I can go back to check captions. I love zooming in even though, you know, my little eagle eye, designer eyes, I have, you know, slack, I zoom the font size so that I can kind of read it comfortably. And there's all of these accommodations that were made for accessible reasons but are, you know, I think a lot of people totally engage with them. I think there's this really limited mindset that, you know, if someone has a visual impairment, they're a hundred percent blind as opposed to just like someone's outside on a sunny day and so, you know, the contrast on their phone is a lot lower. So this idea to sort of designing or building products for people with disabilities is a fringe audience. Like I think, you know, no one is normal or whatever that means, right? We're all unique and we all have our different needs and wants and constraints. And it's about providing options and making things available in as many ways as we can so that whatever kind of works best for you, you get to choose your own best adventure .

- Yeah, there's a principle in architecture, Louis Sullivan was one of the first people to sort of propose this that that form follows function. So there's always this, you know, tension between what is beautiful and what is useful. But to me that's always resonated with me that, that things that are useful are beautiful because of their utility. And so to sort of get a little bit into kind of how we actually work with this stuff day to day. So there's a set of standard guidelines, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines or WCAG is you help me understand, that's how it's pronounced shortly. Talk a little bit about WCAG and how it impacts your work and what role public policy actually plays in helping to make the internet more accessible?

- Sure, so just like, you know, you brought up architecture and form and function, we have things like universal design which visual web design vary from also but just like buildings have like code requirements like you mentioned for, you know, wheelchair access or other other different, you know, curb cuts and things like that. So just like physical requirements like from the ADA, we also have the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. They are written and managed basically by the W3C which if you're big into to just, the web, they're sort of the authoritarian like on all things web. So they write and manage these guidelines and then countries across the world have chosen to adopt those as sort of requirements or laws in whether government websites specifically need to follow it or all kinds of commercial sites just like, you know, a storefront would have requirements for people with disabilities visiting so too much their digital storefront. So depending on countries, they've chosen to adopt different kind of levels of WCAG or their own kind of versions of WCAG. But generally people have used WCAG as sort of the baseline on what is accessible. So it's really helpful in terms of like giving designers and developers a foundation of techniques and vocabulary for discussing and creating accessible solutions. And so you can't really say your site's accessible if you fail to meet the success criteria in WCAG. But the inverse like isn't necessarily true which might, I don't know, people might question that. But just because you're following WCAG doesn't mean, you know, you've covered every aspect of accessibility. These are guidelines and even if you go look in the guidelines, I like the first or second paragraph on kind of like what is WCAG and where we're at, they'll say like this is not everything and they'll specifically not acknowledge things like developmental kind of like mental disabilities and stuff like that aren't totally covered in WCAG. They haven't spent a lot of time on it. And as WCAG evolves, right? We're in a version 2.1. 2.2 is in draft right now. And I think even elements of 2.3 have been started but they're moving towards more mobile specific kind guidelines, more things around touching and tapping and anything for kind of dexterity impairments and different assistive technologies that can help with that as well as things like even guidelines around, you know, dyslexia and reading disabilities and things like that. So a lot of that's not in the guidelines right now which is just to say that just because you're following the guidelines, it really is a baseline. I think we were talking about it before and I said, it's like just because you have your driver's license, doesn't make you a race car driver. Like there's lots of differences between, you know, a totally inclusive accessible website for all and what passes WCAG. So I think WCAG is a really great start but it's a start.

- So one of the recent projects that you were able to work on was a pretty significant refresh of the Indeed brand identity which was very large scale. It was global. It touched essentially every aspect of our business from what the app and the website looked like to our emails and marketing campaigns. And can you talk a little bit about the experience of working on a project of that scale?

- Yeah, I was really excited to be a part of just the amazing work that went into your rebranding efforts. I think like when I started at Indeed, I remember, well, I think I'd been here about a year and we brought on Dave and kind of the new brand systems team and I'm like, hi, here's everything I think about our brand colors. And they're like, oh my goodness , like where to start. But a lot of times, you know, branding efforts are very focused on the look and feel and just sometimes and not any fault or any blame on anyone but they're sort of less focused on how the actual brand elements will be implemented. So like when we actually put them on the site. So if you look at sort of the previous brand, you mentioned like the blue and orange like that, you know, maybe that stands out in the marketplace and people recognize the blue and orange combination. But like you said, when we put texts in that orange color, suddenly, you know, some people can't see it or it's hard to read or it's even like straining on the eyes for some people. And a lot of problems I saw both that IBM with kind of their marketing palette and here when I came to Indeed was just the combinations or sets of colors we had have have a lot of varying luminosity or value in color and it can make it really difficult to determine which combinations, you know, which gray on white, which blue on black or whatever or gray is going to meet that contrast requirement from WCAG. You don't know and then that starts to put a lot of effort on designers to always be running, you know, checking their X values to make sure it passes the color contrast rules. Instead, we can just, you know, work with the brand team beforehand and say, let's build a color palette that's going to work for everyone, for marketing, for development, for our users. That understanding that we're going to have these contrast requirements, lets set ups, you know, knowing that and not to get too technical but like some of the numbers are like, you know, you'll need texts, your texts will need to be 4.5, one to one contrast ratio. Big text needs to be three. Triple A is seven to one. And knowing these sort of steps then we can start like creating specific grades or values in the color palette to make sure that then you go, oh, I just need to use our primary blue and I know that's going to work on white then I certainly don't have to kind of run all the stuff through my contrast checker or not checking it at all, it gets into development and then Q&A goes, oh wait, none of these colors work and then we have to go all the way back to design and that costs a lot of time and money. So we can, you know, just the ability to work with Dave and the brand team and bake accessibility into our brand was just an awesome opportunity. So we did the color palette which took a lot of guess work out color contrast. We also worked with them just in, you know, I think when they were choosing kind of the different typefaces, which ones felt more readable and the different weights for that so that it texts about too thin or kind of lost, also worked really closely there. The brand systems and design systems partnered with myself and other ally SMEs, they're working on data visualization so making sure charts and graphs and everything, the color combinations we use and other things like patterns and labels will be accessible as well. So things like status colors also we went back and forth. You don't know how many, like reds and greens we looked at. I'm sure like, I don't know if Nathan's watching. But Nathan and checker, we're all just like, well, this red could be like a little more red and this green darker but these considerations and taking them up front, they just have a lot of sort of like amplified impact as you go. And it will just make things a lot easier to be accessible down the road, yeah .

- Yeah, and it's great, you know, one of the important sort of concepts that you got there and we talk about this a lot in different areas, whether quality or security or accessibility, this idea of shifting left, right? So take something that used to be part of the end of a process where you'd look at something and say, oh, we totally forgot about that and then you have to go back and redo everything where if you can take that and shift it to an earlier part of the process. And one important component of that is coming up with these are just the standards of how we do things. And if everyone understands that then you can do it right from the start. It just leaves a whole lot more breathing room for actually the creative work of how is this thing supposed to work and how are we actually solving problems like helping people get jobs. And so one of the things, you know, in terms of if you have one person who is thinking about something then mostly they get stuck in this end of the process. You know, raising the flag at the last minute saying you really missed the ball here. We talk a lot about the importance of diversity on our own teams in terms of the more Indeed inside represents the world around us, the better we are at identifying these things and thinking about them earlier on. So when you think about the makeup of design teams in particular, how can we bring more people who themselves need the internet to be more accessible into the product development process so we're thinking about and talking about these things much earlier on.

- Absolutely for design teams, I feel like it's exactly the same. And even when it come, you know, I think previously, you know, people would look at our resume and say, okay, where did they go to school? You know, is it a prestigious art school or, you know, a big design program? You know, did they come from like Stanford or CMU or whatever? And I think it's more important to look and talk to people about their experiences, understand where they pull their creativity from rather than, you know, their school or their work and their portfolio. When I interview people, I want to have them talk through how or explain their thought process, the kind of decisions they make and also just kind of like trying to understand what something new they can bring to the team, right? So maybe we need more accessibility coverage and this person has a lot of experience with screen readers or maybe they themselves or their family member has a disability. And so that life experience of understanding kind of the barriers and complications that come from living in a world that's not kind of considered those needs. That understanding and life experience influences the work and can help educate the team around them to understand those experiences as well. And I think beyond just accessible, I mean, we've talked about, you know, kind of diversity here as well, just like all of the kind of different audiences as far as like, you know, we have like caretakers coming back to work after a long time or people shifting from, you know, careers that might be, you know, more traditionally blue collar to white collar or something like that. I think the more we can look for just like you said, the people who represent our audience like it just builds a stronger team.

- When you think about the tension that does exist between teams that have a set of objectives and stuff they're trying to get done or even, you know, we talked about the designers who were thinking about aesthetics and the experience, how can we educate more people so they understand that accessibility is not a barrier to innovation or it's not going to stand in the way of attractive design.

- Right, there's like this idea that it will make your product look ugly or boring or cluttered or just that it takes a lot of time. But understanding, I think that like the amount of people and audiences this affects, the overall these constraints and designing with them or within these constraints makes for a better product in the end. Like I don't often see, like I think attitudes have shifted and it's not necessarily that people don't think they should be accessible. I see more of the question around how, whether that's in terms of like knowledge and I think the pie in DI teams have done and a lot of the ally SMEs, like shout out to my ally friends, have done a lot to kind of educate whether that's through making, you know, DQ courses available to Indeedians or just all the slack support we provide when people have kind of questions, we try to respond like instantly, it's almost a race. So it's more around, I think the how. And so understanding, like what are the requirements and how do I meet them but then also like do I have the space and time and tools I need to be accessible. So whether that's maybe it does push delivery time, you know, a day but that means, you know, we're not spending months remediating down the line. Maybe it doesn't mean I need new Q&A tools or new design tools that helped me be accessible. The necessarily, I think like people people want to do, I think people generally want to be accessible and empathic and like do the right things for people. And it's more around enabling those people that necessarily, I think shifting attitudes. I feel optimistic that we've shifted attitudes and now it's just like, cool, let's get you doing it.

- But that's a great segue to the final question that I always ask folks here that keep talking about accessibility stuff for a long time. There's, you know, a lot kind of like the WCAG, I think we're just scratching the surface here. But if you could just look back over the experience of the pandemic and on a personal level, what experiences have you had that leave you optimistic for the future?

- Yeah, I'm super hopeful that all the accommodations, you know, companies and businesses have made for both their employees and customers during the pandemic that we continue those. I think there's a lot of new digital accommodations and flexibility that have been put into place, whether that's the ability to work from home, making things like Zoom and live transcriptions and things like that, just the standard or default for people, flex time or the ability to sort of, you know, work the hours that work for you. So if you need downtime for whatever reason or your days are amazing, please keep doing them . But I think there's been a lot of accommodations made, not just at Indeed but in lots of businesses. And I am optimistic that we'll continue those because they do open the door for a whole groups of people to participate, again, in companies or offices where they otherwise wouldn't physically have been able to work or go and actually shop or use services and places they wouldn't have been able to physically, you know, get to a store. I'm a little skeptical because I do feel and maybe it's like with this Delta variant kind of idea of third wave and there's so much kind of confusion around like, is it over at least in the U.S. or do we need to kind of, you know, stay on high alert and there is this like wave or kind of like tidal. It's like a tidal wave or like urge to get back to normal. And I think normal worked really well for some people but not for everyone. And I worry about us going back to the way things were and not like learning or evolving from the experiences of the last year and a half but hopeful that, you know, we come out of this understanding kind of the access and trade offs we're able to make, to make people feel safe, to make people feel heard, to make, you know, yeah, all that stuff.

- That's beautiful. Well, Stephanie, thank you so much for joining me today and for sharing your experiences and your insights in this area. And thank you so much for everything that you do to help people get jobs and to make getting a job a little more accessible all over the world.

- Thank you Chris.