Olark’s Accessibility Journey: Annual Report from GAAD

Today marks an exciting date on the calendar — Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD)! Each year, technologists join a11ys and activists in the disability community to educate people about how to make digital experiences that are friendly to people with disabilities and anyone using assistive technology.

Olark believes that digital accessibility is a civil rights issue. More than one billion people worldwide have some form of disability, and every one of them deserves good usability. As people who make chat tools for the web, we understand that if we want to design and build for everyone, we must acknowledge the consequences of our choices. We can either make life easier or more difficult for people.

2021 was the first GAAD we participated in as a company and ended up being transformational for Olark. Getting involved with the a11y community inspired us to think holistically about accessibility, and to realize our role in the big picture of inclusion and universal design.

Last year we published a set of commitments on how Olark would improve accessibility as an organization. Accessibility remains a key priority for us, and we’ve made some huge strides towards our goals. But, our work is not complete. Today we’re here to hold ourselves accountable to our 2021 commitments, share some of our biggest takeaways from the past year, and set our agenda for our accessibility journey in 2022.

Our 2021 Commitments: How did we do?

Last year we outlined six accessibility goals. For each, we’ve scored our performance below and shared what we did to meet each goal.

Here’s our rating scale:

  • GREEN: We did what we set out to do and in some cases, did more than we’d planned.
  • YELLOW: We made meaningful progress, but we have a long way to go.
  • RED: We’re disappointed in the outcome.

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Commitment #1: Expand accessibility beyond the chatbox: YELLOW

ORIGINAL 2021 GOAL: Our digital accessibility footprint extends beyond our software and website. We’ve identified 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.

On the content side, we made numerous fixes on our website, but not enough to meet the Service-Level Agreement (SLA) we set as a team. We also updated our brand style guide to require high color contrast and we now screen for accessibility issues before publishing new content. So, our new content is accessible, but the bulk of our website still needs work.

In early 2021, we updated our chatbox to adhere to a WCAG 2.0 AA rating, however, we knew the app our customers used to respond to incoming chats was unusable on a screen reader. This app was also quite old and built on legacy systems, so we opted to create a new one from scratch. Our Product team has since redesigned the app with accessibility in mind and is building a newer version. We have a few customers beta testing this app but we are months away from having it ready for public release.

Commitment #2: Prioritize accessibility in our customer feedback: GREEN

ORIGINAL 2021 GOAL: In 2021, we launched 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).

We’ve continued to engage with leaders in Accessibility offices at major higher education institutions, including University of California at Berkeley. We’re also excited about our work with Gallaudet University, the only university in the world where students can live and learn in both English and ASL (American Sign Language). Gallaudet asked us to build a feature for their chatbox that would allow Deaf students to express themselves in the language where they’re most comfortable communicating. So, we built in the option to either type text or sign over a video chat extension.

Commitment #3: Diversify our pool of beta testers with disabilities: GREEN
ORIGINAL 2021 GOAL:
We’d already succeeded in getting product feedback from people who use assistive technology, 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.

In addition to working with Gallaudet, we’ve engaged Fable to help us source usability feedback from testers who rely on assistive technology. This will help us get accessibility input earlier in our development cycle from a more diverse group who use a variety of assistive technologies. We plan to supplement our initiatives in 2022.

Commitment #4: Speak at a GAAD 2022 event: GREEN

ORIGINAL 2021 GOAL: This time next year, we’ll share our accessibility progress in a live event setting.

Earlier this year, we exhibited at CSUN’s Assistive Technology Conference in Anaheim with five Olarkers in tow. We enjoyed watching our CEO, Ben Congleton, present how his mistakes as a leader slowed our progress and how we overcame them to translate our passion for inclusion into specific accessibility policies. Ben’s also kicking off A11yBay’s GAAD programming this year withan adapted version of this talk, which you can attend virtually here if you’re interested.

Commitment #5: Establish and maintain an accessibility SLA for Olark.com: GREEN

ORIGINAL 2021 GOAL: 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.

We recently established accessibility SLAs across each team in the company. In addition to reporting our performance against these SLAs, each team has set OKRs that advance Olark’s accessibility quarterly. To be candid, we haven’t met all of our SLAs every quarter. However, having the goals pushed us to make progress and have hard conversations around how we must resource teams to satisfy these commitments.

Commitment #6: Require an accessibility review before adopting user-facing 3rd-party tools: GREEN

ORIGINAL 2021 GOAL: We were motivated to improve 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.

Of all the goals on this list, this one was the easiest to meet but also quite powerful. Asking other companies about their accessibility policy before purchasing has helped us use our buying power in the market to push for better accessibility for both our employees and their other customers. It’s been satisfying to see how just asking a few questions can start a conversation.

Other cool accessibility accomplishments in 2021:

Throughout the year we learned a lot about how we could socialize our accessibility knowledge and support individuals as they came up with their own ideas. Of all the things we accomplished, our leadership team is most excited to see how many gains have come from Olarkers improving something because they wanted to vs. being told to.

  • We hadn’t set any commitments around improving our accessibility as an employer, but we realized we needed to. So, we hired an HR Manager to help us revamp all of our internal and candidate-facing processes.
  • We learned it’s way more energizing to build relationships in the accessibility community than read web standards documentation. So, several Olarkers attended their first a11y event. Members of every team went to CSUN this year, our CEO participated in a workshop with EduCause, and our Chief of Staff just came back from AccessU with many ideas.
  • To foster cross-functional learning and collaboration, we also formed an Accessibility Working Group. This move allows us to set goals, unblock accessibility initiatives across teams, and keep track of complex projects To help with developing an accessible agent console, many of the engineers on this product team have begun working toward International Association of Accessibility Professionals — Web Accessibility Specialist Certification ( IAAP WAS).
  • This month our Support team audited our Help Center for accessibility and have begun rewriting documentation and tutorials using plain language to make our self-serve content easier to read and understand.

Our 2022 Commitments: Where are we headed?

This year is all about building momentum and applying what we’ve learned. We’ll make progress with the basics by expanding audits and updating existing content. To level up, we’ll be formalizing accessibility education company-wide and contributing to the conversation about how chat helps (or hurts) accessibility.

Between now and GAAD 2023, we’ll continue to invest in meeting and maintaining our accessibility SLAs across the company. Here are the new commitments of where we’ll improve.

  1. Evaluate our new agent chat experience & establish our WCAG baseline.. In addition to getting feedback from testers with disabilities and customers with accessibility expertise, we’ll hire a 3rd-party auditor to help us understand where this product stands relative to WCAG guidelines. This information will inform our go-to-market plans and our product roadmap in 2023.
  2. Collaborate directly with chat agents who rely on assistive technology.We aim to make an agent chat app that is more than WCAG-compliant and nice to use for disabled customer support reps in their work environment. To achieve this, we need to partner with people who chat or perform related customer messaging tasks as part of their daily work. Frankly, this is hard to do because there are not a lot of accessible options on the market for customer support reps who use AT, but this is also why it’s so important that we build one and make it great. If you have any suggestions of people or organizations we should reach out to, or other advice around how to build this kind of usability panel, please reach out to benc@olark.com.
  3. Make the ASL Zoom integration available to other customers who want it. We’re so excited to launch this innovative feature with Gallaudet. Our goal is to enable this functionality for others who share Gallaudet’s vision for bilingual English/ASL chat.
  4. Publish best practices for accessible chatbots. We have strong opinions about chatbots. One of those opinions is that they can be a blessing or a curse for accessibility. This year we’ll share what we’ve learned about how to build chatbots that are helpful to people with disabilities, and we’ll give Olark customers guidance and feedback on how they can find a happy medium between automation and accessibility.
  5. Put every Olarker through role-specific accessibility training. Accessibility is everyone’s job. This year we will ensure everyone at Olark knows how to do their job in a way that supports disabled people. Each team will set its timeline and curriculum for training, but our Accessibility Working Group will provide oversight and resources. We’ll also lean on our new HR manager to ensure all new hires receive role-specific training within their first 100 days at Olark.
  6. Report the status of all accessibility issues quarterly. To quote our friends at Pope Tech, “there’s no point hiding your accessibility issues because people who have disabilities already know what they are”. We agree. We also think that it’s a lot to ask of people who’ve found our bugs to report them. We can save them the trouble by publishing the summary of our accessibility tickets.
  7. Speak at (or host) another GAAD event in 2023. We had a lot of fun presenting at CSUN, in part because it showed us how far we have to go to make our presentations, demos, and meetings accessible. We are committed to attending GAAD annually — we have already learned so much and it’s helpful for time-boxing our goals.

One year later: How has Olark changed since GAAD 2021?

It’s been an amazing 365 days at Olark, and our accessibility work has reinvigorated our company culture. This time last year, we had no idea how we’d meet some of the commitments we outlined, but we found a way because we don’t like to fail, especially not in public.

Using GAAD as an occasion to align our team around specific, realistic, and diverse goals helped us turn our passion into progress. It’s been rewarding for us to see teammates set their own goals and find satisfaction in knowing that their work aligned with their values.

Working on these goals and engaging with the a11y community has helped us realize our company values and feel connected to the people who can benefit most from what we do. After digging in with accessibility, we’re not that interested in being a chat software company — we’re inspired to be the most accessible and inclusive customer communication platform on the market.

Our experience with GAAD led us to make a huge decision last fall. We registered Olark as a Public Benefit Corporation (PBC) and wrote our commitment to accessibility into our company charter. Now, we have even higher stakes for this work, along with another external party to hold us to our mission. We plan to double down on this in 2022 by becoming a B-Corporation that’s evaluated on how well we contribute to social goals and inclusion in the workplace. To us, these designations are an extension of how we can push ourselves to be more accessible as a matter of practice and purpose.

More than anything, GAAD helped us make an important mental shift: accessibility is a journey, not a destination. To us, that means:

  • We focus on culture over compliance. Conforming to WCAG standards is useful because it offers a good starting point and makes it easy for customers to know if we meet the minimum requirements of accessibility. But emphasizing compliance and 3rd-party certification is a way to build “good enough” digital experiences and then give up in favor of other priorities. Investing in culture is the only way to make online experiences GREAT.
  • We focus on progress over perfection. We are flawed; if you scan our website for accessibility issues, you will find them. We have a lot of work to do, but we’ve found that it’s easier to do this work if we celebrate how we’ve improved and discuss momentum. We’ve also seen there aren’t many small businesses willing or able to talk openly about their accessibility failures. But we’ve gained more by being vulnerable, accepting critical feedback, and rewarding curiosity over expertise.
  • We reward curiosity over expertise. To quote Mike Shebanek, the PM who built VoiceOver and made iPhones accessible to blind and low-vision users, “it’s better to have a lot of people who know a little bit about accessibility than it is to have a few people who know everything about it”. This belief has informed how we’ve organized this work as a small team. Many industry leaders have experts on staff whose sole focus is accessibility. That sounds nice, but it’s not really an option in a company as small as Olark. We’ve seen it’s easier to guarantee that every project has a focus on accessibility if you invest in keeping people curious and motivated to learn what they don’t know.
  • We accept that we’ll never be done. Olark prefers to talk about “becoming accessible” instead of “being accessible” because only one of those is a durable goal in practice. The web is constantly changing, and so are the ways people adapt to get their needs met, even as an environment disables them. Once we realized that we’d never be finished, we started getting more done because it’s easier to commit to resources if you know you’ll need them forever.
  • We remember that designing for the few rewards the many. If you’ve made it this far, you probably already know that there’s no usability without accessibility. We’ve found that it helps to imagine how building the features that are required for people with disabilities ends up benefiting people who don’t. Some people use captions on Netflix because they can’t hear the dialog. Other people use captions on Netflix because the baby is finally asleep in the next room, so they must turn down the volume on their favorite show. Were it not for the needs of the Deaf community, captioned video may not have been created to benefit everyone else. Focusing on accessibility is a reliable path to innovation, and it’s a lot more fun to build something for the few people who need it now than it is to try to imagine what the world wants next.

Wrapping up — next steps in Olark’s accessibility quest

From building an accessible agent chat app to leveling up our website content, we’ve made positive steps forward in our accessibility journey. But we recognize this is just the beginning. To see significant changes in our products and content, we’ll need to continue optimizing our culture and technology to build an ecosystem in which accessibility (and usability) can thrive. We aren’t deterred, in fact, we’re ready for the challenge and will remain focused on progress over perfection through. We hope you’ll join us for the next stop on our journey.

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