Here at We Write Code, we had the honor of speaking with Lauren Back who is located in Seattle, Washington. She is a very interesting and well-rounded individual who works with Microsoft to create more accessible and usable technology for all. As Lauren mentions later in this post, accessibility is something that is constantly changing and evolving. Lauren is blind herself, so she is very conscious of usability in both her personal and professional life. We wanted to reach out to Lauren to learn more about the good, the bad, and the ugly, as well as what we can do as an organization to positively contribute to a more accessible and usable future.
Accessibility vs. Usability
Q: Can you talk a little about yourself and describe what an average work day is like for you?
Lauren begins describing her current position as a typical corporate job. Her work revolves around testing software for both accessibility and usability.
“Microsoft has their own standards, but they basically copy them from the federal government’s standards. So there’s accountability standards that everybody has to sort of pass and then there’s usability, which is a little bit more subjective.”
She goes on to explain the difference between the two.
“It’s like, this thing might be accessible and it might check all the boxes but is it nice to use? Can I actually navigate it without literally just hitting tab on my keyboard 100 times to try to find this thing that I’m looking for?”
Q: So just to elaborate more on your work, what would you say is the most exciting for you in all of this?
It's exciting for me to think about people in the future who honestly might not have as many struggles as I've had with tech.
There is still a long way for technology to go, as there are still a lot of things that are unusable. She explains that sometimes she feels that she is just a cog in the machine. For example, while testing PowerPoint she wonders if anyone cares or if anyone will use it. Although, thinking in a broader context, she sees the good.
“The idea that I can play some small part in getting products that so many people use, particularly in office settings, to a point where lots of diverse people can use them is exciting for me. I just think about how it will help so many people with disabilities who are currently unemployed.”
Lauren brings up a staggering statistic. According to disabilitystatistics.org, for working age adults reporting significant vision loss, over 70% are not employed full-time. Although there is the Americans With Disabilities Act, Lauren explained that the employment process still has a long way to go.
“We’re still facing a lot of employers who think it’s risky to hire blind people. I don’t want to speak for everybody with disabilities, but I would say to hire people with disabilities in general is still seen as a risk. I feel like this ties back into the work that I’m doing and work that my colleagues are doing to really make sure the technology is there for people. This way they have one less barrier to getting employed and having their livelihood and their needs met.”
Lauren wanted to let us know where her insights stem from, as well as who she feels comfortable speaking for.
“I feel a little bit trepidatious in talking about other disabilities. I know a lot about the technology that’s used for the different assistive technology that other people with disabilities have. But I feel like it’s most comfortable for me to talk about blindness because I just don’t want to speak to anybody else’s experience.”
Q: Do you use anything to makes your life easier when accessing technology?
Lauren uses something called a BrailleNote. She describes it as tablet with a braille display on the bottom instead of a screen. Hers is built on the Android platform.
“It’s really exciting that it’s using Android because the older versions did not. They were built on their own proprietary thing.”
According to Lauren, this is helpful because if you needed repairs you had to send the device to Canada. This was very inconvenient because it would typically take over a month to be fixed and returned – all the while you would be without your device. Now that the equipment is built on something that is open source and available to everybody, there are so many fixes.
“It has really made my life a lot easier. I started using iterations of it like 15 years ago and I mean I take it everywhere. I prefer to actually read or just consume content in braille rather than listening to it. I like to say that I’m a visual learner in that way.”
Lauren learned braille as a child. She goes on to say that it seems as though things are moving away from braille and focusing more on voice.
“So either interacting with your voice – with the application – or listening to a robot voice read to you, which is fine. I just really like to read and I’m really glad that I have had the opportunity to learn how to read.”
Lauren’s Work History
Q: Can you share a little about yourself and the work that you’re currently involved in?
For the past four years or so Lauren has been working at a company called ACL, a vendor for Microsoft. She mainly does accessibility and usability testing on Microsoft products. She is involved in everything and anything from the beginning stages of projects, to the design of websites and software, to testing different aspects of finished products like Excel. Other programs that she is involved in, “have been around for decades – because we’re all old”, she jokes.
Lauren graduated college in 2008, during the economic recession, and explains that it was a difficult time to get a job.
“So a lot of us who graduated that year were like kind of scrambling to find work. And so for several years – for about a decade I was really either unemployed or underemployed.”
She had a variety of jobs of which included teaching high school, as well as working at a nonprofit.
“Then I moved to Seattle, and I knew someone who knew someone who was working on Alexa at Amazon and they needed testers for free usability for Alexa.”
Eventually she was contacted and told that Microsoft was trying to ramp up their accessibility. Lauren explained that they were really looking to improve things, and so she started working for them.
“I was literally in the right place at the right time. I was very lucky.”
Death To The Captcha
Q: Can you talk about some of the worst experiences you’ve had trying to use websites, or maybe about the contributing factors that you think led up to the bad experience?
When Lauren explains that the biggest issues occur when there is too much clutter. Lauren even mentioned that she looked at our website, and thankfully had positive reviews.
I was curious – and I like it a lot because it’s very clean, and that is very much appreciated. If I can’t navigate through it quickly… I just don't have a lot of patience for it anymore.
She specified that proper headings are important so she can navigate through a website, explaining there are keys she can press to jump around to different headings of the site.
“This way it cuts down on me having to tab or arrow through the site a hundred million times.”
She said that many times headings are not coded correctly, which is structurally not helpful at all. She continues saying that when things like headings are done right, it can be a really amazing experience, but a lot of times it’s not. Another example she gave is the difficulty that comes with filling out forms online when the information boxes are not labeled correctly. Lastly, Lauren pointed out how terrible captchas can be for the visually impaired.
“I can’t believe that people are still using them but they still do and they are super annoying. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to use an audio captcha, but they’re pretty bad all around. Audio ones will be like a series of letters that you have to type out and there’s a bunch of ambient or disruptive noise in the background.”
Lauren mostly serious but partly jokingly declares,
“I feel like my mission in life should just be to eliminate the captchas from everything.”
Lauren pointed out that accessibility is an ongoing thing, and a lot of people don’t fully understand that. She shared that she will run into many individuals at work or in life who don’t really think that blind people use technology. She gave the example of being in a meeting and sharing why something isn’t working, and experiencing people saying, “well do you know of any blind people who actually use this?” Explaining that if no one is using it, that might be because it simply isn’t usable.
“I think that people sometimes just think well nobody’s using this, so it doesn’t matter if it’s accessible to them or not, because nobody’s going to use it. And really, it’s just a huge circle where if it’s not usable, nobody’s going to use it. Then nobody uses it, and it continues to be unusable. The function becomes, oh well visually impaired people aren’t using this.”
Accessibility and Culture
Q: What noticeable improvements have you seen throughout your life or career that led to good [accessible and usable] experiences?
Lauren talked about how she has noticed that accessibility has become built-in to the culture at Microsoft. She goes on to explain that accessibility has really become a huge part of the entire process of building and designing things. Touching on the culture at Microsoft a little more she says,
“it is expected in the culture that this is a thing we care about. I think that is hugely impactful, and I wish that more companies would adopt that philosophy.”
On a personal note, Lauren shares an interesting experience she has had in the past couple of years stating that she started doing yoga as well as rowing. She said she was never an athletic person, and she was pretty nervous about getting involved.
“I was never encouraged to do sports or anything like that as a kid. I just found people to be really open and accepting of making accommodations for me and teaching me in a way that is going to work for me. Really working with me to help figure it out too, so that has been really cool.”
Advice for smaller companies to become more accessible:
“I think that people think that accessibility is a little bit more daunting than it actually is. And that the benefits of it aren’t really going to benefit everybody. If you try to make your site a little bit more accessible, it’s going to look and feel nicer for everybody. The design principles of accessibility are built that way.”
I would encourage small companies to do what you can. Pick your battles, it doesn't have to be perfect.
Q: What changes would you like to see in terms of accessibility in the next 5-10 years?
Lauren responded that it was that it isn’t anything too exciting or innovative, but just simply being able to do what everyone else can do.
“I was just working on a tutorial the other day for a piece of technology that’s designed for blind people. They were saying you know like you need a Google account for this and if you don’t have one, you’re going to have to set one up and you may need sighted assistance. It’s so annoying that we are just sort of assuming and accepting this idea that a sighted person is going to be around to do this thing that technology has made it impossible for us to do. Being able to just do all those things in a way that makes me as independent as other people would make my life feel so much better.”
Q: What would you say to people that consider accessibility an optional feature?
Lauren points out a few reasons behind the lack of accessibility, as well as what a more productive mindset looks like.
“You know a lot of it too is like companies don’t want to put the resources in. There’s a lot of different hang ups that people have. But I think it’s a Human rights thing. Someone said giving blind people access to information should be thought of the same way as giving people access to public buildings. We should think of it in the way that we think of designing buildings. So if we’re designing a building that is FDA compliant we have to design our technology and information to be presented to people in an FDA compliant way. It’s just I think to give people information as it is to give people access to public buildings.
What We Learned:
After speaking with Lauren, it is clear that a little goes a long way when it comes to usability and accessibility. Simply being cognizant of these things from the very beginning of a project will create a much more pleasant and inclusive experience for a larger population. We learned that there are a wide range of helpful resources available to provide quick tips as well as guidance on where to start. We are exceedingly grateful for the time that Lauren spent talking with us, and look forward to spreading awareness through this post. In addition to sharing this extremely informative interview, we would also like to communicate our commitment to inclusivity through our own actions, looking forward to a more accessible and usable web for everyone.
Check out these accessibility and usability resources
- Web Accessibility in Mind (WebAim), Geared somewhat towards accessibility professionals, but has some helpful articles.
- A rundown of ARIA for developers
- Deque University, where you can take web accessibility classes and find some free info.
- Wave, a web accessibility evaluation tool, used by designers and testers.
- A call to action from Wired, making the case for web accessibility.
If you’re interested in reading more from Lauren, check out her personal blog here.