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Improving Accessibility for All
Innovation Grant winners

How can we make Harvard web products accessible to all our users? In 2016, experts from across the University joined together to address this question. “Building a Participant Pool for Internal Accessibility Testing at Harvard” was one of the projects selected for the President’s Administrative Innovation Fund. In this Q&A, team members reflect on its progress, lessons learned, and the future of user experience at Harvard.  


Q: How would you describe your project in a nutshell?

Kris Markman, Director of Digital Learning and User Experience, Harvard Library: The goal of this project was to create a low-cost approach for performing consistent and regular accessibility testing across a variety of Harvard products. We developed a process for recruiting native users of assistive technology (AT)—such as screen readers, zooming software, and speech-input software—who would serve as potential testers for Harvard interfaces.

We tested products from across the University, including PeopleSoft, My.Harvard, digital learning sites from HarvardX, Harvard Library, and Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), along with library interfaces, including LibGuides and the beta version of the Video Delivery Service. We built a participant database of more than 40 local assistive technology users, 10 of whom tested products during the grant period.

The cross-University project team was led by Amy Deschenes (Senior User Experience Consultant for Harvard Library) and included representatives from HUIT (Library Technology Services; Academic Technology), HarvardX, and University Disability Services, as well as the Digital Learning & User Experience team.


What’s the most surprising thing you learned during the project?

Vittorio Bucchieri, Senior User Experience Lead, HUIT Academic Technology: How Harvard’s culture fosters opportunities and provides support for innovation and collaboration across units.

Kris Markman: One thing that surprised me was how excited our participants were to work with us. Several of the testers told me afterwards how glad they were that Harvard was undertaking this project. Our testers took their role seriously and gave detailed, thoughtful feedback.


What is the team most proud of?

Vittorio Bucchieri: Making tangible progress toward the awareness of accessibility and the importance of making Harvard products usable for anyone, regardless of any physical or mental difference.

Janet Hlozik Taylor, User Experience Librarian, Library Technology Services: Working to improve accessibility is a unifying activity. The grant team shared a common vision of inclusion and the belief that we could promote accessibility in pragmatic, effective ways through low-barrier testing. Team members developed thoughtful processes that minimized pain points for both testers and participants while increasing the likelihood of a productive interaction for all.

Kyle Shachmut, HarvardX Project Manager for Accessibility: [The grant] created a framework for the team to create a more sustainable process and product that we hope can be used by the entire University to help everyone build more accessible technology. There’s no substitute for native assistive technology users testing digital products as part of accessibility quality assurance. Before, this testing usually happened only when a product owner or department knew students or staff who could do this kind of work. Through this project, that barrier is eliminated for the Harvard community.  

Danielle Lavoie, User Research Center Lab Manager, Harvard Library: I was delighted to be a part of the process, connecting participants and testers to ensure Harvard’s digital products are accessible for all. Providing an opportunity to improve the Harvard experience for those with disabilities is an achievement and a valuable resource for both Harvard and the community. I’m fortunate to have had this opportunity with the PAIF Grant and look forward to coordinating tests through the Accessibility Participant Pool in the future.


How do you plan on using the data you gathered?

Vittorio Bucchieri: The data will contribute to change the mindset of stakeholders, content creators, and developers so that accessibility will become a natural consideration when defining, designing, and developing Harvard University products.

Kyle Shachmut: HarvardX has been working on accessibility for a while. The pilot phase of this project allowed us to make significant improvements according to the feedback of a diverse pool of native assistive technology users.  

Kris Markman: At the library, the data we gathered when testing tutorials on the Digital Learning Launchpad is leading directly to improvements to existing tutorials and informing how we design them in the future. Similarly, the feedback from testing LibGuides will be used in a future refresh of existing templates.


How will this research inform the user experience at Harvard Library?

Kris Markman: During this grant project, we learned so much about how to improve not only the specific sites we tested, but also how to think about designing new sites and interfaces. It’s one thing to read about web accessibility, but sitting next to a native AT user who is struggling or confused really drives home how important thoughtful design is. It makes these issues come alive in a way that’s harder to achieve as a non-native user of AT.

The Library will be able to improve all of its interfaces through testing with participants in the pool. More importantly, learning how native AT users experience our products will help us make the right design decisions from the beginning. Accessible interfaces are usable interfaces, so it's a win-win for our entire community.


Q&A was edited and condensed.

Published on September 6, 2017.