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. Total time ~30 minutes.
Nandita Gupta 0:02
Hi everyone I’m Nandita, and welcome to the Shakti Collective. We’ve got with us, Erica here today! Erica, would you please like to introduce yourself?
Thank you for having me. My name is Erica Ellis, pronouns are she and her, located in Boulder Colorado and I currently work at Workday, enterprise HR and financial software and I am the lead inclusive designer there.
Nandita Gupta 0:27
That’s awesome. And so if you have to describe accessibility and I know you mentioned inclusive design, so if you have to describe inclusive design in three words, what would you say?
[laughs] I don’t think there’s any way to describe inclusive design in three words. Um, but for accessibility, I would just say ability to access, which I know in itself is incredibly broad inclusive design is much harder to shrink down into three words.
Nandita Gupta 0:59
I completely agree… and so thinking about, you know, why you care about inclusive design and why you care about accessibility. Is that story or is there any particular reason like you know that drives your passion in that field?
Yeah, I mean there’s, there’s so many things. To be honest, but I can track back to when I was growing up, my great grandmother, who was lucky enough to have around all the way into college, which is incredible. But she was stuck and she’d become deaf later in life so she would read lips. But my first understanding of disability.. my first understanding of assistive technology was through her, and the things that she would interact with on a day to day basis, and just the power that assistive tech can bring like I remember like not only to her, someone who has a disability but like to me and my family when we first got a TDD which is what you use to like you actually connected, the physical phone to this machine and typed into it. But then I could talk to my great grandmother whenever I wanted to, which was something that I could do before. So, those with disabilities but it helps those who love people with disabilities and really everybody so that was really impactful for me.
Nandita Gupta 2:20
I love that. And so, what was your first aha moment with accessibility?
Oh man. Um, I don’t know that there’s like one moment, but I think over time. Just the realization that accessibility, truly, truly enables everyone to interact with experiences products, what have you better than they could previously. So the fact that it’s not limited to just improving the experience for folks with disabilities but everybody.
Nandita Gupta 2:59
That makes sense. Absolutely. And so, you know, during the course of your journey and career umm.. is that someone and I know it might be hard to nail one person down but you know someone or a couple people who have had that influence on your accessibility professional career … um, what kind of lessons did they teach you?
Oh my goodness! Um, so I really started my deep dive into accessibility here at Workday so a lot of the big influences and accessibility for me have been a part of the teams that I’m still working with, and like when I started at Workday and my accessibility journey here was very like high level I was like, I know that this one thing is not accessible color contrast I was a designer before, I’m still a designer right color contrast is a pretty basic entry for designers to get into accessibility. So that was my, my entry point and then I like got connected with her accessibility team which at the time was very tiny, and I just started learning and learning and absorbing and they kept bringing me in to more and more meetings and more and more interactions and then the team started growing the accessibility team is like I think 30 people now, which is pretty solid and everyone that they’ve brought on is just so incredibly intelligent and passionate and it’s just a constant absorbance of information from them.
Nandita Gupta 4:21
That’s incredible. And it sounds like you’re obviously surrounded by all these amazing people that you know, influence each other and really keep that energy going so that’s, that sounds pretty incredible. And so thinking about you know what keeps that energy going for you? You know what keeps you inspired to continue working in the space?
Umm… people. [laughs]. I know that really like general answer, and when I graduated from college. I graduated from like graphic design so very heavily visually design focused and started my first job in like UI/ UX, and I had this co worker who’s like, sort of like a tagline her practice was ‘Design for people’. And that just resonated so wholeheartedly with me. And I think that’s what’s really driven me into accessibility and inclusive design is that people have the right to access experiences equitably. And I want to be a part of creating that reality, you know I’ve been a bit of an activist, environmental justice social justice. So all of these things tie very deeply together, and, you know, I want to do my part to create equity in the world, which is a big lofty goal, but baby steps [laugh]
Nandita Gupta 5:46
I love that! And so thinking about you know getting to that goal and those baby steps. How ar… can you share some of your impact and you know the work that you’re doing right now as inclusive design lead at workday?
Yeah. Um, so like I said this journey at workday specifically started a little while ago. And then last year in October so October 2019 myself and then another designer that I’ve been working on this side hustle with pitched it as a full time job. So in May this year 2020 we actually formed a team small but mighty. Just like the accessibility team started here. So we have two full time people dedicated to inclusive design. And so it’s it’s awesome to be a part of a culture that not only enables you to like, you know, pursue these passions as a side hustle to your full time job but also allows you to really shift the paradigm of your full time work and what you’re dedicated to, and what the company should be paying attention to. And so I think that’s really inspiring is is having the opportunity to be able to do the work.
Nandita Gupta 6:56
That’s pretty amazing! And so thinking about the experiences that have led up to this point right where it almost sounds like this wasn’t what you walked into, but it’s like that roll just got icreated right.. and now magic is happening, what experiences do you think thinking back, were very beneficial to you for really getting to this point and you know gaining experience and accessibility?
Yeah, I’m digging in! Really like no one…. this wasn’t an opportunity that was out there.. it was an opportunity that we created. Finding the right people to talk to, you know, following that curiosity that you know spark of passion that you have, I think, is just incredibly important. And I always talk about like asking for forgiveness instead of permission which, depending on what you’re doing is a good idea, but for us it really worked out to our benefit right we became an asset to a team that we weren’t dedicated to and they became our champions as well. And we were showing an impact even though this wasn’t a part of our day job. And we showed so much of an impact. And so much of a need for people in this space that our leadership, couldn’t say no, I mean, they were inspired to be a part of it too. They were huge advocates for it as well, our design leadership, so we’ve proven, the value, our passion, And really the the necessary impacts that was left to create, right.
Nandita Gupta 8:30
That makes sense. And so thinking about moving forward right but as a team or even as a company, how are you building support for accessibility in your overall organization? Because it sounds like you’ve already got it on your team you know teams or teams already an advocate but moving that outward.. How are y’all.. . What are y’all doing to build support?
Totally, yeah I mean we have an accessibility team of around 30 people and inclusive design team of two people. The entire company is, you know, over 10,000 people strong so when you think of those numbers as ratios it’s kind of a drop in the bucket at that point, and even our UX work is. Gosh, I think over 200 people now so we have a lot of people to influence. And we’re just a tiny, tiny little team in there. So we really focus around awareness and education. A lot of what we propose, especially with our team and the mission and the vision of our team is that this is everyone’s responsibility, like, yes, we are this inclusive design team but it is not our job to make every single thing that we put out inclusive. Because that’s impossible! 2 people can’t do that! That’s wildly unrealistic. So we really need to figure out how to enable and how to educate the rest of the people in our UX or the rest of the people in the company on how these practices work and what they need to be doing to incorporate those practices into their day to day jobs. It’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure what we build is accessible and what we build is inclusive.
Nandita Gupta 10:11
That makes sense. That makes sense like everyone has to do their part for this to really work like it can’t just fall down on like you said two people so. Absolutely! So thinking about that right thinking about some of the moments that you’re like okay this is what keeps me going. What are some of what is your proudest accomplishment in accessibility? I know you we have multiple ones but if you want to share a couple. This is the moment that you know I’m really proud of some of the work I’ve done what comes to mind?
Honestly, I think it’s the formation of the team. Ummm , you know, it wasn’t anything that anyone was talking about previously it you know wasn’t something that was really being talked about very often like of course it would come up like busy for it, but, um, you know, my coworker Emma and I we we did the research right we talked to stakeholders we surveyed our entire US population. And we, we did the work to determine what exactly was needed to solve the problem that our products weren’t being designed inclusively like yes we had this idea that maybe the solution was this team, but we went in, like knowing that this problem existed, did the research to figure out what was the best solution for it, and it did end up being his team. But we, you know, processed a bunch of other different solutions as well. And so I’m really proud of the work that we did to actually get us here into this team, and assessing that problem right we’re designers for researchers like of course that’s what we do.
Nandita Gupta 11:45
No, that’s wonderful! And so, in this process, even in your other areas of learning about accessibility and inclusive design was something that you learned that surprised you or really took you by surprise, and oh my gosh I didn’t really see this coming!
Ummmm.. what did take me by surprise? I think there are couple things in the research that we did for the team so we asked people, how do you define accessibility and how do you define inclusive design? And I was surprised by both answers, which now is not surprising to me anymore. But for accessibility like the general consensus of fabric was access, like I defined it at the beginning of this- the ability to access, I was much more expecting it to be focused around disability or around compliance right because those are the tangible pieces of accessibility. So it was, it was very like a good surprise to see people really thinking about it as this broader ability to access. And then inclusive design. It was, it was really this gray area, like it was beyond accessibility and people understood that. Right. But no one could really do find it in a way. And I think holistically our research showed that it is this bigger gray area people like understand the concept of exclusion right like that’s not complicated but when it comes to inclusive design and how to implement it, how did it work. That’s where there was this really big gray area, which is really what you know we as a team are trying to, to work out now.
Nandita Gupta 13:32
That makes sense. And so thinking about the differences for you, you know, how do you define… what’s the difference between inclusive design and accessibility?
Yeah. And so accessibility is definitely part of inclusive design. Me, and I always try to think of it as like this spectrum right.. accessibility is a little more tangible, people have a more concrete idea about what it is. And then on the other side is inclusive design, where it can literally mean anything. Right. So like the gray area is completely understandable. Right. So accessibility like yes we do focus on disability, and the ability to access something, but how we’re starting to define inclusive design is really around, equity, so it’s not good enough to just access like you need to have an equitable experience, it needs to. We always talk about it in sort of a forms of the negative of like the consequences of what could happen right so if it’s not designed exclusively. It could be a inequitable, it could harm certain populations, it could dehumanize. So we really want to build around equity and dignity, dignity and our product which is that step beyond accessibility, and we’re dealing with gender, race, ethnicity, age, gender, you know, all sorts of different things just lived experiences different perceptions when it comes to inclusive design so that makes sense.
Nandita Gupta 15:02
That makes sense. But, thinking about the process because it does sound like you obviously had to put in a lot of efforts to get to this point… For you, what’s the most frustrating thing you faced in your career with accessibility?
Ummm.. I think the most frustrating thing is that we’re not all there yet. I think it’s…and obviously like accessibility has been a thing for a very long time, people have been fighting this battle for years and years and years. And it is gaining that mainstream support or like of course we need to be accessible, but there are there are still people who don’t quite get it yet, you know, and to no fault of their own really right like there’s not enough education around it there’s not enough exposure. And again, that’s a huge part that we’re working on at WorkDay, is the ability to educate and create this awareness and have resources. Sometimes we talked about how accessibility in itself is not accessible, because it’s complicated the compliance of everything and with tags and like all this stuff it can be really overwhelming. If you don’t have, you know, someone to kind of guide us through it. So, making all of these different concepts and processes around accessibility and inclusive design accessible is really important.
Nandita Gupta 16:25
I completely agree, and like thinking about you know you mentioned how accessibility itself has changed over time for you and even based on your observations. How has your concept of accessibility work changed throughout your career?
I’m going to have to admit this. So, like I said before I. My degree is in graphic design. Print designed to be completely honest, so. Yeah, I mean I was, I was very much a visual designer when early in my career and it’s taken me a while to to jump the hurdle of accessibility will make my designs, ugly, verses that actually not be true whatsoever. So, visual designers like we get stuck in the aesthetics of it and we love you know grays and light grays and gray text and like all these like things that are very focused on being visually appealing to us on our retina Mac screens. When the reality is that most of the users of whatever it is we’re creating probably won’t be on that right, unless they’re on you know, an iOS device, but like the resolutions of screens are gonna be vastly different and just because it’s beautiful to me, doesn’t mean it’s beautiful to someone else, and more importantly the beauty and aesthetics of it. It’s not going to be usable. If it’s not usable it doesn’t really matter it’s pretty!
Nandita Gupta 17:56
Right! Absolutely. And so thinking about that. Even for other people, you know you mentioned, education is a very important piece of this, you know as you learn more or more. Those people.. umm You know who are trying to maybe even stand up accessibility in their organizations, or do something similar… What advice do you give to them so they can be more effective change agents, or accessibility?
Do whatever you can. It’s, it’s hard to get a foothold sometimes, you know like, you know, when we started out like we had no influence we were just you know too many product designers in this UX org that had no background in accessibility or anything like that. So we started educating ourselves we started bringing it up in conversations. So just the little bit that you can start getting a foothold start doing it, you’ll have to be an expert and I think that’s probably the biggest thing that’s that’s hard to overcome, right, like, I’m not an expert in accessibility I’m still not an expert in accessibility. You don’t have accessibility certifications. But in the grand scheme of things, you probably no more than a lot of the people around you, and you have the ability to at least ask the right questions to start the conversation around accessibility. And, you know, educate yourself read more like sometimes I would be in a design critique, like, Oh, I just read this thing that says you know how you’re approaching solving this problem is that really the most accessible solution. I’m going to share that article with you so that you can read it to like let’s talk about it. And it’s important not to be like, Oh, that’s not accessible. You know that’s not accessible for someone to, to start being open to the fact that, you know what they’re doing, may not be the best solution being like, I’m not an expert but I read this thing like, let’s have a conversation about it.
Nandita Gupta 19:57
That makes sense. And so, you talked about this concept of an expert, what does an expert and accessibility mean to you?
[laughs] I don’t think I’m the right person to ask this question, um, one thing that I absolutely love about the, the team that I work with our day is, you know, like I said, like I have imposter syndrome I don’t consider myself an accessibility expert, but like our accessibility team our accessibility SMEs are very much like no you are an SME like you are a subject matter expert and accessibility, they are constantly saying you know a lot more than you think you do and you know a lot more than the people around you do about accessibility. Um, so I think it’s, it’s just a matter of perception on who is or isn’t an expert. Yeah, I don’t really have a good answer to that question.
Nandita Gupta 20:50
It’s very different like I think for me, it’s always a gray area too. Cause’ it’s interesting, I feel like you are an expert in your own experiences so you can share those, but it’s like a skill you know I look at it it’s not, I guess as a EE.. as electrical engineer. It’s not digital right, it’s more analog, so it’s not a zero or a one it’s more like on a scale and as you gain more experience I feel you can gain more expertise, but I don’t think you ever get that, that’s just me, but that is so interesting to hear different perspectives on that so thank you for sharing that.
I love that!
Nandita Gupta 21:30
This is my little EE hat in the back of my head somewhere.[laughter] And then we mentioned that you know your’re are really been working on that education piece right really working on building that knowledge, and I love how you brought up the fact about even building that safe space in your organization right when no one feels attacked by the accessibility police “Hey, you’re doing that. Right. Don’t do this.” What are some other things that you know you and your team do and you know with you and your current role as the leader work in how do you work with other people to really achieve that accessibility in your processes and products?
And so one thing that we do and this is broader than just accessible and inclusive design at work day, every week we have what we call design clinics, so it’s opened up to absolutely anyone. So we have, we have quite a few teams that actually don’t have UX support because we’re, we’re just don’t have the right ratios to support all the teams that work day. And as well for people who do have UX support or UX people come all the time I’ve signed up for design clinic myself. And so design clinic where we have experts, right from mobile content strategy accessibility inclusive design interaction design, visual design and canvas, which is our design system, and it staffed for two hours a week, you can sign up for slots and you can come get feedback. And so that’s a really great way, because not only are you like opening up like every single type of UX practice. It’s just it’s always there and always available for people to get those types of interactions, which is really great. Another thing that we’re doing, or trying to work on some of the processes that we have in place so that we’re actually putting a little more onus on two teams to take responsibility of the accessibility versus like it being the accessibility team or the inclusive design teams responsibility. Um, and then another thing is we’re building, education and to our OKRs, our objectives and key results. And like the accessibility team has put together this amazing just like intro to accessibility and workday products like this really basic 101. But it’s really accessible, and so for the UX org This quarter. Everyone in the UX cohors or UX org needed to watch that course it was 20 minutes, it’s on demand, watch it whenever you want. So it’s a very like low bar, but it’s that step to getting everyone on the same page as to what accessibility is and what we’re doing about it at work day. And we have sort of a second level course to that which is designing for accessibility. So next quarter we’re going to start building upon that and getting people to do that. And it is, it’s measured as part of our work success.
Nandita Gupta 24:20
I love that, that’s exciting because you’re building it into your metrics. And so it turns into an expectation as well, so that’s that’s amazing that’s really amazing. And that really brings me to my next question about how do we change people’s minds and hearts about accessibility?
That’s a great question! And, and it’s it’s kind of hard to answer, right, like, I think the simple answer is that you have to build empathy, but that can look, a ton of different ways. I think there has to be an awareness of it to be bandwidth, and the impact of it beyond people with disability, we have to start thinking about accessibility as an edge case or as right like what is the one fifth of users. It needs to be something that when we talk about it it is to improve the experience for everybody because, I mean, that’s the truth of it anyways. And then, you know, as we talked about earlier right it has to be. It has to be part of the safe space. And I think, especially when it comes to inclusion and conversations around gender and race and identity and all of these things. There has to be room to make mistakes, there has to be room to learn. You can’t be expected to get everything right, immediately. And it’s hard because you have to build trust between like you and the other, but also within the company’s culture or whatever organization you’re a part of, in that culture there has to be a safe space and room room to fail room to make mistakes room to grow.
Nandita Gupta 26:07
I completely agree and that’s very beautifully put! I really love the concept of building that safe space and, you know, extending that out to the broader industry and again as someone who jumped into this field full time you know just a year ago. There’s so many barriers, even just within accessibility. And I know you kind of touched on that we need to make accessibility more accessible. So as you are thinking about that… how can we be more inclusive, with an accessibility itself?
Ah, cool, so you could go a couple different ways. Um, I think part of it is ensuring that everyone knows that it’s their responsibility to make things accessible I think that’s being more inclusive right it’s not just the accessibility team but like everyone needs to play their part, all the time, right, it needs to be continuous in the product development lifecycle. Um, and the other way, I think, is we need to broaden our definition of disability right because most times, people who are you know in the accessibility field they’re like oh it’s well if you’re deaf or you’re blind or have low vision or you have a mobility disability. And like, yes, yes those those are true, but those are all permanent disabilities and, and Microsoft is some amazing work and really broadening the category of disability temporal and situational, and I think that that’s really important as well. And then it’s easy for us to not ignore forget but not necessarily include like cognitive disabilities. Right. They’re hard to understand sometimes they’re, you know, a little more abstract than we’re used to and figuring out how to make software, inclusive and accessible for cognitive disabilities is certainly a challenge, but even in that field like thinking about anxiety or depression or, you know these mental health issues that so many people are facing especially right now like who doesn’t have anxiety or a little bit of depression right now I mean it’s 2020. [laughs] So making sure that we’re cognizant of all of that, and how that’s going to impact interact with software within physical products just in any type of experience that we’re creating for people.
Nandita Gupta 28:36
Absolutely! And like you’ve mentioned you know there’s so many disabilities that are invisible so you know you never know what someone’s really going through so that’s so true. And you know what advice would you really give to people who are thinking about jumping in and getting involved within digital accessibility?
Do it!!! [Laughs] Very short answer just do it! Um, yeah. Jump in start reading start learning start reaching out to people, I mean the coolest thing about this part of the industry is like everyone is awesome. Not that everyone’s awesome elsewhere but, like, we are focused. Our work is to be inclusive right our work is to make things accessible so one thing that I’ve noticed is just that most people in this field are like just so willing to have conversations with you to answer questions to point you in the right direction. And there’s a lot to learn so try not to get overwhelmed, so that would be the other thing.
Nandita Gupta 29:39
I love that. Thank you. And so thinking about, you know, one bite at a time right like what is that one thing that you can tell someone that they could go through today, to really think about accessibility and achieve accessibility in the short term, could be something as simple as you know I remember, finding someone the other day is like, hey you know you’re posting all these LinkedIn posts for the organization we’re working on but can you ensure that we add alt – text and that can make it more accessible for screen reader users. It’s really minor, but it can make a difference in someone’s user experience. So what is one thing that you could tell someone that they could go to today?
Yeah. So, I would say, social media is a huge thing, right. And most hashtags are all lowercase. Don’t do that. I say stop doing all lowercase hashtags because it, it reads out as like gobbledygook on screen readers, so capitalize the first letter of every single word and then that hashtag will actually be read out as a statement as you intended to be read for folks to screen readers I think it’s super simple, and a really great way to start building a more inclusive more accessible community right because a lot of us are all interacting on the internet right now because we can’t meet face to face.
Nandita Gupta 30:55
Absolutely. I love that. Thank you. Thank you so much.