Conversations with Accessibility Experts: Gareth Ford Williams
Gareth Ford Williams founded the digital accessibility team in 2005 and in 2010 became Head of UX Design and Accessibility. After nearly 17 years, he decided to leave the BBC to focus on accessibility and inclusive design data with the start-up ab11y.com.
During his time at the BBC the accessibility team delivered a number of ground breaking accessibility projects covering many types of products and services including video streaming, children's games, TV platforms and mobile applications, and because the BBC is publicly funded the resources that have enabled these are always made publicly available.
He also set-up the first Accessibility Champions Network as part of his strategy to embed accessibility into the culture of the organization. While he was at the BBC, he also established the BBC’s Design Research Team, was a Head of UX Design for 12 years, managed the Assistive Technology Team in the last couple of years.
Gareth's Accessibility Origin Story
We chatted with Gareth to learn about his background and his work in accessibility.
Q: Tell us about your background in accessibility.
My accessibility career was not in any way planned and I think it's safe to say that is true for many of us in this field. For me it was something I easily stepped into and I think a lot of that has to do with my upbringing.
When I was two years old (back in 1971) we lived on the premises of a residential school for children with complex needs, especially aphasia. It was called Ewing School, it was in Manchester in the north of England and I grew up in an environment that taught me a lot about complex needs … because kids like being kids, these were the kids I played with.
After school, which to be honest was completely wasted on me, my career path makes little sense, which I realize now that both are quite common for other people with ADHD and dyslexia.
I've been an art student (painting), sound engineer, business development manager, cellar manager, sign writer, pot washer, bartender, letting agent, marketing manager, design manager, machine operator … not in that order ... before I finally joined the BBC in 2003 as a brand manager.
Brand management is quite important here because a brand is a promise, and the BBC’s promise is to “inform, educate and entertain” everyone in the United Kingdom. The word “everyone” is not caveated and this is where I began to realize that for the BBC, inclusion was a fundamental attribute of its brand.
Q: Why is digital accessibility important to you?
By 2005 my youngest Zak, who has cerebral palsy, was beginning to move from Cbeebies to CBBC and although there were some motor accessible games on Cbeebies, there was little he could use on CBBC and the games that his friends could play he couldn't. As a result, he was being left out of the fun and the conversation. This experience was not in line with the BBC’s brand.
I ended up talking to Tony Ageh, a wonderful chap who was at the time the controller (Director) of bbc.co.uk, and I told him that as a parent and a license fee payer, exactly what I thought about this and how the BBC was letting down its audience. This was not news to Tony and as it happens the conversation was rather timely.
As the BBC has a long history of accessibility for broadcast, pioneering in-vision signing in the 1950s, closed caption subtitles in the 1970s and developing broadcast AD production technologies in the 1990s. There was no in-depth discussion about why the websites should be accessible, but the problem they had was that no-one had actually formalized a plan on how to deliver inclusion on what was already an enormous and complex estate.
Tony asked me how I'd approach this, I gave him my opinion, together we wrote a business case, and along with the then Marketing Director Tim Davie, we presented it to the Executive Board and successfully made the case to create the BBC’s Digital Accessibility Team in October 2005. The Director General at the time, Mark Thompson even asked, "Why isn't this already happening?"
From that paper I was asked to focus on a single product, work out what was possible and meaningful, and then spread that across all the other products. There was a prototype service being built at the time that I was given free rein over, where we would try out and test ideas, and I hired three people to help me, Lucy Pullicino (then Dodd), Andrew Strachan, and Kevin Carey.
Shortly afterwards I reached out across all the web teams to find out who else was interested and found several amazing people doing pockets of accessibility work, which included people like Emma Pratt-Richens, Al Duggin, and Ian Hamilton, and then established what was effectively a champions network.
It all happened really quickly, and to be honest, I counted myself as very lucky, having the support and expertise on hand of so many brilliant individuals.
I think my marketing background was really important because we were continuously talking about audience satisfaction, reach and engagement. What accessibility does is simply add the word 'everyone' to these, which is why I was always able to talk from the outset about the opportunities accessibility brings and the impact it can have on the whole audience.
Because the BBC has a unique governance framework, I was able to avoid getting bogged down too much with discussions about compliance, which meant we were able to keep focused on the audience instead of risk. We wanted to talk to people and consider their relationship to the brand and their enjoyment of the content, and understand how this was about social as well as digital inclusion.
Making Accessible Design Choices
Q: What makes some fonts more accessible than others? What impact does that have on the user experience?
The gang that calls itself The Readability Group came about by chance more than anything else.
I had written the accessibility requirements for a TV platform in the UK called YouView in 2008. As this was a UK-only platform there weren't the types of budgets afforded by the likes of Apple and Google and so I was told that I could have anything I wanted as long as it “did not add a penny to the price."
There's a fairly comprehensive list of accessibility features, many of which were firsts in terms of TV platform accessibility, one of which was the YouView font itself. Most of the research at this point on screen fonts was unreliable, anecdotal or outdated, but we came across the work done on MENCAP's font FS Me. From what we understood about font design is that it met most of the recognized best practices for readability and legibility, and it also looked great. So, we approached the charity and font foundry to create a TV platform version.
A few years later David Bailey joined the BBC to lead the work in developing a design system, BBC GEL (Global Experience Language), and he also persuaded the executive that the BBC needed its own corporate font. David and I had already started working together to ensure GEL had accessibility built in. So naturally David got me involved in his other major project which was the font, that had to work across the entire estate, not just digital, and be accessible. The impact on visual user experiences a more legible and readable font can have is very significant. It is the cornerstone of the visual reading experience.
I already knew a bit about the subject from YouView. However, bringing in Dalton Maag and meeting Bruno Maag really opened up the whole subject for me. We worked together for over three years, running an in-depth research and development program that informed the creation of the BBC Reith font. At that point, we realized there were more questions and we had only just scratched the surface in terms of understanding.
Just before the COVID pandemic the three of us, plus accessibility research engineer Michael Mathews, decided to run a study and produce a research data set. There are some basics I published on font accessibility, but the readability study unearthed nearly 80 features that in combination can impact the user. Fonts, like people, are complex. It's not about serif vs sans serif or anything else as conveniently reductive as that, and the "accessible" and "dyslexic friendly" fonts are mostly only accessible in name. But it’s about how all the features work in combination.
Think about fonts in all visual reading experiences. Whether this is a web page, closed captions, ebook, etc. The font is the foundational element and like house foundations, if you get it wrong then the rest is unstable. For instance, color contrast varies in success depending on the contrast of the font itself, but no-one measures that.
Later this year we will be publishing the data from the study for use in research and I hope this will enable more understanding of what is the core of visual accessibility.
Q: In addition to fonts, what are some examples of design choices that make web properties inaccessible that you still see frequently online? What should people be more aware of?
Where's my list? 😉
There is a lot to UX that is missing from current guidance because UX is plastic. But there are some things we can do, which are choices in our approach to design, that can mean what is published is more accessible and inclusive.
Good design is not determined by a checklist. If it were then we would not need designers. It is, however, determined by the approach used and the activities employed to ensure the work is user centric. Political or personality driven UX design or design by committee never works, so I would recommend the following.
At the start of any project, whether this is for a whole product, customer experience, a component or feature, get the whole team to answer the question, who are we willing to exclude?
It's a potentially loaded question but it is practical in that it enables the team to think about the impact of their design decisions and pinpoint who should get a designed experience.
Instead of building things and trying to make them accessible, try instead to build accessible things. If you are planning to focus accessibility in a dedicated accessibility sprint late in the process, treat accessibility just as compliance or fix it with an audit, then you are effectively planning to fail.
These are ineffective approaches as you will end up doing everything twice. So, if accessibility is a must-have, plan and design the whole experience from the start. It is more efficient and impactful.
Use your design research in the right way too. Inclusive qualitative research at the beginning and as part of the design process, then quantitative research into accessible user outcomes as part of the multivariate testing and ongoing monitoring as part of the release cycle, which helps evaluate new features and optimize the experience in an ongoing capacity.
When I say "designed experience," this isn't as simple as designing both the sighted and the audio experience, but think about people's needs and preferences in a broader sense. Make sure you use marketing data to highlight when, where and under what circumstances your product will be used and highlight the situational and environmental barriers people face.
Then talk to people who face those barriers every day because they have expertise and knowledge based on years of experience, you can draw design inspiration from these experiences.
It’s always confused me why teams developing skills for platforms such as Alexa or Dot, don’t include congenitally blind designers on their teams. If you are designing an audio first experience you need the expertise of someone who understands audio first experiences.
I would also recommend discussing what principles are driving the approach to the work.
These three projects all started at the BBC and might give you some good ideas of where to start with that.
The Inclusive Design Principles, started out as a project Henny Swan was developing in BBC iPlayer, but when she left the BBC to join TPG she joined forces with a few other wonderful folk to produce a solid set of methodologies, approaches and considerations.
The Cognitive Design Principles are my contribution. As part of the work on the BBC's Mobile Accessibility Guidelines we ensured that cognitive accessibility was woven in, and when I left the BBC, I completed a personal project for Ab11y to re-imaging the Nielsen and Norman Heuristics but from a neurodivergent inclusive perspective, and link these back to cognitive accessibility guidelines to make them easier to implement.
Lastly, but by far from least, Jamie Knight's work on design principles for the BBC that are built upon policy and give another great set of ideas to draw from, as well as an approach to developing your own.
Gareth's Illustrative History with BBC
Q: You brought back the BBC Accessibility Champions Network. Can you give some background on this program and explain why it was important to you to revive it?
As I mentioned, it started in 2006 and the network that was then called "The Accessibility Group" was key to creating the BBC's standards and guidelines and embedding practice. There were lots of pockets of work and creating a network helped people support each other, share best practice, and have a little weight behind them when they needed it.
But while I was attached to YouView, the network dwindled and so did the work on the BBC guidelines. We re-booted the team in 2010. We were still small, just Henny Swan, Ian Pouncey, and I, and we had a lot to do with the oncoming 2012 Olympics. In that time, we were able to develop the mobile guidelines.
There were still lots of the old Accessibility Group around and I wanted to get them back together and Ian told me about the technology champions at Yahoo, where he had previously worked. They didn't have a network of accessibility champions, so I took the name, re-booted it and we refocused the network on some very simple principles. I liked the idea that this was more about culture change within a team so we asked the Champions to do three things.
Firstly, for them to raise the subject of accessibility in every sprint to ensure the work was never deferred.
Secondly, we asked them to be a go-to person for any issues, that's not to say they have responsibility for delivery, but they would help find answers or find someone who had an answer.
Lastly, we created a distribution list which later became a Slack channel we asked them to contribute to, so everyone could communicate with the rest of the network and ask questions or offer suggestions.
It was organic and we found that the different product teams shared their work, helped fix each other's issues, and as a result a community grew.
I think every organization should think about accessibility from this perspective because this is about cultural change. Which is why we eventually created a permanent change management role to grow the network. Some of the teams started to prize their champions so much they created permanent accessibility roles so they could keep them and sustain their work.
Q: What are you most proud of in your work championing accessibility?
I have lots of different projects I am proud of for different reasons, and sometimes having the privilege of working with incredible people has played a major part.
Not all my projects have worked. There have been some big heroic failures such as the Universal Control API (application programming interface) project. I had an idea that we could create an API specification that would enable the most accessible interface in any home to be the control device to all other connected devices on the local network. Mine was just an abstract notion and BBC R&D backed it providing a brilliant team to develop the idea into something tangible.
The problem is that I had completely underestimated the resistance that would come from every platform producer we talked to. All loved it, none would implement it because of commercial issues. There were murmurings of the internet of things being the internet of "our" things. I completely misjudged this and the project lost traction, but BBC R&D plowed on and evolved the idea into the DVB-CSS spec for connected TVs in Europe. This is a cut-down version of the UCAPI, but what is there is very useful for the development of second-screen accessibility.
I also have one project that took the time to drink a cup of tea to complete and I think it had the biggest impact on the market place of any project I was involved in. In 2009, BBC iPlayer was by far the biggest video streaming service in the UK. It was also the most asked for feature in the UK for anyone buying a connected TV, DVD player, or set-top-box.
When it came to accrediting the implementation of the iPlayer application on connected TV devices we added a criteria that stated, and I paraphrase, if a device did not support closed captions in a format determined by the BBC, then it didn't get iPlayer.
The following financial year every new connected TV device in the UK launched with the ability to deliver closed caption subtitles. Not every manufacturer was happy about having to do this, but all of them implemented it. I don't think I'll ever have access to that type of leverage ever again because it impacted on products not just in the UK but around the world.
Other landmarks I have managed or been part of include a few industry firsts, such as the first mobile accessibility guidelines in 2011 and in 2007 the BBC being the first games publisher to create its owngames accessibility guidelines, while a more updated version of Games Framework is still used as part of BBC GEL.
But the real measure of organizational change was the end to auditing at the BBC as part of its product process, which was a big one when it came to the switch to front-loading accessibility. Designing and building accessible things rather than trying to squeeze accessibility in at the end.
The last two accessibility projects for me are ones I do have a great deal of pride in. Firstly, I was involved in the rebranding of the BBC, going back to my marketing and creative roots and implementing inclusion as part of the brief.
I worked with the BBC’s team delivering this and the branding agency Wolff Olins and the BBC’s internal creative team BBC Creative both for whom this was their first exploration into the impact a branding system can have on inclusion. We were fortunate to have already spent nearly 4 years working with Dalton Maag on the development of BBC Reith, which gave us an accessible foundation to work from.
And my final hoorah was publishing the BBC's Product Accessibility Policy, which has the backing of the BBC’s Executive Committee, and has left a blueprint for accessibility long after I have moved on.
If you are ever moving on from an organization and want to protect the program you have developed, I’d highly recommend doing this.
The Future of an Accessible Web
Q: Do you think the web will ever be entirely accessible? Or will there always be work to be done? How can we gauge success?
People keep inventing things or needing the web to do new things. I often say that if innovation stopped it would give us all a chance to catch-up.
Accessibility guidelines are always behind the curve because they are retrospective and a bit political. Sometimes guidelines can be years, even decades behind what users need. Unless innovation grinds to a halt, I think there will always be unanswered questions.
You also have to consider that people are complex and we are finding out more about them all the time. Accessibility started out being predominantly about screen reader UX because much of the need of the guidelines groups was driven by U.S. law, but as we have seen over time accessibility has become about preventing barriers of any sort, whether they are sensory, physical or cognitive, and being a more inclusive view of inclusion.
Although up to a couple of years ago I was still having to battle with the largest accessibility conference that they had to consider cognitive accessibility in their accommodations, failing to get them to do so, and then having to make all the arrangements directly with the venue and the hotel.
Inclusion can sometimes not be not all that inclusive, so we as a community have to ensure we are not leaving anyone behind. I love Crystal Preston-Watson's perspective on this when she points out that accessibility is also a socio-economic concern, so privilege in access to information, affordable data and technology, is something we should be mindful of.
Success is such a tricky thing to pin down as it all depends on why your organization has an accessibility program in the first place. If this is all about compliance and the law then WCAG is your answer. That will keep your lawyers and compliance officers happy but it comes with no guarantees that what you have delivered is inclusive.
Nothing replaces customer feedback, at scale. If you want to know how your work has impacted your audience, then ask your audience and take time to understand their needs and requirements so you can see how comparative different aspects of the user experience is to different user groups.
On a Personal Note …
Q: What did you do after leaving BBC?
I wrote A Little Book of Accessibility as a way of looking back and listing all the things I wished I had known when I started out.
Q: What interests do you have?
I have many interests and specialisms which I have built-up over the years. These include font accessibility, neurodivergent cognitive design for digital and physical spaces, games accessibility, accessibility policy, inclusive branding, and socio-economic accessibility.
My latest obsession is accessibility data as it was the one thing I always felt was missing at the BBC.