When being ‘selfish’ about using Microsoft products gets personal

Aug 13, 2018   |  

For Cory Joseph, it’s personal.

If you flip over the badge of any Microsoft employee, regardless of their title or seniority, you’ll find the following phrase: “Empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.”

This is the mission statement of Microsoft, and it applies to everyone who works at the company, including people with disabilities like vision impairments, cognitive impairments like autism, and physical disabilities, among others.

Joseph is focused on “everyone.”

“The world could do a lot more of designing for everyone,” says the software engineer and accessibility lead on the Business Applications Platforms team at Microsoft. “The more things are designed for all people, the better the world will be. We’ve seen that in business, politics, and society in general. I’m also selfish about it—I want to be able to use the product.”

Ensuring accessibility of internal products at launch is the job of everyone at Microsoft—but Joseph sees it as a personal responsibility because he has a visual impairment. “I have a distinct understanding of how things are broken and how we could fix them from an iterative perspective,” he says.

Joseph primarily works with teams in Core Services Engineering and Operations (CSEO), the IT branch of Microsoft that creates tools for employees, to ensure that engineers, developers, and designers create internal tools that are accessible to employees of all ability levels.

“As a person with a disability, you have to share your experience and help others know what’s needed going forward,” says Matthew Mack, a senior business program manager in CSEO who evangelizes the importance of accessibility within Microsoft.

In Joseph’s role as an accessibility lead, he holds designers and lead engineers in CSEO accountable for weaving accessibility into the DNA of their products, which are used by thousands of employees across Microsoft. By ensuring accessibility, teams create more inclusive products that benefit every potential user.

“We can’t become inclusive until we have diverse thought. If we truly want to become diverse and inclusive, we’re not going to do that if people can’t work here and do their job,” Joseph says. “That encompasses our software, tools, workplace, geographic location, where our buildings are, commute system, and even how Redmond is structured.”

Joseph’s contributions are pivotal to the improvements Microsoft is looking to make in the accessibility space, says Heather Dowdy, a senior operations program manager in the Microsoft Chief Accessibility Office. “Not making something accessible could mean that an employee isn’t able to view their paystub or enroll in benefits during open enrollment,” Dowdy says. “Those things matter for everyone.”

At Microsoft, ensuring accessibility goes beyond compliance with legal standards. Instead, CSEO strives to create experiences that are not only accessible, but also offer an enjoyable user experience. Mack emphasizes the personal responsibility of everybody in CSEO, which is why he leads a session on accessibility during training for new employees in the organization.

“This is core technology, and we need to inspire all with the knowledge that not only does it matter, that it is personal, and it can change the way they do things,” Mack says.

Designing inclusive and accessible chatbots

Joseph has had many opportunities to help CSEO build accessible tools and services for Microsoft employees, but perhaps one of the most exciting and impactful projects has been the work he has done with teams in Dynamics 365 to Power BI and Azure on making chatbots more accessible.

No matter the project, it’s always all about grabbing a seat at the table right from the start, or even before the start.

“With a totally brand-new team or application that comes to me at the very beginning, I embed myself with the lead designers and lead engineers and work with them throughout the entire process,” Joseph says. “I pull in end users and act as an auditor to ensure they’re building for a user first and following standards for user experience and usability.”

Enter a conversation between Brent Schnabel, a user experience (UX) designer in CSEO’s Shared Services Engineering Studio, and John Jendrezak, the leader of the CSEO Shared Services Engineering group, about the “wild west of chatbots” that each have drastically different design and conversation flows.

“Teams didn’t have the understanding and resources to make an inclusive bot because there were no best practices in place,” Joseph says. “They weren’t empowered to deliver something successful.”

This led Schnabel to collaborate with Joseph to develop a chatbot toolkit, which includes technical guidance, design guidelines, and potential scenarios for building chatbots that are used in tools for employees.

Joseph hopes that the new toolkit will encourage designers and developers to think about whether chatbots are the right solution to build in the first place, and how they can be developed in a conversational, inclusive, and accessible way.

“It’s painful when accessibility is brought in at the user testing level,” he says. “When we’re brought in to the process that late, 99.9 percent of the time we’ll find major areas that need to be rebuilt. It could result in a workflow that’s not usable for a regular user, let alone somebody who uses assistive technology.”

To develop the chatbot toolkit, Joseph, Schnabel, Dowdy, and James Jackson, a program manager focused on accessibility, brainstormed scenarios and potential end users for the digital helpers that help users find information or complete common tasks like booking a meeting. The goal was to create a toolkit that can help designers and developers think through the range of end users who may use their product and design for them in an inclusive way.

“Say it’s a finance bot,” Joseph says. “There are different personas of finance folks—there’s a manager who’s putting in a network policy server. We took those personas further and said, ‘the manager is blind. The business operations manager doesn’t use a keyboard—they use other input devices.’ The personas then go a step further, (adding a scenario where) English isn’t their first language or their second language.”

Each person on the team brought knowledge of different assistive technologies and potential end users based on their experiences, and this empathy was the driving force for developing these personas.

“I bring my personal views and understanding of the broad spectrum of people with visual impairments,” Joseph says. “James has a learning disability, and Heather is the daughter of parents who are deaf. James, Brent, and I are men, so Heather also brings a woman’s perspective and a person of color’s perspective. Brent is a single father—all of these diverse voices are going into the process of doing this.”

Opening the door to accessibility

To combat having engineers overlook accessibility, the team observes people with disabilities as they use its product or service with assistive technology like screen readers and keyboard shortcuts.

“By seeing the impact of their disability, you can see firsthand what the challenges are,” Schnabel says. “It’s not just navigating UI. It’s finding a chair. It’s opening a door. It’s finding the meeting. It’s seeing the whiteboard. It gives you greater respect and empathy to think about solutions from an end-to-end point of view, not, ‘what is this feature we’re building?’”

Without Joseph’s input, chatbot personas would be at risk of falling short of accessibility guidelines, let alone the promise of an inclusive and enjoyable user experience. To address this, one best practice that the team came up with was to break down large tasks and offer few choices at a time. That way, a task could be completed over the course of a chatbot conversation. Schnabel says this is a best practice in both accessibility and UX design.

“It has to do with UX because it will apply specific paradigms. User research answers the question of, ‘is it useful, usable, and desirable?’” Schnabel says. “Accessibility puts on a certain lens by bringing in a subset of users, for example users using keyboard navigation, screen readers or users who might have autism or other cognitive needs.”

Another best practice in the toolkit is to ensure that the chatbot interacts with existing elements on the page instead of existing as an overlay. This enables screen readers to interact with the content and identify each part of it, and it enables users with cognitive needs to easily find the call to action in the bot interaction.

“The user should be able to adapt the interface to their needs because there’s various text sizes in a chatbots and you’re dealing with a small form factor. If you think of someone who reads her or his text at 500 percent,” Schnabel says. “Cory only sees one part, and others can see the entire page. If we could make the size bigger, he might be able to read the full sentence.”

Joseph says that his role reflects a companywide commitment to ensure that people with disabilities are actively considered throughout the product development process. “Accessibility is important from CEO Satya Nadella down,” he says. “If a team does something good in accessibility, it should be celebrated.”

Ultimately, everyone is responsible to ensure the compliance and accessibility of the tools they develop.

The next big challenge is moving from complying with accessibility laws to always prioritizing accessibility from the start. “We have a long way to go and a lot of hurdles to overcome,” Mack says. “What keeps me motivated is that our technology changes and influences people’s lives.”

In the meantime, Joseph plans to keep working on it, and to keep making it personal.

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