A Conversation with TPGi’s Chief Accessibility Officer, David Sloan
The rules and standards that guide digital accessibility will never stop evolving, and for good reason. Those rules are essential to provide guidance and accountability for the accessibility of digital products, and the digital world continues to evolve with Web 3, the Internet of Things (IoT), and Artificial Intelligence (AI), just to name a few. But there’s another critical part of accessibility that often doesn’t get enough attention in the sea of regulation: can people with disabilities use a product for its intended purpose?
User experience is a crucial component of accessible and successful digital products. Legal and standards compliance will always be of the utmost importance: each line of code that powers a website, mobile app, or self-service device should be as compliant as possible.
Standards conformance, though, doesn’t automatically equal a good user experience. Without a usable experience for all, including the one billion people worldwide who have a disability, there will always be barriers between users and digital products.
TPGi’s Chief Accessibility Officer David Sloan has spent decades balancing the need for usability with compliance in his career in accessibility.
Below, we sat down with David to discuss his unique perspectives on digital accessibility, including the critical role UX plays, how the industry has evolved, and where (he hopes) it’s going.
How did your career in accessibility start?
I was a graduate student and then a researcher at the University of Dundee in Scotland, which just happened to have a wonderful group of researchers focused on digital accessibility for people with disabilities. I worked on several accessibility research projects while I was getting my Ph.D., and I was a founding member of the in-house accessibility consultancy that served the campus. We did accessibility reviews of websites, gathered learning resources, conducted staff training, and drafted the university’s first web accessibility policy, a supporting strategy for implementing the policy. We also provided accessibility consultancy and research services to external clients including TPG (as the company was known then).
When it came time for me to move on from academia, TPGi seemed like the obvious place to be.
What was the digital accessibility landscape in 2008?
The world was starting to adjust to version 2.0 of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). This was nine years after version 1.0 was published. Those new guidelines reflected how significantly web technology had evolved.
When WCAG 2.0 came out, that was when people were using the web to create more complex and powerful interactive experiences than before, and web applications from learning management systems to social media made it easier for non-programmers to create and publish web content. It was a big step from testing web content to testing web applications.
Web accessibility was getting more complex, but assistive technology was also getting better at handling diverse types of content.
And that was a big challenge: we were rapidly repositioning how we tested and for what. We were starting to realize the importance of understanding the desired user experience in our accessibility teaching and testing efforts. Those things were evolving quickly.
How did the accessibility community work together?
That community was a big part of advancing the work, and it was already well-established when I was in academia. As web accessibility became more complex, we started to see even greater connectivity in the community as people found they weren’t the only ones tackling accessibility problems.
At first, I’d gotten to know people through academic work, meeting people face-to-face, and through e-mail and online forums.
Then, Twitter became a place where we connected a lot – disabled tech users, accessibility advocates, developers, and designers interested in accessibility and academic researchers. This was when Twitter was just a couple of years old. The accessibility community built a lot of friendships and connections there. Those were the golden days of Twitter!
Back then, we were on the cusp of forming this strong community of people working together on accessibility, answering each other’s questions, researching and testing, providing encouragement and support, and often leading to in-person meetings at conferences and other events.
How has TPGi and your role evolved since you joined the company in 2013?
I knew most of my new coworkers at TPGi from that community. The accessibility community was small enough then that it was a scalable way to build a team of experts.
TPGi was evolving and adding people that most of us already knew. I think one of the best results of that is that we set our standards extremely high and very early on.
Back then, we were engrossed in what we needed to do to meet the requirements of the standards. We started off by applying standards thoughtfully and sensitively to the unique context of each customer. At that time, we had such a strong collective of internal knowledge to give our engineers guidance quickly, and everyone was generous. That flow of expertise continues into our customer knowledge base in our ARC platform, which has become the living extension of that knowledge.
At the same time, TPGi employees were also being tasked with influencing and building those industry standards. So TPGi’s commitment to standards has always been there. The company was built on a foundation of following, promoting, and helping define accessibility standards. We’re committed to honoring that core value today, and several of our team are still involved in standards support work.
Back in 2013, our founder Mike Paciello was keen to broaden the company’s focus into accessible user experience, so I started on our user experience team, working on supplying services that complemented our accessibility audits. These range from usability studies with people with disabilities to helping clients with their accessibility strategy – reviewing where they were, helping them figure out where they needed to be and providing them with a roadmap to get there. Now, we’ve significantly expanded our UX service offerings, including kiosk accessibility consultancy and JAWS scripting.
So, we were able to start going beyond standards to strategize on helping our clients create accessible user experiences relevant to their context and goals. If a client was in education, then there were unique user experiences and constraints that we needed to focus on. If they were in retail or finance, there were slightly different things we knew those users should be doing. But in every case, we started with a focus on standards, and as a company we then began to develop and use processes and tooling to support our work. Today, we’re a much bigger organization, and while many people from the early days have moved on, we’ve also welcomed lots of talented accessibility engineers and other staff from diverse backgrounds and locations.
How did your role as TPGi’s UX Practice Manager affect your perspective on accessibility?
I think it’s all about helping everyone on a digital product team understand what success means to people with disabilities who use the product. And it’s about ensuring all team members have what they need to meet their responsibilities to help deliver a product that allows users to be successful.
Just like everyone else, people with disabilities come to a digital product to complete tasks and achieve goals. Everyone simply wants the ability to do what they need to do with minimal obstruction, and to get on with their lives. Some accessibility barriers will be more disruptive than others, especially those barriers that make task completion frustrating, tiring, painful or impossible.
Across the industry, we’re all working with limited resources, and there’s always other work to be done. So, I think that we all need to prioritize our accessibility focus on tasks that demonstrably help disabled people be successful using our products. That’s the most important thing.
How can UX principles and best practices create a greater chance of success?
When you try to define what your users need to use your product, it’s surprising how often people don’t have easy answers to those questions. Questions like, what does success look like for users of the product? What tasks do they want to complete?
There’s often this disconnect between accessibility compliance efforts and providing the best possible user experience. There needs to be an understanding of those critical tasks, the tasks that users must do daily or that users may need to do in an emergency or an infrequent situation. So, for a digital product to provide a really successful user experience for people with disabilities, the best approach is to ensure disabled people are involved throughout the design process – in defining product requirements in creating and testing of the application.
In UX, we tend to talk about creating “delightful” experiences. And that’s a nice goal. But for accessibility, sometimes the best user experience isn’t one that’s necessarily “delightful.” It’s an experience that’s as friction-free as possible, one that people almost don’t notice, because they were able to do what they needed to do without frustration and significant effort and move on.
What do you hope to see as the accessibility industry evolves?
I’m always interested in emerging technology trends and how it might work for digital accessibility. I want to see evolving technology genuinely work to solve real problems that make it easier to deliver and have accessible digital experiences.
I want to see progress that emphasizes creating accessible and valuable experiences for people with disabilities. Those of us who are not disabled are in the privileged position to be allies whenever we make decisions that affect digital user experiences, and we have an obligation to use that privilege for positive impact.
And I hope there’s a continued effort to empower the teams who develop, grow, and implement accessibility solutions with access to more knowledge, new skills, and supportive governance structures. I see such potential for change if people in leadership roles value, advocate for and support accessibility efforts, while there’s also work at the grassroots level to improve accessibility tools and solutions.
Right now, it feels like we’re coming together to collectively identify which tools are needed – and where – to allow all users to engage. That should lead to more powerful tools to support building extensible digital products that increase the success of those tools.
You know, as humans evolve, it’s in part because we invent tools that make life easier. It’s our job to continue that evolution, to keep creating inclusive tools and solutions that make life easier for everyone, while also opening up new opportunities and possibilities.