Sarah Pulis and Andrew Arch

We are very excited to share that two members of the Intopia team, Co-founder & Director Sarah Pulis and Principal Consultant Andrew Arch, contributed to the latest version of the book Web Accessibility: A foundation for research. This unique ‘how to’ book on web accessibility is the publishers’ best-selling textbook ever, so we’re particularly proud of their involvement! 

Andrew co-authored the chapter ‘Ageing and Older Adults’. Andrew and Sarah, along with two other authors, co-authored ‘Working with companies, charities and governmental organisations’.  

We sat down with them to learn about the writing process, their experiences with these topics, and what they’d most like readers to gain from their respective chapters. 

Andrew and Sarah, congratulations on the release of this new book! How did you find the writing process for this one?  

AndrewContributing to the ‘Ageing and Older Adults’ chapter was quite straight forward. Ageing is an area I worked extensively on a decade ago and have kept up to date with since then. Sri Kurniawan had contributed this chapter to the previous edition of the textbook, and I was invited to co-author the update with her based on my work with the W3C for the European Commission on ageing and WCAG. Having previous material to work with made the task relatively easy.

The impairments experienced by older people have generally not changed, they’re just being experienced by more people as the populations of most countries age and people live longer. The original chapter did not include a discussion of what can assist older people online, so that was the main contribution I made to update the Ageing chapter.

Sarah: The chapter on ‘Working with companies, charities and governmental organisations’ was a new chapter that the editors were including. As four people, including Andrew and myself, had separately volunteered, it became a joint effort across Australia, Israel and the United States. Gaining an understanding of what the editors were expecting from the chapter and then coming to a mutual agreement was the hardest part. We were also facing a deadline from the publishers which put pressure on us. Once we had a framework for the ‘working with’ chapter, we all took parts to build out, then I took on the job of making it flow from section to section to form a coherent story!

Let’s start with your contributions in the chapter, ‘Working with companies, charities and governmental organisations’. Given the extensive experience you’ve both had working with these groups, what have you found they have in common when it comes to web accessibility?  

Andrew and Sarah: The chapter tried to emphasise the benefits of undertaking research with multiple partners from these sectors. Government research funding is increasingly requiring partnerships for any research they fund, eg the Australian Research Council.  ‘Charities’ (or not-for-profits) represent people with disability as well as being connected with the people they represent who bring a lived experience perspective. Companies are increasingly interested in the findings of any research about how older people and people with disability might interact in the digital world in order to build better services.

From another perspective, while Australia has a policy of trying to meet the technical requirements of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), we are now increasingly seeing more government agencies and large corporates look to include people with disabilities in their user research and usability testing. This is a change that we’ve observed over the last three to four years but increased in 2019. The outcome is digital services that better meet the needs of people with impairments and disabilities. 

Your chapter also discusses the approach needed when partnering with corporates on inclusive research: 

“Engaging corporate organisations in inclusive research often requires aligning research aims with corporate goals. For example, a corporation focused on gaining market share or improving their value proposition is unlikely to be energised by arguments that only focus on moral need. A corporate partner will usually require strong evidence-based research hypotheses and statistics that help ground the research.” 

What would your recommendation be to an organisation wanting to focus more on inclusive design? And to UX researchers within an organisation wanting to take a more inclusive approach in their testing? 

Andrew and Sarah: Keep the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) in mind, but don’t be restricted by them. At the end of the day, a usable, efficient experience is what matters. Usability should trump technical accessibility if it leads to a better experience. Organisations should also consider participatory design making sure people with disability are included in the initial user research, in the design stage, and consulted throughout development. 

Organisations that respond to facts and figures can often be persuaded by the statistics around disability. In many countries, the national statistics body will publish data. In Australia, it’s accepted that 18% of the population has a disability. While the truth is much higher than that, especially when we consider ‘hidden’ disabilities, it can be enough to persuade some organisations that 1 in 5 people included in research and usability studies should have a disability.  

Andrew, if we could discuss your chapter for a moment, ‘Ageing and Older Adults’. There’s a very interesting point made about ageing – that combinations of impairments can essentially be the equivalent of a disability: 

“While we tend to think of disability in boxes such as vision, hearing, physical and cognitive, when we age it is likely that all of these abilities will decline to a lesser or greater extent and we will all be impacted […] Many older adults consider themselves just to be ‘ageing’ rather than having a disability; however, depending on the number and severity of impairments, they will effectively experience disability.” 

In this instance, how would you recommend focusing on accessibility for users who may not consider they have a disability? 

Andrew: Older people should just be part of the demographic that is included in all user research. While specific disabilities are often sought by user researchers, including older people can help address issues of pan-disability, a lower (average) level of technical expertise and usability issues that many of us gloss over but can affect older people more. Addressing usability for older people will actually give everyone a better experience, as we all experience the equivalent impairments in different aspects of our lives.

Older people can be recruited though relevant national associations, local support agencies, retirement villages, and old-age homes. Researchers should not necessarily try and get representative impairments, but just include as many older people as possible. 

Your chapter also highlights the fact that:  

“Older adults are arguably the fastest growing segment of potential customers of the Web, and as such it would be economically wise for web designers to consider the impairment that comes with ageing and how to facilitate effective interaction given these limitations.”  

With that in mind, what would your recommendation be to companies wanting to appeal to this customer base? What practical steps can web developers take to ensure these users’ needs are met?  

Andrew: I think there is a view that older people don’t adopt technology, don’t shop online, don’t bank online, and don’t book online. While this may be true to some extent, the anecdotal evidence is that they definitely use the web for research. As more baby boomers retire, they will continue to use the web-based services they’ve become accustomed to and want to continue to transact online. Don’t lose sight of the needs of this cashed-up segment of the population – like people with disability, they can become ‘sticky’ customers when their experiences are positive.  

Finally, what would you both most like readers to take away from your chapters, and this book as a whole?  

Andrew: In a nutshell, addressing the needs of people who find it harder to use digital services requires a consideration of usability of the service that is beyond addressing the technical requirement of WCAG. Undertaking research with people of all abilities will benefit everyone. 

Sarah: Collaboration. It is through collaboration between different areas of government, companies and not-for-profits focused on disability that we will get better outcomes. Most importantly, any work or research must include the people that we are designing for – people with disability. 

The book Web Accessibility: A foundation for research is available for purchase either as a whole or as individual chapters from SpringerLink. SpringerLink also makes extracts from each chapter available for free.