The Fireside Chat is in Swiss German. English subtitles are available. You can also read the English transcript below.
Click “cc” to activate English subtitles.
Resources mentioned in the video
- Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)
- Accessibility checklists
- W3C / WAI Events
- ICCHP 2020 in Lecco, Italy
- “Access for all” foundation in Zurich
- Beat Vollenwyder’s website
So welcome to TestingTime.
Thanks for having me.
Of course! Maybe you could tell our viewers who you are and what you’re working on right now?
My name is Beat Vollenwyder. I work for SBB, the Swiss Federal Railways, as a UX Architect. My job revolves around the user experience of SBB’s different apps and websites. I’m also involved in research at the University of Basel. There’s a research group working on human-computer interaction there. It’s part of the psychology department where I’m doing my Ph.D.
Interesting, and what are you researching exactly?
It’s about web accessibility and inclusive design. Not the technical side of web accessibility like programming requirements. It’s more to do with how people experience and perceive accessibility, the psychological aspect of accessibility. Take image descriptions, for example. ALT tags make it possible for screen readers to read an image as text. There’s the technical component, i.e. there has to be an ALT tag, but I’m more interested in how that tag needs to be so that it’s actually useful to people. How can we design ALT tags so that users with disabilities who need them have a good experience?
Can you give our viewers an example? Let’s stay with the ALT tags. What do ALT tags typically look like? And what should they look like ideally?
Very often, there just isn’t one at all. That’s a very common problem. It also depends on what the image is portraying. Mood pictures don’t necessarily need an ALT tag. They don’t convey any relevant information. So you can just skip over them. But infographics that explain something should have an ALT tag explaining the content in text form. Ideally, the ALT tag shouldn’t just describe the image. For example, a woman sitting on a chair. Instead, the ALT tag should explain what the image is trying to convey. For example, that there’s a waiting list.
The context is important.
Exactly, not the specifics of the image.
What are some other examples? What were some things that you learned, some things that stood out before you started researching this topic in more detail?
There are so many topics we could discuss. Site structure is a big topic: how to arrange the elements on a website so that people can access the information they want as quickly as possible. Making navigation as easy as possible. There’s a substantial overlap between usability and accessibility. There really isn’t a lot of research into this so far. We know a lot about technical requirements. But not about turning a technically accessible product into a good experience. That’s the gap I’m trying to fill with my Ph.D.
So the industry currently isn’t where it could be by a long shot.
Exactly. But a lot has happened and improved in the past couple of years. Especially with regards to awareness. For example, every couple of years, the “Access for all” foundation publishes a report about the state of accessibility in Switzerland. It shows that government-owned and government-affiliated organizations are doing okay. Because there are laws in place here. But accessibility isn’t a big topic yet in the private sector, like e-commerce and news sites. The NGO WebAIM publishes regular reports, too. Their analyses of the top 1M websites in the world show that 95% of all websites have accessibility issues. And those are just the issues that their tool recognizes automatically.
Just the basics.
Accessibility is such a big topic. There are so many different kinds of disability. Do you focus on a few particular disabilities? Or does accessibility mean catering to all people with disabilities? Where do we stand today?
The goal is to cater to all people with disabilities. However, this is almost impossible. So we group disability into the following groups: people with visual impairments, people with hearing impairments, people with motor impairments, and people with cognitive impairments. And then there are many different subgroups, making it very difficult to do everyone justice. Because the web is a very visual medium, we tend to focus on blind and visually impaired users. But really there are so many more people who stand to benefit from accessibility and inclusive design.
Can you name any examples where people really got it right? Companies that did a lot of research and can really be seen as accessibility role models?
Really good examples are pretty few and far between. There are a lot of companies that are making an effort and headed in the right direction. In Switzerland, Post and PostFinance are definitely worth mentioning. They are investing a lot of resources. SBB, of course, even if I’m a bit biased. But we do take accessibility very seriously. We have an advisory board of people with disabilities. They consult us on accessibility topics and the best inclusive solutions. Recently, the “Access for all” foundation certified our website sbb.ch. The website is accessible. But in general, most companies are at a point where they’re trying to find the right path towards accessibility.
The shift into the awareness stage has happened.
Awareness, yeah. Now we’re trying to figure out how to design the best inclusive solutions. Some things can be done by checking off checklists. Other things require extensive testings with people with disabilities. That means learning new skills and investing more time and money. We have to have the know-how in order to attain our goals here.
When you talk to people with disabilities, do they say these changes are happening too slowly? Or do they totally understand that these things take time? What are the reactions like?
I’ve experienced very different reactions. Some people really appreciate that accessibility topics are on the table. And there have been big improvements recently. Especially because it’s become easier with all of the new assistive technologies. Today, there’s the iPhone with a built-in screen reader that reads all texts to you. The accessibility is out-of-the-box here, it just works. At the same time, most companies, providers, manufacturers aren’t really moving in this direction. So I feel like people are starting to lose patience. We’ve had laws in place in Switzerland since 2004 guaranteeing equal rights for people with disabilities. At the time, a period of 10 years to implement accessible customer information was given. Obviously, 2014 came and went and people are growing impatient. As far as I know, there haven’t been any lawsuits yet but it’s possible that that will be a consequence. I understand you’re interviewing people with disabilities?
Exactly, so they’ll probably be able to tell you more here. Yeah, but it’s a very interesting question.
In Utopia, what would perfect accessibility look like? How would you define it?
Perfect accessibility means usable for as many people as possible in as many situations as possible. That is the ultimate goal we’re shooting for. Accessibility means creating flexible solutions that can be adapted to different needs. We want to achieve maximum flexibility, for all possible people in all possible situations.
But the experience, the user experience, I mean, changes from interface to interface. So does accessibility mean emulating the user experience that people without disabilities have? Or is it about creating a new experience, optimized e.g. for someone who can’t see?
The goal is to create an inclusive solution: everyone uses the same product and has the same possibilities. There are a lot of discussions about going the other way, too: creating a separate, accessible solution. For example, a solution that’s text-based and meets all accessibility criteria. Personally, I dislike this approach. For one thing, it’s very hard to draw a line between the versions. Take color contrast, for example: some people have visual impairments and need high contrast to be able to use a website. But then other people are outdoors, the sun creates a glare, and they can appreciate high contrast, too. So we can’t really say something benefits only this group of people or only that group of people. Instead, it’s about creating solutions for everybody, in any situation. That’s the added value of accessibility.
In your experience, when you’re working with teams where people don’t know all of this yet, when people don’t know about the added value of accessibility, what are people’s main objections? Do they say they don’t have the money, or they don’t know how, or what?
I’d say the most common question people have is: does anybody even need all of this? Like, is all of this worth doing for so few people? That’s where we have to explain that accessibility doesn’t just benefit a few people. The target audience is much bigger than the roughly 10,000 blind people or the 300’000 people with visual impairments living in Switzerland. Really, we’re improving the user experience for everyone. There’s research to support this, too. Studies at the University of Fribourg show that people with and without disabilities benefit in the same way: navigation becomes faster, they find things more easily, and so on. Again, there’s that overlap between accessibility, usability, and user experience. That’s the point. Accessible products are better products in general.
Yeah, that’s so interesting. I was at the World Usability Day in 2017, I think, in Rapperswil.
Yeah, that one was all about accessibility.
One of the speakers there said that when you’re designing a product, you should start by asking yourself: “How would I design this for someone with a disability?” So taking people with disabilities as a starting point actually leads to better designs for everyone. That was his argument. Do you agree with that? Or is it better to study both target groups separately and then unify both cases?
I recommend looking at both cases simultaneously. I also think it’s important that we don’t pit one group of users against the other group of users. The goal should be to find solutions that work for both groups of users, from the start. But there are also some quite radical approaches to accessibility out there. For example, to do usability tests exclusively with people with disabilities to discover issues more quickly. I probably wouldn’t do this because, again, you’re looking at one small group of users at a time in this case. My goal is always to find solutions that work for everybody.
Okay, so in daily life, e.g. here at TestingTime, how would you recommend we start to tackle accessibility? We have test users with visual impairments, we have wheelchair users. But we’re just starting to think about accessibility so what should we do first in your opinion? Also, how should companies expand their UX research so that it includes test users with disabilities?
It all starts with inviting someone to come down here. Obviously, that’s something TestingTime is very familiar with, that’s what you do. And then test your products with that person. What works, what doesn’t? In my experience, product teams are usually fascinated to see how people with disabilities use their product. For example, with a screen reader that reads the website to them. That way, many people are totally capable of navigating everything without any help. What are some things they notice? The product team really gets a feeling of what accessibility is all about. These tests give accessibility a face, too. People with disabilities are just like any other users. They want to use our service so let’s help them do that. That’s how I would start to tackle accessibility.
So in general for companies, or maybe for the entire industry, how do we get where we want to be? If we think about the next 10, 20 years, will it take political and legal measures to force change? Or could people with disabilities themselves push accessibility? Will this happen bottom-up or top-down within companies? What do you think will happen here?
In my experience, a mix of top-down and bottom-up works best. The whole company should be aware of the benefits, everybody should be convinced and want to do it. It’s very comparable to the discussions about usability and user experience a couple of years ago. People weren’t sure whether those topics were important or necessary, either. But people quickly learned that those topics are important and that there’s an added value. Your products become better and you gain a competitive advantage in the market. That’s the same thing that needs to happen again. The employees at a company need to understand how valuable accessibility is. And then you need management to be on board so that someone can drive accessibility forward. Just like UX back in the day, it takes both sides.
Are there any accessibility conferences or regular accessibility events? Where can people go to get more information?
There are actually several accessibility events. The most famous one is the one that happens during W3C. Then there are a lot of small, specialized events. For example, there’s a European event every two years. Last year was in Linz (Austria), next year it’ll be in Italy. So if you look, you can definitely find an accessibility event that meets your interests and needs. We can definitely link to some resources here.
Yeah, that would be great. So people can find out what they want to know.
It’s really important for people to have resources. As I mentioned before, you should always start with the actual user. Our research group conducted an extensive study of product teams’ motivations to take on accessibility. We did extensive surveys and interviews with people in different roles. We talked to all of the people it takes to design, build, and release a website or an app. The main motivational factor was that users are demanding accessibility and the right to participate in the development. The second factor was the availability of resources. People need to feel like something is happening in their community. Like part of their role as a UX specialist or a developer is to make sure the product is accessible. That shift from accessibility being an optional part of the job to a given as a professional is important.
That is, of course, one of the reasons we wanted to conduct interviews with accessibility experts. We wanted to inspire other companies that may not even be aware of all of these possibilities. We also wanted to showcase some good examples like SBB and Post. What does accessibility mean at these companies? How did they implement accessibility? And so on. But motivation is a very interesting topic. People who’ve never been confronted with that situation, people who don’t know anyone with a disability will lack a certain empathy. Disability is abstract. So it would be very interesting to send, say, five people with different disabilities to a company. Have them do usability tests. And then see how much needs to change to achieve good usability for certain groups of users.
I agree, seeing it from that perspective really helps. It’s like the Silicon Valley cliché of the twenty-something male developer building an app for the entire world. But we all know that that’s not reality. In reality, people are much more diverse. So we need to keep that in mind.
Let’s dive a little deeper into your research: what have the most interesting findings been so far? Were there any findings that confirmed suspicions you’d had all along?
I’m still in the middle of my research but I do have two perspectives: on the one hand, you’ve got the users. On the other hand, you’ve got the developers and the entire product team. The latter part is complete and published. So I can say a little more about the findings there because the user part is ongoing. So like I said, we were interested in the main motivations and obstacles. For me, it was positive to see that lacking funds or knowledge were not the most-named factors. We found that motivating factors have a stronger impact. Earlier, we discussed users’ participation and that accessibility is perceived as a part of the professional role. The third factor was knowing that accessibility improves the quality of a product. It was nice to see that accessibility needs to become part of the culture. Convincing people works so much better than forcing people to implement accessibility.
That third factor is particularly interesting. UXers are always fighting for measurability of research insights. Do these changes really improve the product? How can we measure that in terms of money? Are there studies out there that prove that accessibility results in a better product? I mean purely in terms of money now. Are we at a point where we can prove that yet?
No, I don’t think anybody has been able to put the value of accessibility into Francs, or Euros, or Dollars yet. Again, there’s that overlap with user experience and usability. So it’s really hard to say how much money exactly accessibility brought in. I don’t know if we will someday be able to measure accessibility like that. There are, however, examples where you can get a pretty good idea of the monetary value. For example, a lot of blind users own an iPhone because the screen reader was built in early on. We can definitely say that the iPhone gave Apple a huge market advantage that way. In Switzerland, there are several banks that made their e-banking services accessible. PostFinance and Credit Suisse, for example, and I assume that they saw an increase in new customers. It would be very interesting to be able to put a price tag on all of these accessibility measures.
Yeah, because especially people at big companies have so many stakeholders. The further away those stakeholders are from the research team, the more abstract accessibility becomes. And then we’re talking about money. So the more case studies from other companies that they can show their stakeholders, the better. For the whole industry, really. You conduct user research at SBB, too. How is user research different when your test users have disabilities? Do you have any advice you can share with our viewers here?
My most important tip is: don’t be afraid of testing with test users with disabilities. During the first couple of tests, you might be wondering what’s okay to say, what’s okay to do, and so on. But in my experience, the tests have been very relaxed. I never felt uncomfortable or anything. You start to realize: people with disabilities are just people like anybody else.
Of course, of course. But some people are anxious about making a wrong move or something. But yeah, they’re just people with some sort of limitation. But that can make people uncomfortable. That’s why I was wondering whether you’d noticed any big differences testing with this group of users?
Yeah, you get used to it. But there are a few practical considerations: the technical setup, for example. People with disabilities will usually have their own setup. Everything will be set exactly how they like it. So giving them any old computer won’t do. Tests with mobile devices are a little easier because VoiceOver and TalkBack on Android are preinstalled. Another thing you have to consider is that the prototype needs to have a certain maturity. For example, a blind person probably won’t be able to do much with a paper prototype. But that’s really about it as far as differences go.
Would you recommend people to use frameworks like certifications so they can cross things off of a list? Or should they start by inviting people with disabilities to usability tests? Assuming you’re consulting a business that wants to start right now, what is the very first step?
It really depends on your goals. If you want to create awareness, let people know about accessibility, I would just invite someone. Make sure the most important stakeholders can observe the usability test. If the goal is to build an accessible solution, then you need to invest a bit more. In this case, I strongly recommend using a checklist. The most used one is the WCAG, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. That’s the international standard that most accessibility laws around the world reference. It’s a huge document with so many points and it can be quite overwhelming. But there are simpler, shorter versions you can use to get started with actual checklists and easy explanations. So you start working your way through the WCAG and try to understand what the requirements really mean. Where are we at now? Which requirements can we meet, which can’t we meet? And so on. That’s the first step. Because conducting tests when you don’t meet the basic requirements doesn’t make sense. To return to the example with the ALT tags from the beginning of our conversation: you have to know that you need ALT tags before you can test how good they are. You have to understand the basics of accessibility before you can start testing.
Who are the teams that look into this exactly? At big companies like SBB or Post, do they have teams focused solely on accessibility? Or is it usually a multidisciplinary effort with user researchers taking the lead?
The approaches vary from business to business. Although I think it’s usually a multidisciplinary team. Which, of course, is in line with the inclusive idea, the idea that everyone should care about accessibility. The visual designer should know just as much as the coder about this topic. Often, there will be some sort of core accessibility team that everybody can consult. PostFinance has this, for example, a group of people who consult, manage, and check everything.
What about external teams? Like consultants you can bring in? People who can tell you where you stand today, where there’s potential to make a big impact?
Exactly, that’s probably the most common way of doing it: hiring an external expert. Here in Zurich, there’s the foundation “Access for all” that does that. They’re also the ones that certify websites. You can ask them for a review where they comb through your page for a couple of hours. They have several experts with disabilities who can do a full check and give you an idea of where you stand. Additionally, there are also a lot of little agencies specializing in accessibility which we can link to.
If you think about people’s everyday lives, where do you feel is accessibility most urgent? Like, what are the things where people with disabilities say: this should be done by now. Something that’s a given to us and yet it hasn’t been made accessible at all yet. Something that’s not at all inclusive despite being part of our everyday lives. Can you think of any examples here?
That’s a tough question because everyone has different wants and needs. If I imagine what it would be like to work with a screen reader day in and day out, I think that it would bother me that a lot of news sites aren’t accessible. In a country like Switzerland which is a democracy, the citizens need to be able to access information. Really, it’s such a big step forward that technology has made this possible. With printed newspapers, you always needed somebody to read the news to you or you needed a special version. Today, we have digital news and assistive devices and we could make everything accessible. The possibilities are there and then it all breaks down because people can’t navigate your site or something. Personally, that would be the first thing I would want to change. But there are many other things, e.g. e-commerce. Most online shops are not very accessible yet. But as I said, there are so many different examples.
You mentioned SBB and Post before, so public services that we take for granted. But for so many people they aren’t accessible. For example, wheelchair users can access certain trains and trams now. But by far not all public transportation is accessible. I’m also thinking about things like paying your taxes or contacting government departments. All these basic things. How accessible are these types of services? Has there been significant progress in recent years or what is the situation like?
Yeah, there is work being done in these areas. The government, for example, has a center that’s dedicated to accessibility topics. About two weeks ago there was a conference with the federal government and the cantons. The government is pushing accessibility and several cantons have launched initiatives, too. So there is quite a bit going on right now. There are a couple of sticking points, e.g. e-voting. At the conference, there was a blind speaker who talked about how difficult it is to vote for blind people. Someone else has to tick the box for him so he doesn’t really know whether they’re ticking the one he wants. So he advocates e-voting because that’s the only way the blind can really decide for themselves. So that’s definitely one of the big e-government topics that are important to people with disabilities. You mentioned the trams, the train stations, and the wheelchair users before. That’s actually a great example of the advantages of the digital world. Making a building accessible is a major project that can take years to complete. I’m not quite sure about the date but I think the plan at SBB is to make all train stations accessible by 2023. And that isn’t because we don’t want to get this done faster, it’s because of all the investments it takes. In the digital world, you can change things much faster, it’s a much more fast-paced environment. Also, even small changes that can be made quickly can have a big impact. So I encourage everyone to take a look at their own services and to see what can be done.
Maybe we can wrap up with where we stand here in Switzerland compared to other European countries.
I would place Switzerland somewhere in midfield. It’s gaining momentum, awareness is increasing, but we’ve got a long road ahead of us.
So which countries are ahead of us here?
As is often the case, there is a lot going on in the Scandinavian countries. The US, too, is often named as a good example. People don’t seem to question the necessity of accessibility as much there.
Interesting. If viewers have questions, is there a way to get in touch with you? Do you have a website or what is the best way to contact you?
Yeah, we can link to my website which also has a lot more information about my research.
Awesome, we’ll do that, thanks. Is there a final piece of advice you’d like to give our viewers?
All I can say is: just do it. Try to keep in mind that there are very diverse people out there who want to use your digital products. And they should be able to use your digital products. Anyone working in this industry, no matter their role, can contribute to digital accessibility. And small contributions are already a big help.
Alright, thank you.
Lots of luck and success with your research.
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