A modern view of accessibility leans towards it being part of User Experience. Our own Derek Featherstone talks with Whitney Quesenbery, a UX researcher about her sessions at AccessU about usability testing with people with disabilities and plain language.

Here’s our latest in our series of AccessU 2013 Speaker Interviews:

Plain language and usable accessibility: Whitney Quesenbery

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Whitney Quesenbery transcript

This is the transcript of an interview recorded on April 26th, 2013 between Derek Featherstone, and Whitney Quesenbery, a user experience researcher and long time accessibility supporter. It was recorded over Skype and posted as part of John Slatin AccessU 2013 podcast series.

Interview summary

Derek: In the past, people often thought of accessibility as a checklist — a set of rules that you needed to follow when building web sites. Now, Accessibility is sometimes seen as part of user experience. Today we talk with Whitney Quesenbery, a User Experience Researcher that works to incorporate people with disabilities into her UX practice. We’re running an entire series of podcast interviews with a number of great speakers for the John Slatin AccessU conference. Coming up May 14th to 16th in Austin, Texas, presented by Knowbility, this is THE conference to go to for in-depth, hands-on, minds-on accessibility training. Check it all out at Knowbility.org. That’s k n o w b i l i t y dot org.


[Intro Music]

Derek: Hey everybody. This is Derek Featherstone with Simply Accessible. I am proud to sit here and talk today with Whitney Quesenbery.

Whitney, I’m really happy to have you here. I have a lot of questions for you. Thanks for being here. How are you doing?

Whitney: I’m doing great. Thanks, Derek. I love being here.

Derek: Excellent. We’re talking about getting ready for AccessU. We have a lot of people that are coming from all over the country and some people that are local to Austin. We’re converging on Austin for what I think is probably the best accessibility conference going. One of the reasons is that there’s a huge diversity of instructors.

You’ve been an instructor at AccessU before. One of the things that I think is interesting is that you talk about different aspects of accessibility than most people are probably used to. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the work that you do. We’ll get to your sessions.

For people that aren’t as familiar with your work, maybe you could share a quick synopsis with us of the kind of work that you do and how it all ties into accessibility.

Whitney: Sure. The big, broadest umbrella today for what I do is called user experience. That’s kind of a gathering up of a lot of really individual skills like information architecture, usability testing, design research, design, interaction design, and content. All of those have to come together to create the experiences that we, as users, have when we interact with all the great tools that we make.

I think one of the things that’s happened in the last maybe ten years or so is that we’ve begun to think about accessibility not as something that’s separate for those people over there, but simply as a broader view of better experience for more people.

That’s sort of where I come to accessibility. What I actually do with my life is most of the time I’m working with a team that’s developing some sort of online product. I’m the person who is in charge of going out and understanding how their audience will see it, whether that’s early testing of new ideas or usability testing things as they launch them, or even going out into the field and seeing what people’s lives are like and how this new product might fit into that life.

Derek: That sounds fantastic. When most people traditionally think about accessibility, they tend to think about the development side of things and the code things that they need to do. It’s clear, I think, that it’s something that is much broader than that, as you suggest.

What sorts of things do you do when you’re working in the field with people with disabilities? What sorts of activities are you doing with them? How are you working with people with disabilities and integrating them into that user experience work that you talked about?

Whitney: I’m not doing anything special that I don’t do with everyone else. Let’s say we’re working on a product to help you manage your travel. I might want to know what kind of travel you do. Are you travelling for business? With your family? What are some of the problems that you face today that you wish somebody would solve and make go away? Hopefully the ideas that we’re working on line up with that.

I might take you through some prototypes and ask you to think about how that might work or maybe make suggestions for how we could make it work better. If we’re a little further along, I might just sit back and say, “Let’s pretend you’re starting a trip. Go on and start working with this.” Then sit back and simply watch you work.

The thing that working with people with disabilities adds to that mix is it means I have to think about not just people who are interacting with that tool in one way, maybe visually and through a mouse, but who might be using a screen reader, who might need to make the text bigger than some other people might, who might have trouble turning pages or handling physical objects. Then try to make sure that we have included all of those in our thinking.

These days, we also might be thinking of people who are trying to do things with just one hand because they’re standing in an airport, dragging a suitcase behind with the other hand. There are all kinds of overlaps between what we call situational disabilities, things that make it hard to interact with the technology not because of who you are, but because of what the situation is.

Derek: That makes good sense. We’ve talked with some other speakers as well and they’ve sort of mentioned similar ideas. We create these solutions that work in sort of a lab setting or on the developer’s or designer’s desktop. They don’t necessarily always reflect real life. We get that different perspective there when we have that real life side of things.

Whitney: We used to call this human-computer interaction. The model was a person at a desk with their hands on the keyboard in front of the screen in a sort of office setting. That’s not technology today. It’s certainly not technology in the future.

One of the things that’s made usability, accessibility, and user experience all come together is the way that technology is so much more pervasive in our lives. We use it in many more ways. We use it in less predictable ways.

For me, this is a really exciting time because it’s the first time in my career that I’ve seen the needs of people with disabilities to have flexible technology, the needs of everyone to have flexible technology across devices, and the understanding that everything from the first paragraph on the screen to the deepest code all contribute to that. All of a sudden, that idea isn’t just special needs. It’s mainstream.

Derek: Exactly. I think that’s something that we’ll probably continue to see.

This leads me into, I think, one of your sessions. You have a session at AccessU on the 15th in the morning that is called “Usability Testing for Usable Accessibility.” Some of these things that you’ve been talking about, are those the kinds of things that you mean by “usable accessibility” or are you thinking of something else?

Whitney: Absolutely. I’m doing this session with Kate Walser, a colleague. She and I were actually on the 508 Refresh Committee together. That’s where we met.

Lots of people do usability testing these days. I think that a lot of people want to do work with people with disabilities, but they’re afraid that they’ll be rude, that they’ll make a mistake, that they’ll say something inappropriate, that the session won’t work well.

We hope that this session, which is a three hour workshop, will not only help people who are learning to do usability for the first time come up to speed quickly, but it will also give people a chance to actually practice running a usability test with people with disabilities who are going to be part of the facilitators’ group for this course.

They’ll be able to try out some new ways of moderating in a safe environment, where they can actually stop and ask if something was okay. They can think about how to adjust their own approach to usability testing to accommodate a broader audience.

Derek: I don’t want you to give away the punch line or anything like that, but are there any little teasers that you can give us? Are there things that typically show up when you’re doing usability testing with somebody with a disability?

What are some of those things that are a little bit different or things that make people pause or that maybe need a little bit more attention than they would in doing usability testing with somebody that doesn’t have a disability?

Whitney: One of the first problems, of course, is getting the computer set up. People who are using assistive technology need that assistive technology set up correctly. I think that’s also become a lot easier as more and more people have mobile technology or laptops that they can simply bring or where the tester who’s running the test can actually go to them. That’s sort of the first step: helping people who may not have seen a lot of assistive technology in use understand what that’s like.

When you’re working with someone using a screen reader that really does change the session a little bit. One of the ways that we do usability testing is to ask someone to use whatever it is they’re using and to talk while they’re doing it, to kind of narrate their experience. “I’m looking for this. I just don’t see that button. I wonder what that means.”

If you’re listening and you’re interacting with the technology by hearing it, you can’t be talking at the same time. Often I switch to what we call a retrospective, where we sit back and let someone interact in their own way, then ask them to stop. Then we’ll go back and go over that with them verbally.

The other thing you have to think about in working with somebody with a screen reader is whether it’s important for you to be able to hear what they’re hearing in the way they would normally hear it, or if you need them to slow down so that you can hear exactly what they’re interacting with.

You, I’m sure, have heard a lot of people using a screen reader. The speed is faster than I can hear. If I want to be able to follow what they’re doing, I have to not only ask them to slow down for me, but I have to be able to make sure that I’m watching their hands on the keyboard so I know what hotkeys they’re hitting. That’s a little different level of observation that I might need to do.

Or I might choose not to do that. I might say, “I’m just going to sit back and let you do what you do and see it in as natural of a way as we can, then get you to tell me about that.”

Derek: That’s an interesting thing to observe. When you’re working with people with disabilities and seeing somebody with a screen reader and you’re doing a usability test with them. It really is quite interesting.

One of the things that I find or have found in the past is that there’s an interesting interplay between the technology and the experience. One of the things that I think everybody struggles with is determining how much the issue that somebody with a screen reader is experiencing is due to the code or the design or how much of it is their experience and relative experience with the screen reader.

We all know that just as there are expert computer users and novice computer users, we see exactly the same thing with screen reader users or users of any type of assistive technology. Is that something that you typically take into account in your testing scenarios? How do you deal with that and still try to be sure that you’re getting valid results?

Whitney: Absolutely. I think that’s a problem, in fact, when thinking about any technology for anyone. This is that we all have different things we’ve learned about how to use our technology and that interplays with how well we know what we’re trying to do. You might be an expert in booking travel, but not an expert at using your brand new phone, for example.

I think the same issues around how comfortable people are with technology apply to people, for instance, who might have low literacy, people who not people who work at offices and have technology surrounding them all day long but who use it in a more casual way.

I think we always want to think about who the audience for our products are, what range of expectations we might have about their comfort with the whole idea of using technology to do whatever we’re asking them to do.

Then you have to decide how much you’re going to meet them where they are. If you have an audience that includes people who are brand new to their mobile device or are brand new to their assistive technology or who are just not all that interested in becoming experts in technology, are you going to leave them behind just because they didn’t bother to learn all the hotkeys? Are you going to make sure that your product speaks to them, helps them, is supportive, and doesn’t just kind of bark at them?

Derek: Right. I think what it speaks to and what I’m hearing is that you would do this for everybody. This is not something that is unique to people with disabilities. This is something that, again, is part of user experience for everybody.

Whitney: For a while I did a lot of work in a medical cancer domain, doing information products. People would say, “Oncologists are the experts in this field. They want to read serious material in a serious way. It’s okay if they have big blocks of hard to read paragraphs.”

Yes, they can read it. They can understand it if they take the time to do it. They’re also really, really busy people. They want to be able to scan through that treatment guideline, just like anyone else would.

The things that help, say, an expert oncologist scan through information about how to treat a certain kind of cancer are the same techniques that help someone using a screen reader scan through headings or help someone who doesn’t read that well scan through the headings to find the right paragraph to read.

Derek: Exactly. A couple of times now you’ve mentioned the consumption of information and some of the issues that we face with people that have literacy difficulties. Your other session at AccessU is on the 14th, also in the morning. It’s called “Plain Language: Accessibility for Content.” Can you give us a little taste of what that’s about?

Whitney: Sure. I love talking about 508, because we can talk about the actual laws that support accessibility. There’s actually a law that supports plain language. In 2010, the Federal Government passed a law that said that when the Federal Government speaks to the citizens of the United States, it has to do so in language that’s appropriate to the audience and the content.

To me, those two together say we have to make our code accessible. We have to make our technology accessible. We have to make our content accessible. That’s really what we’re saying. We’re making it accessible to people at varying degrees of knowledgeability about the content and maybe reading skill, as well.

Derek: This session that you are doing at AccessU, then, is all about plain language. What do you mean by plain language? How can we create things that are easier to read? What’s the relationship between plain language and accessibility?

I think you’ve given us an overview of that. It’s an hour and a half lecture. Clearly it’s not going to be a hands-on thing, but are you going to get into different examples and techniques and things like that?

Whitney: Yes, absolutely. We’re going to look at different examples. It actually will be hands-on. I’m going to give people a few short exercises to do to think about how we could say something in a way that is easier for people to understand.

It’s interesting. Once upon a time, back in HTML1, I was kind of an expert in HTML. Those years are long gone for me.

What I’m finding is that just as it’s important for someone who’s thinking about how to structure the code to think about accessibility for day one, if we think about what the mental model is, how we’re structuring the information, how we’re structuring the interaction from the point of view of a very broad audience, it gets easier. It gets more accessible. Accessibility becomes less about remediation and more about baking it in.

That was pretty exciting for me as someone who’s long been a supporter of accessibility but was kind of struggling to understand how my skills could be part of that.

Derek: I think understanding is a huge piece of this. We tend to say from our perspective, or as much as possible, when we’re working with clients or we’re teaching other people about accessibility that there are really three major components to an accessible solution.

One is that we have really fantastic technical execution. One is that we have a wonderful design that supports accessibility. Then the third piece is that content is really well structured and edited and is set up in such a way that it really facilitates that quick consumption and making things as easy to understand as possible.

Whitney: Yes. Can I actually do a pitch for a book I have coming out at the end of the year?

Derek: Please do.

Whitney: At the end of the summer, actually. Sarah Horton of the Yale Style Guide and I have been working on a book on accessibility. Instead of sort of marching through the technical things, we’re actually looking at how we structure a project, starting with clear goals at the very beginning.

It’s of a solid structure, make sure the interaction is easy, that the way-finding and navigation is helpful, that the design is in a presentation that supports people, that the language is clear, that the media is accessible, and that the whole thing adds up to accessible usability.

Although we certainly touch on the technical issues, it’s really designed to help people think about the process of getting that whole end-to-end design process to be accessible from the very bottom.

Derek: That’s just crazy talk!

Whitney: Yes, it is. I mean, I want to say, “It’s easy. Accessibility is just what you’re doing, a little better.” But there’s also a little shift of direction. That shift of direction is thinking about people who are more than just you.

Derek: That sounds great, Whitney. What’s the name of your book?

Whitney: We call it A Web For Everyone: Designing Accessible User Experiences. It took us a long time to come to that. We were trying to really figure out what the core of what we were saying was. We had all these very technical names. We suddenly realized it was simple.

We all love the web, right? We work in the web because we love it. We want everyone to be able to use it.

Derek: That’s fantastic. It’s a great way of thinking. I think that frames it really well. It’s something that we really want designers and developers and content creators and even people that are sort of business decision-makers. We want them to be thinking about this not as some statistical thing, but this web is actually for everyone. I love that title. I think that’s fantastic.

Just to wrap up here, you’re getting ready to head to Austin. You have a few other things happening before that. What are you most looking forward to when you get to Austin? What are some of the things that you’re going to do and see or that you really recommend other people make sure they check out when they’re in Austin?

Whitney: You mean Austin, itself?

Derek: Your call.

Whitney: I have to tell you, I’m a cave-dweller. What I love most about going to conferences is being able to kind of immerse myself in people who have the same ideas and the same interests. For me, it’s a great chance to gather with what Sharron calls The Tribe.

Everybody at AccessU is there because they either want to learn about accessibility or they’re an advocate for accessibility or an expert in accessibility. For me, it’s a chance to learn as much as it’s a chance to teach.

Derek: That’s great. We’re all in good company when we’re at AccessU, that’s for sure. I’m sad to be missing it this year, but I’m sure you’ll have a great time there with The Tribe.

Thank you for taking the time with us today. I hope that we see a lot of people at your sessions.

Whitney: Thanks, Derek.

Derek: Again, that was Whitney Quesenbery — just one of the diverse, experienced speakers at the upcoming up John Slatin AccessU conference. Get all the details at knowbility.org
– that’s k n o w b i l i t y dot org.

[Outro Music]

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