The video transcription has been created as a clean verbatim style transcript to provide a less distracting, and more valuable interview – without detracting anything meaningful from the original.
Nandita Gupta 0:02
Welcome to Shakti Collective, and I’m Nandita and today we have with us Dylan Fox, Dylan, would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself.
Yeah, hi everybody I’m Dylan, I am a UX designer and Researcher here in Oakland, California. I got my master’s in Masters of Information Management and Systems from the University of California Berkeley, where I did my master’s thesis on augmented reality and visually[unclear] trying to understand how we can use the HoloLens as the system device. And since then I’ve been working as a contractor on a number of different kind of AR and accessibility focused projects.
Nandita Gupta 0:42
That is so cool and that’s very exciting. Um, I remember seeing HoloLens as a student in undergrad, it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. And now you’ve seen how much that has evolved so that’s that’s so amazing. So how you describe accessibility in three words?
I would describe accessibility as usable by everyone. You know accessibility is about ensuring that everybody can use a tool or an application, regardless of their situation or ability. You know, not just talking about people with permanent disabilities, accessibility means that you’ve given people enough flexibility to be able to use your application with whatever physical and cognitive means they have at their disposal. That means they can use it with one hand, maybe because they have a motor disability or maybe because they’re holding an ice cream cone and the other hand right, they can use it without hearing, because maybe they’re deaf or maybe they’re a bartender and they can’t hear themselves think over the club music. They can use it without seeing, because maybe they’re blind, or maybe they prefer to have things read out loud because English is their second language and it’s easier to understand that way. It goes to mental resources as well you know people’s brains are wildly different and designing in ways that support multiple kinds of learning and interacting will help everybody neorodiversity and neurotypical alike. So, accessibility is is all of that.
Nandita Gupta 2:07
Absolutely. And so, can you tell us a little bit about why do you care about accessibility? Is there a story or is that something that happened or you know… just what makes that a passionate field for you?
Sure. umm so, I think I care about accessibility, because I came into UX design, which is user experience design originally, via engineering, and I got my mechanical engineering degree from Berkeley and kind of decided that thermodynamics wasn’t as fun it was cracked up to be. Cognitive engineering is much more interesting. Understanding how people think and learn and use tools, and how we can use that knowledge to create better tools for people. So I’ve always had this very kind of functional, rather than aesthetic approach to design, I want to make things that help people get their jobs done. And now good UX design is about recognizing what your users need and designing around that. For most of my career, that kind of just meant what my users were trying to do, you know, watch a video or check the status machine or what have you. But I’ve come to realize that, designing around needs also means designing around capabilities. If your users can’t use your application, it’s useless to them. And considering that one in four years adults have some sort of disability and it’s a lot of people that you know who you don’t take those people into account. You’re not going to be a great designer.
Nandita Gupta 3:36
For sure, for sure and, you know, coming back to you know like you started out in engineering and then you’re now in this field over when your time is there an aha moment, or I guess what was your first aha moment with accessibility?
Um, I would say my first kind of aha moment was when I was at the HCII conference in 2018, which the human computer interaction international to present a paper I had written on element selection in virtual reality, which was something that you know hopefully be useful to a lot of engineers and CAD artists trying to work in VR. And you know I saw some really cool presentations on how augmented and virtual reality could help people with disabilities, one on AR for real time subtitles plays, one for VR interview training for people with social anxiety disorders, and a couple of others. And it really kind of opened my eyes, this huge opportunity of here’s this technology that we’ve been really applying to all sorts of challenges, and both a, you know, we need to figure out how all these cool applications and engineering and medicine and training are going to work for folks with disabilities so that they can benefit from them too. And be you know this tech can do so much good for people who need help doing things that you know a lot of us able bodied folks take for granted. We just need to kind of put that thought and design into it to make that happen.
Nandita Gupta 5:00
That is amazing. Wow. Yeah, I’ve never been to HCII myself but that sounds very very exciting. And, you know, in terms of like I’m sure you’ve met so many other people as you know as you progressed in your career and all, is there…. I know it might be hard to pick one person but you know is there someone or you know a couple people that come to mind that you know may have had an influence on your accessibility professional career? What lessons do they teach you? Anything that comes to mind?
Yeah, I would say someone who’s been influential in my accessibility career is probably Lucy Greco, who’s the the web accessibility evangelist at Berkeley. I was doing my master’s thesis on augmented reality for visually impaired people. And not only did she take the time to kind of counsel our group on a ton of things for that project, she was willing to come over to South Hall and help test our cheeky prototype. And since we were all excited, it was really important to have blind folks into testing and feedback and we wanted to sign with blind people and not at them. I think people in her position have had to deal with a lot of kind of cocky designers and developers who think they’ve solved blindness, when they’ve really just made another kind of useless disability dongle. And the fact that she made time for us and supported us, and you know answering all those questions really helped us get on the right track for our project really made a big difference to me. So, yeah,thanks Lucy.
Nandita Gupta 6:27
That’s a wonderful Yeah, that’s wonderful. And can you tell us a little bit more about your work, your current work in you know how you find work maybe making an impact within digital accessibility?
Yeah, I’d say there’s two ways right now that I’ve been trying to push for accessibility. The first is project I mentioned earlier that I started my master’s degree. I’m trying to figure out how we can use augmented reality headsets like the HoloLens to help people with visual impairments, both navigate around unfamiliar environments and just get important information from their environment. You know that’s a project that’s still in the research phase, but I think figuring out how we can take these headsets of the just cram chock full of sensors and machine vision capabilities and all sorts of technology and putting that in service of people that don’t see well themselves it’s gonna be that’s gonna happen it’s gonna bear a lot of fruit in the future. So I’m happy to be pushing that that research forward. And then just.[coughs] ..
And another thing we are doing is working with a group called XR Access. XR Access is a community of people that are interested in supporting accessibility in XR, which you might have guessed from the name, but [coughs] I have been volunteering as application accessibility group lead there, and you know we’ve been really doing our best to understand both the state of accessibility from what’s been made so far. And just bringing all sorts of people in industry and academia to the table to make sure that’s what’s made the future is accessible.
Nandita Gupta 8:07
That’s sounds like a valuable experience umm both, like in the group and outside so that’s that’s pretty awesome! And so, you know, are there experiences like this or some others that have been beneficial to you as a designer as you’ve gained experience in accessibility?
Yeah, I think.. in terms of you know what experiences were beneficial for me, I would say that the biggest thing that I did was, when I decided to get interested in accessibility is to try to find and work with people with disabilities. You know when I got serious about accessibility.. one of the first things I did was started volunteering with a group called Lighthouse labs in San Francisco. Another group that’s a lot of blind folks with technology, community service, and just meeting a lot of the people there, volunteering with them, even just as [unclear] i was a bingo caller just meeting a bunch of learning the diversity of opinions and the practices in using tech that’s both aimed at people with disabilities and how people disabilities tried to use mainstream technology, and often how they’re treated is really second or third class citizens in the realm of technology. I think meeting those people that you’re going to be designing for is just really important. So you do your reading and you take some classes. [unclear] University makes really good classes, but I think going and actually making sure that you’ve really physically met and gotten to know some of the folks with disabilities that you want to design for is really vital.
Nandita Gupta 9:44
Yeah. And, you know, as you’ve had these volunteer experiences and other experiences. How have you requested support for your professional development for accessibility knowledge? You know, for those people who are starting to get interested are starting to request that support. What have you done or what are some ways in which people can do that?
Well I’ve mostly been doing independent contracting since getting my masters so I don’t really have an HR department that I can submit requests to. But, you know, joining a group like XR Access brought me closer to a really great community. Accessibility professionals and just reaching out to.. I’ve reached out to a number of them just one on one asking them how can I get better and accessibility and really almost every one of them has was really happy to meet with me and just give me advice and coordinate towards resources that I could use to get better.
Nandita Gupta 10:39
That’s wonderful. That’s wonderful! And in all of these learnings and all of these experiences, was something you learned that surprised you?
Um, yeah I think something that that really kind of took me by surprise is again just how often people with disabilities are treated as like second or third class citizens in tech. They’re not really considered part of the the minimum viable product. You get things like Twitter are taking years to include simple things like alt text for their images. It’s why a lot of blind folks have to turn off automatic updates on their devices because screen readers are constantly breaking because updates weren’t tested for screen reader compatibility before being shipped out. So you know I think that points were really important change for you to work for and tag to make sure that the voices of folks with disabilities are heard and ideally get more folks in disabilities actually working in tech. Because I guarantee you that no org with a blind CEO is going to launch an update that breaks screen readers. [laughter]
Nandita Gupta 11:38
For sure I know for sure.! And, you know, just to brag a little bit right but we want to be able to celebrate you so.. what is, um, what are some of your proudest accomplishments, or an accomplishment in accessibility?
Sure, I mean I’m still pretty new to accessibility so I don’t have too much I can brag about it just yet, but I would say that I’m proud that when we tested my master’s thesis project on augmented reality for visually impaired people. You know the blind folks we tested we said basically hey if you get this detector work out right, let’s get the hardware, you know, up to up to grade on kind of ergonomics and things… this could be really useful. And to me getting.. hearing that you know it’s just the kind of sweat and tears that we put into that project are worth it. You know that we’re onto something that could really make a difference to folks in the long run, and that you know we’re… that it’s something that is, is really potentially going to bear fruit in the future.
Nandita Gupta 12:35
Oh, for sure, for sure! It’s like how do you eat an elephant right .. one bite at a time. So, So know for sure that’s awesome. And so, as a designer… How do you build support for accessibility in your organization, or with other stakeholders?
Mhmm.. Yeah, I think there are a couple of ways I like to build support for accessibility with, you know, some of the more ambivalent stakeholders. And you know, the first is to emphasize the curb cut effect. So for folks that don’t know curb cuts are little ramps and sidewalks, that make it easier for wheelchair users to get around town. Well the curb cut effect, basically says that those curb cuts may have been put in place for wheelchair users, but they also made life easier for bicyclists and people walking at strollers and people rolling dollies skateboarders and this and that and the other. And it basically says that making something better for people with disabilities will but almost every time make it better for all of their users. So that’s, I think that’s one thing and then the second is to remind the stakeholders that you know business case, and the legal case for accessibility. You know there are a lot of institutions that legally can’t purchase technology that isn’t accessible. And what’s more… accessibility in the US tends to move forward one lawsuit at a time. People suing places for violating the ADA is really the number one way that things get enforced. So if you don’t want to be the one featured in that lawsuit, we just make it accessible from the start, because it’s way easier and cheaper than retrofitting it after the fact.
Nandita Gupta 14:13
Right, so just do it from day one… from day one. Absolutely! And so, um, you know, switching gears a little bit. I know sometimes this can be viewed differently so I’m just curious to hear from you… that for you. What is the difference between inclusive design and accessibility?
Yeah, I think they’re they’re inclusive design and accessibility, they’re very closely related. But I would say that inclusive design is really a broader design methodology that incorporates the techniques of accessibility. So for example, in half life Alex, which is this blockbuster VR game, they have this technique where you can pick up things from far away with a flick of the controller with gravity gloves. Now that’s a good example of inclusive design, because it’s fun and convenient for everybody… and it means that people who can’t, you know, bend over to pick something up off the ground, can still use it. By comparison, you know something like say screen reader functionality is generally something that’s more specific to accessibility, it’s something that might be, you know, totally invisible to most users of an application, but absolutely vital for the people that need it for that app to function. But even with that said, keeping screenreader users in mind is going to be a part of acoustic design as well.
Nandita Gupta 15:37
Absolutely! Yeah, that makes sense and I hate bending down, picking up stuff so I would totally myself.. use it.
Yes, it’s rad.
Nandita Gupta 15:48
Yup! For sure, I need to try that out. And so, in terms of you know we’ve all had our fair share of mountains to climb and challenges to face. So, you know, for you, you know from your thought process…. What is the greatest challenge you think we face in making accessibility, more of a common everyday practice in tech, you know where it isn’t something special right? Can we just make it more common for everyone?
Yeah, I think the big challenge we face in making accessibility more of an everyday practice in the tech industry is just the fact that there are so few people with disabilities, working in the tech industry. You know tech companies really need to hire more people with disabilities and incorporate them into the actual design and development and testing of these tech, or else we’re kind of always just be playing catch up where you release something, you find out it wasn’t accessible and you have to kind of come and reel it back in and fix it. And you know maybe that means investing in like making say your, your applications into a web screen reader accessible, or adjusting your performance review metrics to take into account, more neurodiverse people. But if you have people, even your company, especially on the design team flagging accessibility issues and keeping disability top of mind. You’re really going to have much better results than if you’re just trying to fix it after release.
Nandita Gupta 17:16
Right. Right, absolutely just bake it into the process! And so thinking about that you know from the designers’ perspective like things that they could bake in from the, you know, from day one. What do you wish every designer knew about accessibility?
Um, I would say one thing that I wish more designers know about is the importance of designing for keyboard accessibility, specifically being able to use the tab key to shift focus throughout an experience, because that’s, that’s really important for users that are blind or have motor disabilities. And it’s important to consider design, because it fundamentally shifts. The way you interact with an app from a 2D experience to 1D experience where instead of kind of viewing things all over the screen and being able to click on any of them… you’re going you’re going past every item in a row one at a time. And so, placing elements, so that it’s clear where focus will move on and validating that your app can be used that way, is something that I think takes a lot of design skill and yet it’s a challenge that that isn’t even on a lot of people’s radar.
Nandita Gupta 18:31
And I guess that also changes you know you talked about keyboard focus. I guess it also changes based on the format. So you know, how do you think accessibility is different for you know more of the established formats like web versus mobile or more of the expense and mental ones like XR VR, you know things you’ve talked about?
Yeah, and I think trying to establish accessibility and a really rapidly changing format like XR is very different from accessibility established formats. First, you know, you don’t necessarily know how to apply standard patterns in these new formats, you know take captions for example, if you’re in XR. You can’t just put them at the bottom of the screen and call it done, you know, the person who’s speaking might be behind the user, you know, how do you indicate if the captions are floating in space, how do you make sure they don’t get obscured by other objects in a way that doesn’t create weird depth perception nonsense. And how do you even start to use keyboard navigation in a 3D environment, right like taking it from from 2D to 1D is hard enough.. taking it from 3D to 1D is more difficult. I think that’s, that’s part of it. Second, you know there’s there’s entirely new kinds of challenges. You know, for example we’re still developing techniques to minimize motion sickness and motion controls, just require this whole new language of accessibility techniques in groups like walk in VR and working really hard on that. And then finally, I’d say, you know, any new technology. I think there’s, there’s just this kind of social challenge of getting people to care about accessibility. You know new tech is so often defined by what it can do at first… It’s all about being first to market with a particular solution. No matter how it kind of rough around the edges it is… good design and by extension accessibility, often only comes into play, once there are like a dozen apps that can do the what, and so the how becomes the distinguishing factor. So I think that’s something that’s hard to change but I think something we can do in the release is insist on accessibility as being part of that minimum viable product.
Nandita Gupta 20:41
Absolutely. And you know the idea of like you said get people to care about accessibility right like have them, think about that from day one. How do you change people’s minds and hearts about accessibility?
You know it’s it’s really challenging, but I think that the most important thing when it comes to changing people’s hearts and minds, is to remind them that accessibility isn’t just for somebody else some person in a wheelchair, you don’t know you don’t have to think about accessibility is about them and their family and friends, being able to use technology. You know, it’s about the grandparents being able to order meds even when their eyesight is worsening. It’s about their kid being able to do homework even when their arm isn’t a cast after they broken soccer practice. It’s about them themselves being able to watch Netflix with captions after a long day because they don’t want to wake their partner. So accessibility isn’t for somebody else it’s for all of us.
Nandita Gupta 21:38
It is for all of us.. absolutely! And even talking to so many amazing people in this field who’ve done so much amazing work, including you! How do you view this “expert” in accessibility like what does the expert in accessibility mean to you?
I mean I think every designer and developer and tester should at the very least, acquainted with accessibility. But I think being an expert, which is something I would encourage anybody who’s interested to try to become. It means going beyond the circumstances of just your application, and trying to understand how to apply accessibility to a really wide variety of situations. It means constantly learning about new technologies and understanding how to make them accessible. It means listening to the disabled community and understanding the challenges they face and finding a way to push the envelope and make new things accessible that never before.
Nandita Gupta 22:35
For sure, for sure! And there’s so much amazing work going on in the space and, you know, just to hear your thoughts on what is the future of accessibility look like, you know, 10 years or 20 years? What is the amazing future look like to you?
Yeah, I mean I would love to see accessibility become the kind of expected standard [coughs] , excuse me, just in the same way that you know mobile first and responsive design has… I think a lot of applications are becoming kind of more and more device agnostic right like I can access Twitter on my phone on my tablet on my desktop on my Xbox, I could tweet from my frickin fridge like whatever. So we can figure out a way to do that for accessibility in a way that still preserves privacy. I really like to see you get the same thing, not forcing users to kind of stumble around through settings menus every time they do the same thing on a new platform. And then of course also you know specifically with regards to XR. I would love to see the next generation of XR devices come with accessibility built in. Right? Right now you have to get this if you’re blind you have to get a sighted person to help you unbox and set up a headset and features like, you know, captions and screen readers are just so either lacking or just wildly different and every app would be great to have those kind of served by Universal API’s and packages… instead of having to have every single person kind of hack it together separately. You know I really hope that everyone will be able to make use of these really cool new technologies that keep revolutionising them more!
Nandita Gupta 24:10
For sure. Yes, that sounds amazing! Um, and to get at the future, I guess, to achieve that future I think we all are going to have to get together and do this. So, what advice would you give to others who are thinking about becoming involved within digital accessibility?
yeah I mean I would say to anybody who’s thinking about becoming involved with digital accessibility Just do it! You know, at the bare minimum is going to make you a better designer. Because accessibility should really be part of every design development curriculum, even if it’s even if it’s not the primary focus of your role it definitely won’t hurt to learn I guarantee it.
Nandita Gupta 24:51
Absolutely. And so it’s as parting advice you know for others who may be even getting started or may not know at all what accessibility is, what is that one thing right? like it could be a smallest thing like you mentioned, you know, Twitter adding alt text finally right? But something as simple as “Hey you can start adding alt text to social media”, but is there like this one thing they can tell another designer or someone else that they can go do to achieve accessibility in their day to day work?
Yeah, I mean there’s a million good resources on this right like the Microsoft inclusive toolkit has a bunch so reading those is great but I’d say if you’re looking for something. [coughs] Excuse me, You could do in like the next 10 seconds. Go on your phone right now and just try turning on a screen reader and like voiceover or talkback, and then go and try to start, use your favorite apps. See if you can do with your eyes. Just getting familiar with the accessible already on your phone and computer. Understanding how people are going to be interpreting and experiencing those applications. I think that’ll immediately help you design for accessibility.
Nandita Gupta 26:10
It will also help.. like you said you know help build that empathy so someone can understand. This is how someone uses it. Absolutely! Well, thank you so much to learn, thank you so much for your time!
Absolutely. Thanks for having me Nandita!