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Olark’s Accessibility Journey: how our people and our values pushed us to build better products for all

Ben Congleton
May 19, 2021

May 20th is Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD)! To celebrate, we are sharing Olark’s story: how we went from finding a couple of accessibility issues in our bug tracker to developing a WCAG 2.0 AA compliant chatbox and fostering a team committed to doing more to make Olark accessible (with a lot of work ahead of us).

The Global Accessibility Awareness Day logo in navy blue

Every one of us has a role to play to make the web more accessible, and with 1 in 4 adults in the US (CDC) and over 1 billion people worldwide (WHO) living with a disability, we all are needed.

Whether you are an accessibility pro, an advocate, or just starting your journey, we hope you can learn from the road we’ve traveled so far.

And if you are inspired and want to get started yourself, join us and our partners in taking a pledge to make the web more accessible in 2021.

What exactly is digital accessibility?

It sounds obvious, but the simplest possible way of looking at accessibility is access. Is the front door to your technology locked to someone with visual, hearing, cognitive, or fine motor impairments? Or is it open? And once someone gets in, can they easily and independently accomplish their goals?

Right now, about 98% of websites have software-detectable accessibility issues, making them non-compliant with best practices (WebAIM). And even compliance with WCAG (Web Accessibility Content Guidelines) does not mean your technology is easy to use by someone with disabilities.

Good digital accessibility means supporting the following user stories (and then some):

  1. As someone who has color vision trouble distinguishing shades of red and blue, I can identify and navigate your website’s links without relying on hue.
  2. As someone who uses the keyboard to navigate web pages, I can quickly navigate a chatbox without getting stuck in a keyboard trap.
  3. As someone who is hard-of-hearing, I can tell that I have a new chat message through immediate visual cues so I don’t have to rely on sound for notifications.
  4. As someone with a cognitive difference, I find your interface simple to use and free of unnecessary distractions.
  5. As someone who relies on a screen reader, I can quickly navigate and understand your content without a purely visible layout.

The Web Accessibility Content Guidelines (WCAG) help all of us have a shared understanding of where to start, but they are by no means a finish line for building great usable products.

How did we get started on this journey?

Part I: Building a customer-centric, inclusive organization

Olark started over 12 years ago as an easy way for companies to be able to chat with their customers through a chatbox. Very early on, we realized that chat was a great game-changer, both for those who were not comfortable talking on the phone and for those for whom text communication was necessary.

The deaf community has been one of the huge benefactors of our society’s shift towards written communication, and positive feedback from this community gave us momentum in the early days.

We codified our human-centered values early on, clarifying the importance of #practicing empathy, and # speaking your mind — we apply these values both internally in the culture we build — but also in the tool we build for our customers. Deeply rooted in our beliefs was that Olark as technology should #help everyone communicate better and that it was our shared responsibility to #make it happen. In the early days, this meant simplifying chat to its core and making easy-to-understand and highly usable interfaces, but over time this definition has grown.

Prior to 2017, as customers reported accessibility issues, they were entered into a bug tracker, prioritized, and completed, similar to any other bug. We addressed small one-off issues but did not do any big accessibility pushes or attempt to change our big-picture development process to be more accessibility-aware.

Part II: A passion project becomes the catalyst

The real push to improve started in 2017. Two factors contributed to a shift towards a more holistic approach to accessibility. One, we had a customer who was passionate about the need for our product to be more accessible. Two, one of our previous engineers (hi Madalyn!) sparked an internal initiative to make accessibility a focus in engineering. Along with evangelizing the need for accessibility-friendly development practices and work processes, she led the team in adding:

  • screen-reader-friendly ARIA attributes, ensuring our chatbox was tab- and keyboard-focus friendly
  • more accessible forms and icons
  • automated accessibility tests (to our development workflows)
  • a high-contrast color mode for our agent console

These changes led to a greater awareness of the importance of accessibility within Olark, which really kick-started our journey to where we are today.

Three big catalysts got us moving. Remember, you can be any of these.

An internal champion. Thanks, Madalyn.

A passionate customer who we listened to.

A culture that made it easy for an internal champion to take something and run with it.

Following the push in 2017, we started seeing more business from accessibility-minded organizations: from non-profits to government to higher education. The accessibility tickets would come in, and get triaged and addressed similar to pre-2017. But with a strong base to draw from, we started becoming more organically known as an organization that deeply cared about accessibility.

Part III: Getting serious

In 2019, accessibility became a product-led initiative with the resources to do necessary user research to understand accessibility as a holistic challenge. Due to our Head of Product Julie’s leadership, we were able to think more critically about accessibility, and have the discussions needed to make it a priority at the management level.

The following elements played a role in getting serious:

  • Our human-first culture and values made it easy to create bottom-up and top-down buy-in.
  • A small number of vocal customers encouraged us to improve and do better.
  • A management-level champion took ownership over accessibility and used her privilege to push for inclusive design.

With accessibility as a priority, the end of 2019 and 2020 was a whirlwind of progress. We defined our goal as full WCAG 2.0 AA compliance for our new chatbox to be released in 2020. We started our journey towards compliance by bringing in outside expertise.

We had customers who had worked with Accessible360 (A360) in the past, and they came highly recommended as an agency that knew how to work with engineering teams and was well-respected within the accessibility community. We went from proposal to a full audit of our chatbox in a matter of weeks. (See a blog post about our A360 audit here!)

In addition to prioritizing issues discovered by Accessible360, we also took a holistic look at our accessibility backlog and made it clear to our entire team that accessibility issues were to be routed directly to our team working on accessibility and prioritized immediately rather than processed as part of our normal engineering backlog.

This initiative culminated in:

  • A complete visual update of our chatbox optimized for screen readers
  • Notably: enabled screen readers to read incoming messages, fixed labeling, and semantic markups
  • A new accessibility forward design and development process.
  • Identifying top opportunities for us to improve the accessibility of our marketing site.
  • Setting new standards for our chat agent console, customer experience, content, bug reporting, and more!

In January of 2021, we received a Letter of Compliance from A360, asserting that our chatbox meets WCAG 2.0 AA requirements!

With a more accessible chatbox, we’ve opened ourselves up to great partners like UC Berkeley’s Center for Disability Access & Compliance, as well as many forward-thinking customers who provide us with constant feedback on how we can do better.

Our accessibility takeaways so far:

  • Accessibility is good for business. We’ve grown as a direct result of being able to better serve and sell to a wider range of customers in forward-thinking, inclusive companies, as well as regulated environments like higher education and government.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of a small nudge. A couple of persistent customers, an inclusive culture, and an internal champion helped us move towards becoming accessible. As a buyer of software or an employee at a company, you have a lot of power to drive change.
  • Setting specific accessibility goals is powerful. WCAG compliance is a great start. WCAG 2.0 AA compliance was a powerful target to build towards and helped us level up our approach.
  • Accessibility is a team effort… but needs a clear owner. Marketing, sales, customer service, product, design, engineering, people ops, and executive departments all have a role to play, but make sure you have one clear owner for accessibility in your organization.
  • Accessibility is a continuous process. We’ve created an internal checklist for design and development to refer to as they work, we’re investigating plug-ins and extensions for our tools that help us make more accessible design decisions, and we have a list of resources for help tackling tricky problems and leveling up internal knowledge.
  • Start accessibility early in the development process. Each time we moved accessibility earlier in the development process, it accelerated our progress, made our impact much quicker, and lowered our costs. There is a larger moment to shift accessibility earlier in the development process, and we believe in it.
  • We have a lot to do and a lot to learn. We are just getting started. Olark’s accessibility is incomplete, we have a lot of work to do, and we hope you will join us on this journey.

Where we go from here

Accessibility isn’t a destination, it’s an ongoing process to meet and maintain a high standard of usability for all. We’re happy to have come so far over the last year, but what we’ve done isn’t as important as what we’re doing to improve.

What we’re committed to doing before GAAD 2022:

  1. Expand accessibility beyond the chatbox: Our digital accessibility footprint extends beyond our software and our website. We’ve identified some gaps in our email marketing and content publishing workflows and will be updating our brand style guide to provide a more contrast-friendly color palette and better adherence to semantic HTML guidelines.
  2. Prioritize accessibility in our customer feedback: This year we’ve launched Olark’s BrainTrust as a customer advisory board to help guide our product development going forward. We’ve added requirements to our recruitment of that board to make sure we’re getting engaged feedback from organizations who have very high requirements for accessibility (in both public institutions and commercial settings).
  3. Diversify our pool of beta testers with disabilities: We’d already succeeded in getting product feedback from people with disabilities, but this year we’ve set goals to ensure we’re testing our products across a broader range of adaptive technology platforms and gathering accessibility feedback earlier in our design process.
  4. Speak at a GAAD 2022 event: This time next year, we’ll share our accessibility progress in a live event setting.
  5. Establish and maintain an accessibility SLA for We’ve been consistently chipping away at updating the outdated content pages on our website, but in 2021 we’ll be formalizing this in our quarterly OKRs so we know that these issues will get prioritized and resourced by the entire company.
  6. Require an accessibility review prior to adopting user-facing 3rd-party tools: We were motivated into improving our accessibility by a customer who drew a line in the sand and wouldn’t sign a contract until we addressed some accessibility issues they’d identified. This year, we’re going to follow that example and require an accessibility evaluation of any company-wide 3rd-party software tools before they’re rolled out to the entire company.

We look forward to writing the next chapter and expanding accessibility across our marketing site, help center, and chat agent experience.

Remember Global Accessibility Awareness Day is May 20th, join us and our partners in taking a pledge to make the web more accessible in 2021.

A huge thanks to Mandy, Kerry, Rhi, Kelly, and others for reading and writing drafts of this post, and all of the Olarkers (past and present) who have worked to make Olark more accessible and open: Alicia, Melanie, Nick, Rhi, Julie, Joe, Ben, Matt, Hector, Miranda, Kelly, Madalyn, Lithia, Sarah; our freelancers Chris, Coco and Kerry; and our partners at GAAD and Accessible 360. Your dedication and passion for inclusion makes us better every day.