Ted Drake, Global Accessibility Leader at Intuit, discusses accessibility’s impact on the customer experience.


Intro: [00:00:00.24] Welcome to the Workology Podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder of Workology.com, as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends, tools and case studies for the business leader, HR and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now, here’s Jessica with this episode of Workology.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:25.50] Sometimes the business case might get in the way of just doing the right thing. This happens a lot, in my opinion, when we are looking at accessibility and diversity and inclusive efforts. We often get caught up in the ROI of doing something instead of doing it because it’s the right thing. It’s not so much about ROI as it is with being a good citizen of the universe and making your business and workplace accessible for all, including those with disabilities. This episode is part of the Workology podcast, and it is sponsored by Workology and it’s part of our Future of Work series powered by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act this year, we’re investigating what the next 30 years will look like for people with disabilities at work and the potential of emerging technologies to make workplaces more inclusive and accessible. Today, I’m joined by Ted Drake. Ted Drake is the Global Accessibility leader at Intuit, a financial software company that creates TurboTax and QuickBooks. Prior to Intuit, Ted co-founded Yahoo’s accessibility lab and was a developer evangelist. Ted speaks regularly at technology conferences and is the co-chair of the 2021 Web4All conference for accessibility research. Ted, welcome to the Workology podcast.

Ted Drake: [00:01:45.57] Thank you so much. I’m happy to be here.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:01:47.97] Talk to us about your background. How did you get into accessibility?

Ted Drake: [00:01:51.66] I was a professional student. It took me 12 years to get my degree in fine art. In the middle of that, I went through genetics and business and journalism and photography, and everything else I could. I just loved being in college and learning new ideas. And I’m still trying to learn something new every day, whether it’s podcasts or Twitter or articles or anything. So, I guess you can say the one thing about me is that I’m always learning.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:02:22.89] You’re like a Renaissance person, right? Like always learning, always growing. You’re a jack of all trades.

Ted Drake: [00:02:26.64] I was the only person in my art classes that had taken statistics and genetics and probably the only person in my statistics and genetics classes that had taken color theory.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:02:38.64] Awesome. Well, one of the things I wanted to talk to you about today is to hear more about Intuit’s commitment to accessibility on your technology platform. Can you talk a little bit about this and the why behind it?

Ted Drake: [00:02:51.39] Yeah, I mean, ultimately, Intuit is a customer-focused company, and a lot of companies say that, but it is actually core to what Intuit does. Our goal is to create exceptional experiences for all of our customers. And what I like to tell everybody at Intuit is, I emphasize that “all”, because we always say that we want to make a great experience for our customers. But when you add “all” then that’s where you start thinking inclusive and that’s where you start working with accessibility. And I think it’s, it’s common nature for someone when they’re designing or building or thinking about a new project that they see themselves in it.

Ted Drake: [00:03:34.69] So, our goal as the accessibility team is to take themselves out of it and to help them broaden their perspectives, to think about people with disabilities, different genders, race, socioeconomic, family structure, the whole broad spectrum of the community, not just, you know, I’m an engineer or I’m a designer. I’m twenty-five years old. I’ve got a huge monitor and I’m in a perfectly lit room. And so, I’m in a design for that experience rather than I’m a mother of two children working two jobs. And I’m trying to balance my budget on the kitchen table at ten o’clock at night on my phone.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:04:16.96] Yes, it’s important to, to kind of have a balanced approach to understanding your customers.

Ted Drake: [00:04:23.11] We use empathy awareness. One of the things that’s, I don’t know who said it, but it’s like you can teach someone to design and you can teach them about accessibility, but you can’t teach someone to care. So, what we try to do is we try to put them in other people’s perspectives, and once they understand how it impacts other people, then they build the empathy. And once people have empathy, then they’re much more likely to not only fix that problem that you, you presented to them, but also presenting all new problems and avoiding issues in the future.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:04:57.25] I like this empathy approach, and I think that most of our listeners on the podcast can really relate to that because so much of what we do is the people side of the business.

Ted Drake: Right.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: I wanted to ask you about how Intuit addresses accessibility requests and features. I’m interested in learning more about how you build accessibility into your product development.

Ted Drake: [00:05:19.36] As I mentioned before, Intuit is a customer-focused company. When we are designing new features and new products, and I’ve worked at other places that do it the other way. The other way is you build something and after you build something, then you try to figure out how to market it. That’s pretty common. What we do at Intuit is we go, and we meet with customers and we watch customers as they try to do something like, for instance, our invoice team might go out and meet with 50 customers. They’re trying to write invoices. Sometimes they’re writing those invoices on a piece of paper. Sometimes they’re using software like QuickBooks. But we asked them what went well, what didn’t go well? What would you like it to do? How could this be easier? Then after we figure out some of the problems that were involved in them making that invoice, then we create a prototype. Then we go back to the customers, get their feedback, and then we keep evolving. So, we don’t build something unless there’s a problem. And so, one of the key things is that we need to make sure that those customers that we’re interviewing is an inclusive distribution of customers. We don’t want them to be all, you know, 30-year-old white guys that went to Stanford. You know, we got to get, we’ve got to make sure that they include people of all abilities, truly inclusive.

Ted Drake: [00:06:40.32] Another thing, one of our colleagues, she just wrote an article on our Intuit blog about this. We have mechanisms in our products that people can leave a feedback and all of those feedbacks get sent to a central channel. So, she runs a bunch of keywords. I think we have about a hundred keywords against those comments to try to pull out comments that might be accessibility oriented. For instance, you’re not going to see too many comments that say, I have cataracts and I can’t read the button. Most people don’t, when they leave the comments, they don’t specify their ability. But what they might say is, I can’t read the light gray text on your button. So, we’re looking for it on sort of keywords that might identify issues. And then we pull those out of the voice of the customer. We create a monthly report. We share that with the different teams, and we use that to keep track of what’s happening and what’s improving. A lot of times we get positive feedback, like I’m happy that you’ve made it so I can resize text or something like that. And then also we keep a group of customers that have contacted us, and we keep in contact with them and we let them know: Here’s a new feature that’s coming out. If they find a bug, then they send it to us. I just got one yesterday from one of our customers.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:08:03.81] I appreciate your insights in this area, because I think as HR professionals, we’re users of technology every day. We, we are consumers of the technology, whether it’s B2B in our HR roles or as consumers of our mobile phones. And, you know, I’ve just ordered an Instacart order this morning. So as a consumer of that, like I’m experienced in the tech, but as a company, Intuit, how you address and handle accessibility features or requests I think is very interesting, because a lot of what I’m hearing, unfortunately, and one of the reasons I want to do more interviews with folks like you is to talk about the business case for accessibility and your approach, because a lot of technology companies build their product first and then they build the accessibility features after. And that’s what I want to try to avoid.

Ted Drake: Right.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: So, can you talk to us about that business case for accessibility approach, how you do that?

Ted Drake: [00:09:07.32] First off, I’ll say that I’m in a unique position when it comes to accessibility. I truly love the way that this is done at Intuit. I mentioned before that we’re customer focused. I’ve been at Intuit for nine years, and I’ve never built a business case for accessibility. I don’t have to say that if you fix this issue, it’s going to bring in 10 times more customers that could increase business. I don’t have to say it’s going to cost ten thousand dollars to fix this. What I do is I show the teams the customer experience. So, I’ll say this issue is, here’s the problem. This problem is going to block a customer from being able to complete this task. Therefore, it’s a higher priority. Or here’s an issue. They can still do the task, but it’s a bit confusing. So, we’ll prioritize it as a P3 instead of a P1. So, business use case, I haven’t had to deal with it at Intuit because the customer experience is more important. What we’ve tried to do is to incorporate accessibility into components so that when someone creates a page and they add a, let’s say they add a set of checkboxes, that the designer and the engineer don’t have to think too much about how to make those accessible. They just add that component and that component’s been built to be accessible. So, they just have to configure. The designers, not worrying about what font to use, what color to use. The engineer’s not worried about how the label gets applied. They just have to say, here’s the checkboxes and here’s the label text and we’re all set.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:10:46.39] I love that. And it’s, it’s so refreshing to hear because, again, I have been at conferences speaking about accessibility for HR and for the workplace. And tech companies will approach me after and say, you need to quit talking about this because it’s going to cost us too much money to make this change.

Ted Drake: [00:11:07.92] It’s true. And also, I’ll also say that our team has a really small budget. We have a very small budget, and our budget is meant to focus on what can impact the entire company. We’re not, our budget doesn’t go to fixing a particular product. Each product owns that, so we focus mostly on tools, like automated testing. We focus a lot on education. We, I think last year we had, I want to say eight hundred people went through some kind of accessibility training last year at Intuit. We also sponsor events to encourage entrepreneurship like the Sagebrush Conference or the Y-Summit for blind and deaf entrepreneurs. That’s what those two do. So, we spend our time basically trying to make it possible for everyone at Intuit to include accessibility in everything they do from the very beginning. Because, as you said, fixing it later just doesn’t work.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:12:06.12] No, it’s such, it’s such a problem and a challenge. And it’s, it’s very costly for a lot of technology companies that are working and developing their tech, in my experience, that way.

Ted Drake: [00:12:16.89] Yeah, and everyone will. And this didn’t happen overnight. It’s taken, I’ve been at Inuit for nine years and we’ve gone from one person working on this and now we have over seven hundred accessibility champions that are driving the conversations and creating the workshops and such.

Break: [00:12:36.96] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell, and you are listening to the Workology podcast. Today we are talking with Ted Drake about customer service driven accessibility. This podcast is sponsored by Workology and it’s part of our Future of Work series in partnership with PEAT. They’re the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. The Workology podcast Future of Work series is supported by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. PEAT’s initiative is to foster collaboration and action around accessible technology in the workplace. PEAT is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, ODEP. Learn more about PEAT at Peatworks. org. that’s Peatworks.orgJessica Miller-Merrell: [00:13:25.01] One of the areas that I wanted to focus on was mentorship, particularly for people with disabilities. Can you talk about how you and others are helping those maybe entrepreneurs that are entering the field? You talked a little bit about the conferences but talk a little bit more about mentorship.

Ted Drake: [00:13:42.99] When it comes to mentoring, you know, as I mentioned before, I came into technology from an art perspective. So, I taught myself how to do programming and I wouldn’t have been able to do it if it weren’t people that came before me. People like Jeffrey Zeldman, Joe Clark, Léonie Watson, especially Molly Holzschlag. These are people that spend a lot of time not only learning and figuring out problems and solutions but documenting them and then going out and teaching others. So, I feel the same responsibility. Everything I do, I publish is Creative Commons. I try to be available as much as possible. There are certain times of the year when if someone reaches out to me, I just don’t have the time to help. But I try to impart the same kind of mentorship I do with others. I’m not a great engineer. I didn’t go through computer science. So, there are parts of engineering I don’t understand. So, I recognize where I don’t have those strengths. Design, I know art, but I don’t know design. Typography is like: you just do it. But what I have done is I’ve worked hard to learn and to build a network of mentors and mentees, I guess. Is it mentees or mentorees?

Jessica Miller-Merrell: Mentees.

Ted Drake: You need to know what you don’t know and you need to know who knows it so that if somebody comes to you with a question, you can reach out to them and get the answers.

Ted Drake: [00:15:07.76] You asked about mentorees with disabilities. I’ve hired two interns that have disabilities so far. The first one was Sara . She was amazing. I had a problem. I needed to know what were the barriers for small business owners and accountants that had, that were deaf or hard of hearing. And that was a really key research that was needed for our products to move forward. And because of that, it really required a person that was deaf to be able to communicate with these entrepreneurs via American Sign Language. It just, the communication is critical. So that’s an example where I hired someone specifically because of an ability. The last person I hired, I was hiring someone that knew keyboards natively. So, I wanted somebody that used a keyboard on a daily basis. So, I wasn’t saying you had to be blind or you had to be physically disabled, but I wanted someone that truly understood keyboards. I think we need to broaden our horizons when it comes to interns. And we need to understand that people are not always coming from the top 10 schools, that people learn in different ways. And we need to open our hiring to people that have proven that they know what they’re doing, but they may not have the resume. Like myself, as I said, I was blogging, and I was interacting in the community and someone from Yahoo! came to me. I did not have the resume that normally would have gone to a Yahoo! engineer. And I know that there are a bunch of people out there that have the same. I’ve done several talks with people, with organizations like the Disabled Student Services at a university and talking about how people need to build their brand. When someone is looking for a job and they want to be a inclusive writer, they want to talk about hiring practices for people that are deaf. If that’s your expertise, you should be writing about that. You should be participating in the community. When someone is looking for an expert on hiring practices for the deaf, they should find your name. So, one of the things I do talk to a lot of students with Teach Access and other avenues is: make sure that people can find you and that they understand your passion. And that’s how you can get into a career that represents you. And not just you’re going into a position that could have represented anyone.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:17:46.08] You’re a global accessibility leader. I wanted to ask you about how you work with human resources as an accessibility leader or expert at Intuit.

HR and legal are my partners. We’re work collaborators.

Ted Drake: [00:17:58.71] So they’ve come to me with ideas. I’ve gone to them with ideas, and we’ve worked together to push those. Some of the things is, we developed an employee network for people with disabilities. That was based on an HR request, but it’s certainly helped us as we move forward. From our side, we’ve gone back into HR and we’ve pushed for inclusive hiring, job descriptions for accessible onboarding. And also our employee networks have worked to make sure that all of our buildings are ADA compliant outside the United States, which is something that wouldn’t have happened because many countries don’t have the same requirements. That’s, that’s something that came from our employee networks.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:18:45.00] For someone who wants to learn more about accessibility programs and also building a team, we talked a lot about that. What resources or information do you suggest or recommend that they check out?

Ted Drake: [00:18:56.28] This is actually one of the best things about the accessibility community is that we believe in sharing. We don’t believe in competing with our accessibility in general. So, when someone does something or learns something or comes up with a solution, we typically share it. A great, great resource is from Teach Access. This is an organization between technology companies and universities. Technology companies want students to know accessibility. Universities are willing to teach accessibility, but they want to make sure that it’s actually a requirement for when their students go in for job interviews. They have a really great tutorial for developers. You can go to Teach Access, I think it’s teachaccess.org, and you can go to their tutorial. I believe it was done by Facebook and it’s really great. You can also find courses on Udacity. Google has a great web accessibility course on Udacity. There’s tons of videos on YouTube, TED talks. Watch for annual online events like ID24. I believe that’s Inclusive Design 24. This has been going on for several years and it’s a 24 hour of speakers from around the globe giving presentations. There’s the A11y, a11y hashtag. Subscribe to that on Twitter for the latest news. There’s global accessibility groups on WhatsApp. I subscribe to a couple of them out of India. There’s a web accessibility, it’s web-a11y Slack Channel.

Ted Drake: [00:20:29.91] This is a global public channel that people have subscribed to over the years. And there’s great conversations in there. The Job Accommodations Network, I’m sure your HR partners know about this, but I use Ask JAN all the time. If ever I have a question as to how would someone use a keyboard when they have sickle cell disease, you know, what’s the impact? I would go to Job Accommodations Network and see what they have on sickle cell disease in order to get some background information. It’s not just for HR. Designers, engineers, a lot of people can learn from there. I also, I really look to what’s been published by some major organizations. The BBC, the broadcasting company out of the UK, they have fantastic documentation. Microsoft’s inclusive design is really good. eBay has a design pattern called Mind; I believe it’s called mind. Carnegie Mellon University has amazing work that they’ve been doing with robotics and geolocation, real time navigation. University of Washington has done some, for a dozen years, have been working on innovative user experience. And Adobe just released a new web accessibility and design resource guide, including a, it’s like a training material, but you can use it in a group so you can take your whole team and run through the Adobe material.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:21:57.21] Fantastic. I will link to as many of these as I can in the transcript of the podcast, so you can go directly to the show notes on Workology and get this great list of amazing resources, I appreciate that. As we look to the next 30 years of work, what emerging workplace trends or technologies do you think will have the biggest impact on people with disabilities?

Ted Drake: [00:22:20.51] I have a lot of faith in the millennial generation. They are bringing so much more inclusive and transparent ideas into the workplace. I think in 30 years you’re not going to see people in categories. I think diversity goals based on categories will be irrelevant. I believe that what we’ll be seeing is that the workplace accommodates everyone, and everyone has their unique needs and skills. So, I think that’s going to be really exciting. It’s time for that kind of transformation to happen. One of the things that needs to be done, I believe, is that the HR policy and hiring development needs to go through an inclusive design principles. We do that in design. We do that in engineering. But I think that that concept of doing customer interviews, including people with disabilities or people in different diversity categories, they need to be included in these conversations so that when you come out with a new policy, that policy is inclusive from the very beginning. So, I think I think the HR policy, hiring, have a lot to learn from design and engineering when it comes to universal design.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:23:35.21] And that’s exactly why we’re talking to you. So much to learn. It’s so much, it’s new information. And then when you throw in digital accessibility and technology into it, it’s much different than HR traditionally has thought about accessibility and accommodations. Ted, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. Where can people go to connect with you and learn more about the work you’re doing at Intuit?

Ted Drake: [00:24:01.34] You can follow me on Twitter at Ted_Drake, D-R-A-K-E and you can visit our accessibility page at Intuit.com/accessibility. I also have a personal site with a lot of information. All of my previous presentations, code snippets, whatever I feel needs to be shared. It’s at last-child.com. That references an old CSS term based back when I used to do a lot of CSS work, cascading style sheets.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:24:31.22] Awesome, well thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us.

Ted Drake: [00:24:34.85] Thank you. I’m happy to have been able to participate. I’m a big fan of PEAT and I’ve been listening to the Workology podcast for a while. I have learned quite a bit.

Closing: [00:24:43.79] I loved having Ted on the podcast. I love his and Intuit’s approach to inclusion, diversity and product and software accessibility. It’s important for tech companies to focus on accessibility and talk directly with their customers about features, enhancements and changes. Which is why I’m challenging HR leaders to get on the phone and build relationships with their HR technology software vendors. I want more accessibility for our employees. It is our responsibility as HR leaders to hold these technology companies accountable, start asking questions and build those relationships. The Future of Work series in partnership with PEAT is one of my favorites. Thank you to PEAT as well as our podcast sponsor, Workology. Join me for the first ever virtual HR Expo, October 5th through 9th. Demo and meet thirty-five companies, just like at the Conference Expo Hall, but all online. Let me and Workology help connect you with great HR technology and service providers at VirtualHRExpo.com. That’s www.virtual hrexpo.com.