In this episode, we’re joined by Sophie Koonin, Web Engineering Lead at Monzo. Sophie is passionate about web accessibility and keeping the web a fun and inclusive place for everyone. And today, with Sophie’s expert knowledge about web development, we’ll be debunking six common myths designers and marketers believe about web accessibility.
We hope you enjoyed this episode of our Texthelp Talks podcast! Below you'll find the resources we mentioned during the episode. You can also hear more from Sophie by visiting her website, or following her on Twitter:
Donna Thomson (00:15):
Hello, everyone. And welcome to the latest episode of Texthelp Talks podcast, where we chat to experts from the education area and the workplace to learn about their strategies for breaking down barriers, unlocking potential and creating equality for all. If you haven't done so already, subscribe to our podcast so you never miss an episode. You can do this through your preferred podcast player or streaming service. Search for Texthelp Talks and you should find us.
Donna Thomson (00:40):
In this episode, you're hearing from me, Donna Thomson, Marketing Manager at Texthelp, and I'm here with Sophie Koonin, Web Engineering Lead at Monzo. Sophie is passionate about web accessibility and keeping the web a fun and inclusive place for everyone. With her expert knowledge about web design and development, Sophie will be helping us to debunk some, six actually, common myths of web accessibility. It's great to have you here with us, Sophie. Thanks for joining us.
Sophie Koonin (01:05):
Thank you. Thank you for having me. I don't know if I'd say I was an expert in web design, but definitely development.
Donna Thomson (01:10):
Okay. Wwe added another title there to you.
Sophie Koonin (01:14):
I'm happy to get that title, but you don't want to see what my design attempts look like.
Donna Thomson (01:19):
No probs. All right. Well, listen, I'm looking forward to debunking some myths so why don't we just get stuck right in.
Sophie Koonin (01:25):
Donna Thomson (01:26):
So the first one then that we're talking about today is the majority of users don't have access needs. So let's think about what we mean by access needs first. So for something to be accessible, we need to be able to complete a task we're trying to achieve without encountering any barriers or issues. And digital access is the ability to fully participate in the digital world.
Donna Thomson (01:47):
Digital access needs are needs which arise because of the effects of someone's disability when interacting online. So at Texthelp we know that 15% of the world's population have a disability. And in the UK alone, 10% of the population have digital access needs. So Sophie, as a senior web engineer, what would you say to this myth?
Sophie Koonin (02:10):
I think it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking there's a normal or a typical user. But actually, we're coming from a very narrow perspective when we're building websites. And my abilities and experience shape how I approach the task of building a website. So I might be familiar with the icons that mean download or menu, but some other people might not get that and it might not be as obvious.
Sophie Koonin (02:37):
And I think it's easy to accidentally use our own abilities and biases as a basis for the designs that we put together. Like when I'm building a website, I'll use my MacBook that I get from work. I've got fiber internet and I'm sighted, and so I might forget that the people who are accessing the thing I'm building, they might not have super fast internet. They might not have a top-of-the-range MacBook. I have to make sure that I'm not only building apps for people like me.
Sophie Koonin (03:08):
So there's so many different backgrounds, different requirements, different technology that people are using, it's not just a physical thing. I really rate the Microsoft Inclusive Design Toolkit, which says if we use our own abilities and biases as a starting point, we end up with products designed for people of a specific gender, age, language ability, tech literacy, and physical ability. Those with specific access to money, time, and a social network, which I think is a really key thing to think about.
Donna Thomson (03:40):
Great, yeah. Good resource there actually. You're right, labels like typical and normal are really just not helpful. We're all different, we all have different needs. I guess we've got to be mindful of that when we're designing websites.
Donna Thomson (03:51):
Okay. Myth number two, accessibility is optional. So we know that designing for everyone is really important, sorry. And it's not just to be inclusive, but it's actually the law for many businesses. But in the UK, for example, we've got the public sector body's Accessibility Regulations, and in the US there's the Americans with Disabilities Act. In fact, speaking of America, almost 10 lawsuits are filed in the States against inaccessible websites every business day, and this number really is just on the rise.
Donna Thomson (04:21):
So Sophie given that accessibility is a legal requirement for many businesses, what are some of the considerations that designers and marketers need to make?
Sophie Koonin (04:31):
So I think it's key to consider the fact that even though there haven't been any cases that I'm aware of against companies in the UK for not being accessible, that's not an excuse for not taking the steps required to make sure that we are complying with the law. And it's, we're thinking, "Well, is it worth a link being a different color, if it means that we're not doing something against the law?" And websites are listed in the Equality and Human Rights Commission's Code of Practice as one of the services to the public that should be considered covered by the Equality Act 2010, which makes it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities, even if it's by accident.
Sophie Koonin (05:17):
So they talk a lot about reasonable adjustments. So things like, can you change the size of the font to make sure that it's not a fixed size? Are disabled users able to get the information without being placed at a substantial disadvantage? And that applies as well if you get an external agency to build your website as well. And the Europe, the ... Sorry, the Equality and Human Rights Commission can actually conduct investigations, they can act over the cases of persistent discrimination, and they can help someone prosecute a company.
Sophie Koonin (05:50):
So, I don't think it's a secret that our society is becoming a little bit more litigious. So I don't think it's fair to say that we're never going to have any case law for this kind of thing, like they do in the States.
Donna Thomson (06:05):
Yeah. They're definitely on the rise. So taking accessibility into account not only benefits those with disabilities, but it benefits everyone. And that really takes us into our third myth, and that is access needs come from permanent disabilities. What are your thoughts about debunking this myth, Sophie?
Sophie Koonin (06:23):
Yes, I think it's interesting to dive into the concept of disability. It's not necessarily, there is something wrong with a person. If someone has a disability, it means that society is not doing enough to accommodate their particular needs. So I wear glasses for reading. I don't consider myself to have a disability, because glasses exist and they make me able to see very clearly. So if society had enough adjustments and adaptations for people with other access needs, would they consider themselves to have a disability?
Sophie Koonin (06:59):
And so anyone at any time can have access needs and they can be permanent, temporary or situational. Again, the Inclusive Design Toolkit I mentioned earlier, goes into great detail about these kind of things. So an example of a temporary impairment might be some kind of medical condition, or a situational impairment might be from the environment around us. So the other day I had people working on the roof, and it was really hard to hear what was going on.
Sophie Koonin (07:26):
So permanent conditions are the ones that we often tend to think about when it comes to accessibility. So partial or full blindness, not having both limbs ... Sorry, both arms, having learning difficulties, such as dyslexia. But a temporary impairment could be something like having visual aura from a migraine, getting repetitive strain injury from mouse usage. I'm sure we're all familiar with that these days. Or having cognitive processing difficulties like brain fog, especially relevant for people who've had COVID, they might be suffering from things like that.
Sophie Koonin (08:03):
And the situational things, like I mentioned, builders on the roof, having slow internet, or something like even a bright light on the screen. Holding a baby is an interesting one. If you're designing an app for mothers or parents say, is there a chance that the app user might be holding a child at the time? Can you use the app with one hand? So even if you consider yourself not to have any form of disability, you could find yourself with one of those impairments at any point. And we need to remember that those kind of accessibility requirements exist. And it's not just those screen readers, for example, which is, as I said, the one that people tend to go to.
Donna Thomson (08:43):
Exactly. Yeah. So design for accessibility is really about design and for universality, it's designed for everyone and every situation. And so the websites and apps are usable by everyone, no matter they're doing or where they are.
Donna Thomson (08:58):
So that brings us nicely onto the fourth myth. All right. So that is content and design that can be accessed by all is accessible. So we've already touched on designing for accessibility means considering things like images, alternative tags on images and captions on videos, for example. So it's basically all the things that affect someone accessing your content. But how well this content can be understood is also very important, and that readability comes in.
Donna Thomson (09:27):
So factors that affect readability include things like jargon words, sentence length, even spelling and grammar mistakes. So to make your content more readable, you've really got to start using plain English. So Sophie, I would imagine there are other readability factors at play when it comes to learning the art of web developments, and really getting to grips with complex programming languages. How do you try to make these programming languages more understandable?
Sophie Koonin (09:53):
That's a really interesting one. So I briefly trained before I got into coding. I was training as an English teacher, English as a foreign language, I actually learnt some useful tips for conveying complicated concepts to people without ... Often when you're teaching a foreign language, you need to explain the meaning of a word without using the word.
Sophie Koonin (10:16):
And that is vital when you're teaching people to code. So you need to be able to explain, what are basically quite complicated concepts in web design and development, but you've got to be able to explain them in an accessible way that doesn't make people feel stupid. And a great way of doing that is real world analogies. So I use those quite a lot, trying to explain technical concepts in understandable situations that you might not usually associate with a technical concept.
Sophie Koonin (10:50):
So the one that comes to mind is when I was ... I wasn't teaching coding at the time, it was speaking to some non-technical colleagues, but I was trying to explain an authentication flow that we were building on a web app. And I used some kind of ridiculous analogy about a secret clubhouse with secret handshakes and badges that you had to wear. But it gets the message across-
Donna Thomson (11:13):
Sophie Koonin (11:13):
... and it's memorable as well.
Donna Thomson (11:15):
Sophie Koonin (11:15):
It can be quite fun to try and think of some really absurd analogies for technical concepts, but it makes it stick in your head.
Donna Thomson (11:23):
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. Having that story element-
Sophie Koonin (11:25):
Donna Thomson (11:25):
... on top of all the code, definitely helps you remember it a bit better. So looking at some statistics here. In the UK, the average reading age is just nine-years-old, and in the US that's around eighth grade level, so about the age 12 or 13.
Donna Thomson (11:38):
So writing with inclusion in mind not only makes it easier for those with low literacy to understand content, it supports people with conditions or situations that can cause reading challenges. So just go back to what you said about situational disability, Sophie. If look at the way we consume content today, readability really matters to everyone, doesn't it?
Sophie Koonin (11:58):
It really does. It's never been more relevant, especially coming from a bank where I work. It's hugely important that the people that we're doing business with can actually understand what they're signing up for. And finance is famously something that's just really complicated. So at Monzo we have a very specific tone of voice that is designed to make things as clear as possible without being patronizing. It's approachable, it's very simple. We use abbreviations that you'd use normal conversation.
Sophie Koonin (12:31):
English famously has like three words for everything. So the simplest form of language, we don't try and be overly legal or overly formal because it ultimately, all it does is affect the comprehensibility of what you're writing. We've got a great guide to our tone of voice on our website actually, which I really recommend looking at because it really is excellent.
Donna Thomson (12:54):
Oh, great. Okay. We'll check that out. Okay. Moving onto the fifth myth, which is that accessibility is a barrier to good design. We hear this a lot. So as a senior web engineer, so people, what would you say to that?
Sophie Koonin (13:09):
I would say, is it good design if it's not accessible? I think, I often find myself turning around to developers and saying, "We can't do this because it isn't accessible." And the best designers that I've worked with have said, "Okay. Well, let's find something that does work." And I feel like people imagine that if your website is really, really accessible, it's going to be white background, Times New Roman, blue links with underlines.
Donna Thomson (13:35):
Sophie Koonin (13:36):
But it's really not the case. As I said, accessible design is good design. If it works for everyone, it's a good design. And if it's a beautiful design that cuts out half of your user base because it's unusable for them, is that something you really want to have associated with your brand? So if you've got this beautiful user interface that someone can't use the keyboard to navigate around, are we really going to call that good?
Sophie Koonin (14:04):
It's rather than thinking of it as something that forces you to make an ugly or boring product, think of it as something that will give you a set of constraints to incorporate as you consider your design. Which there's a brilliant article by Jesse Hausler, who's the Director of Product Accessibility at Salesforce, who wrote this article called Seven Things Every Designer Needs to Know About Accessibility. And it really is an absolute fountain of knowledge.
Donna Thomson (14:33):
I must check that.
Sophie Koonin (14:33):
And it's those constraints. It's an interesting challenge, but it becomes easier. Once you become familiar with those constraints, it becomes second nature to you.
Donna Thomson (14:41):
The fear of the unknown, maybe at the beginning. It's so true, at Texthelp we continue our efforts to be as inclusive and as accessible as can. And we've actually just been through the process of creating a brand new website, at no mean feat. And it's more accessible than the old website. And to be honest with you, the design actually look better than ever too. So accessibility definitely hasn't been a barrier to good design for us in the sense of-
Sophie Koonin (15:08):
Donna Thomson (15:09):
Okay. Oh, were you going to say something more there, Sophie? Sorry, I interrupted you.
Sophie Koonin (15:12):
I was just going to say the gov.uk site is another example of something that's really simple, but so, so accessible. It's really, it's an absolute feat of accessibility, I think. And yeah, okay, it's not the slickest, sleekest website, but you know exactly where to go, you know exactly what to click on, you know exactly what's happening. And when you've got to do something as tedious as filling out a form for some tax return or something, you want something that's really obvious and really clear. And I think they've really nailed it.
Donna Thomson (15:43):
Sophie Koonin (15:43):
I use the gov.uk website a lot actually for inspiration.
Donna Thomson (15:47):
Oh dear. Yeah. I like that there's a lot of white space on their pages. Their pages don't seem to be too cluttered with a lot of content, which is good.
Sophie Koonin (15:55):
Donna Thomson (15:56):
Yeah. Okay. We're onto the last myth already, number six. And this one is that accessibility is hard to implement. So for anyone wanting to be more accessible when it comes to web design, what would you say to them, Sophie?
Sophie Koonin (16:09):
I would say, this one's slightly cheeky because it is hard to implement if you're doing it retrospectively. So if you've got this big, big web app, and I feel like a lot of professional web developers will have been in this position. Where you're working on this big web app that was built, I don't know, before your time, or maybe it just didn't have the time put into it to make it accessible from the beginning. And you think, "Oh God, we really need to make this accessible." And it's a lot of work. It can take a lot of time and it can cost a lot of money to go back and fix it up so it is accessible.
Sophie Koonin (16:46):
So in that respect, yeah, it is hard. But if you think about accessibility from the start and you factor it into your designs and the way that you write your code, it actually doesn't have to be that challenging, it just become second nature. So really you want to go with accessibility by default, rather than accessibility after the fact.
Sophie Koonin (17:05):
So there's a lot that we can do as web developers that will give us accessibility for free just by writing HTML right. So there's something called semantic HTML, which is HTML elements that tell you exactly what they do, such as nav, which is used for a menu or button is used for a button, something happens when you click it. We've got elements for links to different pages, using the right ones. Using the right headings in the right order, making sure that you leave the styling to CSS and keeping the HTML tags for the structural markup of the page. And all of this will help assistive technology navigate a page, just by virtue of the fact that you've used these semantic elements.
Sophie Koonin (17:54):
And test, you can test your site as well with things like screen readers, there's some built into Mac and you can get a free open source one for Windows. And you can use the keyboard to check that you can actually navigate through and do your core user journeys, just using a keyboard. So there's quite a lot that you can do as part of your development flow, to make sure that you are building something accessible.
Donna Thomson (18:20):
It's building it in, isn't it, the semantic elements that you mentioned. That's basic rules that you need to follow to make it accessible.
Sophie Koonin (18:26):
Donna Thomson (18:26):
And once you do it once or twice, that all becomes second nature, and every time.
Sophie Koonin (18:31):
Yeah. And I mean, you can make those a part of your code reviews, for example. Like if you're reviewing a pull request on GitHub, you can make sure that you look out for those things. You can add accessibility checklist, your Jira tickets. Make sure that your designers are considering things like labels on forms and color contrast. They're making sure any kind of foreground text is easily distinguishable from the background and things like that.
Donna Thomson (18:57):
Great advice. Okay. And for marketers to show you when it comes to accessible content, that readability element is so important. And there are a lot of tools that can help at that time of writing. When we were writing the content for our new website, we built our own read check to help us. We would have been lost without it, to be honest. The editor and read check really helped us in real time, highlighting any jargon words and long sentences, along with picking up on any spelling and grammar mistakes too. And being able to create accessible content in real time is so much easier, as you already edited too. And having to go back and fix things or change things retrospectively for time [inaudible 00:19:34].
Donna Thomson (19:35):
So Sophie, I think that's really us for today. We've debunked all six myths. We seem to have gone through them very quickly. It's been great debunking them with you. I'm sure our listeners have learned a lot from your expertise. So thanks for joining us.
Sophie Koonin (19:49):
Thank you for having me.
Donna Thomson (19:50):
No probs. Is there anything you would like to leave our listeners with, any final thoughts or any tips before we go?
Sophie Koonin (19:57):
Yeah, so I think my biggest takeaway for people is, don't think of it as this massive mountain you've got to climb or this massive barrier to building something. Just learn the basics and then incorporate them into the things you're building. You can check out my blog at localghost.def, which has a blog post about this exact topic, as well as some others. So I'm always happy to chat about accessibility on Twitter. You can reach me out at type__error as well.
Donna Thomson (20:28):
Love that. Thanks, Sophie. And if you'd like to learn anything more about our accessibility journey or any of our accessibility products, you can head over to our website at text.help/newlook, that's all lower case, text.help/newlook. Don't forget to subscribe to Texthelp Talks on your preferred podcast player or streaming service to catch our next episode. Thanks again and bye for now.
Sophie Koonin (20:52):