May the source be open.
In this episode, we talk about Salesforce employees calling for an end of the company working with the National Rifle Association. Then we speak with Zeyi Yang, reporter at the MIT Technology Review about a recent piece he wrote titled, "How censoring China’s open-source coders might backfire." Finally, we speak with Sarah Fossheim, independent accessibility engineer and creator and maintainer of the Ethical Design guide, about the new accessibility features Apple is bringing to its products.
Saron Yitbarek is the founder of Disco, host of the CodeNewbie podcast, and co-host of the base.cs podcast.
Josh Puetz is Principal Software Engineer at Forem.
Zeyi Yang covers Chinese tech companies, products, communities, and how they interact with the world. He also tweets about Pokemon frequently. Title: China and East Asia Tech reporter, MIT Technology Review.
Sarah Fossheim is a multidisciplinary developer, designer and accessibility specialist. They have a strong focus on dataviz accessibility and usability. Currently Sarah is working as an independent consultant, educator and advisor, helping companies create more accessible and inclusive solutions.
[00:00:10] SY: Welcome to DevNews, the news show for developers by developers, where we cover the latest in the world of tech. I’m Saron Yitbarek, Founder of Disco.
[00:00:19] JP: And I’m Josh Puetz, Principal Engineer at Forem.
[00:00:21] SY: This week, we’re talking about Salesforce employees calling for an end of the company working with the National Rifle Association.
[00:00:28] JP: Then we’ll speak with Zeyi Yang, Reporter at the MIT Technology Review, about a recent piece he wrote titled, “How censoring China’s open-source coders might backfire.”
[00:00:37] ZY: So there’s just a lot of developers in shock because it’s a sudden change of rules. No one expected this and a lot of projects that are being used are disrupted.
[00:00:48] SY: And finally, we’ll speak with Sarah Fossheim, Independent Accessibility Engineer and Creator and Maintainer of the Ethical Design Guide, about the new accessibility features Apple is bringing to its products.
[00:00:59] SF: It’s a lot easier to tell someone paying through the accessibility rights because Apple and Google and Netflix are doing it rather than do the accessibility rights because I’m asking you.
[00:01:18] SY: Okay. So before we dig into the meat of this week’s episode, we need to talk about RailsConf 2022, which you, Josh Puetz, abandoned us for.
[00:01:29] JP: Oh! Ouch! I told you I was going.
[00:01:34] SY: I mean, just because you say you’re going to abandon someone doesn’t mean the abandonment doesn’t happen. I’m just saying. RailsConf this year happened in Portland, Oregon and had some awesome keynote speakers like Senior Staff Production Engineer at Shopify, Eileen Uchitelle, Software Developer and Principal Consultant at Slalom, Crystal Tia Martin, and our former co-host and very dear friend, Vaidehi Joshi, who is now an Engineering Manager at Vimeo. So explain yourself. Why did you leave us behind? And was it worth it? That’s really what I want to know.
[00:02:06] JP: Oh, I missed you all so much I spent the entire plane ride just crying, staring out the window.
[00:02:12] SY: Good!
[00:02:13] JP: No. It was a wonderful conference. This is the first real conference I have attended for RailsConf since 2020. It was wonderful to see people that I knew in the community to connect with speakers, see new speakers, learn about all the new features in Rails 7, all the exciting stuff that’s happening in Ruby and Rails. And just like a lot of us, I work from home full-time. Here at Forem, we haven’t been doing meetups among the company since the beginning of the pandemic. So this was just like a good, I don’t know, shot of human interaction and to see some people, current coworkers, former coworkers, friends, just an absolute bomb of good feels and information. And it was wonderful and I don’t regret it at all.
[00:03:03] SY: And I would do it again.
[00:03:04] JP: And I would do it again. Yes, absolutely. So it was wonderful. Let me tell you about the COVID precautions because that’s something a lot of people asked me about. I was a little nervous about this. It was a lot like traveling to a foreign country. I had to have a PCR test the weekend before. Vaccinations and boosters were also required and proof of vaccination was required before you attended the conference. I had to wear a mask the entire time I was at the conference. There was optional testing every day. I tested once during the conference with a quick little test. They had a testing company on hand, right outside the door to the conference that if you wanted to get a COVID test, you could do that.
[00:03:41] SY: Wow! Free? Was that like part of the ticket?
[00:03:43] JP: Yeah. That was free.
[00:03:44] SY: Wow!
[00:03:46] JP: It was set up really well.
[00:03:47] SY: That’s really cool.
[00:03:47] JP: And the conference organizers, this is Ruby Central that runs the conference, did a great job of letting everybody know what was happening if somebody reported symptoms. There was an email that they could write to and that was anonymously reported that someone had come down with COVID. And not only that, but it’s spelled out all the sessions they had attended. So you could also monitor yourself for symptoms. I did not have any symptoms afterwards and we’re at almost the 14-day mark, so I think I’m free and clear. So I did not pick up COVID. Some people did. I think there were about 1,400 attendees. And from the emails I received, about 20 to 25 people came down with COVID either before or after. So I don’t have any sense of what is great for a conference. And obviously, getting COVID at all is not a great outcome. I don’t think going to a conference and getting COVID is like a good exchange. I wouldn’t do that. But overall, I felt decently safe considering the situation we’re in.
[00:04:48] SY: Wow! That is really cool because I've been either invited to a couple of things or have been kind of eyeing a couple of conferences and the whole thing is I’m still just not comfortable with it. The whole thing, it just makes me really uncomfortable, but this is pretty thorough. This feels like just really well thought out. I mean, Ruby Central is a great organization. So I shouldn’t be surprised, but it’s really in an age where it feels like people care less and less about the pandemic that it’s still very much happening. It’s very nice to see an organization take it so seriously and do their best to make their attendees feel safe. So I really appreciate that.
[00:05:27] JP: There were no official parties. So that was nice.
[00:05:30] SY: Okay. Nice. Nice. Yeah.
[00:05:31] JP: But other places did have parties and did have events where masks weren’t necessarily required. I didn’t go to any of those because I didn’t feel super comfortable with them. Shout out to Portland for having so many outdoor dining options.
[00:05:43] SY: True.
[00:05:43] JP: They have those food carts. So it was pretty great. I don’t think I’m going to make a habit of going to a lot of conferences because we are still in the middle of a pandemic and it still feels super weird, but it was wonderful to see the community. And I guess I would just say if you have the opportunity to go to a conference and you feel comfortable with the preparations they're making, maybe give it a shot. If you’re not comfortable with the preparations the conference you’re interested in is making, reach out to them. I think a lot of conferences they want to do well. No conference organizer I’ve spoken to wants to be the super spreader of that. They’re all very, very nervous about this. So if you have suggestions, if there are additional things that would make you feel comfortable that the conference you’re thinking of going to or speaking at isn’t doing, reach out to those conference organizers and mention it to them. I think you’ll find a lot of conference organizers are really willing to err on the side of caution and safety.
[00:06:35] SY: That’s really good advice. That’s really, really good advice. Okay. So tell me about the content. What were some interesting talks you saw, things you learned? What did you walk away with?
[00:06:46] JP: It’s a Ruby conference. So I will say in comparison to other conferences I’ve gone to, there is a lot of stuff about feelings and emotions and talks pitched towards not necessarily technical things, but managing your career, mentoring other developers. Something new I noticed just this year where a lot of great sessions about, okay, you’re a senior engineer or you’re becoming a staff or a principal engineer, how do you amplify your impact on the organization? How do you start to manage other people? How do you start to manage projects? That was fantastic. And that technically wise, lots of great stuff about Ruby 7, all the new features, all the interesting stuff that people are doing with Ruby and Rails. For a language that every year the question gets asked, “Is Ruby dead?” It was a pretty healthy conference.
[00:07:39] SY: Very nice. Very nice. And I think that RailsConf posts their videos after the conference. So hopefully people will be able to see some of those talks online soon.
[00:07:51] JP: Okay. So the next thing we want to talk about is how around 4,000 Salesforce staff have signed an open letter to the company, asking them to cease working with the NRA, the National Rifle Association. The letter, which was sent to co-CEOs Marc Benioff and Bret Taylor, CFO Amy Weaver, and CMO Sarah Franklin states, “It is not in our power to get background checks or other gun control measures passed by Congress, but we can affect change by ending our commercial relationship with our customer, the National Rifle Association.” The letter comes after the recent mass shooting in a Texas elementary school where an 18-year-old opened fire and killed 19 children and two teachers. After the shooting, Benioff tweeted, “27 school shootings in the US this year, zero in Japan, zero in UK, zero in France, zero in Germany, zero in Australia. American kids are pleading with us to help. How do we protect our Second Amendment and our kids at the same time? Can we raise our age limit to 21? Can we ban assault weapons? What else?” However, according to Salesforce workers, the NRA has used the company’s cloud-based CRM software. Another part of the open letter says, “Based on the past history, it’s likely the NRA is already upping or preparing to up their marketing cloud usage in response to this tragedy, not to prevent future tragedies from happening, but to sow fear, sell guns, and abet future atrocities.” So, this is an amazing open letter. I love that Salesforce employees are calling out their executive board on doing business with the NRA. But do you think it’s good to do anything?
[00:09:30] SY: Not really because I think one of the questions that we ask in a lot of our conversations when we do interviews on DevNews is, especially when we’re talking about some type of issue or a cause, we ask, “What can we do as developers?” Like as individual developers, as ICs, people who are not the CEO, not on the executive team, not on the board of directors, it’s kind of just everyday developers, what can we do? And this is one of the things, right? One of the things we can do is to tweet, to organize, to write open letters to petition. On the one hand, it is very heartening to kind of see a group of, and it’s not even just developers, right? It’s Salesforce workers in general. So to see thousands of them kind of rise up and come together and write this open letter is very, very heartening, but I just don’t know if it’s enough to actually make a difference. If we look at other petitions and open letters that have happened in the past, I’m thinking about GitHub and the issue with ICE and wanting to end the relationship with ICE. I don’t think it did anything, right? I’m pretty sure GitHub is still working with ICE.
[00:10:46] JP: Well, I was thinking about this as well. So if the goal was to stop GitHub from having ICE as a client, no, it did not work. GitHub is still working with ICE. However, if the goal was to shine a light on the business dealing that GitHub is doing and try to raise awareness, then I would say it was very successful. I hate to say that’s the best employees can hope for.
[00:11:13] SY: Right.
[00:11:13] JP: But it’s not nothing. We were talking about other situations that occurred. One was Netflix, its relationship with Dave Chappelle after his anti-trans comedy special. Spotify and Joe Rogan, there was a huge uproar among employees calling him out for spreading COVID misinformation. Those business relationships are still in place, but yet there’s a lot more awareness of what these companies were doing. Maybe that will add up to something in the future. I think it’s hard to say.
[00:11:44] SY: I think it’s one of those things. Awareness to me feels good, but I guess what I worry about is, and I’m not saying this to say that we shouldn’t speak out. I think that we should. Absolutely. I mean, that’s a lot of times the only thing we can do and I think we should do whatever we are able to do. But one thing that I worry about is if we speak out, have these petitions, have these calls for change, nothing happens and the company continues to move forward, doesn’t really see any issues, does that embolden them?
[00:12:25] JP: Oh, I hadn’t thought of that.
[00:12:27] SY: And that’s maybe the cynical part of me that maybe we should just ignore.
[00:12:32] JP: We weathered the tweet storm and nothing bad happened. So we’re golden.
[00:12:35] SY: So I guess we can do it again. Yeah. Exactly.
[00:12:37] JP: Oh, man!
[00:12:38] SY: I know. I know. This is very unhelpful, unconstructive. But it is the thing I worry about because I’m thinking like, “If we pause all this ruckus, we got this thing trending, we got…” a couple in the Spotify situation, a couple artists like pulled out, people moved their podcasts, enough of a wave happened, but ultimately, Spotify ended up fine. If I remember correctly, I think that their stock did drop somewhat during some part of this controversy. I don’t know where it is. I mean, all the stocks are down now. So I don’t really know if it bounced back or whatever. But it just kind of makes me think if we create all this ruckus and nothing happens, does that make the company and the people in charge go, “See, it didn’t actually matter”? Like, “We’re even more confident in our decision to X, Y, Z.” That’s what worries me. And so again, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t speak out. I still think that we should, but the other side of it, kind of the outcome hopefully is good, but I can see it kind of also working against us, which is very frustrating.
[00:13:45] JP: Yeah. Outside of open letters and raising awareness, I mean, what else could employees do other than I’m thinking quit?
[00:13:54] SY: Right.
[00:13:54] JP: but that comes from a place of great privilege.
[00:13:57] SY: Exactly.
[00:13:58] JP: Hardly anyone could just, I mean, realistic. Hardly anybody could just quit their job over an ethical reason like this. Just saying that makes me feel gross.
[00:14:08] SY: Yeah, absolutely. I think that that is probably the most… I mean, there’s the whole vote with your dollars, vote with your feet, right? Like those are really the two tools that we have, whether as employees or as consumers, but again, both require a certain level of privilege. Right? If you’re able to vote with your feet, a lot of times there aren’t great alternatives. For example, I mean with Spotify is a little bit easier because there is Apple Music, there is title. So I basically only use Apple Music now because that whole controversy and I was very happy that there was a competitor that was comparable. So that decision wasn’t super painful or super expensive. But for a lot of these, I mean, there’s just not a lot to choose from out there. And if you’re voting with your career, essentially, by quitting these companies or not taking a job, potentially that’s a really big hit to you. And now you’re sacrificing your financial future, your career progression, all these other things to make a point. And if you’re able to do that and if you were willing to do that, that is awesome. Even better if you’re willing to tweet about it and kind of share that decision and show how serious that is to you and maybe encourage people to consider that option if they’re able to make a similar decision. So I think that can potentially be really powerful, but it’s still a really big ask.
[00:15:33] JP: Yeah.
[00:15:34] SY: Ultimately, I don’t know. I think that at the end of the day, money is the most important thing to most companies. I’ve accepted that. I like to believe that wasn’t true. But at the end of the day, I think that cash rules everything around us. And I think that as passionately as we feel, and actually Daniel Ek, the CEO and founder of Spotify, said this very explicitly during the Joe Rogan controversies. He said, “We are going to be in a position where we support things we do not agree with and that we don’t think are necessarily good, but we have to because they make us money.” I’m paraphrasing, but that’s basically what he said. And I was like, “You know what? At least you’re honest about it.” You’re like, “Look, I don’t like it either, but hey, I get to make money from it.” And ultimately, that’s what we’re here for. So I don’t really know how much we can really expect from companies if the thing that they are ultimately going to be measured by is the bottom line. And that’s just the unfortunate truth.
[00:16:38] JP: Yeah. That’s late stage capitalism for you.
[00:16:41] SY: Yeah. Coming up next, we talk about how China censored open-source code on the country’s GitHub equivalent, Gitee, how that move might backfire and ultimately whether the idea of open source can truly exist in totalitarian regimes after this.
[00:17:21] SY: Here with us is Zeyi Yang who covers technologies in China and East Asia for MIT Technology Review. Thank you so much for being here.
[00:17:28] ZY: Hi, thank you for having me.
[00:17:31] SY: So you wrote a really fascinating piece titled, “How censoring China’s open-source coders might backfire.” Can you talk about the events that led to the writing of this piece?
[00:17:41] ZY: There’s this Chinese website called Gitee. It’s basically this very similar competitor to GitHub, but it’s made by Chinese, and on May 18 just suddenly decided that every public code hosted on a platform needs to be manually reviewed before the public accepts it. So there’s just a lot of developers in shock because it’s a sudden change of rules. No one expected this and a lot of projects that are being used are disrupted. So then people started to question like, “What made this move?” Like, “Why are you doing this? Why you’re hurting the community?” And the platform made a statement that they’re doing this because they have no other choice. And for now on, all the public code needs to be manually reviewed. So a lot of people are presuming this is for political reasons, and this article is basically summarizing what is happening and what is coming in a broader future of open source movement in China.
[00:18:38] JP: You mentioned Gitee is kind of like GitHub. Can you explain a little bit more about what Gitee does? How does it compare to like, say, GitHub and GitLab for those of our audience that might not have used it before?
[00:18:49] ZY: It’s fairly similar, like the ideas, you can host your code on there. You can comment on other people’s code. It’s kind of a community for people to get together and discuss everything related to software development and using Gitee probably offers some more like value added services to attract people from kind of like giving up GitHub and joining Gitee. But mostly the idea is just that China wants to have a very similar platform to GitHub to compete with GitHub and to provide domestic developers with a second choice.
[00:19:18] SY: So we actually covered Gitee a couple of years ago on the show and we thought it was really cool that there’s a legitimate competitor to GitHub. But how popular is it actually? Is it on that level?
[00:19:30] ZY: I think after some years of development, the platform I believe was established in 2013, it has to become quite popular in China. And there are some very practical reasons to that. So because GitHub, I don’t think it has to risk in China, it also has some technical difficulty to accessing GitHub within the Chinese borders. So it’s much easier and the performance is much better if you’re using Gitee. That’s why a lot of people have either a mirror site on Gitee or they’re just using Gitee completely. A lot of them are also using it for professional purposes. They’re using it for their company or they’re developing for a client. And if they’re using Gitee, like the response be and like the accessibility for your client is going to be much better than in GitHub. So that’s why a lot of people are choosing it. And then the last group of people who are using Gitee is that because it’s Chinese, it’s much more reliable in a sense that in case a foreign sanction happens, Gitee will not say, “Well, we cannot serve the Chinese developers anymore.” GitHub still has that theoretical possibility. So if you are working with another Chinese government, the Chinese military, you will fear that, “What if that thing happened? What if GitHub just denies my servers?”
[00:20:51] JP: So Gitee says that they’re reviewing open-source code that it’s locked down. Have they said at all why they’ve locked it down or given any indication of why they have started doing these code lockdowns?
[00:21:02] ZY: No. That’s part of what’s mysterious about this like a sudden rule change. Right? One thing to notice is that it’s not like sensitive projects have been locked down. Right? It’s all of those public projects. So the skill of this suggests that this is not kind of like triggered by like some very few projects. It’s more like a platform change. It’s like from now on we’re going to operate on different rules. The second thing is that there hasn’t been anything happened recently that people could point to say, “Oh, this is why it is implementing new rules right now.” It’s more like months or even years of censorship just slowly creeping up to culminate in this change. So people will feel like, “Well, after so many years of feeling more and more censored, this does feel like a natural development?” But still why it happened in May, two weeks ago, we don’t have an answer to that. And the company didn’t reply to our inquiry.
[00:21:59] SY: So obviously closing off open-source code sounds pretty antithetical to the idea of open source, right? The whole point of open source is that it is open. So how are developers in China responding to this?
[00:22:12] ZY: They’re not happy with it.
[00:22:13] SY: Okay.
[00:22:14] ZY: Well, like you said, like open source is a community that's very global, people talk to anyone in any country, as long as they understand how code works. So this has been kind of the premise always in the community. And I think a lot of the Chinese developers definitely benefit a lot from being able to learn code from foreign developers, being able to talk to them about their questions, their concerns, and this kind of signals that it will be much harder to do that in the future. Now we already know that social media in China is pretty much separated from the global social media. So this has been something normal internet users that’s experienced for a long time in China. But then for developers, because they are better at finding VPN services, they are better at accessing still available global websites, they haven’t really been hit with something like this to cut off their access to the global open source community. So they’re kind of facing this reality that, “Or maybe we’re going to experience something normal internet users have experienced for a long time and that is we’re not going to be able to talk to our peers around the world so easily.” And of course, no one’s going to like that.
[00:23:28] JP: What do you think the impact will be on the open-source movement in China? Do you think this will stifle open-source innovation in China? And are there any alternatives that developers in China have versus Gitee?
[00:23:45] ZY: There are a few others similar platforms. They are mostly owned by bigger tech companies like Alibaba and Tencent. I don’t think they’re very different from Gitee. They may not have that kind of like an overwhelming censorship implementation right now. But if Gitee is forced to do that, I don’t think it will be far before those platforms will follow suit. So if these developers want to stick to Chinese platforms, censorship will be inevitable. However, they can still use GitHub because previously it’s more like, “Oh, if Gitee is more convenient to use, I’ll maybe use Gitee. Right now, if it’s less convenient, I’ll still stick to GitHub.” So they still have the opportunity, but then you will create obstacles to communication. Maybe half the situation that like some people are using GitHub, some people are using Gitee and these become two very different groups, that’s possible. And overall, it’s not good for the open-source community, but we are seeing that probably paying out right now.
[00:24:45] SY: Are things like this happening in the open source communities and other places like Russia, for example, which is also very heavy-handed in its censorship of a lot of things? Or is this really specific to China?
[00:24:57] ZY: I haven’t really heard about it in Russia or in other countries. I think one difference is that China has been uniquely good at cutting off access to the outside internet world. It’s been really successful in all aspects of internet, like social media, other forums and news websites. So it has the technical power to enforce this also on a community that’s much more tech savvy. This is where we are more concerned, because we feel like if China really wants to do that, it has the capacity. The question has just been like maybe China will be more tolerant towards the open-source community. Maybe China will recognize that being open, fostering global communication is better, so they won’t make that choice. But right now we’re seeing the opposite. It’s like maybe China doesn’t really value that benefit that much. So we will see more censorship here.
[00:25:50] JP: So I guess the ultimate question is, do you think things like open source can exist in an authoritarian government or a government that is actively participating in internet censorship?
[00:26:04] ZY: I think it can still happen to some extent. Let’s say all the developers in China who are using Gitee, they can still review each other’s code. They can still comment. They can still collaborate on projects, but it will be much harder for them to say have some foreign contributors to the project or they’re using codes from other projects for their own. So you can still see a demand of open source within China. And because China has such a big population base, just the sheer number of developers, it will possible for them to have something to happen. But then of course, we’re not going to rip out the benefits that open source can offer you. You are not going to be completely up to date to what the best developers around the world are doing. I think China right now may have this assumption that if they keep a limited amount of openness within the open source, then they can still benefit from it. We’re going to see how that works though because before this, the Chinese open-source community are still interacting with the global world. We are going to see whether that still happens or it becomes a completely domestic open-source world.
[00:27:13] JP: So we might see a future where open source exists in China, but it’s China only? It basically becomes a microcosm.
[00:27:20] ZY: Right. Yes.
[00:27:20] SY: Interesting.
[00:27:21] ZY: And then you can still have some of that. It can still help some developers to learn from others, but not all the developers.
[00:27:28] SY: Well, thank you so much for joining us.
[00:27:30] ZY: Thank you so much.
[00:27:41] SY: Coming up next, we talk about a load of new accessibility features Apple unveiled for its products after this.
[00:28:02] SY: Here with us is Sarah Fossheim, Independent Accessibility Engineer and Creator and Maintainer of the Ethical Design Guide. Thank you so much for joining us.
[00:28:11] SF: Thank you for having me.
[00:28:13] JP: Can you tell us about the Ethical Design Guide and what the impetus was for creating it?
[00:28:19] SF: Yeah. So it’s a library or a collection of resources, which helped on how to create more inclusive products and also articles and more information about what goes wrong if you don’t prioritize those things. And it’s anything from tutorials to really specific UX tools or testing tools when it comes to accessibility. And I created that because I noticed that in my job, I was constantly telling people the same kind of links and the same kind of information. Every time the accessibility discussion comes up, people ask, “Why do I have to be accessible? Why do I have to care about minorities?” Or same when we’re talking about inclusive design. And for example, making sure that trans people can change their name or pronouns on your product. It’s always like a big discussion that usually follows with companies. So I started collecting those links so I could actually start convincing people and start explaining people the gravity of what actually happens when you don’t include people in your design processes.
[00:29:24] SY: So Apple previewed a range of accessibility features across their products. But before we get into the new features, I’m curious what your thoughts are on their accessible design efforts so far.
[00:29:37] SF: So far, I’m really looking at them as an inspiration at the very least. I think a lot of what they’re doing thus include and center around prioritized accessibility. Of course, I’m not a blind person or a deaf person or someone who needs their really specialized features. I’m just a tester and I have some issues hearing when there’s background noise, but not to the extent that I need extra technology for it. But for example, there, perhaps I often use as an example to teach people how they can get started with accessible Dataverse because Apple does a really good job at breaking things down and at the very least providing an experience that’s testable with users. Everything has some level of alt text. Everything is to some degree reachable. And even though the experience within the user test ended up to not be great, there’s at least something tangible and something that works. Because what I see with a lot of products, since I’ve worked so closely together with companies to improve their accessibility, is that the bare minimum is not even in place in the majority of the industry. So whenever there’s an example, like Apple, where there’s seemingly a lot of effort done for accessibility, I’m very glad to see it.
[00:30:49] JP: So one of the new features that was announced is called Door Detection in which you hold up an iPhone or an iPad and it helps people with vision disabilities find doors, as well as describe things such as if the door is open or closed, whether it’s push or pull, if a knob needs to be turned. It’s pretty incredible to see in a demo reel. Do you think a feature like this is something that people that use accessibility features will actually use?
[00:31:21] SF: I’m personally not sure. I have not heard from blind people that there was a need for this specific feature, but I think it’s a pretty cool feature. And I think that I’m also excited to see how they will scale it or additions will come to it. For example, are there stairs or elevator buttons or traffic lights on the same line that might potentially become quite interesting as well?
[00:31:47] SY: There’s also another feature that was announced, but this one is for the Apple Watch and it’s called Apple Watch Mirroring, and it’s created for people with mobility disabilities, and this allows people to control their watch remotely from a pair iPhone. And so the advantage of that is that people get to basically use the accessibility features that are on their iPhone, but now they get to apply that to the watch. Can you talk about some of these accessibility features on the phone that might really be helpful on the watch?
[00:32:17] SF: I haven’t tested much with the watch, so I’m not sure which features are on the phone that are not on the watch. But for example, voiceover on the phone and the haptics and stuff works quite well. And I think the mirroring is also a good example of a feature that might also benefit both that one and the captions, which is another feature that’s coming for the iPhone, where live captions will be added to FaceTime and such. I think those two are features that might also be useful for a much broader audience and in different situations. I can imagine that if you’re testing something on your Apple Watch as a developer or you have to do something and it’s very small tech store, whatever, even though you’re not necessarily someone who needs accessibility features, you might have benefits as well from opening this or having the mirroring on your phone and same with the captions. I think most people will pretty much benefit from those. So I’m very excited to see those.
[00:33:16] SY: The thing about accessibility tools though is do people actually know about them? So I’m wondering, are there other great accessibility tools that users of Apple products would totally use, but maybe they just don’t know about?
[00:33:32] SF: I actually discovered some of their accessibility features that I found quite useful by accident while I was testing for accessibility in my role.
[00:33:40] SY: Oh, interesting.
[00:33:43] SF: Like I found that there were some contrast options for the text, and I knew about the zoom option because they prompt that when you update your system and such, but they also have this magnifying app where you can zoom in on texts from far away with your phone and also adjust the color of the image that you’re seeing live on your phone in order to experience the image differently. And when I found out about that magnifying app, because I wear glasses and sometimes I forget my glasses or I am somewhere and I cannot read something far away, I was like, “Oh, wow! I wish I had known about this before I actually started testing it because this would have been useful before.”
[00:34:18] SY: Right. Exactly. Like I remember we did, I think we did an accessibility story some time ago on DevNews. And so it gave me the excuse to read up about it. And I was so amazed by just how much stuff there was. And I was like, “I don’t remember hearing anything about this.” I don’t have accessibility issues. I was like, “Maybe I’m just not the target market.” So maybe that makes sense. But it did make me wonder, how are they advertising these features and how do people hear about them and know about them? Because, I mean, it seems like for years they’ve been prioritizing this and I just had no idea.
[00:34:52] SF: I think they are becoming better at actually showing it off what they’re doing because with regards to these features that aren’t released right now I saw quite a bit of articles and also some demo videos that they made and articles that they published themselves. But I think before a lot of the features would just be known to the people who needed them and probably find out either by word of mouth or by actually going into the accessibility settings or release notes. I think it’s quite nice if companies would highlight actually how the improvements that they’re doing more and then they would show what goes into it and how it can be more innovative, because I think it would encourage the smaller companies and newer developers and such to also start paying attention to it. It’s a lot easier to tell someone paying through the accessibility rights because Apple and Google and Netflix are doing it rather than do the accessibility rights because I’m asking you. People do like to look at what the big companies are doing.
[00:35:50] JP: So far, we’ve talked about a lot of iOS accessibility features, but I’m curious, how do these compare to what’s available on Android? Is one platform better than the other for accessibility? Does one company have a better track record? Talk through what you found in comparing the two?
[00:36:07] SF: I have tested both voiceover and narrator. So that’s a macOS screen reader, and the screen reader that comes with Windows. Personally, I’m not a blind person. So I’m also just talking as the tester. I find the Apple accessibility much better than the Windows accessibility. There’s more niche bugs, similar to the type of bugs you would get with Edge and Internet Explorer that I run into a narrator versus voiceover. And I think in general, Apple is quite good at combining their screen reader accessibility and matching it with a good visual experience as well. So I feel like the two might influence each other quite a bit, or at least I see it that way when I look at Apple’s products. And for example, their graphs in the health app, they have really good alt text and they really bring the information down on different levels and each app’s statistics will have some kind of screen reader alternative. But by breaking it down into good screen reader alternatives, they also started splitting up the graphs in a way that is much more human readable than if you would just have numbers. So I think the UX and accessibility to lay over with Apple is quite good.
[00:37:21] SY: What do you think are some of the major things in terms of accessible design that the tech industry in general is still falling short on?
[00:37:31] SF: Oh, there’s lots. I’d say there are three things I feel like are missing a lot. And the first thing is understanding the users and understanding why they have those needs and who they are and how they use technology and how people live as well. Because often when talking with people, I notice that either is saying that blind people, for example, will not know how to use a computer whatsoever, or they will think that they’re experts in accessibility. So I think people should understand better the wide range of disabilities that there are, how they influence people, and also how everything is a bit intersectional. Because I think if people understand the implications better, it will also become easier to design better and prioritize things better, which leads me to the second thing. And that is the general trend that I’ve noticed is that a lot of designers and developers are actually interested in accessibility. There’s just a big knowledge gap or a big gap in companies, like it’s not prioritized when it comes to education. It’s not prioritized on how much time people get to spend or internal training or anything like that. So I think before we can even start looking at how to make specific features better, we also have to look at our culture and how we actually work.
[00:38:55] SY: And that was going to be my next question, is around why don’t we do a better job? And I’m wondering in your experience, is it more about just motivation, we just don’t care, don’t prioritize it? Or is it actually something that is hard to do? Because I think that accessibility sounds difficult, but I don’t actually know if it really is. And so I’m wondering, in your opinion, is it more about culture and motivation or is it more about implementation itself and it being something that’s hard to do?
[00:39:28] SF: Yeah. So there’s different layers, right? I think because it hasn’t been something that’s been prioritized on a cultural level in the industry I know very few people hear about it in school, very few people hear about it in job reviews, very few people hear about it in obligatory training at work. That makes it also harder from a technical point of view to do it because not many people know the requirements or have had the time to actually read into it. I think once you get into it, it actually ends up being a lot less hard than it sounds. The most difficult part in accessibility to me is, well, accessibility hasn’t been prioritized for a really long time in a product. And then suddenly at one point, you say now the past 20 years of codes we have, we’re going to try and make it accessible. At that point, it becomes very hard.
[00:40:19] SY: Right. Right.
[00:40:19] SF: So I think it’s a bit of a vicious circle. People know it’s hard because they’re trying to make old products accessible. Therefore, they also don’t really want to prioritize it. They don’t understand. Maybe some people also don’t care about the implications or they think it’s not that many people. Maybe we don’t have to prioritize it. So again, it doesn’t get done and it keeps getting harder and harder because you keep ending up at more and more accessibility issues in your product.
[00:40:44] JP: Speaking of the conversation, do you think the tech industry overall is talking about accessible design and ethical design in the right ways? Or are there other things you’d like to see from the industry in terms of discussion and education?
[00:41:02] SF: I feel like we’re not talking about it as much as we should. And when we talk about it, it’s often usually in, like in my case, a group of accessibility engineers who are raising the issue of accessibility or it’s a group of queer people who are raising the issue of your inclusive design. And I think the conversation should happen a bit on more broader level and on a more across levels and also more in the boardroom kind of discussion and really people understanding the gravity of it. In the first step up I would love to have just more conversation, which is becoming more of a thing. I see it mentioned more on social media. People are asking more accessibility questions. That’s great. And yeah, I also think there should be a bit more focus on the human aspects and human experiences around that and the actual implication it has on the user, as I said earlier. Because, otherwise, we are just talking about web content, accessibility guidelines requirements, and conforming to a set of rules that someone will audit, but that’s not really why we’re doing accessibility. We’re not trying to make something accessible to check a bunch of check boxes and say, “Now we’re accessible,” but we’re doing it in order to make sure that people have the same access and a good experience with our products and that we’re not discriminating people.
[00:42:22] SY: So as someone who has worked and is working now to make accessibility more of a priority, to make it more universal amongst many tech products in the tech industry, what has worked? What have you seen be the trigger, the pusher that gets people to actually take accessibility seriously?
[00:42:45] SF: On one hand, I think the fact that there’s more regulation. For example, in Norway, if you work with the public sector, you have to conform to a set of requirements or you’re risking fines. I think that’s usually a very good motivator for companies.
[00:42:59] SY: Right.
[00:43:01] SF: From the other hand, I’ve also seen that when you phrase it more as a quality assurance thing, if you show how monitoring accessibility can also help you create just generally more robust and scalable products. That is something that draws people in. Unfortunately, what I’ve seen is that just the statements of, “Let’s do it to do the right thing and to do it to not harm people,” unfortunately, that seems to be like the thing people are least interested in when it comes to motivation to do accessibility. At the same time, to me, it’s also slightly understandable because most people do get a lot of pressure from their high reps in the company, from the PMs and such to like close more issues or to not spend time with things on accessibility, for example. I’ve in my career often being told, “You cannot spend time on this,” and then received a lot of pressure from people to actually just close the JIRA issues that were assigned to me. So I can kind of understand why for individual contributors it makes more sense to go to their higher-ups and say, “We have to do this so we don’t get fines and we have to do this to create good quality code in general,” because that might be what actually convince their managers to give them the time to work on that.
[00:44:17] JP: What do we, as developers, need to do or what can we do as developers to push the accessibility conversation in the right direction?
[00:44:28] SF: The first thing I would say is try to make whatever you’re building a bit more accessible and whatever way you can and document that and show people, “Hey, it was actually not that hard to add this bit of alt text,” or, “I quickly fixed this link that actually was supposed to be a button then I made it a button.” I think doing small things like that and just constantly bringing accessibility back on the radar can be a really good way of highlighting the amount of work that has to be done, because usually there are a lot of accessibility issues and it also highlights that you can fix it or that you know how to fix it and that it’s fixable because most people, as you said earlier, get really intimidated by accessibility. So a good way can be show the people around you that is actually possible, and at the same time also ask for, like ask the company you work at if you can get accessibility training, if you need more training or read up on the accessibility guidelines yourself, and try to show people some articles or videos about, for example, blind people using screen readers or just in general about disability activism and why accessibility is important in that sense. Show them which fines they can get if they don’t let you work on it and such.
[00:45:46] JP: It’s interesting. You pointed out that it’s not enough for developers to just build these accessibility features. They need to be telling other developers how they did it and that they did it.
[00:45:58] SF: Yeah. I found that that has been something that has really helped at least internally within companies to get the conversation going. Like our own clients, I started having accessibility office hours for the designers and also started showing them, like, they can ask me questions about accessibility and every session I start showing them a new feature or some tools that they can use to test their accessibility. And I actually noticed that that enabled them to start within their themes. They themselves picked up the conversation and told their developers, “Hey, I think the code you’re writing is not accessible,” which sparked a conversation within the developers and all suddenly the entire team was looking at it. So I really think that getting the conversation going and showing what you’re doing is a really important thing that we’re maybe not doing enough in the industry.
[00:46:48] SY: Well, thank you again so much for joining us.
[00:46:50] SF: Thank you as well.
[00:47:01] SY: Thank you for listening to DevNews. This show is produced and mixed by Levi Sharpe. Editorial oversight is provided by Peter Frank, Ben Halpern, and Jess Lee. Our theme music is by Dan Powell. If you have any questions or comments, dial into our Google Voice at +1 (929) 500-1513 or email us at [email protected] Please rate and subscribe to this show wherever you get your podcasts.