Stark’s CEO Cat Noone on designing accessible products

For years, accessibility has hardly been a priority in the tech industry. But companies are finally starting to realize that designing services for all is a move where everyone wins.

We know what accessibility looks like in a physical space. Many countries have regulations and laws in place to ensure you don’t design a building without accounting for a wheelchair ramp, for example. But when it comes to software, we don’t have those same checks in place, and it’s far more common to build products and services that don’t take into consideration people with disabilities.

Enter Cat Noone. Cat is passionate about making sure innovation is at everyone’s fingertips, and that’s why she co-founded Stark, a startup that provides tools and knowledge for businesses to design and build accessible products from day one.

Stark was born out of necessity when Cat was a designer working on a health tech project that needed to be accessible for older adults. There was no solution they could use, so they built one. According to the World Bank Group, one billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability. So why is it that accessibility is not a priority when developing software? Why was a system like that not in place already?

This industry is slowly starting to catch up, finally realizing that this isn’t just a good design practice – it’s a wise business move. And although it may take a few more years to make the cultural shift that gets software to a point where it truly serves everyone, the more awareness there is, the faster we can get there.

In today’s episode, we chat with Cat about building accessible products and the importance of software that doesn’t exclude by design.

If you’re short on time, here are a few quick takeaways:

  • Companies are just starting to realize how accessibility impacts their bottom-line. Accessible products make it easier to increase market reach, brand value, and RoI.
  • Beauty and accessibility are not at odds with each other. In fact, it’s the designer’s job to find solutions that are both accessible and aesthetically pleasing.
  • Accessibility lies at the foundation of the product development pipeline. By keeping it in mind from the start, you can build a safety net and avoid retrofitting after shipping.
  • In the same way companies have security and privacy experts, accessibility specialists can ensure things are executed properly and are up to speed with the latest recommendations.

If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can follow on iTunes, Spotify, YouTube or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

A designer at heart

Liam Geraghty: Cat, you’re very welcome to the show. Before we get into it, could you give us a flavor of what your journey has been like career-wise? I know you’ve always been interested in tech, right?

Cat Noone: Yeah, it’s been quite the journey. I think that’s the only way to describe it. But for me, I took, I guess, a non-traditional approach to how I got to now. And if you would’ve asked me over a decade ago whether or not that would make sense, I’d say this is a ridiculous path. But it ended up being incredibly beneficial in playing a core role in my ability to see what I do now.

I went to school, pursuing pediatric neurology. I wanted to end up in that space. I’d go on to what’s considered the special education space for the New York City Board of Education, working with children with a spectrum of disabilities and disorders. And for what it’s worth, I don’t like the term special education for many reasons, but that’s neither here nor there right now.

“There was no easy-to-use, delightful, beautiful solution for accessibility in design. And so we said, ‘Let’s build something so we can do our job right’”

But still, all the while, I had been designing since I was in high school, and I loved it. I absolutely loved it. It set my soul on fire. I realized technology was going to be able to advance these very archaic spaces. I dove two feet first into design and did the freelance thing, which is a wild ride. I worked at an agency and led iOS design for EyeEm, an Instagram competitor at the time. I led design as a whole for ADP’s Innovation Labs and then dove into the world of startups and co-founded my own.

At one point, I was working on a health tech project and it needed to be accessible for older adults, which was the target group. And there was no solution for it. There was no easy-to-use, delightful, beautiful solution for accessibility in design. And so we said, “Let’s build something so we can do our job right.” And we call it version negative 500 of what Stark would become.

Liam: Like, you say, Stark is on this mission to make the world accessible. Was there a particular spark that it was born out of? Where did the idea come from?

“Why is it that accessibility is not in line with how software is being built in 2022?”

Cat: For us, it was very much so self-serving. And I both love and hate to say that it was self-serving. We needed this solution so we could do our jobs right. We did our research and worked with folks to understand what was needed to create a great solution for ourselves. And then we thought, “Well, if this is meant to be accessible, then everyone should be able to access it.” And so we shared it. It snowballed, and it continued to snowball. Once we saw it was continuing, we were like, “Hmm, what’s going on here?” We poked and prodded and said, “Well, the easiest way to validate what we’re thinking is to build a community.” There was no place for people to go to for this topic. There was no place to get together and be supercharged as change-makers working in organizations – designers and engineers and product managers.

And so we did. We created that, all the while creating the tools for them to be able to do this work. We asked, “Why is there no solution for this? Why is it that there’s nothing human and friendly and bold and opinionated? Why is it that accessibility is not in line with how software is being built in 2022? Why aren’t we building software for the future in the accessibility space?” It’s not a small number either. It’s one thing if you’re servicing a community of 100 people, but no, billions of people have a disability. The tech industry loves big numbers – why isn’t that in place? And it really nodded the shit out of us that so many people were being underserved and left out of being able to tap into and access innovation.

It’s just good business

Liam: There are so many people out there who think that accessibility in product design is going to be bad for profits. But it’s not.

Cat: No, it’s not. And it’s a conversation we often have at the company. It’s important for us to look at both the finance and the business side of it, but it’s really important for us to focus on why we’re doing it, which is the human side. We shouldn’t have to justify the cost of enabling disabled people to participate in non-disabled individuals’ worlds and access those same things. At the same time, the reality is that, in a boardroom, that’s the conversation that’s being had – how will this impact the flow of the currency in the company? When we have discussions about capitalism, that’s what’s happening. How does this return profit for the company?

“Companies are now realizing how much it’s actually costing them to be inaccessible”

And so, it’s a dual strategy. On the one hand, the individuals that are working on the software understand why they’re doing it and who they’re designing and building this software for. And then, for the individuals in the boardroom… As we know, as designers and engineers, we have to justify the reason why we’re doing something. You have to prove the impact this will have. And for those at the top, it’s money.

We said, “Let’s create that material. Let’s gather that data to show.” And now that’s changed – we’ve moved from a lack of awareness to awareness and now into action. But this takes time. And companies are now realizing how much it’s actually costing them to be inaccessible. They’re realizing, “Oh, if we ensure our products are accessible, we increase market reach. We increase brand value. We increase return on investment. We’re going to be shipping quicker. We’re going to be shipping more efficiently. And we’re going to create a more delightful product.”

Accessibility is a proxy for user experience. And so, when we think of it like that, we know immediately that it’s not at odds with beauty. If anything, creating an accessible product is getting closer to that lovely list of Dieter Rams’ good design that everybody in the industry preaches. That’s how we approach it, and I’m glad that’s how folks are now seeing it.

“It’s not just, ‘Oh, let’s redesign something,’ or, ‘Oh, let’s create a design system.’ You actually need to create a cultural shift”

Liam: It’s interesting that something like diversity and inclusion was initially seen by businesses as this big headache they had to deal with when in fact, apart from just being common sense, there’s evidence that company diversity leads to better profits. And businesses have finally realized this. When do you think that realization will fully kick in for accessibility?

Cat: Realistically, I think we still have some years to go. And I think that’s a good thing. We look at how long something takes us to build and ship and we see how much in an organization happens in a year. And then, we look at how much needs to be rectified in terms of retrofitting.

You have these organizations that have been building technology for 10 or 15 years, and you’re asking them now to retrofit it, and they realize they need to retrofit it. That is not going to happen quickly. It’s not just, “Oh, let’s redesign something,” or, “Oh, let’s create a design system.” You actually need to create a cultural shift. And we see that with companies like Microsoft that, over the course of the last five to seven years, have taken such a cultural shift. We see that in the way the products are being built and how beautiful they are. But Microsoft just rolled out, not too many years ago, their design system. And think about how many pieces of software they have. It’ll take time for that to roll out in full, at least from my understanding. And that’s a beautiful thing – it needs to be done in an efficient way.

We forget that resource allocation plays a large role in that, and that is time, and time is money. And what does that convert to? So these are all the things that are happening at the executive and board levels. And so if we say, “The realization and the mass impact will be realized in a year,” I think we’re kidding ourselves. We’re going to see this evolve over the next several years.

Creating awareness

Liam: For teams designing and working on products, what are they not understanding about accessibility?

Cat: In general, I think resource allocation. What needs to be done in full? We look at the standards, and a number of individuals will say, “Well, where do I fall? And which one do we need to adhere to? And what country does that apply to and what country does it not?” There are so many things that come down to what needs to be executed. And then in the day-to-day work, the nitty-gritty of the regulations of like, “Oh, well, I don’t understand what this means. And how does that apply to the UI I created for mobile versus web versus whatever.” Because so far, standards are focused predominantly on the web. And that ignores the reality of what it looks like for technology that hasn’t been conceptualized yet.

“We look at organizations that had to do the same thing for privacy and security and data. We consider it the company’s internal PSA: privacy, security, and accessibility”

Stark helps companies supercharge that accessibility from months to minutes with this simple end-to-end workflow. We say, “Let’s connect people with the tools they use and love, offer this automated intelligent analysis, and provide these seamless fixes.” At the same time, we’re tapping into the community, giving them the educational material and resources in order to understand what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how that maps to their day-to-day. That could be anything from a code snippet to, as silly as it may sound, how to create an accessible form. There are all of these individual elements and each has its own requirements for accessibility.

Liam: For people listening in who want to get their teams on board for accessibility, it’s about awareness and training?

Cat: Yeah, very much so. And that’s anything that we do. We look at organizations that had to do the same thing for privacy and security and data. We consider it the company’s internal PSA: privacy, security, and accessibility. There are these core things that need to be adhered to and standardized. You need to go from awareness to education, and it takes time.

A robust safety net

Liam: Testing is another big area where products are involved. You’ve written about how we need to rethink testing. Why?

Cat: Testing is part of what we consider a safety net. And we often don’t have these processes in place. Companies have so many processes to the point where they’re over-engineered, and a lot of them remove the safety nets that ensure a smooth handover from designers to engineers, engineers to customer, to research, to QA.

“I can’t emulate what it means to be an autistic person, but I certainly can create a group of interviewees for research that is a spectrum of individuals, of abilities and disabilities, and involve them in that”

The way we look at testing is another part of the brick that overlays on the foundation of accessibility. We look at accessibility as this foundation that runs along the entire product development pipeline. For a long time, we looked at it as an engineer’s problem, but it starts at design, and it’s not a single discipline problem – it’s an entire product development pipeline problem. And it can even span to marketing and coms. How are the words? How are we addressing these issues and educating people? How are those things performing? Is it resonating and converting to people share things in the community or shipping products that are performing well and that people can access? These are all different ways we look at testing. There’s no cookie-cutter approach.

Every organization has its own flavor of the product development pipeline process, so it’s hard to nail it down into one thing. But that’s why we said we needed to create Stark to enable teams to Lego block it into their workflow in a way that makes sense for them.

Liam: Yeah, 100%. At Intercom, an example that springs to mind is our messenger notification sound. A customer with autism got in touch with us to say that the sound triggered her sensory overload. And this was something that nobody building it had thought of or considered. Once we found out that this user was having this issue, we worked with her to come up with a suite of new sounds that people could choose. But without her getting in touch, we wouldn’t have known.

“If you do it right at the beginning, you don’t have to go back and fix it”

Cat: Right, and that’s the thing. I’m sure the autistic woman you spoke with would’ve absolutely been keen, especially as an Intercom user, to be part of a testing group that helped you throughout the process. There are a lot of stigmas, taboos, and a lot of shame that come with this. And so people are afraid to ask questions. But we need to get to the point where we understand that disabled people are human beings that want to actively participate in the same things that anybody else does and should be enabled to do so.

And so, when we think about testing, there are a number of organizations that we know of and talked to that are creating research and testing by emulating disability. I can’t emulate what it means to be an autistic person, but I certainly can create a group of interviewees for research that is a spectrum of individuals, of abilities and disabilities, and involve them in that. And if you do that ahead of time, you are saving yourself down the line for needing to retrofit. And that’s part of that safety net. If you do it right at the beginning, you don’t have to go back and fix it. And then you get into the position where you’re thinking, “Oh, how does this fit with our roadmap?” And it’s like, “No, it needs to be fixed because you did it wrong the first time.” Fix what you broke.

Championing accessibility

Liam: I read something you said that it will be a good idea to create an internal accessibility team because they’re already going to be invested in the product and want to help make it great.

Cat: Yeah. Having these individuals in the organization that really hone in on accessibility and ensure that things are being adhered to and are being executed properly is super, super important. We are major advocates of putting all individuals on a product team in positions of power to be able to understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Because it may be that the designer working on the new website is not an accessibility superhero by any standards of an expert, but they need to become an accessibility superhero in the company because they are working on the product that is being shipped to individuals. So how do you put them in positions of power? Well, you give them an accessibility toolbox to educate the entire team and a process and tools that train them on the job and help individuals learn as they go.

That’s something that Stark is actively working on. Putting people in positions where accessibility is viewed in the same light as privacy or security, and you have these security experts, you have these privacy experts, and it doesn’t mean that the designers and engineers aren’t educated on it. They’re designing things and accounting for GDPR and whatnot, but these individuals are making sure everyone is being held accountable and is up to spec with the latest and greatest.

“The conversation is being had, companies are trying to figure out how this makes sense for them, and we consider it a win”

Liam: In terms of budget, should businesses allocate an accessibility budget alongside the product roadmap?

Cat: I’m torn on this. I don’t know if I necessarily have a strong opinion, and that’s because it goes back to the fact that every company has its own flavor. We’ve seen companies have their own accessibility budget. We’ve seen companies put this directly under the product budget. We’ve seen product/ diversity, equity, and inclusion/ accessibility come together and form a budget there. There are different ways. I think it really depends on the size of the organization. By that, I don’t just mean the size of companies, but how many assets they have under management and the number they’re working with in terms of budgets for each section.

But whatever way ensures that it doesn’t get deprioritized is the most important. If privacy has its own and if security has its own, naturally, as part of that process, accessibility should have its own. And maybe that’s a separate budget from product. I’m not sure. I haven’t landed on a solution to it.

Liam: Yeah, for sure. From your point of view, where does accessibility stand as of right now?

Cat: To be honest, what’s going to happen right now is you’re going to see, as the conversation starts to stir even more and as it becomes this relevant topic, you’re going to start to see all the bad surface. And I think at that point, we’re already seeing it, that it’s easy to say, “Oh, nobody’s accessible.” Yeah, and I mean, largely yes, that’s correct there. And that’s because a lot of companies didn’t realize until recently that they weren’t.

“System change is hard. You have to establish a reason why the system should abate itself, and it needs to be a win for both parties”

But we’re in a really good place. The conversation is being had, companies are trying to figure out how this makes sense for them, and we consider it a win. When you look at two or three years ago, accessibility didn’t exist in the minds of the majority of companies. There wasn’t a massive mind share there. And now, we’re at the point where the snowball for the industry is rolling and picking up speed. We consider that a massive win, especially when you look at how quickly that happened.

Things compound in that regard, especially when it comes to products. Things compound in negative deviances, but they also compound in positive deviances. And I think when we bake it into the system – culture is the habits of the system, both good and bad –, now that these companies are learning and educating themselves, it’s just a matter of time. I consider it a win. I consider us to be in a really good position. System change is hard. You have to establish a reason why the system should abate itself, and it needs to be a win for both parties. But the system is abating itself. Everyone sees the win for both sides. And when that happens, two thumbs up, massive claps, massive shouts. We just got to keep going with it.

Picking up speed

Liam: What’s next? Do you have any big plans or projects for the rest of the year?

Cat: Oh yeah. We’ve got a major announcement coming out in a few hours. And then we have this beautiful new revised heartbeat in terms of the cadence of the company where we’re shipping new things every week and announcing it every two weeks, and it feels really good and healthy. In two weeks, there’s something new, and then two weeks after that, there’s some big stuff.

Liam: Keep your eyes peeled.

“Meet people where they are, give them this platform, and bring accessibility into the future”

Cat: There have been a few things in beta. Mac has been in beta for some time now, and there’s more coming on. In general, you’re going to see us put ourselves into that position where we help set these companies and become this platform for the Slack generation and beyond to show people how software should be built in 2022 and give this unique approach to tackle accessibility. Meet people where they are, give them this platform, and bring accessibility into the future.

Liam: Brilliant. And lastly, where can our listeners go to keep up with you and your work?

Cat: We’re always chattering in the Stark Slack community, a beautiful community of designers, engineers, and product people. You can also check us out on almost every social media platform, in particular Twitter. If it’s not the actual Stark profile, you see all of the team members chattering. We are very much people of our craft and are always talking shop, so you’ll find us somewhere.

Liam: Awesome. Cat, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today.

Cat: Thanks for having me and thanks for putting a spotlight on accessibility. It’s always good. We’re huge fans of Intercom.

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