Provide 24/7 affordable customer service with AI-powered chat.
Connect to learn more

Olark’s Accessibility Journey: Annual Report for GAAD + the Messy Middle

Kelly Eidson
May 16, 2023

Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) is this week! As part of this important celebration, we’re sharing our yearly progress and lessons in accessibility. This is a blogging tradition we started in 2021 (plus a deep dive on how we got started) and we continued the practice last year. Come along with us as we reflect!

A purple Maslow's hierarchy style pyramid showing stagings of becoming accessible. Bottom: Compliance, above that: Usability, above that: Integration, and the top of the pyramid is: Fun.

If you’re reading this, we probably don’t have to tell you how crucial digital accessibility is or why it matters (but here’s a quick rundown, just in case). It’s a key value to Olark to be inclusive. That means designing our communication tools to make life easier for everyone.

We now find ourselves smack in the middle of this accessibility-by-design journey. Beginnings are often flashy and exciting, while the middle — as any storyteller can tell you — risks being more of a “muddle.” If you’ve been on the a11y train awhile too, we’re guessing you can relate.

The clear path we charted seems both more messy and sometimes more mundane, as we take the daily steps to meet our vision. We have to stay compassionate with ourselves: sometimes we’re raising the bar quite a bit, doing everything we did before and much, much more. The middle is the period where the most change and growth happens. It’s the heart of the story. Persistence is the name of the game here, along with lots of juicy lessons and fun!

Next, we’ll share details about how we did in our 2022 goals and what we’re aiming for this year. The last year saw us getting further traction in our agent-side accessibility, enriching our feedback from customers, and adding supportive internal processes.

We hope that following us in this annual ritual will give you ideas and inspiration of your own. So let’s go!

Our 2022 Commitments: How did things go?

Last year, we set seven accessibility goals. Here’s how we’re scoring our performance and what we did to meet each goal.

Rating scale:

  • GREEN: We did what we set out to do and maybe even did more than we’d planned.
  • YELLOW: We made meaningful progress, but we have a ways to go.
  • RED: We aren’t satisfied with the progress.


Commitment #1: Evaluate our new agent chat experience & establish our WCAG baseline: REALLY, REALLY GREEN

ORIGINAL 2022 GOAL: In addition to getting feedback from testers with disabilities and customers with accessibility expertise, we’ll hire a third-party auditor to help us understand where this product stands relative to WCAG guidelines. This information will inform our go-to-market plans and our product roadmap in 2023.

We went all in on this goal and then some. Not only did we decide where we wanted to land on WCAG, but we also met an ambitious internal goal quickly by reaching a new standard (WCAG 2.1 AA) with the help of usability and accessibility feedback from Fable, third-party certification by our accredited auditor Allyant, and pilot programs with customers who have assistive technology users in customer-facing roles (more on this in the next commitment). Decisions we made early in our design process because of our accessibility commitment — like the choice to build on MUI, one of the most accessible component libraries — helped lay the groundwork for fast progress. We hit this target a month ahead of schedule, in time for the 2023 CSUN conference.

It’s worth noting that the agent chat experience was more challenging to make accessible than the customer-facing chat box. It features more information, more notifications, and more functionality. Now, both staff with disabilities and customers have the same level of chat access. We set a high bar for ourselves and weren’t even sure if we could hit it. Overall, we are proud to say that we met this goal 200%.

Commitment #2: Collaborate directly with chat agents who rely on assistive technology: GREEN

ORIGINAL 2022 GOAL: We aim to make an agent chat app that is more than WCAG-compliant and nice to use for disabled customer support reps in their work environment. To achieve this, we need to partner with people who chat or perform related customer messaging tasks as part of their daily work. Frankly, this is hard to do because there are not a lot of accessible options on the market for customer support reps who use AT, but this is also why it’s so important that we build one and make it great.

We are actively collecting feedback from users with disabilities testing our chat experience and implementing their recommendations. For example, Clusiv, an eLearning platform built for the blind community to learn key skills for employment, has shared feedback to improve the accessibility and experience of the Olark chat tools, to help ensure the best usability for users who are blind or visually impaired.

Our pilot customer, A. T. Guys, has a web storefront of products, services, and training for blind and low vision users. Their team has blind and low vision staff, so they are able to share the experience on both the agent and customer sides. We also have a pilot participant that has been providing invaluable feedback on how Olark works for their constituents and staff with spinal cord injuries and paralysis. It’s been both meaningful and valuable to us to work with these customers. The more we get real-world responses, the more we can make our chat not simply accessibility-compliant, but good and hopefully a pleasure to use. We’re excited at our progress with this goal and our partnership with our customers.

Commitment #3: Make the ASL Zoom integration available to other customers who want it: YELLOW

ORIGINAL 2022 GOAL: We’re so excited to launch this innovative feature with our partner. Our goal is to enable this functionality for others who need a similar integration.

We put in significant effort on this integration and worked through how we would build the feature. However, other aspects didn’t go as planned. Along the way, through no fault of anyone’s, we no longer had the partnership to drive this feature forward. One lesson we learned: accessibility alone does not mean your chat solution will have all the functionality a business needs. And a strong business use case makes it more likely that your feature will be supported to the finish line. In good news, we got about 60% of the way to shipping this feature and are still open to exploring its completion, if it is of interest to an engaged customer willing to provide feedback.

Commitment #4: Publish best practices for accessible chatbots: RED

ORIGINAL 2022 GOAL: We have strong opinions about chatbots. One of those opinions is that they can be a blessing or a curse for accessibility. This year we’ll share what we’ve learned about how to build chatbots that are helpful to people with disabilities, and we’ll give Olark customers guidance and feedback on how they can find a happy medium between automation and accessibility.

Two big things stalled us on this goal: our immediate aims for the CSUN conference and the disruptive force that is ChatGPT. We mainly channeled our resources into our first big, ambitious goal of the WCAG standard by CSUN time, and we started research into how ongoing changes in AI change the picture. Early last year MITRE (a nonprofit which manages federally funded research and development centers) shared their best practices around accessible chatbots. While their coverage of the material is fairly exhaustive, we know we still have thoughts to add. Overall, we haven’t done this yet and are rethinking what type of best practices would be most useful for the community, especially given AI.

Commitment #5: Put every Olarker through role-specific accessibility training: GREEN

ORIGINAL 2022 GOAL: Accessibility is everyone’s job. This year we will ensure everyone at Olark knows how to do their job in a way that supports disabled people. Each team will set its timeline and curriculum for training, but our Accessibility Working Group will provide oversight and resources. We’ll also lean on our new HR manager to ensure all new hires receive role-specific training within their first 100 days at Olark.

Our goal here was to make sure that everyone understood how their individual role impacted accessibility for our customers. Each team decided on what level of training would be sufficient for all full-time employees in its department, and everyone is on a timeline to be done with training in the near future. We have also added onboarding-specific training for new Olarkers.

Commitment #6: Report the status of all accessibility issues quarterly: GREEN

ORIGINAL 2022 GOAL: To quote our friends at Pope Tech, “there’s no point hiding your accessibility issues because people who have disabilities already know what they are”. We agree. We also think that it’s a lot to ask of people who’ve found our bugs to report them. We can save them the trouble by publishing the summary of our accessibility tickets.

Since the last GAAD, we’ve published an accessibility status report quarterly for people to see.

Commitment #7: Speak at (or host) another GAAD event in 2023: GREEN

ORIGINAL 2022 GOAL: We had a lot of fun presenting at CSUN, in part because it showed us how far we have to go to make our presentations, demos, and meetings accessible. We are committed to attending GAAD annually — we have already learned so much and it’s helpful for time-boxing our goals.

We’d call this goal achieved in spirit, if not exactly in letter. Multiple Olarkers are participating in an A11y camp this year. And our marketing director, Kelly, is now on the board of the GAAD Foundation, and has been contributing to advancing its goals. For example, she worked on an initiative called the GAAD Speakers Fund — which helps everyday tech professionals with disabilities cover expenses to speak at an in-person event — and is helping with the GAAD day-of launch.

Note on our overall scoring: Olark uses OKRs (which stands for Objectives and Key Results) as our company goal-setting framework. We don’t get into the nitty-gritty of our scoring above. However, we wanted to mention that in this framework, if you get a 75%, say, that means it was a good, sufficiently aspirational goal. You didn’t set a goal that was too easy or too hard. In several cases above, we hit 75% or 85% of our target, which means we’re proud of where we landed.

Other neat accessibility accomplishments in 2022:

Along the way, we made other valuable contributions that we didn’t quantify in our accessibility commitments above.

  • We have multiple motivated technologists on our team working on accessibility. This year, we also hired a dedicated accessibility engineer (hi, Lee!) who could focus on key efforts. She’ll think about engineering problems through the lens of accessibility first, and — while she’ll still work on projects outside of accessibility as well — her unique background will help us level up accessibility in all of our projects.
  • Our team worked hard to participate in the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference this year, and our CEO, Ben, gave a talk highlighting the importance of workplace accessibility. It was exciting to meet so many in the assistive tech community and share some of our ideas for greater employee access.
  • Keeping the motto “nothing about us without us” in mind, we onboarded people who have lived experience with a variety of disabilities into our marketing team, to give feedback on marketing materials before they go out.
  • In an effort to make all of our content more inclusive, we wrote inclusive language and alt-text guidelines into our brand style guide.
  • This year, we maintained the Accessibility Working Group we started last year to keep us accountable to our goals. This group contains roughly five passionate Olarkers who collaborate periodically on Slack.

Our 2023 Commitments: Where are we headed?

This year is about deepening the gains we’ve made and going more “global” in our external and internal accessibility. Here are our new commitments.

  1. Offer an end-to-end accessible experience for everyone. All Olark users, new and existing, have access to this experience. Olark is accessible for chatting both on the customer and agent-side, and most agent-side functionality is also accessible. But there is still the last mile: account settings, reporting, and some dashboard screens are not yet accessible. For example, you can’t yet change the color of your chat box using a screen reader. We’re excited to make Olark accessible in its entirety with this goal.
  2. Monitor what’s coming for WCAG 2.2 and externally share our journey engaging with the changes. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) releases regular updates to its WCAG accessibility standards, sometimes as a draft before formally approving. We’re keeping an eye on how the next version impacts our chatbox. Our aim is to keep ahead of the curve and plan for addressing the next standard. With all that we’ve learned (and keep learning) we think we’ll be in great shape.
  3. Report accessibility issues quarterly in a public way. We started this goal in 2021, and we’re recording it again because we’re going to keep doing it. We plan to make the reporting easier to find as well.
  4. Evaluate all internal tools used across the Olark team to determine what’s accessible and what’s not. Audit these tools and provide a roadmap for change based on what we find. Putting on our Olark-as-employer hat, we have company-wide tools that we use in our work (plus some departmentally-specific tools). For this commitment, we’ll be assessing the tools everyone uses, so we understand which have accessibility issues. This way, we can seek replacements in our stack and/or if there are transition issues, be upfront with our hires who use assistive tech.
  5. Ship a new website that supports getting >75% of pages to WCAG compliance, and write a post summarizing our learning from the process. Big project: we’re rebuilding our website from the ground up to address accessibility foundationally! In the past, we’ve relied more on spot fixes, and they helped a lot. Now we want to take things to the next level.
  6. Onboard 10 new customers that have customer-facing staff using assistive tech on their teams. With each new customer, we’ve learned more about (and we think, improved!) accessibility across our company, not only for our product, but also our processes. For example, when we started with one of our pilot customers, our sales team rethought demos for a blind and low-vision audience. Our customer service team learned how to describe functionality differently. We’d like to keep increasing the diversity of our customer base to include as many disability experiences as possible, so we can be prepared to truly serve everyone.
  7. Craft an internal playbook for our team on how to accommodate people with disabilities in sales and customer service. Bonus if time: publish this guide externally. Our previous goal will synergize with this one. The more we learn about our customers, the more real-world insights we can contribute to this playbook, which will be a source of training for our team — both veterans and new hires — to interact more helpfully with our disabled customers. We hope to do this well enough to share publicly for the benefit of other companies!
  8. Write an ongoing blog about our journey and communicate about choices we’ve made about accessibility on each of our teams. Sometimes, we can work in a silo, learning things without capturing them for others. We aim to participate in the conversation with this blog and share useful company lessons we learn along the way, in the hopes that we can make this path a little easier for someone else.

Reflections: what we’ve learned lately

This year in his talk at CSUN, our CEO Ben summarized some valuable lessons we’ve learned. Here are just a few of the highlights:

Workplace accessibility matters. One key theme on our minds is the importance of doing our part to address the employment gap for people with disabilities. Sadly (as you may know), staff-facing tech is often not accessible, even today. The best way we know to chip away at that gap is by making our employee-facing chat technology the most accessible it can be. We’re also bringing on amazing disabled team members to help us advance these efforts.

There is a Maslow’s hierarchy of becoming more accessible. At the base of this pyramid is compliance, which often means an audit. (We’ve moved up this pyramid ourselves, by the way! And sometimes you can move down again for a while.) The next step up is usability, where you can start to work with testers. Up from there, you have integration. In our case, this is where we added real customers with core needs around accessibility. And finally, at the tip of the pyramid, you can experience the joy and fun of solving problems!

A pyramid with four layers. Starting from the bottom: 1) Compliance, 2) Usability, 3) Integration, and 4) Fun!

Motivation over obligation. We’ve learned that people — both staff and customers — who are motivated trump people who are obligated to work in accessibility. That means we’re especially excited to work with customers who aren’t just checking a compliance box, but who are also motivated to support the larger goals and values of inclusion.

Next steps in Olark’s accessibility

From WCAG 2.1AA to meaningful customer input, we’re proud of the progress we’ve made this year. And of course, the journey is never done. We look forward to putting the final accessibility touches on our agent-side experience, making our website more accessible, sharing our lessons internally and externally, and listening to the needs of a wider set of customers using assistive technology. We’re continuing to embrace progress over perfection. Thank you for reading. It’s been super valuable for us to hold ourselves publicly accountable to these goals and we hope you got some useful takeaways for your own efforts.

Have a wonderful GAAD and we’ll see you next time on the same bat channel!