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Toward Accessible AI Chatbots: Olark’s Annual Report for GAAD (Year 3!)

May 13, 2024

Our third annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day reflection and commitment write-up.

Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) is this Thursday, May 16! Did you know that this event kicked off based on a single blog post written by web developer Joe Devon — and a subsequent tweet seen by accessibility professional Jennison Asuncion — 13 years ago? The fact that GAAD is bigger and better than ever is a testament to the power of the a11y community, of which we’re proud to be a part.

It’s a reminder of the power of a few individuals to start — and grow — important movements like this one by persisting for years. And with the humble blog post, no less! (Bloggers, take note?)

At Olark, GAAD is a special day. Inclusiveness is at the heart of our mission. We believe every person deserves access to the essential digital tools that make up our world. Speaking of persistence… it’s been seven years since we first identified accessibility as a priority for Olark chat, and three years since we started publicizing our accessibility commitments. It feels good to be on this path!

This year AI also made huge waves in our industry. We are responding with an accessible-first mindset and are super proud of our team.

Let’s see how far we’ve come…

During the first few years of our accessibility journey, we were laying the foundation. We established best practices with our engineering and product teams, got familiar with terms, put together training. This year, it feels like accessibility is baked into our processes. Instead of developing everything from scratch, we’re in a groove, taking the next steps we know we need to take.

The last year has been a whirlwind. We launched an accessible signup process for Olark, attended multiple accessibility events, and even brought in the producer of the film Surpassing Sight — a documentary about two blind cyclists — for a discussion of his film with our team at our offsite in Austin, Texas.

Sometimes it’s hard to see just how far we’ve come until we sit down and reflect on the progress we’ve made. Many micro-actions add up to a web of impact.

We hope sharing what we’ve been doing and learning will support you on your accessibility journey too. Below, check out our scores on last year’s accessibility commitments and our new commitments (plus some lessons learned!).

Let’s get this party started!

Our 2023 Commitments: How did they go?

Last year, we set eight accessibility goals (our most ambitious number yet!). 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: Offer an end-to-end accessible experience for everyone. All Olark users, new and existing, have access to this experience: GREEN, AND IN PROGRESS

ORIGINAL 2023 GOAL: 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.

Our chatbox was already accessible in many ways. But as mentioned in our original goal, we’ve been hard at work over the last year addressing that last mile: building an end-to-end, fully accessible experience. One highlight is a brand-spanking-new accessible agent console, with some new settings, account management features like login, and improved password management. We’ve also swapped in the new accessible login flow, even for classic users! In-app notifications now stay on the page longer and have more options to dismiss or not. As well, the chat box theme can be changed with a screen reader now. You can check out detailed updates in our changelog.

Based on user feedback, we made numerous smaller upgrades, relating to text legibility, dark mode, Zoom compatibility with increased text size, and more. We say this is green and still in progress because we haven’t rolled the new version out to every existing customer yet. But soon!

Commitment #2: Monitor what’s coming for WCAG 2.2 and externally share our journey engaging with the changes: YELLOW, ALMOST GREEN

ORIGINAL 2023 GOAL: 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.

We’ve been looking ahead to what will eventually become the new standard in accessibility. Our accessibility engineer, Lee, has been monitoring what’s coming for the next version, WCAG 2.2. (She also got certified as a Web Accessibility Specialist by the International Association of Accessibility Professionals… congrats, Lee!) Our first plan is to audit the target sizes of buttons and links and modify if any are too small. This commitment is yellow because we haven’t shared our journey externally yet.

Commitment #3: Report accessibility issues quarterly in a public way: SOLID GREEN

ORIGINAL 2023 GOAL: 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.

Every quarter, our teammates Lee and Rhi have highlighted accessibility issues that we’ve run into and what we’ve done to tackle them. You can find our ongoing Accessibility Progress Reports on the Olark blog here, with some smaller updates in the changelog. We’re excited that these reports are now easy to locate, all in one place!

Commitment #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: GREEN, ONGOING

ORIGINAL 2023 GOAL: 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.

We put together a spreadsheet with our evaluations of all the internal tools we use at Olark and the accessibility policies that go with them. These include everything from communications and project management tools to accounting and operations. The goal was to make sure we knew where our teamwide tooling stood when it came to accessibility initiatives and access.

This has certainly been a journey — we now know that we have a handful of tools that aren’t as accessible as we’d like.

We expect this to be a dynamic and ongoing process that we’ll continue to monitor. The roadmap we created reinforces that we will regularly audit our tooling, will reassess tool usage based on the needs of new hires, and will always center accessibility first when it comes to adding new tooling. (As part of an earlier — and ongoing — goal, we ask for accessibility policies for every new tool or software we are considering.) Given this audit, we’re now on the lookout for more accessible tooling for specific parts of our business, including design and operations.

As we grow in this, we’d love to eventually collaborate with other startups and bootstrapped companies on a list of favorite internal tools. If you’re interested to know what we found or would like to recommend a tool that your organization uses internally, feel free to contact Mandy at support[at]

Commitment #5: Ship a new website that supports getting >75% of pages to WCAG compliance, and write a post summarizing our learning from the process: ALMOST GREEN

ORIGINAL 2023 GOAL: 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.

We gathered internal needs for tooling from Marketing, Support, and Engineering and vetted several web platforms for our new website. Our priorities were the right mix of ease-of-use for all technical abilities internally and ease of development for accessible visitor-facing pages. In the end, we selected Webflow, which allows us to create WCAG-compliant pages any time. We crossed the line to over 75% WCAG compliance for sure!

Each page is redesigned/reformatted with accessibility best practices and usability in mind as it’s migrated and then tested for ease of use with assistive tech, along with visual readability, by internal and external partners. We’re still very much in the middle of the process of migrating our site pages, but are making steady progress. This post is a great opportunity to share what we’ve learned too.

Here are a few of our takeaways:

  • The web platform we landed on, Webflow, has some great built-in tools for checking contrast, ensuring all images have proper alt-text, and checking page structure before publishing.
  • We made an initial roadmap to determine which pages needed migration first. Our best practice of looking at the volume of traffic (make the most-used pages accessible to the most users first) and function of the pages was a great prioritization filter.
  • We determined that porting our Help Center pages and content very early on would make a huge accessibility impact, both internally (on team members being able to update and publish content) and externally (on adherence to WCAG guidelines and a11y-friendly layouts).

Commitment #6: Onboard 10 new customers that have customer-facing staff using assistive tech on their teams: RED

ORIGINAL 2023 GOAL: 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.

This goal was more challenging than expected, and our score wasn’t for lack of trying! We reached out within our networks (like in this LinkedIn post, which crowdsourced a lot of great resources). So far, we’ve onboarded two companies with customer-facing staff who use assistive technology, so we still have a ways to go to reach our target ten. We put in effort and we’ll keep putting in effort. This work will be ongoing: look for it in our 2024 commitments!

Commitment #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: RED

ORIGINAL 2023 GOAL: 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!

Each year since the start of our commitments, we have made one more commitment than the last. We’re just really excited about making progress in accessibility! However, we did load our plate fairly high this time. We had to prioritize where to direct resources for our small team and decided to focus core efforts on the new website and internal tools audit. This project was back-burnered.

We could have put together something quickly, but we thought the spirit of this goal was to compile a really thoughtful playbook that could be shared externally. To do it well would take more learning and time. We still see the value of this goal, and will potentially revisit it in the future.

Commitment #8: Write an ongoing blog about our journey and communicate about choices we’ve made about accessibility on each of our teams: GREEN

ORIGINAL 2023 GOAL: 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.

We’ve been posting steadily about accessibility feature updates and requests on our blog here!

Note on our overall scoring: Olark uses OKRs (which stands for Objectives and Key Results) as our company goal-setting framework. 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 notable accessibility highlights:

Not everything we did was quantified in our commitments. We wanted to celebrate other wins here, like growth in our accessibility network and other assorted cool things:

  • We added automated accessibility testing into our development workflow! Automation is a big advancement in how we do testing. It ensures that what we’re doing follows industry standards and doesn’t regress in the future. The tests also run on every commit we make to our code base, so we can be confident in all the changes we make.
  • Early investments in accessibility over the last couple of years helped us work with New York University (NYU) during their new accessibility-forward procurement process.
  • A neat turn of events led our CEO Ben to bring the producer of the documentary Surpassing Sight to Olark’s offsite retreat in Austin, Texas. Ben saw a screening at the LightHouse San Francisco and loved the film, both an action sports movie and a relatable piece about the challenges of folks with disabilities finding employment opportunities. A key social goal of the film is to help build awareness that disabled folks are capable of success both in business and in endurance sports. After connecting with several members of the film team after the screening, he contacted the producer about screening the film at our retreat. The producer had friends in Austin so he came out, presented his film, and did a Q&A with our team afterwards. It was an inspiring experience for us and a great reminder of why we do this work!
  • Attending the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference as a returning speaker and exhibitor gave our CEO, Ben, a new perspective on the growth of the community and also the strength of the core group of folks who attend CSUN every year. This was one of the first times he attended CSUN and ran out of time to see all the folks he knew, and ended up scheduling multiple follow-ups for post-CSUN.
  • Within the above CSUN community, there has been a lot of interest in accessible chatbots. This bodes well for the investments we want to make to build more accessible AI and chat solutions. Unlike previous years, there was a lot more interest from potential customers and partners, which has led to many opportunities to work closer with the accessibility community.
  • Relationships and demonstrated progress developed over years have opened doors, and continue to open doors, as folks learn that not only are we talking about progress over perfection, we are making progress.

Our 2024 Commitments: Where are we headed?

This year is about deepening the gains we’ve made, like enhancing our new website, onboarding customers, and continuing to share our journey, while making more strides toward accessible AI chatbots. Here are our new commitments:

  1. Do a deep dive on making AI chatbots accessible and share our findings on our blog. We want to tap into the opportunities at the intersection of AI chatbots and accessibility. So we’re committing to researching the requirements for this development, getting feedback from the community, and publicizing what we find.
  2. Invite an audit for the latest version of Olark. Back in 2019, we partnered with Allyant (formerly Accessible360) to conduct an external audit of our chatbox. With their thorough feedback, we made changes to conform to WCAG and Section 508 standards. It’s a good time to revisit this practice, getting a professional perspective to make sure we’re as accessible as we can be!
  3. Write an ongoing blog about our journey and communicate about choices we’ve made about accessibility on each of our teams. Report accessibility issues quarterly in a public way. Tracking and sharing our accessibility progress and reporting have been fruitful endeavors, ones that we want to keep on doing. These updates serve as a useful, regular reminder to us that we’re making progress. It can be easy to get stuck in the grind and miss that!
  4. Two Olarkers give public talks about accessibility. Speaking at events has been a rewarding way for us to improve our accessibility messages, connect with the community, and hear important perspectives. For this goal, we’d like to extend our accessibility presentations to conferences that don’t specifically target accessibility and reach a broader audience.
  5. Onboard 10 customers with customer facing roles who rely on accessibility. Get direct feedback on our accessibility from 5 paying end users who rely on assistive technology and benefit from Olark. This is an extension of our goal from last year. Every new customer teaches us more, improving our product and processes and diversifying our base. We want to keep finding customers we can support and listening deeply to their needs.
  6. Add automated testing on our new website. We want to make sure our ongoing development is the most accessible it can be. Automating our tests will help us do that faster and more efficiently.

Reflections and takeaways

After years of doing this work, we’re still constantly learning and growing. If you’re getting started or on the path of your own accessibility journey, here are just a few principles we recommend:

Progress over perfection. We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. When we first started thinking about making accessibility a core part of our mission at Olark, we worried about not knowing what to do, messing things up, excluding people accidentally. Then we met accessibility consultant Meryl Evans, a deaf individual who sometimes wears a t-shirt that reads: “Progress over perfection.” Her motto gave us permission to fail, and ultimately, to get started. None of us are perfect anyway! We’ll improve as we go. And we’ll do so much more toward accessibility if we’re not afraid of making mistakes. This is so important to remember at every step of the journey.

Seek feedback from the experts. You don’t have to go it alone. There are so many friendly and helpful folks you can talk to about improving accessibility at your company. Here are some of the methods we’ve done over the years: reach out to friends and their networks with questions, hire professionals in accessibility, ask for feedback from our employees with disabilities, and assemble diverse panels of our customers who use assistive technology. You’ll be so much better at serving the needs of your customers with disabilities if you talk to them.

Hire people with disabilities. This was advice we received from the head of disability inclusion at Google, Chris Patnoe, for the best method to make our organization and our product more accessible. We already had folks on our team with disabilities at that time. If you are a diverse and inclusive company that is mid-sized or larger, the odds are good that you do too (a little over 1 in 8 Americans in the working population have disabilities). When you help teammates resolve accessibility issues related to the work environment, you’ll improve your standards internally. As well, teammates with disabilities can bring much needed perspectives to your product.

Also, in recent news, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a final rule to update regulations for Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This rule applies to state and local government organizations, ie. public organizations. It requires (in most cases) that their web content and mobile apps comply with WCAG 2.1, version AA accessibility standards within 2–3 years. Clarifying how the ADA applies online for these organizations is a huge milestone that moves us all towards a more accessible web — our hope is that this update will lead to more public organizations getting the resources they need to be fully accessible.

Have a wonderful GAAD and don’t be a stranger!

This year, we’re celebrating wins in our formal commitments, like our end-to-end accessible chatbox and new website on a more accessibility-first platform. We’re also excited and grateful for the growth of our a11y community, our baked-in processes within the company, and the many rewarding experiences we’ve had along the way.

We’re looking forward to spreading the word about accessibility at conferences, exploring the potential of accessible AI chatbots, continuing to post quarterly updates about our progress, and serving more customers who rely on assistive technology.

If you read this far, thank you. We hope you learned something valuable to take with you on your own accessibility journey. Happy GAAD and come see us again soon!