Jonathan is an expert on embedding accessibility into digital production teams. He is also leading a thought-provoking session on the impact of inclusive design as part of our Leaders in Change series on the 9th October.
If you’re new to FFS, otherwise known as Futureheads Five Stories, this is a regular interview series where we speak to people who have interesting stories to tell.
And we couldn’t resist the acronym.
What’s the story of your career so far?
I’ve always cared about how easy it is to use computers. My PhD was to help people like my mum get the same benefits from technology that I do.
I’ve always been a helper, rather than a coder – creating Software Development Kits at Symbian, and bringing digital experts together to set best practice at the BBC. Sitting down with top designers, coders, authors and product managers to capture the best of what they do was the best apprenticeship in digital anyone could have. And that breadth of view helped me create the standards for digital accessibility at the BBC when my boss asked me to set a strategy in response to some accessibility testing he’d commissioned. With a family connection to disability through my nephew, suddenly my personal relationship with accessibility converged with my professional opportunities.
Two years’ later I had the chance to make accessibility my full-time job, creating innovations in games-based learning for kids with special educational needs. And I’ve now been working in the space for over 18 years, variously as a Product Manager, Trainer, Head of Accessibility, and International Standards Editor. It’s always provided me the perfect combination of daily technical, creative and organisational challenge. I always have the same aim: helping teams make more of their users smile. And it never gets old.
What advice would you give to yourself when you were just starting out?
Learn as much as possible from people who’ve gone before you. When I started out in accessibility it was really new – I was asked to speak at my first conference on accessibility after I’d been doing it for only about a few months, there was such a small field of experts. But, even then, things like WCAG 1.0 and the great user testing with people with disabilities that System Concepts had done of our BBC websites gave me a great start. And meeting Julie Howell from RNIB early on gave me someone I could talk with about this stuff. We sharpened up each other’s thinking.
At the time, accessibility was not particularly welcome in many organisations outside the BBC, and it was not easy to understand for those who did care to make it happen. So there was lots of explaining what accessibility was and why it was worth doing. Since then things have evolved – while some organisations are still struggling to get good at it, I’m delighted that we’re now helping many go from good to great, to make inclusion consistent and efficient. And the number of great tools, interested people and places to meet them has grown hugely. There’s never been a better time to get interested in this stuff.
What do you love most about what you do?
Accessibility has taken me all around the world. The number of people who want to be trained in it is huge, and there are still far too few people who know how to train people really effectively.
But the main reason that I love accessibility is because, for me, it’s a much better challenge than anything else in digital. When you’re working with people who are so different from you, you can’t get away with just doing what everyone else is doing, their needs push you further.
To give one example, a few years ago Microsoft put us in touch with Guide Dogs, who were trying to help blind kids learn how to move around safely. They had these really useful exercises the kids had to do to pick up physical skills about personal space. One such exercise was how to bend down to pick up a set of keys to get them safely without bumping your head on a table. It was important stuff, but the kids were saying, “These exercises are just so boring. We feel so different. This is not fun.”
We’d already come up with audio-games for blind kids where you played the games through what you could hear, not see. And we’d come up with ways of recognising people’s body movements for a sign-language recognition system. So we worked with the kids to make the exercises control audio-games. Bending down and picking up keys is not fun. Temple Run is. None of the kids had been able to play that game, because it was not accessible to them. So we said, “Okay. If we do you a blind version of Temple Run, but to play it you’re going to need to learn how to do this bending down properly, would that be okay?”. They were like, “Bring it on!”.
It’s that sort of stuff where the challenge is. Where the fun is. It’s all about the people.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned over the course of your career?
You can’t do it on your own. Or, even if you can, it would be much more fun to do it with other people. Lots of organisations have what I call an “accessibility superhero”– someone who is passionate about accessibility, and spends all their time running around trying to make all of the organisation’s products accessible. My experience is that organisations that win in digital don’t do anything via a single point of failure, but embed what makes them successful in the way all of their people work.
That’s why I’ve spent years writing the British and International Standards for embedding accessibility in digital teams and organisations. Nothing else really works long-term. And I wouldn’t want to do what I do without the great team we’ve built at Hassell Inclusion.
What do you think is going to be the biggest challenge in our industry over the next twelve months?
There are so many opportunities and challenges – that’s the nature of digital… it never stays the same for 5 minutes. So, for me, the challenge is always about what to bet on. Which of all the shiny new technologies, devices, trends, design thinking etc. you should spend your time on. Which are the ones that are really going to get you the best Return on Investment? Should you go all-in on AI? Should you be battening down the hatches to survive Brexit?
From my perspective, I’m delighted that Inclusive Design is now cool. To use the words of one of our clients, it’s ‘so hot right now’. In LinkedIn’s ‘50 Big Ideas for 2019’, Inclusive Design was number 6, just below Brexit, just above AI. According to Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella, ‘2019 is the year inclusive design goes mainstream’. So, if Inclusive Design is a big opportunity, I think the challenge is to work out what is in it for your organisation.
Sure, tech giants like Apple and Microsoft are investing in it heavily. But should everyone else do the same? What are the benefits for you in your organisation – whether you’re a retailer that uses the web for selling what you make, a marketing agency creating mobile apps for clients, or a tiny not-for-profit promoting yourself on social media? Is it here for the long term or just a fad? If you invest lots of time and money in it now, will it be the best decision you made this year or something you’ll regret in a few years? These are the sorts of things that I think we need to be thinking about right now. It is also exactly why I wrote my new books Inclusive Design for Organisations and Inclusive Design for Products. And I can’t wait to share some of the perspectives in them at Leaders in Change in October.
A little bit more about Jonathan
Jonathan has over 17 years’ experience of embedding accessibility and inclusive design into digital production teams and is a regular speaker and writer on topics of accessibility, inclusion, user-centred design and digital products and services. Previously Head of Accessibility at BBC, he is the author of the new international accessibility standard ISO 30071-1, based on his original UK standard BS 8878.
His book, ‘Including your missing 20% by embedding web and mobile accessibility’, now updated in a 2nd edition for 2019 – explores how businesses can effectively embed accessibility in products and services, and the value of doing so, from mitigating risk and setting out clear policies and procedures, through to improving customer experiences and increasing commercial growth.
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