We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know with Jennifer Strickland


02:51 – Jennifer’s Superpower: Kindness & Empathy

07:37 – Equitable Design and Inclusive Design

15:43 – Biases and Prejudices

22:57 – So…What do we do? How do we get people to care?

33:22 – How Ego Plays Into These Things

  • Actions Impact Others
  • For, With, and By
  • Indi Young

44:05 – Empathy and Accessibility

Reflections:

Casey: Animals can have cognitive disabilities too.

Damien: Equitable design initiatives and destroying the tenants of white supremacy.

Jennifer: Rest is key.

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Transcript:

MANDO: Hello, friends! Welcome to Greater Than Code, Episode number 243. My name is Mando Escamilla and I’m here with my wonderful friend, Damien Burke.

DAMIEN: Thank you, Mando, and I am here with our wonderful friend, Casey Watts.

CASEY: Hi, I’m Casey, and we’re all here today with Jennifer Strickland.

With more than 25 years of experience across the product lifecycle, Jennifer aims to ensure no one is excluded from products and services. She first heard of Ohana in Disney’s Lilo & Stitch, “Ohana means family. Family means no one gets left behind, or forgotten.” People don’t know what they don’t know and are often unaware of the corners they cut that exclude people. Empathy, compassion, and humility are vital to communication about these issues. That’s Jennifer focus in equitable design initiatives.

Welcome, Jennifer!

JENNIFER: Hi!

DAMIEN: You’re welcome.

MANDO: Hi, Jennifer. So glad you’re here.

JENNIFER: I’m so intrigued. [laughs] And I’m like 243 and this is the first I’m hearing of it?!

DAMIEN: Or you can go back and listen to them all.

MANDO: Yeah.

CASEY: That must be 5, almost 6 years?

JENNIFER: Do you have transcripts of them all?

CASEY: Yes.

JENNIFER: Great!

MANDO: Yeah. I think we do. I think they’re all transcribed now.

JENNIFER: I’m one of those people [chuckles] that prefers to read things than listen.

DAMIEN: I can relate to that.

CASEY: I really enjoy Coursera courses. They have this interface where you can listen, watch the video, and there’s a transcript that moves and highlights sentence by sentence. I want that for everything.

MANDO: Oh, yeah. That’s fantastic. It’s like closed captioning [laughs] for your audio as well.

JENNIFER: You can also choose the speed, which I appreciate. I generally want to speed things up, which yes, now that I’m getting older, I have to realize life is worth slowing down for. But when you’re in a life where survival is what you’re focused on, because you have a bunch of things that are slowing your roll and survival is the first thing in your mind, you tend to take all the jobs, work all the jobs, do all of the things because it’s how you get out of poverty, or whatever your thing is.

So I’ve realized how much I’ve multitasked and worked and worked and worked and I’m realizing that there is a part of the equality is lost there, but we don’t all have the privilege of slowing down.

DAMIEN: I can relate to that, too. So I believe every one of our past 243 episodes, we asked our guests the same question. You should know this is coming. Jennifer, what is your superpower and how did you acquire it?

JENNIFER: I don’t know for sure. People have told me that I’m the kindest person they’ve ever met, people have said I’m the most empathetic person I’ve ever met, and I’m willing to bet that they’re the same thing. To the people, they just see them differently.

I acquired being empathetic and kind because of my dysfunction in my invisible disabilities. I have complex post-traumatic stress disorder from childhood trauma and then repeated life trauma, and the way it manifests itself is trying to anticipate other people’s needs, emotions, moods, and all of that and not make people mad.

So that’s a negative with a golden edge. Life is full of shit; how you respond to it shows who you are and rather than molesting kids, or hurting people, I chose to do what I could to make sure that no one else goes through that and also, to try to minimize it coming at me anymore, too.

[chuckles]

But there’s positive ways of doing it. You don’t have to be like the people who were crappy to you and the same goes like, you’re in D.C.? Man, they’re terrible drivers and it’s like, [laughter] everybody’s taking their bad day and putting it out on the people they encounter, whether it’s in the store, or on the roads. I was like, “Don’t do that.” Like, how did it feel when your boss treated you like you were garbage, why would you treat anyone else like garbage? Be the change, so to speak.

But we’re all where we are and like I said in my bio, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” I realized earlier this week that it actually comes from Donald Rumsfeld who said, “Unknown unknowns.” I’m like, “Oh my God. Oh my God.”

MANDO: You can find good in lots of places, right? [laughs]

JENNIFER: If you choose to.

MANDO: Absolutely. Yeah.

JENNIFER: Look at, what’s come out of the horror last year. We talk about shit that we didn’t use to talk about. Yeah, it’s more exhausting when lots of people, but I think in the long run, it will help move us in the right direction. I hope.

MANDO: Yeah. That’s absolutely the hope, isn’t it?

JENNIFER: We don’t know what we don’t know at this time.

My sister was volunteering at the zoo and she worked in the Ape House, which I was super jealous of. There’s an orangutan there named Lucy who I love and Lucy loves bags, pouches, and lipstick. So I brought a backpack with a pouch and some old lipstick in it and I asked a volunteer if I could draw on the glass.

They gave me permission so I made big motions as I opened the backpack and I opened the pouch and you see Lucy and her eyes are like, she’s starting to side-eye me like something’s going on. And then she runs over and hops up full-time with her toes on the window cell and she’s like right up there. So I’m drawing on the glass with the lipstick and she’s loving it, reaches her hand behind, poops into her hand, takes the poop and repeats this little actions on the glass.

MANDO: [laughs] Which is amazing. It’s hilarious so that’s amazing.

JENNIFER: It’s fantastic. I just think she’s the bomb. My sister would always send pictures and tell me about what Lucy got into and stuff. Lucy lived with people who would dress her in people clothing and so, she’s the only one of the orangutans that didn’t grow up only around orangutans so the other orangutans exclude her and treat her like she’s a weirdo and she’s also the one who likes to wear clothes.

Like my sister gave her an FBI t-shirt so she wears the FBI t-shirt and things like that. She’s special in my heart. Like I love the Lucy with all of it.

DAMIEN: Well, that’s a pretty good display of your super empathetic superpower there.

[laughter]

And it sounds like it might be really also related to the equitable design initiatives?

JENNIFER: Yeah. So I’m really grateful. I currently work at a place that although one would think that it would be a big, scary place because of some of the work that we do. I’ve found more people who know what equity is and care about what equity is.

The place I worked before, I talked about inclusive design because that’s everywhere else I’ve worked, it’s common that that’s what you’re doing these days. But they told me, “Don’t say that word, it’s activism,” and I was stunned. And then I’m like, “It’s all in GSA documents here,” and they were like, “Oh,” and they were the ones that were really bad about like prioritizing accessibility and meeting section 508 compliance and just moving it off to put those issues in the backlog. The client’s happy, no one’s complained, they think we’re doing great work.

It’s like, you’re brushing it all under the rug and you’re telling them what you’ve done and you’re dealing with people who don’t know what section 508 is either because who does? Very few people really know what it means to be section 508 compliant because it’s this mystery container. What is in this? What is this? What is this thing?

DAMIEN: So for our listeners who don’t know, can you tell us a bit what section 508 is?

JENNIFER: Sure. So section 508 means that anything paid for with federal funds must be section 508 compliant, which means it must meet WCAG 2.0 success criteria and WCAG is Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

If you’re ever looking for some really complicated, dense, hard to understand reading, I recommend opening up the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. I think the people that are on the working groups with me would probably agree and that’s what we’re all working towards trying to improve them.

But I think that they make the job harder. So rather than just pointing at them and complaining like a lot of people do on Twitter, or deciding “I’m going to create a business and make money off of making this clear for people,” I decided instead to join and try to make it better. So the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are based on Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust, POUR. Pour like this, not poor like me. [laughs]

So there’s just a bunch of accessibility criteria that you have to meet to make your work section 508 compliant. It’s so hard to read and so hard to understand that I feel for everybody like of course, you don’t know what section 508 compliance is. It’s really, really hard to read. But if somebody who is an accessibility specialist tells you and writes up an issue ticket, you don’t argue with them. You don’t say, “This isn’t a thing,” you say, “Okay, how soon do I need to fix it?” and you listen to them, but that’s not what I experienced previously.

Where I am now, it’s amazing. In the place I worked before here, like just the contracting, they welcomed everything I said to them regarding accessibility. So I just clearly worked at a contractor that was doing a lot of lip service and not talking the talk, not walking the talk, sorry. [laughs]

Super frustrating. Because accessibility is only a piece of it. I am older probably than anybody on this call and I’m a woman working in tech and I identify as non-binary. The arguments I’ve had about they/them all my life have been stupid, but I’m just like, “Why do I have to be female?” It’s just, why do I have to be one, or the other? Anyway, everyone has always argued with me so I’m so grateful for the young ones now for pushing all that.

I’m Black, Native, Mexican, and white all smushed together and my grandma wouldn’t let me in the house because apparently my father was too dark so therefore, I’m too dark. Hello? Look at this!

[laughter]

Currently, some people are big on the one drop rule and I always say to people, “If you hate me, or want to exclude me so much because somewhere in me you know there is this and how do you feel about so-and-so? I’m done with you and you are bad people and we’ve got to fight this stupidity.”

I have also invisible disabilities. So I’m full of all these intersectional things of exclusion. I personally experience a lot of it and then I have the empathy so I’m always feeling fuzzy people who are excluded. So what am I supposed to do with the fact that I’m smart, relatively able-bodied, and have privilege of being lighter skin so I can be a really good Trojan horse? I have to be an advocate like, what else am I supposed to do with my life? Be a privileged piece of poop that just wants to get rich and famous, like a lot of people in tech? Nope.

And I don’t want to be virtue signaling and savior complex either and that’s where equitable design has been a wonderful thing to learn more about. HmntyCntrd.com and Creative Reaction Lab out in Missouri, those are two places where people can do a lot of learning about equity and truly inclusion, and challenging the tenants of white supremacy in our working ways.

I’m still trying to find better ways of saying the tenants of white supremacy because if you say that in the workplace, that sounds real bad, especially a few months back before when someone else was in office. When you say the tenants of white supremacy in the workplace, people are going to get a little rankled because that’s not stuff we talk about in the workplace.

DAMIEN: Well, it’s not just the workplace.

JENNIFER: Ah, yes.

DAMIEN: They don’t like that at sports bars either. Ask me how I know.

MANDO: No, they sure don’t.

[laughter]

JENNIFER: We should go to sports bars together. [laughs] Except I’m too scared to go to them right now unless they’re outdoors.

But when we talk to people about the actual individual tenants about power hoarding, perfectionism, worship of the written word, and things like that, people can really relate and then you watch their faces and they go, “Yeah, I do feel put my place by these things and prevented from succeeding, progressing, all of these things.” These are things that we’ve all been ingrained to believe are the way we evaluate what’s good and what’s bad. But we don’t have to. We can talk about this stuff when we can reject those things and replace them with other things. But I’m going to be spending the rest of my life trying to dismantle my biases.

I’m okay with my prejudices because even since I was a kid, I recognized that we were all prejudice and it’s okay. It’s our knee jerk first assumption, but you always have to keep an open mind, but that prejudice is there to protect you, but you always have to question it and go, “What is that prejudice? Is that bullshit? Is it right? Is it wrong?” And always looking at yourself, it’s always doing that what you call self-awareness stuff, and always be expanding it, changing it, and moving it.

But prejudice? Prejudice has a place to protect, speaking as someone who’s had guns in her face, knives through her throat, and various other yucky things, I know that when I told myself, “Oh, you’re being prejudiced, push yourself out into that vulnerable feeling,” things didn’t go very well. So instead, recognize “Okay, what are you thinking in this moment about this situation? Okay, how can you proceed and keep an open mind while being self-protective?”

DAMIEN: Yeah, it sounds like you’re talking about Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 Thinking. We have these instinctive reactions to things and a lot of them are learned—I think they’re all learned actually. But they’re instinctive and they’re not things we decide consciously. They’re there to protect us because they’re way faster, way more efficient than most of what we are as humans as thinking and enacting beings. But then we also have our rational mind where we can use to examine those things and so, it’s important to utilize both. It’s also important to know where your instinctive responses are harmful and how to modify them so that they’re not harmful. And that is the word.

JENNIFER: I’ve never heard of it. Thanks for putting that in there. Power accretion principles is that it?

CASEY: Oh, that’s something else.

JENNIFER: Oh.

CASEY: Type 1 and type 2 thinking.

JENNIFER: But I know with a lot of my therapy work as a trauma survivor, I have to evaluate a lot of what I think and how I react to things to change them to respond things. But there are parts of having CPTSD that I am not going to be able to do that, too. Like they’re things where for example, in that old workplace where there was just this constant invalidation and dismissal of the work, which was very triggering as a rape survivor/incest survivor, that I feel really bad and it made me feel really unsafe all the time.

So I felt very emotional in the moment and so, I’d have to breathe through my nose, breathe out to my mouth, feel my tummy, made sure I can feel myself breathing deeply, and try to calmly explain the dire consequences of some of these decisions.

People tend to think that the design and development decisions we make when we’re building for the web, it’s no big deal if you screw it up. It’s not like an architect making a mistake in a building and the building falls down. But when you make a mistake, that means a medical locator application doesn’t load for an entire minute on a slow 3G connection—when your audience is people who are financially challenged and therefore, unlikely to have always high-speed, or new devices—you are making a design decision that is literally killing people.

When you make a design decision, or development decision not to QA your work on mobile, tablet, and desktop, and somebody else has to find out that your Contact Us options don’t open on mobile so people in crisis can’t reach your crisis line.

People are dying. I’m not exaggerating. I have a talk I give called You’re Killing Your Users and it got rejected from this conference and one of the reviewers wrote, “The title is sensationalism. No one dies from our decision,” and I was just like, “Oh my God, oh my God.”

MANDO: [laughs] Like, that’s the point.

JENNIFER: What a privileged life you live. What a wonderfully privileged life! There’s a difference between actions and thoughts and it’s okay for me to think, “I really hope you fall a flight of stairs and wind up with a disability and leave the things that you’re now trying to put kibosh on.” But that’s not me saying, “I’m going to go push you down a flight of stairs,” or that I really do wish that on someone. It’s emotional venting, like how could you possibly close yourself off to even listening to this stuff?

That’s the thing that like, how do we get to a point in tech where so many people in tech act like the bad stereotype of surgeons who have this God complex, that there are particular entities working in government tech right now that are told, “You’re going to save government from itself. You’ve got the answers. You are the ones that are going to help government shift and make things better for the citizen, or the people that use it.”

But the people that they hire don’t know what they don’t know and they keep doing really horrible things. Like, they don’t follow the rules, they don’t take the time to learn the rules and so, they put user personal identifying information, personal health information on the public server without realizing it that’s a no-no and then it has to be wiped, but it can never really fully be wiped.

And then they make decisions like, “Oh, well now we’re only worried about the stuff that’s public facing. We’re not worried about the stuff that’s internally facing.” Even though, the internally facing people are all some of the vulnerable people that we’re serving. I’m neutralizing a lot of what I’m talking about. [chuckles]

MANDO: Of course.

[laughter]

DAMIEN: Well, convinced me of the problems. It was an easy sell for me. Now, what do we do?

JENNIFER: The first thing we do is we all give a fuck about other people. That’s the big thing, right? Like, how do I convince you that you should care about people who aren’t you?

MANDO: Yeah.

CASEY: I always think about the spectrum of caring. I don’t have a good word for it, but there are active and passive supporters—and you can be vocal, or quiet—like loud, or quiet. I want more people to be going around the circle of it so if they’re vocally opposed, just be quiet, quietly opposed, maybe be quietly in support, and if you’re quietly in support, maybe speak up about it. I want to nudge people along around this, the four quadrants.

A lot of people only focus on getting people who passively care to be more vocal about it. That’s a big one. That’s a big transition. But I also like to focus on the other two transitions; getting a lot of people to be quiet about a thing that as opposed. Anyway, everywhere along that process is useful.

JENNIFER: I think it’s important to hear the people who were opposed because otherwise, how are we ever going to help understand and how are we going to understand if maybe where we’ve got a big blind spot? Like, we have to talk about this stuff in a way that’s thoughtful.

I come from a place in tech where in the late 90s, I was like, “I want to move from doing print to onscreen and printing environmental to that because it looks like a lot of stuff has gone to this web thing.” I picked up Jeffrey Zeldman’s Designing with Web Standards and Dan Cederholm’s Bulletproof Web Design and all of them talk about using web standards and web standards means that you prioritize accessibility from the beginning.

So the first thing you build is just HTML tagging your content and everyone can use it. It’s not going to be fancy, but it’s going to be completely usable. And then you layer things on through progressive enhancement to improve the experience for people with fancy phones, or whatever.

I don’t know why, but that’s not how everybody’s coming into doing digital work. They’re coming in through React out of the box, thinking that React out of the box is – and it’s like nope, you have to build in the framework because nobody put the framework in React. React is just a bunch of hinges and loops, but you have to put the quality wood in and the quality glass panes and the handles that everybody can use. I’m not sure if that analogy is even going to work.

But one of the things I realized talking with colleagues today is I tend to jump to three steps in when I really need to go back, start at the beginning, and say, “Here are the terms. This is what section 508 is. This is what accessibility is. This is what A11Y is. This is WCAG, this is how it’s pronounced, this is what it means, and this is the history of it.”

I think understanding history of section 508 and what WCAG is also vital in the first version of WCAG section 508, it adopted part of what was WCAG 1.0, but it wasn’t like a one to one for 1.0, it was just some of it and then it updated in 2017, or 2018, I forget. Without my cheat sheet, I can’t remember this stuff. Like I got other things to keep in my brain.

CASEY: I just pulled up my favorite cheat sheet and I put it in the chat sidebar here.

JENNIFER: Oh, thank you. It’s in my slides for Ohana for Digital Service Design that I gave at WX Summit and I think I also gave it recently in another thing. Oh, UXPA DC.

But the thing is, the changes only recently happened where it went to WCAG 2.0 was 2018, I think it got updated. So all those people that were resisting me in 2018, 2019, 2020 likely never realized that there was a refresh that they need to pay attention to and I kept trying to like say, “No, you don’t understand, section 508 means more now.”

Technically, the access board that defines what section 508 is talking about moving it to 2.1, or 2.2 and those include these things. So we should get ahead of the ball, ahead of the curve, or whatever you want to call it and we should be doing 2.1 and 2.2 and even beyond thinking about compliance and that sort of stuff. The reason we want to do human beings is that 2.1 and 2.2 are for people who are cognitively fatigued and I don’t think there’s anyone who’s been through the pandemic who is not cognitively fatigued. If you are, you are just a robot. I don’t know. I don’t know who could not be not cognitive fatigue.

And then the other people that also helps are mobile users. So if you look at any site, look at their usage stats, everything moving up and up and up in mobile devices. There’s some people who don’t have computers that they only have phones. So it just seems silly not to be supporting those folks. But we need, I don’t know. I need to think more about how to get there, how to be more effective in helping people care, how to be more effective in teaching people.

One of the big pieces I’ve learned in the last six months is the first step is self-care—sleep, exercise, eat, or maybe those two need to be back and forth. I haven’t decided yet because I’m still trying to get the sleep workout.

Before I moved to D.C., I was a runner, hiker, I had a sit spot at the local pond where I would hang out with the fishes and the turtles and the frogs and the birds and here, I overlook the Pentagon and there’s swarms of helicopters. I grow lots of green things to put between me and it, but it’s hard. The running is stuck because I don’t feel safe and things like that.

I live in an antiseptic neighborhood intentionally because I knew every time I went into D.C. and I saw what I see, I lose hope because I can’t not care. It kills me that I have to walk by people who clearly need – this is a messed up world. We talk about the developing world as the place where people are dying on the side of the road. Do you have blinders on like, it’s happening here? I don’t know what to do. I care too much. So what do we do? What do you think?

DAMIEN: Well, I think you have a hint. You’ve worked at places that are really resistant to accessibility and accessibility to improvements, and you’ve worked at some that are very welcoming and eager to implement them. So what were the differences? What do you think was the source of that dichotomy?

JENNIFER: I think at the place I worked after I left the hellhole; the product owner was an Asian woman and the other designer was from India. Whereas, before the other place was a white woman and a white man and another white man who was in charge. And then the place I work now, it’s a lot of people who are very neurodiverse. I work at MITRE, which is an FFRDC, which is a Federally Funded Research and Development Center. It’s full of lots of smart people who are very bookish.

It’s funny when I was a little kid, I was in the gifted and talented kids and so, they would put us into these class sessions where we were to brainstorm and I love brainstorming. I love imagining things. I remember thinking, “I want to work in a think tank and just all I do all the time is brainstorm and we’d figure out a way to use some of those things!” And I feel a little bit like I’m there now, which is cool and they treat one another really well at MITRE, which is nice. Not to say it’s perfect there. Nowhere is perfect. But compared to a lot of places, it’s better.

I think it’s the people are taking the time to listen, taking the time to ask questions. The people I work with don’t have a lot of ego, generally. At least not the ones I’m working with. I hear that they do exist there, but I haven’t run into many of them. Whereas, the other place, there was a lot of virtue signaling and a lot of savior complex. Actually, very little savior conflicts. They didn’t really care about saving anyone, sorry. Snark! [laughs]

DAMIEN: Can you tell us a little more about ego and how ego plays into these things?

JENNIFER: How do you think ego plays into these things?

DAMIEN: Well, I think it causes people to one up and turn questions around it on me, that’s one way.

Ego means a lot of things to a lot of different people, which is why I asked the question. I think it was introduced to English by Freud and I don’t want to use a Freudian theory for anything ever.

[laughter]

And then when I talk to people about death of the ego and [inaudible] and all of these things, it seems really unpleasant. People like their self-identity, people like being themselves, and they don’t want to stop being themselves. So I’m not sure how that’s related to what you were saying.

CASEY: The way I’m hearing you use ego here sounds like self-centered, thinking about your own perspective, not taking the time and effort and energy to think about other people’s perspectives. And if you don’t have a diverse set of experiences to lean on your own, you’re missing out on a lot.

JENNIFER: Yeah. I tend to think about, I guess, it’s my dysfunction. Once again, it’s like, how do my actions impact others? Why are other people thinking about how their actions impact others? When you’re out in public and you’ve got to cut the cheese, are you going to do it when there are a lot of people around? Are you going to take a stinky deuce in a public bathroom that you know other people in there? If you think about the community around you, you would go find a private one if you cared at all. But most people don’t care and they think, “I do what I got to do.”

I just think we need to think a little bit more about the consequences of our actions and I tweeted yesterday, or this morning about how – oh, it was yesterday. I was watching TV and a new, one of those food delivery commercials came on. This one, they send you a stove, you get a little oven, and you cook all of their meals in this little throwaway dishes. So you have no dishes, nothing. How much are we going to just keep creating crap?

When you think about all of this takeout and delivery, there’s just so much trash we generate. We should be taxing the bleep out of companies that make these sorts of things like, Amazon should have the bleep taxed out of it because of all the cardboard and I’m just as guilty because I ordered the thing and the box of staples arrives in a box. It has a plastic bubble wrap all around it. Like it’s just a box at $2.50 staples, but I couldn’t be bothered to go – I don’t know if they have them at Walgreens. Like for real, I don’t know.

We need to do better. We need to think about the consequences of these decisions and not just do it like, that’s the thing that tech has been doing is let’s make an MVP and see if it has wheels. Let’s make a prototype, but do the thing. Okay, let’s do the thing. Oh, it’s got wheels. Oh, it’s growing, it’s growing, it’s growing, it’s growing. Who cares about the consequences of all of it? Who cares? Your kids, your grandkids someday maybe will when the world is gone.

We talk about climate change. We talk about 120-degree temperatures in Seattle and Portland, the ocean on fire, the beaches are eroding, like the ice cap—most of the Arctic is having a 100 and some odd degree temperature day. Like we are screwing it up and our legislation isn’t keeping pace with the advances in technology that are just drawing things.

Where are the people who care in the cycle and how are they interrupting the VCs who just want to like be the next big tech? Everybody wants to be the next Zuckerberg, or Jack, or Bezos, or Gates, or whatever, and nobody has to deal with the consequences of their actions and their consequences of those design and development decisions.

That’s where I think it’s ego, it’s self-centeredness, it’s wanting to be famous, it’s wanting to be rich instead of really, truly wanting to make the world a better place. I know my definition of better. We’ve got four different visions of what better is going to be and that’s hard work. Maybe it is easier to just focus on getting famous and getting rich than it is on doing the hard work of taking four different visions of what good is and trying to find the way forward.

DAMIEN: Making the world a better place. The world will be a better place when I’m rich and famous. But that also means – and that’s the truth.

[laughter]

But what else you said was being empathetic and having a diverse – well, marginalized people in charge where you can see that that’s why the impact that things are having on other people. It’s not just about me being rich and famous, but it’s also about things being better for other people, too.

JENNIFER: Yeah. I don’t necessarily mean marginalized people have to be in charge.

DAMIEN: Right. I took that jump based on your description of the places you worked for. I should have specified that. I wasn’t clear enough.

JENNIFER: I do have to say that in general, when I’ve worked for people who aren’t the status quo, more often than not, they bring a compassionate, empathetic approach. Not always. There have been some that are just clearly driven and power hungry, and I can’t fault them either because it’s got to take a lot to come up from wherever and fight through the dog-eat-dog world.

But in the project work, there’s the for, with and by. The general ways that we redesign and build things for people, then the next piece is we design and build things with the people that we’re serving, but the newer way of doing things is that we don’t design and build the things, the people that we’re serving design the things and tell us what they want to design, and then we figure out how to make sure that it’s built the way they tell us to. That goes against the Steve Jobs approach where Steve Jobs said people don’t know what they want sort of thing. Wasn’t that was he said?

DAMIEN: Yeah. Well, there was Henry Ford who said, “If you ask people what they wanted, they would’ve said faster horses.”

JENNIFER: Right.

D And Steve Jobs kind of did the same thing.

JENNIFER: Right. And we, as designers, have to be able to work with that and pull that out and suss it out and make sure that we translate it into something useful and then iterate with to make sure that we get it.

Like when I do research, listening sessions with folks, I have to use my experience doing this work to know what are the – like, Indi Young’s inner thinking, reactions, and guiding principles. Those are the things that will help guide you on what people are really wanting and needing and what their purpose is. So you make sure that whatever your understanding is closer to what they’re really saying, because they don’t know what can be built. They don’t know what goes on, but they do know what their purpose is and what they need. Maybe they don’t even know what they need, but they do know what their purpose is, or you keep validating things.

CASEY: I want to amplify, you said Indi Young. I read a lot of her work and she just says so many things that I wish someone would say, and she’s been saying them for a while. I just didn’t know about her. Indi Young.

JENNIFER: It’s I-N-D-I and Y-O-U-N-G. I am so grateful that I got to take her courses. I paid for them all myself, except for one class—I let that other place pay for one through my continuing ed, but I wanted to do it so badly that I paid for all myself. The same thing with all the Creative Reaction Lab and HmntyCntrd stuff; I paid for those out of my own money that probably could have gone to a vacation, [chuckles] or buying a car, or something. But contributing to our society in a responsible and productive way, figuring out how to get my language framework better.

Like you said earlier, Damien, I’m really good at pointing out what the problems are. I worry about figuring out how we solve them, because I don’t really have the ego to think that I know what the answer is, but I’m very interested in working with others to figure out how we solve them. I have some ideas, but how do you tell a React developer that you really have to learn HTML, you have to learn schematic HTML. That’s like learning the alphabet. I don’t understand.

CASEY: Well, I have some ideas around that. Amber is my go-to framework and they have accessibility baked into the introduction tutorial series. They have like 13 condoned add-ons that do accessibility related things. At the conference, there’s always a whole bunch of accessibility tracks. Amber is like happy path accessibility right front and center.

React probably has things like that. We could have React’s onboarding docs grow in that direction, that would be great, and have more React add-ons to do that that are condoned and supported by the community could have the same path. And it could probably even use a lot of the same core code even. The same principles apply.

JENNIFER: If you want to work together and come up with some stuff to go to React conferences, or work with the React team, or whatever.

CASEY: Sounds fun.

DAMIEN: Well, one of the things you talked about the way you described it and made it sound like empathy was so much of the core of it. In order to care about accessibility, you have to empathize with people who need that functionality. You have to empathize with people who are on 3G flip phones. That’s not a thing, is it? [laughs] But nonetheless, empathizing.

JENNIFER: A flat screen phone, a smartphone looking thing and it’s still – if anyone’s on a slow 3G, it’s still going to be a miserable experience.

DAMIEN: Yeah, 3G with a 5-year-old Android OS.

JENNIFER: But I don’t think it’s necessarily that people have to empathize. In an ideal world would, but maybe they could be motivated by other things like fast. Like, do you want to fast cumulative layout shift? Do you want like a great core vitals Google score? Do you want a great Google Lighthouse score? Do you want the clear Axe DevTools scan? Like when I get a 100% little person zooming in a wheelchair screen instead of issues found. Especially if I do it the first time and like, I hadn’t been scanning all along and I just go to check it for the first time and it’s clean, I’m like, “Yes!” [laughs]

CASEY: Automation helps a lot.

JENNIFER: Yeah.

CASEY: When I worked at USCIS, I don’t know what this meant, but they said we cannot automate these tests. I think we can and they didn’t do it yet, but I’ve always been of baffled. I think half of it, you can automate tests around and we had none at the time.

JENNIFER: Yeah, you catch 30 to 50% of the accessibility issues via the Axe rule set and JSX Alley and all that. You can catch 30 to 50.

CASEY: Sounds great.

JENNIFER: That’s still better than catching none of them. Still not great, but it’s still better than nothing. They’re not here to tell us why they can’t, but adding things into your end-to-end test shouldn’t be that hard if you know how to write tests. I don’t personally know how to write tests. I want to. I don’t know. Like, I have to choose which thing am I going to work on?

I’m working on an acquisition project, defining the requirements and the scope and the red tape of what a contract will be and it’s such foreign territory for me. There’s a lot of pieces there that I never ever thought I would be dealing with and my head hurts all the time. I feel stupid all the time, but that’s okay. If you’re not doing something you haven’t done before, maybe you’re not learning, it’s growing. I’m growing. I’m definitely growing, but in different ways and I miss the code thing of I have a to-do list where I really want to get good at Docker, now I want to learn few, things like that and I want to get back to learning Python because Python, I think is super cool.

CASEY: There’s one thing I wanted to mention earlier that I just remembered. One thing that was eye-opening to me for accessibility concerns is when I heard that screen reader has existed, which was several years into my programming career. I didn’t know they were a thing at all. I think it’s more common now that people know about them today than 10, 15 years ago. But I still haven’t seen someone use a screen reader and that would be really important for me as a developer. I’m not developing software lately either so I’m not really coding that. But if anyone hasn’t, you should use a screen reader on your computer if you’re developing software that might have to be used by one.

JENNIFER: So everyone on a Mac has voiceover. Everyone on an iPhone has voiceover. It’s really hard on the iPhone, I feel like I can’t, oh, it’s really hard. I’ve heard great things about Talkback on Android. And then on Windows, newer versions have Microsoft Narrator, which is a built-in screen reader. You can also download NVDA for free and install it. It depends on how much money you want to spend. There a bunch of different ways to get Jaws, do Jaws, too. Chrome has Chromebox so you can get another screen reader that way.

CASEY: So many options. It’s kind of overwhelming. If I had to recommend one for a Windows user and one for a Mac user, would you recommend the built-in ones just to start with, to play with something?

JENNIFER: So everywhere I’ve tested, whether it was at the financial institution, or the insurance place, or the government place, we always had to test with Jaws, NVDA, and voiceover. I test with voiceover because it’s what I have on my machine, because I’m usually working on a Mac.

But the way I look at the screen reader is the number of people who are using screen readers is significantly fewer than the number of people with cognitive considerations. So I try to use good semantic markup, basic web standards so that things will work; things have always been pretty great in screen readers because of that. I try to keep my code from being too complicated, or my UI is from being complicated, which might do some visual designers seem somewhat boring to some of them. [chuckles]

CASEY: Do you ever turn off CSS for the test?

JENNIFER: Yes, and if it makes sense that way, then I know I’m doing it right and is it still usable without JavaScript. Better yet, Heydon Pickering’s way of like, it’s not usable unless you turn off the JavaScript, that was fabulous. I pissed off so many people.

But to me, I try to focus on other things like how clear is, how clean is it? Can I tab through the whole UI? Can I operate it with just a keyboard? Your keyboard is your best assistive tech tester. You don’t skip. If you can tap through anything without getting stuck, excellent. If you don’t skip over nav items.

CASEY: My biggest pet peeve is when websites don’t work when you zoom in, because all of my devices I zoom in not because my vision is bad, but because for my posture. I want to be able to see my screen from a far distance and not lean in and craning my neck over laptop and my phone, both and a lot of websites break.

JENNIFER: Yeah.

CASEY: You zoom in the text at all, you can’t read anything.

JENNIFER: Yeah. At the one place I worked before, we required two steps of zoom in and two steps of zoom out, and it still had to be functional. I don’t see that in most places; they don’t bother to say things like that.

CASEY: Yeah.

JENNIFER: At the government, too –

CASEY: I wonder how common it is if people do that. I do it so I think it’s very common, but I don’t know the right.

[laughter]

JENNIFER: But that’s how the world is, right? I can tell you that once you hit this old age and your eyes start to turn against you and things are too small, or too light, you suddenly understand the importance of all of these things so much more.

So for all of those designers doing your thin gray text on white backgrounds, or thin gray text on gray backgrounds, or your tiny little 12 and under pixels for your legaleas, karma is out to get you. [chuckles] We’ve all done it. Like there was a time I thought nobody cared about the legaleas. That’s not true. Even your footer on your website should be big enough for people to read. Otherwise, they think I’m signing away my soul to zoom because I can’t read it. If you can zoom it in, that’s great. But some apps disable the zoom.

DAMIEN: So we usually end on a series of reflections. How do you feel about moving to that?

JENNIFER Sure!

DAMIEN: We let our guests go last.

Casey, do you have a reflection you want to share with us?

CASEY: I’m thinking back to Mando’s dog and I thought it was interesting, Jennifer, that you linked your experiences with the dog’s experiences. Like, some of the symptoms you have might be similar if a dog has CPTSD, too and I think that’s really insightful. I think a lot of animals have that kind of set up, but we don’t treat them like we treat humans with those issues even if they’re similar.

DAMIEN: It was in your bio, equitable design initiatives, I really want it to dig into that because that fascinates me and I guess, if draws that bridge between things that I think are very important, or very important for me, both accessibility, that sort of work, especially in software design, because that’s where I’m at. And then destroying the tenants of white supremacy and being able to connect those as things that work together and seeing how they work together. Yeah, that’s what I’m going to be reflecting on.

JENNIFER: Yeah. Whenever we’re doing our work, looking for opportunities to surface and put it out for everyone to look at who has power, if this changes who has power, if this doesn’t change who has power, what is motivating the players, are people motivated by making sure that no one’s excluded, or are people motivated by making sure that their career moves forward, or they don’t get in trouble rather than truly serving?

I still am in the mindset of serving the people with a purpose that we’re aiming to meet the needs of kind of thing. I still have that mindset. A lot of the prep work, we’re still talking about the people we aim to serve and it’s still about getting them into the cycle. That is a very big position of power that a designer has and acknowledging that that’s power and that I wield that power in a way that I consider responsible, which is to make sure that we are including people who are historically underrepresented, especially in those discussions.

I’m really proud of a remote design challenge where all of our research participants were either people of color, or people with disabilities. Man, the findings insights were so juicy. There was so much that we could do with what we got. It was really awesome.

So by equitable design initiatives, it’s really just thinking about acknowledging the power that we have and trying to make sure we do what we can to share it, transfer it, being really respectful of other perspectives. I’ve always thought of it as infinite curiosity about others and some people have accused me being nosy and they didn’t realize it’s not about getting up in their private business. It’s just, I want to be gracious and respect others.

What I will reflect on was how I really need to rest. I will continue to reflect on how I rest is key. I’m making a conscious decision for the next couple of months to not volunteer because I tend to do too much, as Casey may, or may not know. [chuckles] Yeah, I want to wake up in the morning and feel energized and ready to take full advantage of, which is not the right way to phrase it, but show up as my best self and well-prepared for the work. Especially since I now have found myself a new incredibly compassionate, smart place that genuinely aims to improve equity and social justice, and do things for the environment and how grateful I am. I totally thought this place was just about let’s them all and it’s so not. [laughs]

So there’s so many wonderful people. I highly recommend everybody come work with me if you care about things.

DAMIEN: That’s awesome. Well, thank you so much, Jennifer for being our guest today. It’s been a pleasure.

The author’s affiliation with The MITRE Corporation is provided for identification purposes only, and is not intended to convey or imply MITRE’s concurrence with, or support for, thepositions, opinions, or viewpoints expressed by the author. ©2021 The MITRE Corporation. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Approved for public release. Distribution unlimited 21-2206.

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