Mar 29, 2022 9:30:00 AM
The accessibility community contains many leaders passionate about making the world a more inclusive place for everyone. We launched "Accessibility in the Enterprise" to share stories and highlight the work of accessibility leaders at large organizations.
In this edition, we talk to Splunk. We interviewed Alexis Lucio, Senior Accessibility Lead, and Simarjeet Kaur, former Accessibility Engineering Lead.
Diamond: Thank you for joining us! Please tell us about Splunk.
Alexis Lucio: Splunk helps remove the barriers between data and action, meaning we offer a suite of tools for software developers to monitor, troubleshoot and secure their developer environments. We have nearly 8,000 employees spread out across the world, and our headquarters is in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Our accessibility team is a decentralized, mighty team of two, and a 100% women of color team at that. I sit within the product design department, my job is to provide education, awareness and consultation for web accessibility, particularly around anything design-related, whether that's through a proactive or reactive approach.
Simarjeet Kaur: I'm part of the engineering excellence department. I mostly do accessibility quality assurance (QA) and then work with developers to see if there are any defects, which we log. My job entails testing with different screen readers and browsers and making sure that bugs are tracked and fixed within certain timelines. I also create VPATs (Voluntary Product Accessibility Templates), which are available for the field and prospective customers.
Alexis: We also have accessibility advocates spanning across compliance, legal, QA, product management and education departments.
How the Accessibility Team Operates in the Enterprise
Diamond: How would you describe that process of inter-departmental collaboration? In your opinion, what are the pros and cons of this setup or would you change it if you could? Or how would you describe that?
Alexis: I think almost any accessibility practitioner would say they want more budget, headcount, and a full team (laughs). Because of the tech industry’s resistance to starting and growing accessibility teams, I'm hard-pressed to think of a sufficiently funded, full headcount team. The reality is that there's always so much to do and not enough time to do it.
Where I see us being nimble and one of the things that is important to us is owning our areas of expertise and trusting each other while being able to get together and work horizontally on a strategy that behooves the entire company.
While it allows us to focus, it requires a lot of trust. Sometimes we don't talk to each other for a week because I'm stuck in design land and she's stuck in engineering land. When we’re able to meet again, we say "Okay, here's what I did, here's the impact, here's what we should be aware of. What's next? What do you think?"
The fact that our relationship comes so naturally between us is a huge pro. If it were anyone but Sim, I don't think I would be as successful as I am right now.
Sim: It's a two-way street. We both work like a team and realize that this is what our expertise is and where we need to bring in each other. We also meet with our core team every week, which helps us stay updated on what other teams are doing within legal and compliance, and loop us in with everything.
Accessibility Challenges in the Industry and Enterprise
Diamond: What are some major challenges you face? Do you think that they're unique to Splunk or your industry?
Alexis: We have industry-level issues and then what's specific to Splunk. For Splunk, a core component is data density and visualizations. This is a frontier within web accessibility that hasn’t been addressed completely yet, so we have neither all the answers nor best practices.
It's one thing to have 10 or 15 data points on a dashboard, but with Splunk’s amount of data, we work in magnitudes of hundreds or thousands. The challenge becomes how we translate and convey information in multiple ways with that many data points and make sure we have an accessible experience for all, especially beyond color contrast.
Sim: For me, there are times when I have a lot to do testing in a very limited time. Also, the lack of awareness our product teams have around accessibility can slow down processes. For instance, teams ask me for a VPAT first without knowing what it is; they just know they need one because the field is asking for it.
This is not something I can just write up and give to them. I have to go through a set of rigorous test criteria and, depending on the complexity of their application and number of pages, could take weeks or even months to test. So when they need a VPAT in less than two days, I can't give it to them. There's a lack of awareness and education around this where I would ask them to reach out to me earlier.
Alexis: Yes, there are times when I wonder whose heart we are going to break first, but you have to do that at some point. It’s part of the education process. VPAT is not like writing a prescription where you just scribble and say, "Here you go!"
Another challenge Splunk has is about a half a dozen M&As (mergers and acquisitions) in the past two-ish years. That makes benchmarking accessibility across the board hard because it's a moving target. And that's part of something that we have realized in the uniqueness of how our team is formed: embracing that shift-left mentality. In the past when it was just Sim, she was the first and only stop for a11y (accessibility) remediation, and that's right before something goes into production.
Having someone in design create a goal post 50 yards ahead of where Sim is to start filtering out some of the potential bugs reduces her workload. We continue to move goalposts forward by reaching out to our field and sales folks because they're the ones who are interacting with the customers.
Customer Conversations and Education
Diamond: In the conversations you have with customers, would you say that your customers or become more sophisticated and educated in their approach to accessibility? Or does the education still fall on you when you're dealing with customers?
Sim: Customers would perform their audits and say they've found accessibility issues on Splunk's product and for us to fix it. I realize most of them are using an automated scan rather than doing manual testing because they're sending us a lot of false positives. We have to filter them out, then explain why it's not a bug and that it doesn't affect any screen reader, visual, or audio user.
We have a customer working on one of our products who has a vision disability. For them, that's a real-time issue they're bringing up and it makes more sense because they use the product every day with a screen reader, as compared to another customer who just might run a quick scan.
It's like we have two buckets of customers: one with disabilities and we want to make sure we amplify their voice when we go back to the product teams and share a video of the customer using the product. The other is doing a quick scan for compliance.
Alexis: Those are the two buckets that I've observed too. I'll give you an example. A customer provided the results of an axe-scan and said a button fails color contrast. That makes sense. So, we looked at the button and it was the back arrow on the first page of a pagination component. As a designer, I'm thinking, “Makes sense because you're on the first page and can't go back to page zero.“
A SME had to go in and let the customer know they understood why it made sense to come up in an automated scan, and it's a false positive; in that case, nothing needs to be fixed. A lot of it is about triage and making sure we're checking our bases as much as the customer is checking theirs.
Sim: I remember I jumped on a call with a customer and they brought up an issue with JAWS. They were logging bugs because they didn't know how to use JAWS and how keyboard navigation works on a text table using a keyboard. And I was asking them how they read the content if they weren't using the keyboard.
Alexis: It goes to show you where tech is, where accessibility is, and that the two don't quite match yet; we're all learning together. So when we get on calls with customers, we can brainstorm solutions together because we're coming in with our expertise and they're coming with lived experience and we're all just trying to create the best solution for users of our product.
Vendors and Accessibility
Diamond: Since Splunk is such a large organization that has had all those M&As, do you have processes in place to make sure any new software purchases are acquired by vendors and agencies that know how to create products accessibly?
Sim: We have a VPAT that talks about our compliance level in general for our products that's used by the field and sales department for our prospective customers. Splunk sometimes gets requests for proposals (RFPs) and we answer the accessibility questions.
Alexis: One of our members of our core team is from legal, so being able to work with them on very design-specific or very engineering-specific questions on RFPs is helpful as opposed to her having to run around trying to figure out where and what all the answers are.
Learning About Accessibility
Diamond: Since you're a small powerful team, do you manage any kind of internal training for your colleagues?
Alexis: We do a lot of training. For us, it helps because if we're not on the same page with our cross-functional partners about, say the difference between compliant and accessible, or what countries have what requirements, then there's going to be a lot of misalignment. So, particularly for us, in the beginning, we were focused on sharing this knowledge with people.
We've got an accessibility questions channel on Slack and we are building documentation within our own design systems. We complement that with live training to provide a safe space for folks to ask questions in real time. I think sometimes people get a little timid about putting a question into the void that is Slack.
When live, we focus on product and team-specific training. It’s great to have that focus for, say, team ABC and say, "Hey, we did an accessibility audit on your product. Here are some of the concerns that we found and here's why they're concerns.” Then, we give them actionable steps like “If you're a PM, you can do this; if you're a designer, you can do this; if you're a researcher, you can do this."
Diamond: Are there any other thoughts you'd like to share about working in accessibility in the enterprise?
Alexis: Our team is still less than two years old. For me, I have been in accessibility for less than two years. I'm where I'm at today because of myriad accessibility conferences and the number of accessibility practitioners who are willing to share best practices, be collaborative, and are just so open. When I went to my first accessibility conference, I thought, "Whoa, everyone's so cool here."
I find that, traditionally, product design tends to be more reserved in knowledge sharing and gatekeeping, where the A11y community is the opposite. I wouldn't be here today without the help of my mentors and the community, like Joe's friend Jennison and team doing A11y Bay Area meetups. That's how we all get better together as a community.
Sim: I'm going to plus-one (+1) what she just said. I don't know if I've mentioned this, but I was pulled from a regular engineering QA team into accessibility. One day, someone asked if I wanted to be on an accessibility team. I was like, "What's an accessibility team?"
My manager had two teams and said if you don't like it, I can switch you back. That was perfect. And I loved my job before and now, I wouldn't think of switching back. And I don't think I want to; I never thought of switching back after doing that. I've learned to love my job, not only in my job but outside my job too. And that's because of the people you work with and things that you come across.
I have worked with somebody who had 100% vision disability, but it’s the things that I've seen while working with her. She would get an email and I'm still trying to open my email. She uses a screen reader 24/7 and not just because she's testing. While I’m still reading the email; she has already responded to an email which is two paragraphs long. I'm like, okay, that's a different way of looking at life. Like nothing can stop you as long as you're not stopping yourself from doing things.
So, yes, that's a lot of it. It takes a lot of effort; it takes a lot of education and patience. The most important key in accessibility is patience. It's not easy, but once you stick to it you know how much peace I get every night. When I go to bed I can say, “I made a change somewhere.” It’s a real change that you can make into the community out there, which is so awesome.
Diamond: Thank you both for your time today and for sharing your accessibility in the enterprise stories.
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