Olark’s Accessibility Journey: how our people and our values pushed us to build better products for all

What exactly is digital accessibility?

It sounds obvious, but the simplest possible way of looking at accessibility is access. Is the front door to your technology locked to someone with visual, hearing, cognitive, or fine motor impairments? Or is it open? And once someone gets in, can they easily and independently accomplish their goals?

  1. As someone who has color vision trouble distinguishing shades of red and blue, I can identify and navigate your website’s links without relying on hue.
  2. As someone who uses the keyboard to navigate web pages, I can quickly navigate a chatbox without getting stuck in a keyboard trap.
  3. As someone who is hard-of-hearing, I can tell that I have a new chat message through immediate visual cues so I don’t have to rely on sound for notifications.
  4. As someone with a cognitive difference, I find your interface simple to use and free of unnecessary distractions.
  5. As someone who relies on a screen reader, I can quickly navigate and understand your content without a purely visible layout.

How did we get started on this journey?

Part I: Building a customer-centric, inclusive organization

Olark started over 12 years ago as an easy way for companies to be able to chat with their customers through a chatbox. Very early on, we realized that chat was a great game-changer, both for those who were not comfortable talking on the phone and for those for whom text communication was necessary.

Part II: A passion project becomes the catalyst

The real push to improve started in 2017. Two factors contributed to a shift towards a more holistic approach to accessibility. One, we had a customer who was passionate about the need for our product to be more accessible. Two, one of our previous engineers (hi Madalyn!) sparked an internal initiative to make accessibility a focus in engineering. Along with evangelizing the need for accessibility-friendly development practices and work processes, she led the team in adding:

  • screen-reader-friendly ARIA attributes, ensuring our chatbox was tab- and keyboard-focus friendly
  • more accessible forms and icons
  • automated accessibility tests (to our development workflows)
  • a high-contrast color mode for our agent console

Three big catalysts got us moving. Remember, you can be any of these.

An internal champion. Thanks, Madalyn.

A passionate customer who we listened to.

A culture that made it easy for an internal champion to take something and run with it.

Part III: Getting serious

In 2019, accessibility became a product-led initiative with the resources to do necessary user research to understand accessibility as a holistic challenge. Due to our Head of Product Julie’s leadership, we were able to think more critically about accessibility, and have the discussions needed to make it a priority at the management level.

  • Our human-first culture and values made it easy to create bottom-up and top-down buy-in.
  • A small number of vocal customers encouraged us to improve and do better.
  • A management-level champion took ownership over accessibility and used her privilege to push for inclusive design.
  • A complete visual update of our chatbox optimized for screen readers
  • Notably: enabled screen readers to read incoming messages, fixed labeling, and semantic markups
  • A new accessibility forward design and development process.
  • Identifying top opportunities for us to improve the accessibility of our marketing site.
  • Setting new standards for our chat agent console, customer experience, content, bug reporting, and more!

Our accessibility takeaways so far:

  • Accessibility is good for business. We’ve grown as a direct result of being able to better serve and sell to a wider range of customers in forward-thinking, inclusive companies, as well as regulated environments like higher education and government.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of a small nudge. A couple of persistent customers, an inclusive culture, and an internal champion helped us move towards becoming accessible. As a buyer of software or an employee at a company, you have a lot of power to drive change.
  • Setting specific accessibility goals is powerful. WCAG compliance is a great start. WCAG 2.0 AA compliance was a powerful target to build towards and helped us level up our approach.
  • Accessibility is a team effort… but needs a clear owner. Marketing, sales, customer service, product, design, engineering, people ops, and executive departments all have a role to play, but make sure you have one clear owner for accessibility in your organization.
  • Accessibility is a continuous process. We’ve created an internal checklist for design and development to refer to as they work, we’re investigating plug-ins and extensions for our tools that help us make more accessible design decisions, and we have a list of resources for help tackling tricky problems and leveling up internal knowledge.
  • Start accessibility early in the development process. Each time we moved accessibility earlier in the development process, it accelerated our progress, made our impact much quicker, and lowered our costs. There is a larger moment to shift accessibility earlier in the development process, and we believe in it.
  • We have a lot to do and a lot to learn. We are just getting started. Olark’s accessibility is incomplete, we have a lot of work to do, and we hope you will join us on this journey.

Where we go from here

Accessibility isn’t a destination, it’s an ongoing process to meet and maintain a high standard of usability for all. We’re happy to have come so far over the last year, but what we’ve done isn’t as important as what we’re doing to improve.

What we’re committed to doing before GAAD 2022:

  1. Expand accessibility beyond the chatbox: Our digital accessibility footprint extends beyond our software and our website. We’ve identified some gaps in our email marketing and content publishing workflows and will be updating our brand style guide to provide a more contrast-friendly color palette and better adherence to semantic HTML guidelines.
  2. Prioritize accessibility in our customer feedback: This year we’ve launched Olark’s BrainTrust as a customer advisory board to help guide our product development going forward. We’ve added requirements to our recruitment of that board to make sure we’re getting engaged feedback from organizations who have very high requirements for accessibility (in both public institutions and commercial settings).
  3. Diversify our pool of beta testers with disabilities: We’d already succeeded in getting product feedback from people with disabilities, but this year we’ve set goals to ensure we’re testing our products across a broader range of adaptive technology platforms and gathering accessibility feedback earlier in our design process.
  4. Speak at a GAAD 2022 event: This time next year, we’ll share our accessibility progress in a live event setting.
  5. Establish and maintain an accessibility SLA for Olark.com: We’ve been consistently chipping away at updating the outdated content pages on our website, but in 2021 we’ll be formalizing this in our quarterly OKRs so we know that these issues will get prioritized and resourced by the entire company.
  6. Require an accessibility review prior to adopting user-facing 3rd-party tools: We were motivated into improving our accessibility by a customer who drew a line in the sand and wouldn’t sign a contract until we addressed some accessibility issues they’d identified. This year, we’re going to follow that example and require an accessibility evaluation of any company-wide 3rd-party software tools before they’re rolled out to the entire company.



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