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In this latest edition of our Skip to Content interview series, Heather Hepburn discusses her accessibility-driven mission at global travel brand Skyscanner. She tells us about her journey from UX Writer to Accessibility while working on a website that generates around 100 million visitors a month.
We discuss Heather’s experience introducing accessibility to her team and processes, the value of accessibility champions to an organisation and why closing skill or awareness gaps, in design and development teams, is vital.
Connect with Heather on LinkedIn
Who are you and what do you care about?
I am the Accessibility Lead at Skyscanner and, just for those who don’t know Skyscanner, we’re an online global travel brand. We help travellers find great flights, hotels and car hire and we’ve got about 100 million users a month at the moment. So all over the world, we translate into 35 different languages, and we really do want to be able to allow every traveller to use us, including travellers with disabilities.
But when I started there (that was about four years ago) and I started as a UX writer in the design team and, actually, it was during my interview process that I was asked to do a UX critique of the app. I was happily going through it and then realised, “wait a minute, there’s quite a few accessibility issues here!” Which was really surprising. And it was for two reasons surprising; firstly, I didn’t really knew that I knew what the what to look out for. But I’d come from RBS, where we’d been building accessible account opening systems and we had a couple of really strong accessibility champs there. I learned that it was just part of what we did, it was part of all the processes and we were creating this good stuff. Then, at Skyscanner, I was like, “Oh, that’s obviously not a priority or being looked at at all”. So that was the other surprising thing was that it wasn’t on their radar. Because they were a cool young tech start-up and I thought they’d be all over it but they weren’t!
I joined Skyscanner and went on a bit of a mission to try and rectify that and ended up moving out of the role as a UX writer into an accessibility role that I wrote for myself but was allowed to do so I was very happy about that. The programme has now been running for about three years and it’s going really well.
How do you, personally, go about explaining the importance of online accessibility to someone who never even considered it?
I would probably start by talking about the fact that one in five people have a permanent disability and, actually, that’s quite a lot, it’s a high number, and it’s 70% of those disabilities that are hidden. I think a lot of people, when they hear the word disability, they assume that we’re talking about someone in a wheelchair or someone who’s blind with a dog or a cane but the fact that 70% are hidden, then you can’t tell that someone has a disability by just looking at them. There’s so much more to it and it’s a much broader group. From that, I talk about all the different permanent disabilities that people could have that would affect who they use technology, so would affect how they interact with our website or app.
Then I also mention the temporary disabilities and the situational disabilities that every single person can have every day – bring it back to whoever I’m talking to, “this could help you as well”. I quite often give examples of me in the morning trying to read my phone without my glasses on; I use the BBC app because I can read it whereas other news apps I can’t – the text is too small, too pale so I can’t see it; or they’re not working with my ‘enlarge text’ setting that I have on my phone. So it really does apply to everybody.
How do you think the Internet, or the Web, will change over the next 10 years? And what specific features or habits that exist now do you hope will be seen as from their time?
This is a good question. I’m going to take a very optimistic view on this question. Others might not agree but, I think, that the way the Web is now; we all have so much access to so much information; we can talk to anyone we want; we can learn about so much about different people in different situations in different countries; we can understand a bit more about people and their differences and I think that that is making us all think in a more inclusive way.
I know at Skyscanner, even in the last four years, that we’ve always been a really inclusive business and I love that about about the company. Even in the last four years, I can see improvements being made in terms of inclusion all the time. We have different networks in the business; a trade network, a race network, we’ve just set up a Women’s Network. I have my accessibility champions network as well. It’s just providing more information and more understanding and, therefore, giving people the ability to be more inclusive and the desire to be more inclusive. I think that if that continues, I’m hoping in a way, that people who make the Internet, who make websites will be thinking along those lines as well and be more understanding of people with differences who they’re creating barriers for. I hope that they will then, automatically, not do that anymore. But there’s so much there.
The thing that I don’t want or don’t want to happen anymore and I hope is just gone is the fact that you need to fill in accessibility to leadership. For example, when I first brought it up at Skyscanner, I had to give a business case, I had to talk about ROI and all of these things. I hope in 10 years time that that part will be gone and it will just be ‘this is this is how we design websites’, ‘this is how we build websites’ and it’s part of that whole thing. But so much has to change to get to that, like education. I don’t know why it’s not mentioned in courses but I’ve spoken to quite a lot of students, particularly graduates who have come into the business and it’s barely touched on; it’s not on their radar which is crazy when it means, really genuinely, means better UX or better, higher quality code. Why is it not discussed or taught? I could get on another mission, actually, and try and change it! But I think it’s certainly improving.
If you’re with someone who who needs to check how accessible their website is but only has five minutes, or it might be someone that wants to understand it more, talk us through how you go about showing them?
I have a very recent example of this; I did exactly this this morning because I’m talking at a conference next week and someone got in touch saying “I’m coming to your session, it’d be great to meet up” and they’re from a software development agency and they have worked with us before, I believe. I was going say, “Well, I’m probably not the right person to speak to unless you’re offering some kind of accessibility support”. Anyway, I went onto their website just to check out how accessible they were and that took me two minutes.
I first opened up their website and I started tabbing through – I put my cursor up into the URL bar and I started tabbing through as if I was a keyboard only user. I instantly went “Ah, they’re not accessible”. I couldn’t see where I was on the page, the focus indicator was non-existent which I don’t understand because normally there’s a default one from a browser (I was in Chrome). It wasn’t even there! The origin of the tabbing was all over the place. It wasn’t reaching some parts, it was just absolutely not accessible. Then I turned on the screen reader (I tend to do that on my phone just because it’s easier) so I put the website into my phone, turned on Voice Over – within 10 seconds, it was telling me there was a button but there was no label on that button. Then I went back onto the computer and tried to zoom in up to 400% to see if it held together – it didn’t.
Honestly, that all took me literally two minutes and then, just of interest, I went back onto Chrome and I’ve got a Chrome plug-in called ‘Accessibility Insights’ and you can just let it run, you can do quite detailed, automated checks but you can check individual things. I just checked heading levels and they were all over the place and I checked colour contrast. Actually, the best thing about it, that I love, is when you’re tabbing through something, if you’ve got Accessibility Insights on, it will map where you are on the screen and it will give you numbers. It’s like giving you this little pathway of the tabbing and it’s really then clear to see if you’ve got a problem with the tabbing order. It’s really good and it’s a free plug-in. I did that just to have another final check and then I emailed her back to say, “I don’t think we’ll be meeting. First, I don’t think I’m the right person to talk to you anyway. Secondly, your website’s not accessible.”
In terms of the adoption of accessible digital products, what do you think is the biggest challenge facing us?
There’s a lot of challenges, I would say, and I think it depends where you’re at in your journey, what the biggest challenge is at the time. At the very beginning of the process, I might have said leadership buy-in was a challenge but now we’re beyond all of that. The company bought into, “Yes, we’re doing this, it’s absolutely the right thing to do, we want to be good at it.”
For us at the moment, I think the biggest challenge is the varying level of knowledge, or ‘skills gap’ if you want to call it that. It varies so much so even though the intention is there, we’re trying to embed accessibility into all of the different processes that we have, it still feels that people don’t quite know how to do their part, how to make what they are doing accessible. I think the more you delve into it, the more complex that seems. There’s a lot of ‘quick wins’ that people can do, particularly around things like colour contrast – that’s quite an easy one to fix, or to make sure you don’t create problems. As long as your colour contrast is high enough so that people can read the text against the backgrounds. That’s quite straightforward but the more you look into it, and you start looking at how to make something accessible for screen reader users, it can get a little bit technical and a little bit complex. I think, I don’t know, if that scares people off or, maybe, it’s because it’s not something that people are doing all day every day so it’s not something that becomes totally embedded in how they think.
I think at the moment, its level of knowledge that’s an issue. I’m trying to make the first half of next year really promote education and I want to put on lots of different workshops and training sessions and try and speak to people in a way that’s going to really hit home to them.
What is the one thing that every single person can do, or learn, to play a part in a progression towards a more accessible web??
Tricky to say one thing! But I will say, to summarise that, I would say that whatever part someone plays in the creation of the Web, whether that’s designing, righting, developing, testing, even project management, don’t just build for you but build for everybody. For each discipline, I think it’s slightly different ways to do that. For designers, I think personas are so useful. If you work with personas already, make sure that you include a couple of personas with different disabilities. Even things like colour blindness can be something so easy to design for but if you’re not thinking about it, it can be quite easy to create those barriers again so I would suggest those for designers.
For writers, like content designers or UX writers, when they’re creating visual content, I try and ask our writers to think about the hidden content at the same time. So you’ve got the text that’s appearing on screen. But sometimes you have to have additional text, as you will know, to describe images to people who can’t see the screen they’re listening to or to describe icons or buttons that don’t have wording on them, that kind of thing. I try and ask the writers to think about that while they’re writing the visual content so it should be the same tone of voice, it should be (for us) translated as well, into all the different languages at the same time. Again, it’s embedding it into what they’re doing.
For the developers and testers, I would ask people to think about, okay, this is how you interact with your device or this is how you access our website but think about how other people are accessing it. I’ve talked about it already but the keyboard-only users and the screen reader users are two great examples. I’d love all developers to be really aware of how screen readers work and how to test when they’re building something, how to have a listen to it themselves on the on their own device screen into the built in for every computer and every fortnight. So it’s easy to do. Also, people who are navigating just by the voice that we have to think about making sure that works as well. And a lots of different ways of interacting. So as long as people are aware of it, and trying to build for it.
Then project managers; I think these people are key to the whole thing because they’ve got this lovely overview of the whole project or process, they’re writing the requirements at the beginning so those requirements should include ‘make this work for people with disabilities’. You can go into so much detail in those requirements to make sure that happens and they should be expecting accessible design coming out from the design team. They should be allowing a little bit of extra time for the developers to build and test these things. I really do think they hold the key.
Make sure to connect with Heather Hepburn on LinkedIn.