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If You're not Thinking About Accessibility - a Talk with Marcy Sutton

"If you’re a designer and you’re not thinking about accessibility then you’re not doing the best work you could be doing" - a talk with Marcy Sutton, Accessibility Engineer at Adobe.

Marcy Sutton is a web developer and web accessibility advocate based in Seattle. She currently works as an Accessibility Engineer for Adobe. She is also the co-leader of Girl Develop It Seattle and an international public speaker. You can learn more about Marcy’s work from her website and her Twitter account.

In this brief interview, we are looking at various dimensions of web accessibility and how it cuts across multiple layers of online product development. Read on for more!

Are you able to describe your daily routine as an Accessibility Engineer at Adobe? What does an Accessibility Engineer in such a large company do?

Well I’m sort of still figuring that out :) On a regular busy day I’m working with product teams to improve accessibility in software. So far, I’ve worked on Adobe Muse, which is a free-flow design tool for design-oriented people to create websites. It outputs web code, and I’ve worked with the team to make this web code more accessible.

Are you also involved in increasing the accessibility of Adobe websites?

Yes - some of my teammates on the accessibility team do that. We’re also working on the accessibility of several online services. The Adobe accessibility team consists of seven people - it is pretty small for a company of 10.000, but hopefully it will grow.

You often mention that when you learned about web a11y you almost immediately fell in love with the concept, because it reflected your values and added meaning to what you do - could you elaborate on that.

When I started out, I worked in an agency and the reason web accessibility came up was because we had a client who’d been sued for a lack of accessibility in their online retail platform. As a result, every agency partner had to deliver accessible code. I actually enjoyed it, because from a development perspective, there were some geeky challenges you could figure out, while the whole purpose was to make the website work better for people with disabilities. Once I got to know some of those people personally, it made me care a lot about web accessibility in general.

Putting the ‘people factor’ of web a11y aside (if that's ever possible) - how valid is a statement that taking care of web accessibility will also address the technical quality of the websites and content and increase UX for a regular non-disabled person? Any real life examples that come to your mind?

I think there are many cases where designing a more accessible service does make the experience better for everyone. I also recognize there is tension with aesthetics for design teams. What constitutes slick user experience for some - like using parallax animations with the mouse, subtle text colors, or hiding the “ugly” blue focus ring - may appeal to young people with good eyesight and motor abilities, but will leave people with disabilities behind. I do think it’s possible to make something visually pleasing that is accessible, but it takes awareness and dedication from designers to consider users unlike themselves. However, there are payoffs for creating truly universal designs, including more diverse user adoption. Accessible technical implementations also encourage web standards because of what you get for free, and well-architected interfaces can easily add support for additional user inputs, such as speech or switch control.

So what would be the best way to go about it? What should come first - the design or accessibility or both at the same time?

I think it should be both at the same time. When you design for a medium you should understand, at least conceptually, what are the different inputs that people use to navigate it. If you’re a designer and you’re not thinking about accessibility then you’re not doing the best work you could be doing. You should be thinking how somebody is going to navigate with a keyboard. These may be frightening words, but it’s pretty irresponsible to not really think about those users at all. Sadly, it’s possible to go through your career as a designer or developer without learning about accessibility. Consider a heavily animated user interface - is it going to make people sick? How do I let them turn off the animation? If you’re a designer, you must consider this sort of thing. Part of my job at Adobe (internally and externally) is to raise awareness about these sorts of issues. I think they’re becoming more mainstream as mainstream conferences accept web accessibility talks from people in the industry - it’s starting to become a little more well known.

I see you’re able to pinpoint exact situations where people might find an obstacle in their journeys on the web, but how do you become aware of such issues? Do you reach out for feedback from people with disabilities?

Getting user feedback is great. We can’t anticipate everything about how users will navigate our apps or websites. Getting feedback from users who rely on screenreaders all day everyday is something I want to do more. I know we have partnerships at Adobe with companies that can help us do that, so when I’m heavily testing something and I know it needs to work everywhere that’s definitely the time I would reach out for feedback. Many technical accessibility issues come up again and again, so you generally know where to look, but browser extensions like aXe or the Chrome Accessibility Developer Tools are great places to start. With the case of parallax animation making people sick - I actually am affected by some animations. Recently I saw a site that was aimed at high school students and their parents. The visuals made me sick and I’m not normally sensitive to such things. So sometimes as a user and a developer you know where to look for accessibility problems, but 3rd party user feedback is often the best because it offers a fresh perspective.

What are the current trends in a11y world - is a11y gaining momentum and more commercial companies are taking care of incorporating web accessibility standards, or is it just a fad that will eventually weaken, lose its evangelists and become ticked off as a part of UX department within large companies?

I think it’s getting better, but I tend to celebrate small victories :) Large companies are now requiring web accessibility knowledge in their job adverts. That will go a long way in raising awareness amongst people creating online services and websites, since it will be a job requirement. Even if you haven’t heard about web accessibility before, you will now have to Google it for your job interview. At the same time, I’ve been doing a lot of conference talks on accessibility for the past few years, and I always try to win people over to the web a11y way of thinking. I call them our ‘next advocates’ because they are the ones who will be speaking in their companies about accessibility and they’re going to be the next accessibility champions. I see it happening and find it pretty encouraging.

On your A11y Wins Tumblr you've mentioned our Accessibility Checker and noted "Where was this a few years ago when I needed it?!". Do you think that there is a large need for non-technical people in content editor roles to be aware of a11y issues and have a tool that can easily help them improve their content from that angle?

Yes I think it is necessary. You can’t expect from content creators to know HTML - that’s not their job. I’ve seen technical groups lose contracts because the solutions they wanted to implement assumed that the content creating staff would learn HTML.

You can’t expect content creators, marketing staff, etc. to adjust to your software solution and a lot of accessibility issues are HTML related. So if there is a tool that can help these people avoid accessibility issues without knowing HTML, that’s huge.

Coming back to the social aspects of what you do - you're also engaged in running coding meetups for women in Seattle. Recently we were also running Code Carrots JavaScript workshops in our premises in Warsaw. Why do you think this kind of initiatives are important? What do these girls receive that you haven't when you first started coding by yourself, without attending any regular code meetups 'for girls only'?

When I started coding, I simply went with it because it was fun. From my experience of attending art school, which had a better gender balance than the technology industry does, I could see that a supportive learning environment is important to success. So when I got the chance to give back to my technology community, I wanted to contribute to the positive, judgement-free learning environment that makes Girl Develop It so special. Our coding sessions are attended primarily by women (there are some men too)–this creates a mood in the room where women feel comfortable asking any question. They’re comfortable helping each other and they’re coming out of their shells, and feeling empowered to elevate their development skills.

You can read more on the topic of Web Accessibility in our blog posts:

In order to save your time and make sure that you implement proper accessibility standards on your website, we have created the Accessibility Checker - the first tool that enables you to check your content for accessibility issues and fix them before you go live.

It is built upon three key elements:

  1. User interface optimized for quick problem solving
  2. Flexibility allowing you to use the accessibility checking engine of your choice
  3. Quick Fix feature allowing you to eliminate common problems fully automatically

If you have enjoyed reading this, be sure to check out our other blog posts

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