Accessibility in design.
Reginé Gilbert is a user experience designer, educator, and international public speaker with over 10 years of experience working in the technology arena. She has a strong belief in making the world a more accessible place—one that starts and ends with the user.
- Reginé Gilbert
- Jul 07 2021
Tom: Hello, and welcome to episode three of the make things better podcast, today, I have Reginé Gilbert on the show. So welcome to the show. Thanks for coming on. Do you want to start off by telling us a little bit about yourself and your background?
Reginé Gilbert: Yeah, thanks. I’m happy to be here. So I’ll just start with where I am currently. I am currently a industry assistant professor at New York university, and I teach user experience design as well as assistive technology courses. Previous to being at NYU, I had my own consulting business, ‘Gilbert Consulting Group’ working with businesses big and small. I worked on the corporate side of user experience design primarily in e-commerce and before I was into design, I was a product manager, a project manager, a business analyst. And I first started out my first job, like, you know, real, real job in New York city as a fashion designer.
Tom: Okay. That’s awesome. It’s so cool that you live in New York, so far, we’ve only had UK guests on. So it does make a nice difference. So can you tell us a little bit about how you managed to get into accessibility in the user experience design world?
Reginé Gilbert: Yeah, so I took a user experience course at general assembly in New York. And during the time of the course, I remember there was one slide about accessibility and it kind of piqued my interest, but I didn’t think anything of it. And then like a year later I woke up and I was like, I don’t know. I want to make the world a more accessible place. I don’t even know what that means. So I’m like Googling accessibility, New York. And I found a meetup and at the meetup, I don’t even remember exactly what the session was about, but they were talking about making products accessible for people with disabilities. There were people there with all kinds of different disabilities and, you know, it just had me think you know, what are we doing? Why aren’t we making products for everybody? I felt up to that point in my career, even in my education, I hadn’t, there hadn’t been an emphasis on it. And so, it became a passion of mine. I started learning. I started studying and what really, what really moved me to action is that first meetup that I went to was at the time they called it I think it was like the accessibility design meet up. They changed the name since, but I ended up speaking with a woman who is my friend to this day. She, asked me what I did for a living. And I said, oh, I’m a UX designer. And I make things usable. And she’s blind. And she asked me a question that stuck with me forever. I mean, I put it in my book. She asked me ‘do people like you, designers, think about people like me, people who are blind.’ And I sat there for a moment thinking. ‘No.’ ‘And I said, I’m going to be honest with you. No, but I will make sure that anything that I work on, we will, and that is a promise that I will keep.’ So everything that I work on, I do my best to think about what are the options we can provide to make sure this thing is accessible. And sometimes, you know, sometimes it’s possible and sometimes it’s not, but at least there has to be the thought. Just everything starts with a thought.
Tom: Yeah, absolutely. I suppose from your story, it sounds like maybe that was the point where you realize like, right, we kind of need to do something because you’re going to be so much more compassionate when you actually meet someone in that situation. Whereas if you’re going about your life as a user experience designer, not every day, you’re going to meet someone who actually asks you that kind of question or so often you can just go throughout your life without even thinking about someone else in that situation at all. And so it is so important. The other thing that I heard you say on a recent YouTube video, actually, it wasn’t recent, it was like two years ago, but you were talking about how there’s people in society who are just basically being left out and nowadays with technology, everyone’s on technology all the time. This is something that I almost struggle with myself is actually being online too much in a way. But the world nowadays, it’s crazy how much people are just on a computer, on a screen almost all the time. Now there’s some people who aren’t actually able to access that. So I guess that’s why it’s so important to actually get that accessibility correct and make it accessible to more people.
Reginé Gilbert: Yeah, I think people, you know, especially people who are in the west, right. Make assumptions based off of their access to high speed internet and, and things that, you know, I think that most folks will take for granted right? I mean, I live in the United States and in the United States about half the country does not have high speed internet. So what does this mean when you’re designing something? It means don’t make it like, you know, don’t make things so heavy. Don’t have so much imagery. Like there, there are other ways to do these designs that are like beneficial to folks. So you know, the word accessibility is a broad word. When I hear accessibility, I think about it in terms of folks with disability and, and providing access. So yeah, there there’s a lot of considerations and one of the points you brought up is that folks tend not to interact with other folks with disabilities, but the truth is you can’t always see disability. You can’t see if somebody has dyslexia. Right. And often times when people wear glasses because I like torefer to this, people don’t think that they have a disability if they wear glasses because they’re using some assistive technology, right? Your glasses are assisted tech. Assistive tech is not always something that’s digital. There’s a lot of non-digital things that can be used. So there’s just a lot of considerations to think about.
Tom: Yeah, absolutely well it’s like with my mum. She’s classed as disabled, but it’s like, you wouldn’t know that straight away. Like no one would. And obviously there’s probably, I don’t know what the percentage is, but like there’s a massive percentage of the population who are classed as disabled or have in one way or another, aren’t going to be able to access stuff online as easily as others. What are the most common errors that you see? As like designers, so like we work for Hive IT and I’m kind of getting into design recently and like color contrast was something I wasn’t even aware of until a few weeks ago. And that’s embarrassing to admit but like, honestly, I’d come up with something and then I asked for some feedback and the first thing was just like, yeah, colour contrast you need to sort that out.
Reginé Gilbert: I mean, that is the number one issue, color contrast. So there’s a great organization web aim and they have a website — webaim.org and every year web aim does they do a scanning of 1 million websites and they’re looking for errors, according to the web content accessibility guidelines. So I don’t know if listeners/readers are familiar with the web content accessibility guidelines, but they are kind of the guidelines that are used for accessibility and the web. And so webaim takes a look at the, you know the top 6 or so issues that they find and color contrast is number one, like every year consistently. And it’s like, come on, everyone, let’s get it together. Color contrast is like, that’s like one of the easiest things you can can do, but a lot of folks aren’t aware like you said, you know, the biggest, I think hurdle is awareness. And then secondly, it’s moving from awareness to action. Right. So I’m at the point where I feel like I have spread enough awareness. I am ready. I actually did a talk a couple of months ago where it was all about moving from awareness to action. Like what can we actually do? And it doesn’t have to be things that are big. It could be, you know what I’m gonna during the month of August or whatever. I’m gonna just read a couple of articles about accessibility. I’m going to read a couple of articles about web development and accessibility. You know, it doesn’t have to be something big. I think people think about it and they think of it as this really, really large thing. And how could I possibly, you know, conquer all of this stuff and don’t, take it in small chunks. Think about a brick building. A brick building is built brick by brick, by brick. Right. It doesn’t, you don’t just throw a bunch of, literally, if you threw a bunch of bricks, it would just, the bricks would just stay there. So, you know, think about your, your education and your learning as a brick by brick building.
Tom: Yeah. So it’s kind of just forming that process of slowly and gradually developing your knowledge around accessibility and what you can do. And over time, you’re going to build up a way in which you work, where it just becomes a habit. And then it just goes into the subconscious and, you know, okay, when I’m designing this in this way, I have to look out for these issues. I don’t want to make those errors, which are commonly found by Webaim, is it?
Reginé Gilbert: Yeah.
Tom: Yeah. And it’s funny, actually, my next question was how do we become like more mindful as designers? So you sort of already answered that, but do you have anything else to say on that?
Reginé Gilbert: I actually, I did a talk last night about ethics and, you know, I think one of the most important things that we kind of forget as designers is to know ourself. Right. I think that is a really important thing to know yourself, to understand your bias, to understand, you know, where you come from is not where other people come from. Your perspective is not other people’s perspective because when you have an understanding of yourself, you’re better able to understand others. So I really encourage people to watch, observe, question and explore. Watching and being awake, being awake to the world, right? Not just, you know, a lot of people sleep walk through the world. Observing, observe yourself. Observe others, you know and question everything and explore like, look at different, where we are now in this interconnected world. And we are also in a world where different cultures mix, right? So we’re having all of this intercultural communication without getting to understand that other culture. So I think that again, know thyself is what I say. So get to know yourself and then get familiar with cultures that are different than your own, because we tend to be same, same, same, but it’s like there’s a whole world out there.
Tom: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I think just from my experience, and I’m not an expert on this in any realm of the imagination, but I do often meditate, so I’ll try to like, just meditate for like 10 minutes every morning. And just for me, I feel a little bit more connected to what surrounds me when I do that. And perhaps that’s how and obviously I’m not saying if you meditate for 10 minutes, next thing you know, you’re going to be coming up with some brilliant accessible design. Like that’s not going to happen, but it does help me connect with other people and maybe put myself in other people’s shoes a little bit more and maybe just be a little bit more mindful. And aware that it’s not just all about me and my personal, psychological biases, whatever they may be. The other thing I’ve heard you talk about a bit before is maybe older people and how they may be interacting with stuff online as well. How would you, what would you recommend for someone who wants to make something more accessible for older people? And what, if you can’t necessarily get them in to test your products?
Reginé Gilbert: Well, one thing that, you know, I will say is that there is a phrase that is oftentimes used with folks in the disability community and other communities as well, but ‘it’s nothing about us without us.’ Right. And so. Everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody. So when people say, oh, I can’t find this person, go on Reddit, go on Facebook, go on any social media platform. If you’re not on social media, go ask a friend because a friend has a friend who knows somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody. Right. So there’s ways to get to talk to people. I would say that the best way is to talk to people, talk to people in your life. I mean, almost everybody knows some older adults, right. Or like their friends have like a great great-grandfather somebody that they could talk to. And one of the things that, that I’ve done over the years is a designing for your future self workshop where I have folks think about themselves as older. Which doesn’t, people don’t tend to think about, but I’m like, can we please start making stuff accessible now? Because if we don’t, when we get older? Let’s start, let’s start, let’s start talking to people. And there are people, you know, like in universities and such who are working on this but there there’s so much more that could be done. Don Norman who wrote the book called ‘The Design of Everyday Things’ came out with an article a few years ago, where he was talking about himself as an 83 year old person and how he wrote the book on design. And he did a disservice to older adults. Because he didn’t even think about them when he wrote the book. So I’m like, if this person who is older, who is considered like an elder in the design community is saying, I didn’t do this. You all should be doing this. And then people still don’t. I mean that’s on us.
Tom: Yeah… That’s a great example. Didn’t he literally come up with UX, like he came up with that name right? So that’s incredible. And I think the important thing that we do now and like what you’re doing an amazing job with, is actually ingraining these principles or just these ideas, the awareness into society now, because if we do that and make sure that future generations make design more accessible, we won’t need to worry too much when we’re older. But the worry would be that in the future, people come along and everything just gets way too complicated. And we build up this completely virtual world. Maybe when I’m a little bit older, I might not know or want to engage in that world. So talking about, virtual reality or augmented reality, so that’s something else you’re into so I’d love to hear more about that as well. What experience or how have you worked with AR or VR? I know next to nothing about it, by the way. So I’m really interested in this though.
Reginé Gilbert: Okay. So, yeah, so I’ll just, I’ll just describe for those who are not familiar. So XR extended reality, think of that as the umbrella for augmented reality and virtual reality. So augmented reality is where there’s a digital overlay to the physical world, right? So things like filters that people use for Instagram. Or Snapchat, or even if you’re watching football and you’re seeing that on the screen that there’s like these lines that are being, that is augmented reality. Virtual reality tends to use head-mounted displays. So you’re actually putting something on and then you’re fully getting immersed in that world. But there are still different types of virtual reality. You can actually experience web VR as well on your computer. So that just puts you in a 3d world. So this space intrigued me because again, I go back to thinking about, cause I’m constantly thinking about my older self. I said, you know, is XR accessible? I don’t know, can people with disabilities use XR? I don’t know. You know, so I came up with a bunch of questions and I started my research by looking at the different tools that are used to build these technologies. And I put it out there in the world and people have given me feedback because I was specifically looking for things that were around inclusiveness and accessibility. So from an inclusive lens, I was looking at, do these tools cost money or do they not? Because if they cost money, that means not as many people can access it to build these things right. And then is there any sort of accessibility related to these tools? That helps to build accessible experiences. And so the truth was like there were, it was a mix in terms of what was free and what costs money. But when it came to accessibility, there weren’t a lot of tools that had accessibility features built in.
Tom: Do you think that like well, would it be AR or VR or XR, that would sort of be used to help people in society and how do you think they could be used to maybe help people in the future?
Reginé Gilbert: Well, I think first society needs to help society before technology can help society. However you know, virtual reality, augmented reality is looking, and being used for trainings like workplace training. You know, a lot of this technology has been used by the military for a very long time. And continues to be. So and I like to tell people, pay attention to whoever the government’s making contracts with and watch those technologies because part of, you know, why we’re all on the internet is because of military stuff. So I think I think there is a lot of potential for XR to be used for work, for training for school. And it also hopefully will give the opportunity for folks with disabilities to get more more employment as well, because you know, there’s alot of work and we’ve seen that a lot of work can be done remotely. You don’t have to be in an office.
Tom: Okay. I don’t know, how many people are out there at the moment raising issues around accessibility in the virtual world?
Reginé Gilbert: There’s the whole group actually called XR access. That was started by Cornell tech Cornell university in New York. And they created a group called XR access. You can look them up at XRaccess.org. They’ve partnered with different corporations and they have built a community. And for the last three years there’s been a symposium and there’s different workstreams in XR access one that’s focusing on policy. Another, that’s focusing on inclusive design and another that’s a development group. And so each of these workstreams is looking into accessibility and the XR space. There’s, there’s also another organization XRSI.org that is also looking into more of like privacy issues with the XR space and making sure that things remain equitable..
Tom: Yeah. Do you think we’ll see such like applications, how common do you think such applications will be used in the future?
Reginé Gilbert: There, there are a lot of. You know there’s a meetup that happens monthly called the A11Y VR meetup.. And it is a virtual reality meetup that happens. And one of the guest speakers said that 97.81%. I think it’s something like that. 97.81% of people have not tried virtual reality. Yeah So, you know, how common will this be? I don’t know. You know, part of me got into this because I do think there’s a lot of potential with it, especially in the augmented reality space. But I think we are some ways away because there’s a lot of Physiological things that happen when people use VR, so many people get ill. There’s people get thrown off. I have a friend who can only do VR sitting down. They can’t do it standing. So there’s a lot of things that I think still need to be worked out for it to be put out there to the masses. However, there’s so much, I mean, people are using it every day and don’t realize they’re using augmented reality when they’re on Instagram and making sparkly things come down beside themselves, you know? So yeah, I think we, I think we have opportunity beyond entertainment. I do think that this can really be used in the work place.
Tom: Yeah At the moment it’s weird because a lot of like augmented reality is kind of based on maybe appearance, that superficial level, as you say, like Instagram, Snapchat, you see it all the time. And even that there’s a lot of questions around the ethics behind that, the way that impacts other people. I know a lot of girls in this country in England, I’m sure it’s the same in America who are maybe lower in confidence in one way or another, because they’re just seeing everyone with filters all the time. They’re seeing the highlight reel of people looking supposedly amazing. But a lot of that is just augmented reality so yeah, it’s already in our lives, isn’t it? And that’s something I’m not really even thought about too much before, prior to this conversation. So that’s another scary thing. Yeah, it’s crazy, right.
Reginé Gilbert: There’s a lot, again, there’s a lot of considerations. I think privacy and ethics and ethical designs because, you know, people are like, oh, when did you get into ethics? I was like, I think accessibility is an ethical issue. So I, I guess I’ve been into it for awhile, but we do have to, we do have to think about, you know, are we helping or are we harming with the things that we are making?
Tom: Yeah, definitely. Yeah. What tips in general than would you give to people, if they want to maybe create more accessible content I know you said to kind of keep on building, you know, you’ve got those bricks and just keep on learning. But, what other specific examples are there where people could improve a bit like improving on your knowledge of color contrast, for example?
Reginé Gilbert: Yeah. I would say, you know, there’s plugins that you can add to, you know, if you’re using Google Chrome or things of that nature, you can use plugins. There are, depending on, if you like, if you’re a designer, for example, and you’re using Figma or sketch or Adobe XD, all of those have plugins that you can use for building more accessible experiences. I would say that keep learning, right? There’s there’s first of all, understand that you are not you’re user.. That there are other folks who will want access to what, whatever it is you’re making and are you providing those options so that they can access it? So if someone can’t see or they cannot hear, or their mobility is, is not maybe what yours is like, can someone still use these products? I guess that’s the main question really. And just thinking about other people.
Tom: Absolutely. So I think they’re kind of my main questions covered to be honest, it’s been a pleasure to have you on Reginé. And I guess my final question is what can people do now to make things better? This is a question I think I’m going to start to ask people because the podcast is called make things better. And we’ve talked a lot about accessibility, user experience design, but just in general, what would be your tip for people to just try and make the world a little bit better.
Reginé Gilbert: Oh, my tip to, for people to make the world a little bit better is be kind and start with yourself.
Tom: That’s awesome advice. Awesome advice. Thank you so much for coming on. Where can people find you and your book?
Reginé Gilbert: Yeah, so you can find me I’m pretty active on Twitter, so I’ve been told, but I am very active on Twitter @reg_inee. And you can get my book anywhere. So my book is called Incluive Design for a Digital World. And it’s through Apress publishing. So yeah, you can find it on Amazon. You can find it on Apress. You can find it on anywhere, you can order it from your local bookstore, which I highly recommend let’s support local bookstores. So, yeah.
Tom: Awesome stuff. Thanks so much for coming on. I appreciate your time and thanks to everyone listening. I hope you have enjoyed today’s episode. We had Reginé Gilbert on. Thanks so much for coming on again, and I hope you have a great rest of your day.
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