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Q&A with Yahoo’s Award-Winning Accessibility Team

  • Accessibility teams manifest in many different forms depending on where you work.

    Perhaps it’s simply a part of your organization’s legal department. Maybe it has its own separate office, or is spread throughout the organization.

    At Yahoo, things are a little different.

    The award-winning Yahoo Accessbility Team has two state-of-the-art accessibility labs in Sunnyvale, CA and Boston, MA. The Accessibility team is actually a part of the product group, which means they incorporate accessibility early on in the product development process.

    We recently aired a webinar titled, How Yahoo is Making Their Technology Available to Everyone, with half of Yahoo’s Accessibility Team, comprised of Larry Goldberg, Director of Accessible Media, and Mike Shebanek, Senior Director of Accessibility. The audience got a chance to ask some great questions and gained a little more insight into how accessibility works at Yahoo.

    Keep reading on for highlights from the Q and A session, or watch the video below to see the whole presentation:

     


    How did you originally get the resources for all of this accessibility?

      MIKE SHEBANEK: We were recruited and asked to come. So, there was certainly an interest in providing resources to our teams.

      Just to be clear, we’re a service organization. So it’s our job to assist the other [Yahoo] teams in doing their work – being on time, being high-quality, and addressing the needs of as many users as possible. So, for us, it was really important to simply not overpromise, and to over-deliver.

      We were very clear with our teams up front. We made an unusual pact. We said, “We will never ask you to solve a problem that we can’t help you solve.” Of course, we believe we can solve the problems. But that really gave our teams the sense that you’re working as a partner, and you’re not trying to stop us from getting our work done.

      When we established that working relationship, we said we’ll work as fast as you work. We’ll give you feedback as soon as you need it. And we had some really early-on good successes with that which created some credibility, which helped us engage with other teams.

      And the lab was a terrific resource. When people came in and understood what we do and how committed we were to making great products, which is what they’re committed to, it became a teamwork and a partnership.

      They became our evangelists. So, they would start sending their peers to the lab and start telling them, “You’ve got to go check this out; this is really incredible and it’s helping us make better stuff.”

      So, starting small, over-delivering, and running at the speed of those other teams built credibility. And that credibility just kept spinning up, and up, and up, and allowed us to expand the program and reach further into the company.

    How many staff man the accessibility lab? Or is it more for employees to access on their own?

      MIKE SHEBANEK: There’s usually one of us [out of four] always near the lab. We’ve established what we call “Open Lab Wednesday.”

      So, without any appointment or any prior notice, we encourage anybody at Yahoo to just drop in, say “Hi,” and check things out. And if they want to just read a book in [our] library, if they want to work on a computer or try a particular technology, whether it’s magnification, a screen reader, or closed captioning, we can go ahead and help set them up to do that.

      We have some self-guided scripts, so they can sit and work through those. We have about four or five of those. More often, we’ll just sit down and they’ll bring their product. And it’s usually something in development that’s not quite finished.

      So, we’ll sit down and they’ll walk through what they’re working on. And we’ll comment and provide some feedback on how they can improve the accessibility and usability of it. We can do that by appointment or just have people drop in. But we usually have somebody positioned near the lab all the time.

    How do you discover different assistive technology programs and testing products, like your visual-impairment simulation goggles? And how do you find and recruit assistive technology users?

      Image of a Yahoo employee staring at a screen while wearing big goggles that mimic certain visual disabilities

      MIKE SHEBANEK: We actually have a really cordial relationship with the other accessibility professionals in Silicon Valley and around the country – in fact, around the world, as that matters.

      We get together casually at these things called Bay Area Accessibility Dinners usually once a month or once a quarter, depending on the time of the year, and just share and comment and talk and present sometimes things we’re doing, things we’ve found, things of interest. And that carries over into email.

      We’re at conferences quite a bit. We are in touch and invite and interact a lot with the technology vendors. So, we have assistive technology companies come by and visit us or let us know what’s coming down the pike in an effort to make sure that the things available to users are going to work compatibly with the products and services coming out of Yahoo.

      Some of it’s just personal investigation. Some of it’s professional. And some of it’s very social.

      But through all of that, we’re really quite up-to-date on the latest tools and technologies – even in some cases pre-release technologies from the major vendors like Google and Apple and Microsoft and others. So, we can always be current and up-to-date on what’s going on.

      LARRY GOLDBERG: Even if you don’t have the kind of longstanding relationships like we have, there are local affiliates of national disability organizations, like the American Council for the Blind, National Federation of the Blind, and independent living centers. So, if the question really is how might you find some good user testers, there are great local organizations.

      And people just love having a chance to play with your technology. So, we will often reach out either to the national organization or to the local affiliates to find some people to try stuff out.

    Does Yahoo have any assistive technology platform specifically designed to assist students in higher education?

      LARRY GOLDBERG: TeachAccess.org is a project [of mine]. Basically, the idea is to solve all accessibility projects within one generation – all the problems.

      We are focusing intensively with all of our tech company partners, teaching them how to make technology accessible to Higher Ed and virtually every student who goes through a technology program – computer science, human computer interaction, and user experience research. We are working with partners in major colleges across the country trying to get at least some level [of accessibility], shallow or deep, taught to all students going through those programs. That way, when they come to our companies, they’re already ten steps ahead of where they might be today.

      We’re looking at this as a multi-year deep learning project. It has caught on tremendously. Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, Dropbox, LinkedIn and HP – every one of them has recognized that their workforce is just not coming to them with the requisite skills.

      If you look at TeachAccess.org, you’ll see new job descriptions being created, and a brand new tutorial quick-learning opportunity on how to develop accessible web apps and websites. We’ve gathered together on this major initiative. We’re doing everything we can to bring learning about accessible technology right into Higher Ed, and then even into Secondary Ed, eventually.

      MIKE SHEBANEK: If you’re wondering what critical skills [should be known or possessed] in this space, the professional who companies are expecting or needing, graduates or people transferring to the companies, take a look at TeachAccess.org’s tutorials. We’re getting the experts in the field together to coalesce what those skill sets are so that you’re better prepared to join in this field, and also raise the skills of those around you who might need it.

    I’ve heard about auto-captioning. How does it compare to captions created by humans? And would you recommend it?

      LARRY GOLDBERG: I like humans. I think humans are really good technologies.

      The desire for high-quality, independent speech, large vocabulary automatic speech recognition (ASR) has been a holy grail for all of technology, government, and defense industries for more than 40 years. Oddly, it’s something that has yet to be well-conquered in terms of the kind of quality that we demand for at least pre-produced video or video on demand.

      ASR can get you maybe 80%, 85% accurate. As soon as you add any background music or noise or heavy accents or odd vocabulary, the comprehension level goes way, way down. So, we’re dedicated to using vendors and technologies that may do a rough draft using automatic speech recognition, but immediately put human editors into the stream.

      Even in our live captioning, where you don’t have the ability to clean it up, we still use humans. And today’s webinar is being live-captioned by a human stenographer.

      I like humans. I think humans are really good technologies.

      Larry Goldberg
      Yahoo Accessibility Team

      Wouldn’t it be great if a machine could do that? Yes, it would. But as Vint Cerf, the father of the internet and a hard-of-hearing person himself, now Google’s chief evangelist, once said to me, “Oh, computers will be able to do that in ten years.”

      And it will always be ten years off. And we still haven’t seen any development that has gotten us to the point where we can achieve the 99.95% accuracy that really is necessary for good comprehension.

      How do you keep up with your work with having only four people on the accessibility team? Is it simply having a good workflow system?

        MIKE SHEBANEK: We have worked really hard to build ourselves tools and techniques to make us more efficient. We focus really hard on our own capabilities.

        Part of that is creating self-service training, tutorials, and other things. Part of it is building tools that we can reuse quickly and re-purpose. And part of it is just being smart about where we apply ourselves, either in the development cycle or how we communicate back to our developers.

        So, it takes take some hard work to be efficient. And of course, I guess what’s hiding in that question is how do you get it all done with four people? And the answer is, well, of course, you can’t because even with us at maximum, we still have more we want to do.

        I don’t think we’ll ever be at that place where we say, “Wow, yeah, we’ve got enough people.” If we doubled, tripled, or quadrupled our team, we’d still have more we want to do. So, for us, it’s about the reward of getting the work done well while creating a good environment for collaboration, some invention, and creativity.

        LARRY GOLDBERG: The ultimate goal always is to try to hand responsibility back to the content creator or the developer of the platform. I’ve been so pleased in our work with captioning, and that I have trained the people who produce and distribute our video, who [now] book captioning services, whether live, or video-on-demand.

        These days, they’re doing it without me even asking. So, that burden has been lifted off of my shoulders. And with only a few glitches, I am finding that [videos] are automatically being booked for captioning without my even knowing it.

        And that really helps tremendously. So, you make it part of the production process and development process, and our four people can become in essence 40 or 400 by pushing some responsibilities up the line.

        MIKE SHEBANEK: At the end of the day, it really is the product team’s responsibility to develop a great product. And as I said, we’re a service organization. So we’re there to help them.

        Our task is as much to teach them how to fish, (if you will, to use the old metaphor) rather than catch a fish and hand it to them. We really try and balance making sure that at the end of the project, they’re able to do this the next time on their own, or almost on their own, and really try and aim for “You know how to do the basics now. You can get almost 80% or 90% of this right.”

        When you come across something that really either has never been solved before or something we need to create a new solution, that’s when you want to engage the accessibility team – not for simply adding labels or adding role descriptions or changing contrasts. Those things are pretty straightforward. There are good tools for that. There are good documents for how to do it and how to test it.

        Part of our job really is to leave them in a place where they can take on more ownership of that next time. That’s a significant part of our effort. And that’s really paid off for us, as Larry was talking about.

        A lot of these things are now happening on their own, as they should. We’re just trying to keep those wheels spinning as fast as possible.

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