Accessibility and Empathy: An Interview With Derek Featherstone

Derek Featherstone is a veteran of the browser wars, the web standards movement, and the drive to make the web accessible to all. In the days before his full-day learning session at the sold-out AEA Seattle, we took a few minutes to chat with him about becoming a web professional, employing empathy in the design process, and the talk he'll be presenting at An Event Apart Boston.

How and where did you get your start in design, web or otherwise?

A long time ago, I was a high school Biology, Chemistry, and Computers teacher here in Ottawa, my hometown. I started making websites for my students and fellow teachers and instantly fell in love with what the web was bringing to the world. I left teaching high school after getting sick; I had Bell's Palsy and was out of commission for about three months, until most of my face paralysis was gone. I decided to start teaching people how to build websites—something I loved doing while I was teaching. It was new, it was cool, and I loved that I could build things and put them online, where they were available to anyone.

I started my own company teaching HTML, CSS, and JavaScript back in 1999. I remember thinking, “If I'm going to teach people how to do this, I'd better be able to do it myself”—so I started building websites for clients as well. I was teaching about ten days a month, and would design and build the other ten. It kind of kept growing from there. I'd get a gig to train someone in how to build stuff with ASP or JavaScript, and they'd eventually say, “Hmmm… can you actually just do this for us instead of teaching us?” This happened in many cases, and it gave me the real industry experience I needed to be able to teach people based on what I knew, rather than simply what I'd read about other people doing.

What drew you to accessibility?

I can remember writing code that rendered just fine in IE3 but didn't display at all in Netscape 3. Figuring out that I had forgotten to close an element in my markup was frustrating and illuminating at the same time. That led me to web standards—and accessibility was right there along with it.

Ultimately, it was a combination of things: I was born with a club foot, and had Bell's Palsy in 1999, so you could say I had some of my own experiences with disability. My grandfather had a stroke in the mid-1980s, and for the next 25 years our entire family experienced barriers he just shouldn't have faced.

When I was teaching high school, I worked hard to teach inclusively and understand different learning modalities—ensuring that everyone got the point of my lessons, regardless of their learning styles and preferences. It was all about the people, and connecting with them, and meeting them where they were. When I started designing and building websites, it just made sense to me that those sites should be for everyone. Today, that still holds true for me. Accessibility is about people first.

What are your most invaluable tools for doing accessibility work?

Ah, that's a simple one:

  1. A focus on people.
  2. My keyboard.
  3. Empathy.

Sure, there's more to it than that, but those are the top three.

How, specifically, do you use empathy in your work? What advice would you give a designer looking to increase their design empathy?

We're often asked to “make this accessible” for our clients. There may be many different ways to accomplish that. When we're deciding which approach to implement, we consider the best solution to be the one that makes it easiest for the user to achieve their goals.

For example, I often talk about making maps accessible, using the hypothetical example of a proposed boundary change for the City of Ottawa. How do we represent that to someone who can't see it? We could include detailed text descriptions of the general areas that are mapped out as polygons, or we could provide a description of the roads that form the boundary for that area, or we could even provide the latitude and longitude for all the paths on the map. All of those options would serve as a “text equivalent” for the visuals on the map. What they wouldn't do is help the user achieve their goal.

To do that we ask: “Why do we have this map in the first place?” In that scenario, the most common motivation for someone to understand the boundary change is to know whether or not it impacts them. For example, will their taxes change? When we understand that motivation, we explore other ways to make it accessible, like including a postal code lookup beside the map so that the user can determine very quickly if the change impacts them or not. We need to understand the purpose or the design intent of something before we can determine the best way to make it accessible.

A big part of building our team's empathy has been, and will continue to be, working with real people with disabilities. Talking with them, doing walkthroughs and talk-alouds with them, and watching them as they test our designs, has been immensely helpful for all of us. I think every web professional should get out more and see the impact that their work has on real people. It can be a transformative experience and helps everyone design and build sites that are usable and useful.

You're giving a talk this year called “Content in Context is King.” What do you mean by that, and what will attendees take away from the talk?

We're all sucked in by devices. They're new, shiny, and we've usually already committed to buying long before it's available. In this environment, it gets really easy to make the device a focus of our designs. This talk is all about going beyond that device, and designing for context—and not just the age-old myth, “I'm a mobile user trying to check the bus schedule as I run down the street” kind of context, but real context that comes from understanding a lot of different things about how and when someone is using your site or app. In the end, I'd love it if people walked away ready to use the four easy-to-use tools I'll share during the talk. They'll really help people anticipate the needs of everyone using their site. And that includes people with disabilities, too.

What excites you most these days?

Apart from family life, I'd have to say I'm most excited about learning from things that all my friends and colleagues have learned, and watching them share those things with the world. I love that Dan Mall and Jason Blumer have The Businessology Show. Our whole world doesn't have to be about web design. There's much more to what we all do than that, and I love seeing everyone put their own little twist and perspective on things.

Derek Featherstone will present “Content in Context Is King” at An Event Apart Boston 2015, May 11-13, along with eleven other brilliant speakers. Don't miss your chance to be part of it—register today!