Author Archives: Whitney Quesenbery

The latest from Rosenfeld Media

The latest from Rosenfeld Media

  • Why Can’t We Make It Easier To Be Accessible?

    Posted on

    "Vote" sign on telephone pole
    Photo by hjl/CC BY 2.0

    The other day, I was doing a final check for a voter guide project. An elections office had created a sample PDF, asked me to check it and identify any problems, then figure out how to solve them. We’d gone back and forth for a few days.

    When I finally sent off the email saying all the ducks were in a row, and that the office could start printing the PDF booklet, I breathed a sigh of relief.

    And then, like you do, I took to Twitter to share some of my frustration. Much of my time had been devoted to handling the tedious minutiae of setting, checking, and double-checking technical settings I’d chosen in Word–wondering if I’d checked off the right option. So I tweeted this:

    It’s not that you can’t create an accessible pdf from an accessible Word file.
    It’s that it’s so easy to get it wrong.

    I didn’t expect the tweet to launch a Twitter conversation that went on for two days. The response prompted me to write a longer form post.

    PDFs are not always the best way to share information. Most of the time, you’d find me standing at the head of the line advocating for HTML. Sometimes though, PDFs are the right solution. Particularly for long reports or other documents.

    For the voter guide project, PDF is the better option. And assuming you begin with an accessible file, turning it into a PDF ought to be the easiest, fastest way to get from digital source to an accessible printed report. Sadly this isn’t the case.

    In the voter guide project I just worked on, the source file was Word. I’d heard that InDesign does do a better job of creating PDF files. And while that’s good advice, it doesn’t address the question of why it’s so hard to make a relatively simple, accessible Word file into an accessible PDF.

    Worse, I’ve taken a look at the documentation on creating an accessible PDF from InDesign and it doesn’t look that easy. Powerful, yes. But not easy.

    Why does it matter if it’s easy or not? You shouldn’t need an expert to create accessible documents! There simply aren’t enough experts to go around. Templates can help. Cheatsheets and checklists are good reminders. If accessible documents require experts to make them, it’s no wonder there are so few accessible documents out there. Without accessible documents, millions of people lose the ability to get the information to participate in their country’s elections. 

    But this is about more than elections. In every business and university, people create documents every day. People whose expertise or main focus probably isn’t technology or accessibility. This isn’t a criticism. It’s the real world–and we’re not yet serving everyone’s needs.

    Designing for accessibility ought to be easy. It ought to be the default for software. The features to create documents shouldn’t be hidden behind 3 or 4 clicks–every single time you need to use those settings.

    Here’s what a typical conversation sounds like helping someone through the process:

    Them: I know I’m supposed to put alt text on this image, but I can’t figure out where it goes.

    Me: It’s in the formatting properties.

    Them: Where? I see Glow and Artistic Effects and things like that…

    Me: See the little blue square with the arrows.

    Them: Oooooh. That’s where it’s hiding.

    And that’s a good conversation. Sadly, too many sound like this:

    Me: See the luggage tag on the left. Open that. Now click on the thing that says “Tags” at the top of the panel and…

    Them: Wait. What….what is all this? This looks…complicated. How am I going to learn this?

    Me: Just send me the file and I’ll fix it.

    In both cases, creating accessible information has been made harder than it should be, or downright scary. When accessibility is too much work, it’s a hidden tax.

    The good news is we can fix this. I suggest two principles for programs that could make the world more accessible:

    Make software defaults that support accessibility.

    And make sure the defaults don’t actively harm accessibility. For example, the default Word option to “Bitmap text when fonts may not be embedded” seems like a good thing, but it turns text into little snippets of images. You might not notice this with a visual inspection, but it causes real problems for screen readers. Don’t take the option away…just make it clear what will happen. And don’t make it the default.

    Make accessibility features easy to find.

    Don’t hide or require several clicks to get to these features. Or make users guess at what they mean. For example, the table property to “Repeat as header row at the top of each page” also sets the row as a header for screen readers, but how would anyone know that this is important (or why it’s important). Maybe the default should be that the first row is set as a heading row. It can be changed, but if you do nothing, you have a more accessible table.

    So, what happened to the elections project?

    If you’re curious, the booklet was turned into 85 versions. They will be voter guides with information about the candidates and measures on the ballot (along with some basics about ways to vote).

    There are 85 of them because there’s not just one ballot for the whole county or state. In New Jersey, where we have a lot of local government, each borough, town, and township has a different ballot. In many places, there are overlapping water districts, fire districts and school districts on top of the boundaries for local offices. I’ve seen the GIS mapping layers for suburban Cook County outside of Chicago, and just thinking about them makes my head hurt.

    A large county can have hundreds of different ballots. Even a small county might have dozens. Each is a unique combination of contests for one geographical area. Because the schedule is crazy fast, there’s only a few days between when the list of candidates and measures are certified and when the booklets (and ballots) have to be ready to go to the printer and be posted on the web.

    Getting it right is important. The right ballot content. The right languages. The right legal notices. And getting accessibility right, too.

    But most of all, easy counts.

    It’s the only way we’re going to make real progress.

    What you can do

    P.S. Since the most obvious recommendation is to “take it up with the vendors” when you have a problem–I did. Because if they never hear about the problems, they can’t fix them. I’ve been talking to both Adobe and Microsoft. They both have online forums. If this matters to you, let them know.

    Whitney Quesenbery is the co-founder of the Center for Civic Design. She’s passionate about making interactions with government effective and enjoyable, and bringing more design literacy to elections and government workers. She’s co-authored three books— A Web for Everyone: Designing Accessible User Experiences (with Sarah Horton),   Storytelling for User Experience: Crafting Stories for Better Design (with Kevin Brooks) and Global UX: Design and Research in a Connected World (with Daniel Szuc). Follow Whitney on Twitter.

    Make accessibility easy, and the world will be more accessible

    Posted on

    Dear Microsoft Accessibility Feedback,

    I suggest you….Help us make accessible PDFs from Office for Mac.

    Sign me

    Making Acrobat PDF files accessible may not seem like the most important accessibility problem, but give me a second to make the case.

    How many of you routinely use PDF files to share documents? And use Office for Mac to create those documents?

    I do.

    PDF may not be the ideal format for sharing information: even an accessible PDF may not be completely accessible to everyone.  But there are times when it really is the best option. Big, long reports. Electronic versions of printed material. Draft documents for comments among people who may use different authoring software.

    Like it or not, it’s a lingua franca.

    If you use Office for Windows, making a simple PDF file accessible is pretty easy. You start with the built-in accessibility checker. Then you use the built-in PDF creator. End with a final check in Acrobat lets you clean up any problems.

    But if you use Office for Mac, there is no built-in checker. No built-in PDF creator. The Mac print-to-PDF creates an image with none of the tags that make accessibility possible.

    Why? Why? Why?

    Microsoft, Adobe, and Apple are giant companies with plenty of resources and great accessibility programs. So why can’t they get this done? I’ve been asking this question for years, and the answers are always vague, or fingers pointed around the circle.

    Come on, guys. It’s not that hard a problem. Get. It. Done.

    When Microsoft opened a new forum for accessibility feedback, I added this suggestion:

    Help us make accessible PDFs from Office for Mac.

    As one commenter says: “It’s ridiculous that the accessibility options I recommend to customers aren’t available on my own device.”

    Do you agree? Take a minute to vote it up.

    Make accessibility easy, and the world will be more accessible.

    A (WIAD) for Everyone: Managing live social media

    Posted on

    I’m working with World IA Day 2016 – a one-day (February 20, 2016), annual celebration focused on the practice and education of Information Architecture. As accessibility coordinator, I’m helping local events be welcoming to everyone.

    Twitter photo of Jose GutierrezThis post, with a template and tips for social media strategy comes from José René Gutiérrez Álvarez (@josernitos). He shared his experience with all the WIAD organizers. This is such great list of tips for live-posting an event that I asked his permission to include it in this series.

    It may seem far from accessibility, but there’s a similarity between live-tweeting and live captions or CART. Most of all, helping people keep track of what happens before, during, and after an event makes it easier for everyone to take part. 


    A social media strategy, template, and tips

    Your event is booked, we are only a couple days till the big day and this is the first event you broadcast on social media, I’m sure there are a lot of questions, and how you manage your local event will depend on the resources you have and also the attendees of your event.

    So, let’s start!

    Use content you create

    As you know, with the agenda + speakers + content of the talks/workshops, you can make lots of content with only those 3 elements.

    I recommend this “template”, but you can modify it:

    Before the event

    • Remind people of the agenda with an image so they can: Share it, comment, save it.
      Remind people the location of the event with a Google Map URL or image of the location + image of the venue.

    During the event

    • Remind people the upcoming speaker/talk, an hour before and 15min before. Could be image or text.
    • Post important quotes from the speaker
    • If you have the speaker presentation beforehand, make screenshots of important quotes/images you might be able to share. (Ask your speaker first).
    • If you want to post photos (cellphone or camera), get help from your team. This task involves being near the speaker, editing the photo or just sharing directly to your feed, but even though you will just take the photo and upload it, there is a lot of content going on: what the speaker is saying, the next speaker presentation, etc. So, If you are a social media team of one, just post 1 or 2 photos of each speaker. Don’t worry if it’s not an awesome professional photograph of the speaker or attendees in the time you have.
    • If people are not posting anything, remind your production team to mention the hashtag before the talks
    • If there is a broadcast, remind the url for other to watch.
    • If there is a broadcast, make screenshots of the event and say something that is happening or saying. People outside the venue want to know if something important is going on.
    • Remind the sponsors, local and global that made possible the event.

    After the event

    • Remember to post the presentations that are public. (Keep a list of urls with name of the talk)
    • Remember to thank the organizers of your local event! It’s been a huge task.
    • Remember to thank the local and global sponsors.

    Include content made by others

    I know most of the events will have a huge Twitter impact, but if the attendees are using Facebook or Instagram as their sole main medium of communication, then you should try to get those status updates to nurture your feed.

    If there isn’t a lot of content generated by the users, try to see if they are sharing more on other social media, if they are, encourage to use your main social media platform, if all fails, you can create a raffle for the people that send tweets saying they are on the event, or taking a photo w/ their coffee or anything.

    Why is this so important? Your event needs to have content generated by the users, that’s why this magic thing it’s called social media. (hehe)

    Be prepared for trolls

    So you have pre-created some content, people are sharing content (text, links, photos). But there is a troll in the event. Prepare for the worst, definitely this is something you don’t want in your event.

    If there is a user or group of users who are making digital noise on the feed, and they are in the event, I have found that the best solution is to point the problem — not on Twitter or Facebook, but  to announce the problem you are having. This is really effective method to make people stop the trolling.

    A few tips

    • Know your audience, understand the influencers of the event.
    • Tweet to them directly, make conversation, meet them on the event, people will be more helpful if they’ve seen your face.
    • Get to know each speaker, just a quick, hey my name is: _____ and I’ll be the Social Media Manager, so maybe I’ll be taking photos of you, etc. If you have anything you’d want me to publish before/during/after your talk, please tell me/send me the links (videos, audio, etc.)
    • Get early to the venue, at least 1 hour before.
    • Use wifi, hopefully the venue will have wifi connection.
    • Be prepared to run out of juice fast, bring an extension cord, bring extra batteries or external batteries.
    • Have a table and chair to use. If you are in just a seat like everyone else it can be awkward to manage everything. If people are publishing a lot of content, it’s better to use your laptop to monitor activity on Hootsuite or another program. Plus having a laptop + phone + battery, is going to be a mess, trust me.


    Read all the posts on making a (WIAD) event for everyone

    A (WIAD) Event for Everyone – Getting Set for the Big Day

    Posted on

    I’m working with World IA Day 2016 – a one-day (February 20, 2016), annual celebration focused on the practice and education of Information Architecture. As accessibility coordinator, I’m helping local events be welcoming to everyone.

    Just a week to the the 2016 World IA Day celebrations. As you plan the final details, here are a few tips for setting up the room and access to the event. 

    Start by doing a walk-through from the front entrance to the room.  Look for place where people coming to the event might need some direction, even a simple sign.  Is it easy to find:

    • The accessible entrance to the building
    • The path to the room
    • The elevator if the event is not on the entry floor
    • Restrooms

    Inside the room:

    • Reserve a few seats at the front for people who need them.
      This recommendation comes from the STC Accessibility SIG, which has produced accessibility guides to their annual conference since 2002. They point out that this small accommodation is helpful for many people. They might need to be near the speaker to hear clearly or see the project screen, or have trouble with attention and benefit from the direct line of sight to the speaker. 
    • Make room for wheelchairs
      Be ready to remove chairs to make room for anyone using a wheelchair, as well as for anyone they are with to sit near them.  
    • Help sign interpreters be visible
      If you have sign language interpreters, make time to talk to them when the arrive about how they want to set up. They may also ask you for a list of names or other important technical terms, so they can be sure to get them right. They will also want them in a place where they can trade places without disturbing anyone. And, you’ll need seats near them for anyone relying on them to hear the talks. 

    Remind speakers:

    • Face the audience when they speak.
      I don’t mean they have to stand rigidly in one position, but even with a microphone, it’s harder to understand someone if you can’t see their face. 
    • Speak clearly
      Don’t rush through their words. Pause between thoughts. It helps everyone, including people who got distracted for a minute, are listening in a second language. But captioners and interpreters will love them for it.
    • Repeat the question
      f you don’t have a microphone for the audience, ask them to repeat any questions before they answer them. This not only helps people in the room, but also makes sure that the question is included in any recording. 

    But, most of all, be a good host, and be ready to help with anything from providing a drinking straw to identifying a place to serve as a lactation room.

    A few good articles and checklists

    STC Conference Accessibility Guides: How (and Why) They Were Created is an article by Karen Marshal that gives some of the background of this long-running project.

    The ADA Voting Checklist was created by the Department of Justice to help election officials check the accessibility of polling places. That may not sound very promising, but it’s actually a useful guide to walking through a public space. 

    Organizing More Accessible Tech Events is a broader view from an event organizer about creating an inclusive culture at your event. 

    Planning Accessible Meetings is a list of resources from Accessible Techcomm

    Next in the series: Managing live social media

    A (WIAD) Event for Everyone – Email and Social Media

    Posted on

    I’m working with World IA Day 2016 – a one-day (February 20, 2016), annual celebration focused on the practice and education of Information Architecture. As accessibility coordinator, I’m helping local events be welcoming to everyone.

    We’re getting closer to The Day. As registration opens, there will be a lot of activity to promote the events on social media and email. Just a few tips to keep in mind to make sure that everyone can read your messages.


    Let’s start with email. Although many people will allow HTML content in email, many won’t. And the problem gets worse when all of the information is embedded in an image.

    I once got an invitation to a webinar that just said:

      [ image ] is proud to present [ image ]

    No other text at all. Not exactly great communication.

    Even with readable text, make sure you don’t bury critical information in images without any other way to read it. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use images. Far from it. They can make an announcement sparkle. Just make sure that any information in the image is also available in text:

    • If you are sending an HTML email, use “alt text” in the image tag to repeat any information in the image.
    • Include the information above or below the image.

    For example, if you have a banner with your group name, the location, data, and time of the event you can just repeat it in text. That way, whether the image isn’t loaded or the person can’t read it, they still get the critical information about what, when, where, and how to register.

    You can use the same trick in social media: include both the image and enough text to communicate the message (even in 140 characters).

    There’s tons of choice in social media managers. Choose one you like, and then use it in an inclusive way.  As I was working on this post, Molly Holzschlag* shared a tool with useful functionality and good accessibility. Buffer’s Pablo app lets you add text to an image for posting on social media. It’s quick and easy, but the best part is that it automatically inserts the text from the photo the message text.

    A few last thoughts about making email messages and social media posts easy to read:

    • The tips for setting color contrast and writing alt text in the post about registration forms applies here, too.
    • Check the size of the image and make sure it fits well in a smaller message window. Wide images can also stop text from wrapping, making it impossible to see all of the information on a mobile device. If you are using a message app, be sure to check out a test message on different screen sizes.
    • Think about what any image will look like when it’s displayed as a thumbnail–which might be scaled or cropped, depending on the platform.
    • Make sure the message comes through with–and without–the images.
    • Remember that social media is global, so make the location clear for in-person events.

    If you have a good solution for managing social media or a question about how to make it accessible, share it here.


    * If you don’t know Molly, just search for “Molly web fairy godmother” or find her on Twitter at @mholzschlag



    Next in the series: Getting Set for the Big Day

    A Wealth of Personas

    Posted on

    Personas to help UX teams understand how to design for people with disabilities have been popping up on the web.

    We love personas and created a group of web user personas to help illustrate A Web for Everyone. While our personas are a good staring point, the most effective personas represent the people in a particular context. We love these two examples of personas for university students and banking customers.

    Personas of university students

    A young man with a backpack, listening to a mobile device, waiting at a bus stop
    Mark, from the BC Open Textbook Accessibility Tookit

    For example, the BC Open Text Accessibility Toolkit, extended and adapted our personas for people who create textbooks, so the personas represent  different types of students. Their goal is to help everyone create “a truly open and accessible textbook” because today anyone from an instructional designer to a professor might be a content creator.

    To make the more specific to the context, they focused on students with print disabilities, based on data about the tools that university students use and their own focus groups. As an added bonus, they included samples of the assistive technology each persona might use.

    Personas of banking customers

    Illustration of the 7 personas, with their names
    The cover of the Barclay’s Diverse Personas booklet showing the 7 personas

    It’s not surprising to find open access educational projects, but the Barclay’s IT Accessibility Team has made their personas open source to allow others to benefit from their research.

    The Barclay’s Diverse Personas are published as a PDF booklet or as a Word file.

    Each person includes the top design tips and a detailed profile with information about how they use technology, their life and goals, and banking products they use.

    If you are interested in how the team uses the personas, take a look at the case study in the Slideshare presentation Building Accessible Apps: Barclay’s Mobile Banking. It shows how they switched from a single accessibility evaluation at the end — too late to make changes — to ongoing accessibility reviews, starting from the design phase.




    A (WIAD) Event for Everyone – Registration Forms

    Posted on

    I’m working with World IA Day 2016 – a one-day (February 20, 2016), annual celebration focused on the practice and education of Information Architecture. As accessibility coordinator, I’m helping local celebrations be welcoming to everyone.

    This month the location pages went live, and organizers started to open registration for the World IA Day celebrations. Many will use a registration platform like EventBrite, because it handles so much of the housekeeping.

    Unfortunately, there are no perfectly accessible registration systems, but you can do two things to make sure that the biggest barrier to attending an event isn’t signing up for a ticket.

    A few tips for accessible forms

    First, whether you are customizing a registration platform or building your own, make the part of the form you create accessible. Here’s a few tips (and some free tools, listed at the end of this post):

    • Use good color contrast, especially for important elements like text, links and buttons. The guideline is that the contrast ratio between the text and background should be at least 4.5:1 (for reference, black on white is 21:1). Don’t worry if that doesn’t mean much to you – there are a lot of easy, free tools online that you can use for a quick check.
    • Add alternative text to any images. The most important images on registration sites are functional: buttons, informational icons, or credit card symbols. If  ithere is text in the image, repeat it in the image tag as alt text. If it’s an icon, say what it means.
    • Add labels to forms. If you are writing your own form, connect the field labels to the field. This isn’t as hard as it sounds…even a code duffer like me can do it.
    • Add a heading row to data tables. If you have a table with all the different registration options, a few things make it easy for a screen reader to navigate through the details: Just mark the first row as the heading row. (That’s <th> instead of <td> in HTML)

    Once you are done, you can check the whole page with one of the accessibility checkers. They aren’t infallible, but they can identify many problems people using assistive technology might run into, so you can know about them (and hopefully fix them).

    If there are problems

    And that leads to the second thing you can do: offer alternatives and support if someone has problems.

    Make sure there’s a way to contact you so you can get them signed up, even after they run into a barrier.

    Speak directly to anyone who needs your help so they can have a great WIAD celebration with you.

    Tools to help you check accessibility

    Color contrast checkers

    These tools let you check whether a foreground and background color combination meets accessibility guidelines. The three here also help you adjust or create the color palette for good contrast.

    Tips for writing alternative text for images

    Accessible tables and forms

    Accessibility checkers

    These free checkers will analyze the current page for problems and help you fix them


    Next in the series: Email and Social Media

    A (WIAD) Event for Everyone – Captions for Video

    Posted on

    I’m working with World IA Day 2016 – a one-day (February 20, 2016), annual celebration focused on the practice and education of Information Architecture. As accessibility coordinator, I’m helping local events be welcoming to everyone.

    Thinking about planning an accessible event might seem overwhelming for a volunteer group. But it doesn’t have to be. The key is to take it in steps so that accessibility-thinking is just part of everything you do.

    This series of articles will help you make sure that your event welcomes everyone, including people who might need help with mobility, vision, or other disabilities.  We’ll follow along as you plan your event, with tips and resources.

    Captions for Video

    The launch of the World IA Day 2016 Teaser video reminded me that we need to talk about captions to make sure that everyone has access to the information in videos, whether they are promos or recordings of a presentation.
    Little known fact: the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology won an Emmy for their work to develop closed captions. The same feature that lets us watch 3 different games at time in a sports bar opens the door to video content for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing.
    Like so many accessibility features, captions are also helpful for many reasons: Maybe you are in a noisy space. don’t have earphones. Need help understanding the language. In fact, YouTube (and other video players ) use the same features to provide alternative language subtitles – perfect for the WIAD international audience.
    It’s actually pretty easy to make captions.
    The good news is that the days of painstakingly figuring out the time codes are long gone. Most of the big video servers have tools that make it easy.
    The simplest possible situation is a video like the WIAD 2016 Teaser. It has background music, but no speech at all. All we had to do was put in a single caption for the whole video:
    ♫  Music playing  ♫  
    It might seem unnecessary since the music is just to set a mood, but with the caption, someone who can’t hear knows they aren’t missing any critical information.
    What if the video has a voice-over? Chances are you have the script with the text. On YouTube, you can just upload that script and the system will automatically match up the text and create the captions.  If the sync isn’t perfect, you can tweak it using the built-in tools.
    Sometimes, you have no script at all, like a recording of a presentation. When that’s the case, you have to roll up your sleeves for a little bit of work.
    • The fastest and most accurate way to get started is to make a transcript. On YouTube, you just upload the transcript and the automatic sync process creates the captions, matching the written text using their speech recognition engine.
    • You can also use a crowd-sourcing tool like Amara to get many people work together to create captions. Each person can do a little bit of work (or work in a different language), so no one has to do it all.
    • If you are working in YouTube, you’ll notice a tool create automatic captions. Unfortunately,  it’s not really ready for prime time. The mistakes can be funny, or they can make the captions incomprehensible. Advocates call them “craptions.”  But those automatic captions have their uses. Use them as a starting point, download the file and then correct the text as a shortcut to making a good transcript. Saves a lot of time.
    Want to make your captions even cooler? Don’t just transcribe the words: add information about sound effects, dramatic information, and identify the speakers.
    • If there are sound effects, just put it in parentheses: (loud crash) or (phone ringing) or I’ll get that. (phone ringing stops) 
    • Add dramatic information at the beginning of a line: (WHISPERS) But don’t tell anyone!
    • Identify the speakers by adding their name or other info: JAMES SMITH, Hometown Press: I’d like to knowor PRESENTER: Any questions? AUDIENCE MEMBER: My question is…..
    Want to learn a little bit more about captions and subtitles?
    Captioning tools and accessible video players
    If you find another good tool for making video accessible, share it here and tell us how you use it!


    Next in the series:  Registration Forms

    A (WIAD) Event for Everyone – Choosing a location

    Posted on

    I’m working with World IA Day 2016 – a one-day (February 20, 2016), annual celebration focused on the practice and education of Information Architecture. As accessibility coordinator, I’m helping local events be welcoming to everyone.

    Thinking about planning an accessible event might seem overwhelming for a volunteer group. But it doesn’t have to be. The key is to take it in steps so that accessibility-thinking is just part of everything you do.

    This series of articles will help you make sure that your event welcomes everyone, including people who might need help with mobility, vision, or other disabilities.  We’ll follow along as you plan your event, with tips and resources.

    Choosing a location

    Right now, you are probably just starting your event planning. One of the first steps in having an event for everyone is to make sure your venue is accessible.

    Start with a visit to the locations you are considering:

    • How will people get to the event? Provide information about parking.  Provide information about public transportation, too, because people with disabilities may not drive. Include how to find the correct entrance from the street or parking.
    • How will people get into the building? Check whether someone using a wheelchair or with other mobility issues use the main entrance, or do they have to find a special “handicapped” entrance? If the main entrance is not accessible, are there clear signs to point people in the right direction?
    • How will people find the meeting room?  Check the path from the entrance to the meeting area. Look for good wayfinding signs, clearly marked elevators, and Braille labels for elevators.  If the path is hard to find, plan to have good signs and volunteers placed at crossroads who can help direct people.
    • * Does the meeting area have facilities for people with disabilities? Check the restrooms near the meeting area and make sure they are accessible. If they are on a different floor or a long way away, check the wayfinding as you did with the building entrance, and plan now for how you will direct people.

    Resources for Event Planning

    The National Federation of the Blind has directions that include great instructions for someone coming to a new place for the first time. The details are tailored for the blind, but are helpful for everyone. A good model, covering driving, cabs, and public transportation.

    The ACM SIG-ACCESS Accessible Conference Guide covers all aspects of event planning, based on their experience running an annual conference for about 130 people that is attended by people with disabilities. In a typical year, there might be attendees who are blind, have low vision, are deaf or hard of hearing, use a power wheelchair or an electric scooter, have limited dexterity, and limited mobility. ASSETS strives to create an environment in which all attendees can participate and socialize together.

    As you might expect from lawyers, the Accessible Meetings Toolkit (pdf)  from the American Bar Association covers requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but they are relevant everywhere.


    Next in the series:  Captions for Video


    Researching Daily Life with Frances Harris

    Posted on


    A-Podcast-for-Everyone-iTunes-coverAccessibility is often focused on how to design and build digital products or physical spaces. But understanding the people with disabilities who will use those products is just as important. Enter ethnography and the importance of research that goes “face to face” with real people in the real world.

    Frances Harris is a medical anthropologist who works with people with disabilities to explore the social, economic, and political contexts of their lives. Her projects look at how to make people’s lives and working situations easier and more accessible.


    Transcript available.   Download file (mp3).   Duration: 32:52 (13.5MB)

    Frances joins Whitney Quesenbery for this episode of A Podcast for Everyone to talk about ways to understand the lives and how to design for people with disabilities. They talked about:

    • Conducting ethnographic research with people with disabilities
    • Understanding the complexity of people’s lives
    • The intersection of the outside observer and the inside perceptions
    • Privacy and independence and how they are perceived
    • Barriers to voting for people with disabilities

    Photo of Frances Harris
    Frances Harris is a medical anthropologist at Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access (CATEA). Her current work investigates how better assistive technology and workplace accommodations can affect health, activity and participation in social and work activities. She received her PhD from the New School for Social Research.

    Resources mentioned in this podcast

    A Podcast for Everyone is brought to you by UIERosenfeld MediaThe Paciello Group, and O’Reilly.

    Subscribe on iTunes  –   Follow @awebforeveryone   –   Podcast RSS feed (xml)


    Whitney Quesenbery: Hi, I’m Whitney Quesenbery, I’m co-author with Sarah Horton of “A Web For Everyone.” Today, I’m talking to Frances Harris. She’s a medical anthropologist, whose research focuses on people with disabilities. She’s part of an amazing team at CATEA. That’s the Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access at Georgia Tech.

    Hey, Frances, thanks so much for joining us.

    Frances Harris: Hi! It’s my pleasure.

    Whitney: Lovely to talk to you. We have so much to talk about, but I want to start by asking you about what it means to be someone with anthropological training in the work you do.

    Frances: Unlike traditional anthropologists, whose methodology has historically relied on participant observation, I work more as a qualitative researcher, which is a term that was coined, I think, back in the ’80s to distinguish researchers from quantitative researchers. It differs from anthropology, which is more grounded in theory and history.

    Qualitative research borrows research techniques from a variety of social sciences, including anthropology.

    As an anthropologist, working in disability, I do mostly semi-structured and open-ended interviews. The research questions of a particular project tend to guide the development of an interview script. The anthropology side of my research is in my interest in context — the social context, the economic and political.

    I don’t always get to use that data during an analysis, especially when I’m involved in a quantitative study, but it can set the stage for thinking about meaning. For example, what voting or disability has for different people. How they live their experiences as a person with disability, or as a voter, in the context of family, social relationships, work, politics, et cetera.

    Whitney: Do you think that it makes a difference when you’re interviewing someone that you’re in their context?

    Frances: Do you mean in person interviewing? Oh, yes!

    Whitney: Not just in person. Do you think it makes a difference when you’re interviewing someone, not just that you’re talking to them face-to-face, but that you’re actually going places to where they live or work?

    Frances: Oh, yes. That is closer to a traditional methodology of anthropologists, called “participant observation.” When you’re doing interviews and you’re getting to know somebody, the quality of the data you get is really only as good as your ability to establish a relationship with them. That’s much easier if you’re face-to-face, or if you’re actually in the place where they are. Observing and talking to them in the context of the activities of their daily life, or the activities that you actually want to examine.

    Whitney: So you’re getting more information than just what they say?

    Frances: Yes. One of the great things about participant observation is you can observe the differences between what people say they do, and what they in fact can be observed doing. I don’t mean to say that there’s some dissemblance or deceptiveness going on, but people’s meanings change. There can be a discrepancy between verbal reports and observed behavior for a lot of reasons.

    People may be a little fearful because of social or legal consequences. Memory is selective. People can repress certain aspects of their behavior that they may be embarrassed or reluctant to talk about.

    Whitney: I had a really good example of that recently. We were working with people who use screen readers, and watching them try to use a website. There were people who were very experienced with their tools and people who were new to their tools. One of the women…It was a little painful watching her work, because she really was still learning the tool, and she had to work very slowly.

    At the end of it, we were all like, “Oh!” I felt like I’d been mean to her by making her do all this work. She said, “Isn’t it wonderful that I can do this myself?” Because her vision was going. She could see the navigator on the screen, but not see well enough to read. She had this mix of navigating with the mouse, but also using the screen reader to read to her.

    To her, she had been a professional. She was losing her ability to read the screen. She thought her days of computing were over, and so her attitude was completely different than ours watching her.

    Frances: [laughs] It’s very interesting to see the complexity of people’s social lives. It’s difficult to envision, let alone to articulate what those complexities are, so the observer will see one thing and the person may be experiencing quite a different thing. That meaning is so important. It’s sort of the heart of anthropology and most social science research.

    Whitney: The meaning is in the intersection of this outside observer and the inside perceptions?

    Frances: Yes. In one sense it is, yes.

    Whitney: How did you get involved in working with people with disabilities as part of your study?

    Frances: [laughs] Actually, it’s kind of weird. I was an English major in college, for most of my college life. I took a survey course in anthropology and was instantly smitten, and changed my major on the spot. I got my PhD pretty late in life, and I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I read an ad in a paper that said, “We’re looking for a research assistant to work with people who use assistive technologies,” at an acute rehab hospital here in New York.

    I didn’t even know what assistive technology was, and I knew very little about disability, which was very undeveloped in anthropology at that time. They hired an anthropologist to work on a quantitative study. I had never taken statistics before, and knew very little about it.

    While I was doing the study, they were intrigued by the idea of an anthropologist and I was allowed to do some interviews. Those actually helped the quantitative part of the study. From then on, I just couldn’t stop reading about disability.

    Whitney: Tell me about some of the projects you work on at CATEA these days?

    Frances: One of the projects that we’re working on, or that I have worked on and still am, is looking at how people who use wheelchairs part time and use other mobility devices. How they integrate them into their everyday lives. Clinicians very often have to prescribe multiple technologies. Sometimes they don’t use their wheelchairs, and one of the reasons…They wanted to explore what those reasons were.

    I’ve been interviewing people at the VA in North Carolina, who live in very different kinds of circumstances. How they will use a walker, when and why, and switch to a cane. Then when do they use their wheelchair. This information is designed for clinicians, basically, to help them prescribe mobility devices with greater accuracy and give them the best care they can.

    I’m also working on a project that is looking at the universal design practices in workplaces. We’re developing two surveys. One for people with employees, to look at their sense of inclusion and participation in the workplace.

    Another survey is being developed for the employers or supervisors. We’re trying to look at the relation between accommodations, providing accommodations to a person with a disability, which is the more traditional way of addressing disability in the workplace, and the usefulness of universal design principles.

    Whitney: Let me unpick this a little bit. Give me an example of an accommodation?

    Frances: An accommodation might be a screen reader. It could be a voice-activated computer device that would help somebody who didn’t have the use of their hands. It could be an adjustable table that would allow a wheelchair to scoot underneath it. It’s usually in the form of a device, but it can also be an adjusted work schedule.

    It can be allowing someone to do telework from home on certain days. What it is, it’s an individual accommodation instead of creating an environment where everybody can work.

    Whitney: This is something that’s done specially for one person, as opposed to something that benefits everyone?

    Frances: Yes.

    Whitney: Give me an example of how one of those might be changed into a universal design approach.

    Frances: For example, for wheelchair users, hallways could be wide enough, desks could be at adjustable heights, doorways can be wide enough. Accessibility into a workplace, parking areas, and being able to maneuver into a building can be done so that they can enter the building with every other employee.

    The idea is to create a seamless environment, so that there’s little distinction between people with disabilities and people without disabilities.

    Whitney: If you have an adjustable height desk, that’s fine at your desk, but it means you can’t work at the conference table.

    Frances: Exactly.

    Whitney: I met you a few years ago. We’re going to indulge a little bit of my obsession with elections. I met you a few years ago when you did this really great study of the voting experience for people with disabilities. Full disclosure, I actually was the coordinator for this grant from the Elections Assistance Commission.

    One of the reasons I was so excited about this project was that most of the work trying to understand the voting experience of people with disabilities has been in quantitatively, through surveys and looking at census, and actually data. Your study was one of the few that really looked more deeply at the actual experience.

    Voting is such a private activity. How did you do the study?

    Frances: We recruited people from a number of places. We wanted to get a very wide range of voters with disabilities. All different disability types, from mobility to vision to hearing. We started recruiting from the CATEA consumer network at CATEA, which is a listserv, or a roster, of about a thousand people with disabilities who would like to participate in research.

    We also posted invitations to participate on community and disability listservs, also in dependent living centers. We used both interviews and observations. That was an especially fun study to do, because we did get to observe as well as to interview. We did those during the 2011 and 2012 elections.

    Whitney: What did you do? Go to the polling place with people?

    Frances: Yes. A researcher would either meet a subject, a voter, at the polling place, or they would travel with them. The voter would vote. The researcher was not allowed to assist, but they observed the voter’s interaction with voting machines, with poll workers, with the entire election polling place process. Then directly afterwards, they were interviewed about their experiences, which was very helpful.

    Whitney: What did you learn?

    Frances: [laughs] We learned a great deal. We interviewed about 50 people. When we looked at the data, we acquired a tremendous amount of data. We found three basic categories that people were concerned about and address in the interviews and in the observation of interviews.

    What was the social environment of polling places and that was dominated chiefly by co-workers. We look at the facilitators and barriers. What made it easier for people to participate in the voting process and what hindered them?

    Sometimes, the facilitators and the barriers were the same. For example, friendliness and courtesy was considered to be a great facilitator. A knowledge about voting procedures and technology was also considered to be a great facilitator. At the same time, the lack of knowledge about voting procedures of technologies was also cited as a chief barrier.

    A second thing that emerged was pre-election information about valid issues or location of polling sites, registration procedures, and how to use the voting machines.

    The primary barriers included to help you find information of candidates, the accessibility of the precincts and the voting machines, and inconsistent information where you get information from one source and from another source.

    The importance of the pre-election information was one of the things that made some voters want to vote absentee as opposed to go into the voting place.

    A third barrier that emerged was the physical environment of the polling places. This has been address probably more often in the literature. People look at the architectural and community factors. The accessibility of the polling place, its location compare to their home, was there sufficient space inside the polling place.

    Adequate signage and posters? Were voting booths set at the right position for somebody with the wheelchair? Those kinds of things.

    The level of detail about the physical environment was a very detailed list of things that could act everything from audio output to adequate and adjustable fact size. As I said, the physical environment was not just people’s mobility, disabilities but vision hearing, cognitive, manipulation.

    When we also analyse the data, it’s very interesting. We found four major things that emerge from the interviews and observation. One was the importance of sense of inclusion in the voting process. Most of the people that we interviewed tell a strong civic responsibility to vote and they also viewed it as one way for their voice to be heard and to change some of the political attitude towards people with disabilities.

    The other few things privacy, and independence and all of this are interconnected. Privacy, independence and stigma with the last three needs.

    Whitney: One of the questions I was wondering about and I love to ask you is, how does what you learn by deep diving into something like voting give you insights into broader daily experiences that we could use for other kinds of products we’re working on?

    Frances: I think elections are extension of many of the challenges of daily life for people with disabilities. To my knowledge, there’s been a little anthropological attention paid to them. Just like every other aspect whether it’s people’s workloads or family life, elections and daily activities reflect people’s attitudes and vice versa.

    This is how the meaning is created. Privacy can have very different and sometimes contested meanings in voting, for example. The location of voting votes was so much conscientious and interpreted differently.

    One voter like it when voting machines were segregated from voting machines for people without disabilities because it gave her quiet and that sense of isolation, gave her more time and more quiet and peaceful environment to voting.

    Somebody else felt that she was being segregated from other voters and that she was being excluded. She was concerned that her vote would not be counted. The same commendations to a person with disability can play out very different. Their meanings and interpretations, and their attitudes can vary.

    Whitney: One of the things I’m hearing is that we should be very careful not to treat people disabilities as though they’re one big user group that has all the same attitudes?

    Frances: Exactly. Privacy and independence are all very important things that they can be interpreted quite differently.

    Whitney: The other thing that I notice is talking to someone about a project who’d work on making bank machines accessible and they said one of the things that’s interesting is that it’s not like people with disabilities didn’t have cash before. They have a way to get cash and it takes awhile for them to transition to using a new solution because they need time to check it out.

    Trust that it’s going to be better than what they’ve been doing before so it’s not just making an accessible all. It’s making it a better experience than what you have before.

    Whitney: I want to turn to some practical questions because I know that the whole question of doing more ethnographic research really hot topic that you actually place, but often people don’t know how to get started. I want you to start by picking up on something you said about the voting project, which was you talk to 50 people. That’s a huge number of people.

    Frances: Yes. We have a staff of six. It wasn’t just me.

    Whitney: So you split that up in a number of people because one of the assumptions about ethnographic work is that it’s very small numbers. What I’m hearing is that it doesn’t have to be.

    Frances: No. If you have a large research staff, you can follow and interview and observe many, many more people. If it’s over a period of time, if you have a year to spend with people you can observe many more people. When people go into the field to do participant observation in the city or on a reservation, you’re usually observing and interviewing many, many people over that period of time.

    Whitney: Is this something that…Let’s say you run a UX department for a big product, is this something that you could do a little bit of the time over a longer period of time and just wrapped it into all your other work?

    Frances: That’s interesting. Yes, I think that would be possible. There needs to be certain continuity, that continuity that doesn’t have to be in terms of everyday. If you’re in a place, in a business place, where it’s a large population and you have other things to do, yes, you can integrate it. But you would still need to focus on those questions specific to that project.

    Whitney: If UX researchers want to include people with disabilities in their research, one of the things that everybody worries about is, “How do you get started?” Do you have practical advice, tips about recruiting or effective working styles that you can help people with?

    Frances: First of all, recruit from as many places as you can — disability organizations, hospitals, independent living centers, colleges. You can also use a technique called snowball sampling, which is you ask the people you got your interviewing or doing research with if they know somebody else who might be willing to talk.

    One of the reasons you want to do this is that many people who volunteer for research projects have a heighten consciousness and want to do something to improve their lives and the lives of others with disabilities.

    This is great, but you also need to find people who are more isolated and hidden, hard to find. They provide a greater range of information and insights than people who have a more heightened consciousness. Another reason you want to have a very wide range of subjects, as wide a range as you possibly can, is to establish a working relationship with the subjects.

    As a matter of fact, the word “subjects” is slightly contentions right now. I use them. I use that term in quantitative research. But in qualitative research, it’s not such a great term to use. Subjects reflect an inherently passive role in a research project. Researchers administer questionnaires that are designed by the research. They analyze results.

    They do lots of things that confirm the expertise of the researcher. But, in reality, subjects are the experts. They have the knowledge that we want to understand and use. The question that researchers and designers need to ask themselves is, “How do we find out what they know?” It’s as much an attitude towards research and people. It has implications for how we define our research goals.

    Whitney: I was about to say it sounds like a big shift in your attitude about your research. It shifts from the, “I am the person in the white coat studying things” to “I’m engaging with people as I work with them.”

    Frances: Exactly. There is something called — I don’t know how familiar people are — participatory action research, which is a research approach that became increasingly popular within disability studies. It looks at the researcher-subject relationship.

    Unlike the traditional research model, which pretty much renders a subject as a passive object of study, participatory action research proposes a collaborative relationship between the researcher and the subject. When it’s applied as a strategy, it really challenges researchers to adapt and incorporate subjects’ voices into their study design and methods.

    When you’re looking at, for example, designing ANDI user or research products, it’s useful to incorporate people with disabilities, their views, their identification of research questions, and problems, and goals right from the beginning. The research should be collaborative and iterative throughout the entire process.

    They can be included in developing the methods. You could do [inaudible 21:35] focus groups through interviewing and in project meetings so that their voices are consistently being heard throughout the process.

    Whitney: What you’re saying is that it’s not just that you sit back in your office, you think of a research question, and you think about how you are going to do it, but you actually build the research question through research?

    Frances: Right. That requires a working relationship with the people that supposedly you want to study or develop something for.

    Whitney: I’m sitting here looking at a sign in my office, a poster that says, “Design with, not for.” It comes out of the civic design movement. But I know one of the early mantras of the disability rights movement was “Nothing About Us Without Us.”

    Frances: Absolutely. People with disabilities had been studied by medical and health care workers for many, many years. The field of rehabilitation looks at disability primarily as a health, and medical, and functional problem. But disability is also defined socially.

    Whitney: Let me do this analogy. If I was working on a mobile device, a mobile app for instance, I might be interested in how someone manipulates the device, what do they click on, what do they tap on, how do they use it.

    But I also might be interested in when, where, and why they use it. That’s much harder to do by hauling someone into a research room and asking them questions. You get a much richer picture if you actually watch them using it. You’re hanging out with them at the mall and you see when they pull their phone out to do something.

    Frances: I think that there were some early studies on how people used computers. Observers went into the home and found out that computers were not being used just by individuals but by families, and all at once. That changed how computers were marketed, from what I understand, since early on.

    Whitney: One of the things that we’ve said a lot is that we need to build relationships. I know that a lot of UX research is done by recruiting through ads in newspapers or mailing lists and so on.

    But I’m hearing you say that, in order to do this deeper research, you need to get a little deeper, that is, you need to actually find the independent living center, and maybe go down and meet them, and put in a little groundwork upfront to build a relationship with a community.

    Frances: Yes. That’s absolutely essential, both from just pure social science research, but also for designing. Watching people work or do something in the context of their everyday activities is critical to understanding what they really want, what they’re really using it for, and what they need, how to make it better.

    Whitney: Is there a middle ground? One of the suggestions that I’ve heard is that, instead of bringing people to your office or to your research lab, you could go someplace. You could go to the LightHouse for the Blind, which has social centers, or you could go to an independent living center.

    You’re still not quite in their home environment, but you’re in an environment where they’re comfortable. Does that make a difference?

    Frances: Completely. As I said, you need to establish a relationship with people, and part of that is making them comfortable. As a researcher, you’re not going to be able to establish a great relationship with everybody.

    But one of the things you can do is to take them out for a cup of coffee or offer to meet them in a place that they’re the most comfortable in, and allow them, also, to guide the conversation to a degree.

    You’re coming in as a researcher desiring certain goals. But they have things they want to tell you. One of the most important things about establishing that relationship is learning how to listen.

    For example, in the voting project, when I was interviewing home workers at one time, they would say, “Oh, we don’t have any people with disabilities come to our polling place.” That’s because they were thinking of disability as a wheelchair, just somebody in a wheelchair, or somebody with a white cane.

    But then you would get them talking, and you would find out there was somebody there with a hearing aid or somebody who had recently come back from Afghanistan who was jumpy. These are the kinds of issues that you’ll get when you establish a relationship and get people talking.

    Whitney: One of the things that scares a lot of people about working with people with disabilities in their research is that they’re afraid they’ll say something wrong, or insult somebody, or just be hapless. Any tips?

    Frances: First of all, there is a disability etiquette. There’s plenty of information about that on the Internet, but I wouldn’t worry about that.

    People with disabilities value, from what they’ve told me, the effort to be courteous that they may make a mistake. But I think they’ve seen it all, and they’ve done it all. They appreciate the effort to be kind and courteous even if they make a specific mistake.

    Whitney: So be human?

    Frances: Yes, be human, be kind, offer help just as you would to anybody. Don’t be afraid of making a mistake.

    Whitney: Does it get easier?

    Frances: To not make a mistake? [laughs] Yes, because people will tell you. I think intuitively, when I first started talking to people who used wheelchairs all the time, I would sit down. I later found out that that was considered something courteous.

    But then I would watch people occasionally touch somebody’s wheelchair. You could see that it was as if somebody had touched their head or some part of their body. You realized that was a no-no, after a while.

    Whitney: You can think about what reactions you get and build on those?

    Frances: Yes.

    Whitney: You talked about how many different kinds of disability there are and how many different kinds of people with disabilities you’ve worked with. Do you have to adjust your research plan or how you actually conduct the research to accommodate different kinds of disability? How do we factor that in?

    Frances: I did a research project looking at how teleconferencing equipment was used for business meetings by people with cognitive disabilities. What was interesting is that we used teleconferencing as the basis for how we conducted the focus group.

    You were able to have people articulate why, their reactions, and the problems they were having using the equipment as you were actually asking them about what context they use, teleconferencing, and why they liked it and disliked it.

    I’ve worked mostly with people with mobility impairments. I have not worked with anybody with a vision or hearing impairments, but I have worked with mobility and cognitive. There is an overlap.

    With people with cognitive disabilities, there’s patience giving people time to process information in different ways. Yes, there are different ways of approaching, I would say, research with different types of disabilities.

    Whitney: So just as you need to approach each participant as a person, you need to adjust your own personal style to meet them?

    Frances: Yes, absolutely. Cognitive disabilities, for example, is a huge category. It can cover everything from autism to how people process knowledge, dyslexia. It’s useful if you have a sense about what their issues are. But otherwise, again, it’s just a matter of being patient, and giving people time, and asking them what they need.

    That’s another thing. We shouldn’t be afraid to ask people what they want, or, “What’s the best way to approach this research?” or, “This is what you want to do?”

    Whitney: After all, you’re hauling them in there to ask them a whole bunch of questions anyway.

    Frances: Exactly. [laughs] What makes them the most comfortable.

    Whitney: We’ve been talking a lot about how you do your work and why an anthropological approach or an ethnographic approach is so useful. Can you give me an example of how a designer might take all this information and where it might lead them in their design process?

    Frances: It allows the designer of research to see the unintended impact a meeting, a device, or a behavior, or a product may have in different context. You can observe how an idea can change or morph into an unintended use.

    There’s an expression that’s always been important to me. It was coined by William Gibson, who was sort of the elder statesman of cyberpunk. He wrote, “The street has its own uses for things.” One of the most obvious examples is the Internet itself.

    The Internet was originally conceived as the network for researchers to exchange scientific information. Instead, it’s become this rapid communications medium and a means of establishing non-geographical communities. It contained a lot of exploitable niches that are still being developed, but which were unintended by its original developers.

    Whitney: You can see hints of that. You can look at how somebody has done something just for themselves and think, “Wow, this something that could be a broader product.”

    Frances: Exactly. The point is when you’re observing a person’s behavior or interviewing them, you need to anticipate myriad ways in which an activity or device can be made useful or meaningful to a person.

    Whitney: That is a great way to end. Thank you so much for joining us, Frances. This was a wonderful conversation.

    Frances: It was my pleasure. Thank you.

    Whitney: To our listeners, we’ll be posting links to any of the projects or resources that we’ve discussed today. You can find them on the A Podcast for Everyone page on Rosenfeld Media and in the UIE All You Can Learn library.

    Thanks to you for listening in, and a special thanks to our sponsors, that’s UIE, Rosenfeld Media, the Paciello Group, and O’Reilly, for making this series happen. Be sure to follow us at A Web for Everyone on Twitter for information about future podcasts.