Léonie with arms crossed smiling at camera, text saying MYC'D UP with Tech leaders
Léonie Watson/MyCustomer

Improving customer experience through digital accessibility

Léonie Watson, accessibility expert and director of TetraLogical, shares valuable insights on digital accessibility and its impact on customer experience, offering practical guidance for enhancing digital inclusivity.

30th Aug 2023

Digital accessibility has become a crucial element of customer experience. To better understand the topic, MyCustomer sat down with Léonie Watson, director of accessibility consultancy TetraLogical. With her vast experience in web accessibility and as a board member of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), Léonie provides practical guidance on integrating digital accessibility and CX.

You can listen to the full interview by clicking the Soundcloud play button above, or read the transcript at the bottom of this page. 

The journey to accessibility advocacy

In the mid-1990s, Léonie developed her skills in web development, but a loss of sight at the turn of the century prompted her to reconsider her career path. She joined an agency that specialised in accessible web design and became fascinated by the challenge of creating inclusive digital experiences. Eventually, Léonie co-founded TetraLogical, a company dedicated to enhancing accessibility and promoting inclusivity in the digital landscape.

Web accessibility has evolved significantly over the years. In the early 2000s, the message was about raising awareness of accessibility itself. However, the shift has focused on practical implementation, emphasising techniques, practices, and processes that facilitate accessibility. Although not as rapid as Léonie would have liked, "it's been a positive evolution". 

Accessibility matters

Léonie stresses that customer experience is pivotal in any organisation's success, and accessibility magnifies its impact. When Léonie has a positive accessibility experience with a brand, she recommends it to her network, friends and family. However, if the experience is poor, she will make that clear, too. 

Accessibility and customer experience are absolutely inseparable.

"If I have a really bad customer experience with someone or an organisation, I will complain, moan, and winge. And I will do so as loudly across as many platforms and channels as I can possibly get away with," Léonie says. 

She explains that sometimes, there are blockers in the way for her to engage with a brand or stop her from doing something she wants to do: "Accessibility and customer experience are absolutely inseparable, in my opinion."

Léonie shares a personal example of an online shopping experience where her screen reader could navigate the website but faced a roadblock at the checkout page. Léonie put a call out on social media, and the issue was resolved within a matter of hours. The problem, as it turns out, was a simple mistake in the website's code. This experience emphasises the importance of testing accessibility throughout all touchpoints in the customer journey, including the checkout page. Had the issue not been resolved, people using screen reader technology would not be able to shop, a lose-lose situation. 

The role of leadership

Leadership buy-in is crucial for fostering accessibility within an organisation. However, statements of commitment are not enough. Léonie emphasises that implementing accessibility requires structural change and resources: "Customer service teams do need to be given some training, some support and documentation they can share. So that if someone like me gets in touch and says: 'Hey, look, I've got this problem', they're not making the problem worse by using the wrong messaging or giving out the wrong information."

Customer service teams do need to be given some training, some support and documentation they can share.

Addressing accessibility isn't solely for the benefit of individuals with disabilities. Léonie asserts that everyone benefits from enhanced accessibility: "There is one thing I can pretty much guarantee; that you will never hear anybody complain that something was too accessible."

User-friendly and intuitive experiences resonate with all users, creating a seamless and enjoyable interaction. Striving for accessibility ensures no one encounters barriers while engaging with digital platforms.

Navigating the accessibility landscape

Léonie recommends a step-by-step approach to embedding accessibility into digital experiences. Starting with a foundational knowledge of accessibility guidelines, she suggests exploring the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Integrating accessibility into day-to-day activities, whether reading accessibility-focused blog posts or researching design patterns, fosters gradual improvements.

Don't be scared by the fact that accessibility seems really, really big.

Léonie knows it can seem daunting: "Don't be scared by the fact that accessibility seems really, really big. Just get a little bit better at it each time you try to do something, and, gradually, this will become second nature."

Inclusive Design 24

Inclusive design goes beyond mere accessibility, aiming to create experiences that consider the holistic needs of users. Léonie co-organises Inclusive Design 24, a free 24-hour online conference that explores a wide range of accessibility and design topics. The idea sprung out of an experience Léonie had at an accessibility conference she enjoyed: "It occurred to me that I was fortunate to travel to America. I could afford to do that, my company could. But what about all the people all over the world that had this interest that weren't able to travel?"

The conference provides a platform for sharing insights, ideas, and strategies. "We didn't want it all to be about accessibility and the kind of conventional compliance," Léonie says. The conference has had talks on everything from making accessible comic books and video games to the mental health side of accessibility, covering subjects such as imposter syndrome in the tech industry.

Advice for tomorrow's CX leaders

For aspiring customer experience professionals, Léonie's advice is threefold:

  • Cultivate a genuine interest in accessibility.
  • Take small daily steps towards learning.
  • Have fun with the process.

She encourages seeking help when needed and engaging with accessibility communities: "If you find yourself in a pickle, you've got a problem, and you don't know how to solve it, try to reach out and see if anybody else has come up against it and has any bright ideas."

Embracing accessibility as an ongoing journey rather than an overwhelming task ensures the creating of more inclusive and seamless customer experiences. As Léonie puts it: "Just do a bit more every day."


MyCustomer: Can you talk us through your background and what led you to found TetraLogical? 

Léonie Watson: Sure. So, I started this part of my life working on the web. Back when the web was very new in the mid-1990s. I taught myself how to build websites. I lost my site at the turn of the century. So I took a couple of years out to regroup and figure things out. And when I went back to work, it just so happened that the company I went to work for was a web design agency, but they also specialised in accessibility. And that's where I first got introduced to this whole field. And it just captured my interest and my imagination. Because it's a lot like puzzle-solving. Somebody comes along and says, Look, this thing doesn't work for this person or group. How do we fix that? How do we make it better? And that's always appealed to me and still does. Twenty-odd years later, I just reached the point in my life and my career with my co-founders where we felt it was time to try our hand at setting up a company.

MyCustomer: And you've experienced web accessibility change over the years. I can imagine that's valuable when it comes to working in the space as well. 

Léonie Watson: Yes, it's changed an awful lot. In the early 2000s, the message was very much that accessibility existed. Most people hadn't thought of it and didn't know anything about it. And I count myself amongst this before I lost my sight. I had no idea that people with disabilities use technology just like everybody else. So there was a big education piece. over the intervening years that changed it then gradually became less about, hey, accessibility is a thing. Hey, you've got to start thinking about accessibility and doing it. Now. That's much more accepted and the message more firmly. Okay, we've got this. How do we actually do one of the techniques and the processes we need to make this happen? So yeah, it's been a positive evolution. Not as quickly as I would like it, but you know, I'll take the win. 

MyCustomer: Yeah. As you said, people are aware that accessibility is important. It matters a great deal, especially when it comes to customer experience. So, is that something that you can talk a little bit more about? 

Léonie Watson: Oh, absolutely. You know, perhaps more from a personal point of view than a professional one. Customer experience your audience will know is absolutely essential. It can make or break a relationship that an organisation has with its customers. When it comes to accessibility and customer experience, that's even more true. And the reason I think is that certainly, when I find a brand or an organisation that's doing really well in terms of accessibility, I'll recommend that to anybody who will listen to other people's vision impairments, like my other people with other disabilities, but also you know, my husband, my family and my friends, and so that that can have a ripple effect on good customer experience.

Perhaps even more strong amongst people with disabilities than it is the general kind of customer population if you like. But the reverse is also true. Probably more so. 

If I have a really bad customer experience with someone or an organisation. I will complain and moan, and winge, and I will do so as loudly across as many platforms and channels as I could possibly get away with. In this day and age, there's kind of no reason for customer experience to exclude accessibility and it makes me cross when it happens, especially when there's something I really want to do or really want to engage with a brand that I just can't. These blocks are in the way. Accessibility and customer experience are absolutely inseparable, in my opinion. 

MyCustomer: Yeah, I think we all experience, for example, a webshop that doesn't quite work or something that's frustrating and annoying. But when you have accessibility needs, then that might be the blocker for you actually being able to use that service at all. 

Léonie Watson: Absolutely. And it comes in the most peculiar form sometimes. I was trying to place an order on a website very recently, and their website was beautifully accessible to me. I could navigate it, I could make my choices, but when I hit the checkout button, the entire page vanished. Which is to say that with my screen reader, the piece of software I use to listen to content. Instead of looking at the screen, there was just nothing for it to speak. As it turned out, I put a call out on social media, and someone from that organisation's development team heard the call, and they put a fix in place within a matter of hours, which was an amazing success story. But it was just one simple mistake in the code of that website. Put a pretty abrupt stop on the end of an otherwise really useful journey. That happens quite a bit at checkout buttons or links that just can't be used with a keyboard. Surprisingly common through the shopping experience. 

The very last thing that really kind of almost rubbed salt in that wound. I got lucky with that example I was just telling you and the message out on social media, but what happens is you tend to get in touch with the organisation, and this is almost where the real customer service fail happens that you get a very generic message back from the customer services team that just says 'Sorry, you're having trouble with our website. Have you tried clearing your browser cache?'

Nothing to do with the browser cache whatsoever, but it's just a formulaic response that, you know, they have at their disposal to share with me, or you get 'We'll pass your message on'. And then nothing happens. You don't get a response back, and that's the big point of failure. If I get a team that listens to me and, acknowledges the problem and does what they can to fix it. We all make mistakes. Stuff doesn't always work perfectly on the web. I get that happens, too. So it's the response when somebody gets in touch and actually says, 'Hey, look, I can't check out I can't do this thing on your website'.

MyCustomer: And that requires the entire organisation to be focused on it so that a customer service agent will know how to respond to that. 

Léonie Watson: Absolutely. Yeah, it's really important for accessibility to be really sustainable in an organisation. Absolutely everybody has to be involved from the CEO downwards outwards every which way, but you're especially right customer service teams do need to be given some training, some support and documentation they can share so that if someone like me gets in touch and says, 'Hey, look, I've got this problem,' they're not making the problem worse by using the wrong messaging or giving out the wrong information that just adds frustration to the problem. And don't get me wrong, I know customer service people don't always have access to this information. So it is an organisational issue. I'm not intending to blame individual customer services people here.

You can only work with the training and the information and the resources you've got. The organisation make sure you're properly kitted out to do that part of the job. 

MyCustomer: Yeah, absolutely. And it needs to be top down approach. And that's something that we see a lot from the MyCustomer audience is that a challenge they keep voicing is getting leadership buy-in. And I know that also is a challenge when it comes to accessibility, that there might be more resistance to change at the top level. So, have you experienced organisations managing to take a top-down approach, and how would you say it's best to navigate that?

Léonie Watson: Yes, there are a number of organisations that have buy-in for accessibility, you know, right from the CEO down to the level downwards.

The really ironic thing about that, of course, is that you generally find people at that level of seniority in the company or people just through the natural ageing process. We're starting to really recognise that there are benefits to accessibility. I joke about this with my friends; you know, most of them who are over 40 will have their phones held out you know, because we get older. The TV volume gets bumped up a little bit louder and louder. I am being slightly sweeping in my stereotyping here. But actually, as you get to the kind of C-level of most companies, they are going to be people in their 40s, 50s, 60s. So you think that they're kind of just naturally understanding, that actually, you know what, 'We should be getting this right'. When it does, it's amazing.

You see a complete cascade down through the organisation; people are given not only responsibility for doing accessibility, but actually the time and the information and the resources they need. A big mistake I see all the time is being the people in an organisation will issue some mandate. 'We're taking this very seriously, everybody make stuff accessible', but they offer no training, no extra time, no room for those people to actually fulfill that mandate and that is failure point. Give people the opportunity for training, various skills. You need a bit of extra time while you're kind of ramping up. Once you've gotten into the habit of it, of course extra time isn't really needed so much. So senior stakeholders have to build all of those KPIs or OKRs for example, lots of different ways that it has to be done. You can't just issue a mandate and hope everything's just gonna happen magically.

MyCustomer: Yes. And kind of resting on that message for the foreseeable. 'Yeah, we do care about it. It's a priority,' and then leave it at that for a bit. 

Léonie Watson: Yes. One of the worst things you know you can do you say that a lot on websites. You know, accessibility statements, 'Such and such an organisation we are committed to accessibility'. And the only reason you're looking at that accessibility statement is if something isn't successful in quite a profound way, then you realise that that statement has been there for five years. And it was almost certainly true when the website was launched, or the statement was produced. Nobody has really given that much thought in the meantime, it shows.

MyCustomer: Like you said, though, leadership, kind of jokingly, that they might have some news coverage and benefit from a further focus on accessibility. But I think that's an important point because it's not only that it benefits people with disabilities, right? It would benefit everybody to make websites and applications work better.

Léonie Watson: I mean, there is one thing I can pretty much guarantee and that you will never hear anybody complain that something was too accessible. There is no such thing as too easy, too easy to use, too easy to shop, too easy to do whatever. Humans, generally speaking we quite like a simple, easy life and accessibility. None of us like having to work hard to get the job done. And there's no reason why, you know, we shouldn't. 

MyCustomer: Implementing accessibility effectively can be a challenge. And I wondered if you had some practical steps that people can take in terms of getting started making their websites or digital platforms more accessible; where would you say is the best place to start?

Léonie Watson: Getting some knowledge. And I know that's a very flippant thing to say. But you've got to start somewhere. You could, for example, don't have a look at the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. They are the generally recognised benchmark for building accessible products and services and also for measuring how accessible they are. They can seem a little bit overwhelming, particularly if you haven't sort of delved into the accessibility guidelines space before. So there is a set of easy checks, which is 10 of those guidelines are a good starting point. They cover off some basics, not the whole picture by any stretch of the imagination, but they're a good stepping stone. So, you know, taking it that way. 

The other approaches, you know, depending on your role, just try and spend a little bit of time each week reading up on some useful blog posts about design accessibility or development code accessibility. There's plenty of good material, or as you're just working on something particular, maybe you're designing a new feature, adding new capabilities to the website or the app. Take that opportunity to go and do a bit of research and see what prior art there is out there. Other design patterns for the thing you're building that have already got good accessibility baked into it. Have people written about it, blogged about it, given conference talks about it, so yeah, just just use your day-to-day activities as a way to go and find a bit more knowledge and then try and incorporate it into what you're doing a little bit this time. I've been saying this for a long number of years that accessibility is kind of big. When I started doing it, there really was only sort of the web. We had no apps, certainly no internet capable TVs, nothing like that. And so there was a kind of simplicity to it. Roll forward is a couple of decades and we've got all sorts of devices, platforms, software technology.

They've got a whole lot more complicated, so much so that it isn't really possible for one person to be all over all of it that you find people specialising in accessibility for user research or disability for design.

The trick is not to be too scared by that. Even within your own sort of remit. Don't, don't be daunted. Don't be scared by the fact that accessibility seems really really big. Just get a little bit better at it. Each time you try to do something and gradually this will become second nature before very long, you'll stop thinking about deliberate steps to be accessible because they'll just be the way that you you do things quite naturally and then you can move on. Learn something else develop. We're all still learning because tech keeps moving and evolving. But yeah, just try something. Give it a go. Wrap it into what you do day to day and then rinse and repeat.

MyCustomer: So another great resource is of course, inclusive sign 24 which you are a co organiser for. So can you explain what inclusive design is? And also how Inclusive Design 24 works? 

Léonie Watson: Sure. So over the years accessibility has become very much about the idea of conformance, either with those guidelines or in the legal context, compliance with the many laws that exist around the world now that require organisations to be accessible, but it's sort of developed this kind of quite technical aspect if you like. Inclusive Design tries to elevate that, though, to think about accessibility as part of an overall experience that incorporates but of usability. I'm actually just general enjoyment of the experience. A good example might be accessibility requires that an image has a text description, so someone like me and understand what the purpose of the image is. If you elevate that into really good inclusive design and think about the experience, you'd also recognise that for me that text description is the primary content is not an alternative, as the technical name suggests. And so you'd really think about the words that you're using to describe the image, the atmosphere that they're projecting the emotions that they're evoking all of those kinds of things. So again, you take technical conformance, and really boost it into a really great inclusive experience.

I years ago now went through a very big accessibility conference for the first time, I met with all sorts of people interested in accessibility from all over the world. And I was just amazed by the whole experience. It took me weeks to calm down after I came back, buzzing with all these ideas and conversations. And it occurred to me that I was fortunate to be traveled to America I could afford to do that a company could. But what about all the people all over the world that had this interest that they weren't able to travel? So the idea came around that we would do a 24 hour online conference and nobody had done much actually in the way of online conferences at all. This was a decade or more ago 34 hours, but we had to do it 24 hours, because we wanted everybody in the world to be able to attend at least some of it. So that's where the idea came from. The first year we did it we got in touch with all of you've got to talk, cop pay, you can't offer you anything. But if you're happy to volunteer, could you come along and do it? And we put the whole thing together in about a month I think more than a decade ago and the next one is coming up next month on the 21st Yeah, it's become a bit more efficient since then, and we certainly put a bit more time and energy into it, but it's still absolutely run by the community. We have some wonderful sponsors. Make sure that we can now pay our speakers and get things captioned and do all the good things but it's still very much a labor of love, to be honest.

MyCustomer: Yeah, it's brilliant. There were some very good sessions last year. One about being inclusive to neurodiverse people and also one of empathy. Both were absolutely brilliant, very relevant to what I was working on at that moment as well. So I think there's something for everyone there.

Léonie Watson: Absolutely. We wrote from the very beginning, we didn't want it all to be about accessibility and the kind of conventional compliance that I just mentioned. So you know, we've we've had talks on everything from how to make comics, accessible comic books accessible to the physical environment, to video games, and of course, yet website apps, but also, you know, things on the more emotive mental health side of accessibility, great talk on what it's like to have impostor syndrome in the tech industry in general. So touching more on the human side. So we've been very fortunate. We've had some amazing content over the years, and it's all available on YouTube free for anyone to watch as well, that was a big part of what we wanted to do was to create an archive that anyone could access.

Because, again, not everybody is able to get conferences all the time, obviously, since the pandemic with tons of online conferences, and even a couple more 24-hour ones, so that idea has clearly taken off for a whole bunch of other reasons. But it's great to know that all this information is out there for anybody who wants to get out. 

MyCustomer: Absolutely. And people can watch it in their own time, like you said, on YouTube or be part of the experience when it's happening. 

Léonie Watson: Yeah, absolutely. And that you can even stay up for the whole 24 hours like we do if you're if you're feeling silly or courageous enough, whichever way you look at it. 

MyCustomer: You are also a member of the W3C board of directors and co-chair of their web applications working group, so you play a role in shaping accessibility standards. And I'm curious to hear what you think the future of web accessibility holds. Maybe what you think is coming up and being a conversation soon, and also, what you hope the future holds for accessibility? 

Léonie Watson: Oh, that's a question. So I think we are at a point now, as we have been quite often over the years, where there are new technologies emerging that are representing really big challenges.

The whole virtual reality augmented reality or XR space is one of those areas where there's just this whole new paradigm. And so we're having to, in some cases, try and bend the accessibility techniques and approaches that we've got there they fit and in other cases, we're having to come up with completely new accessibility ideas. Both scary and exciting.

It is the first time I think since I lost my sight that I found myself actually really wishing I could actually take part in some of these experiences. For me as a child and early teen in the 80s. You know, I remember all that in the tech-oriented movies back then, this idea that you know, virtual reality would become this place that we are socialised to work. It's sort of built into my psyche if you like. To be missing out on the potential for that now is kind of tough, but the accessibility specialists in these people are so intrigued by the possibility of how do we fix this problem?

But I think that you know, that that's one area. AI is another interesting area, of course. AI is a big topic of conversation across the industry right now. And for accessibility it is particularly interesting. On one side, we've got a range of companies that have AI-based tools that claim to be able to offer quick-fix accessibility on your website in exchange for a small fee. They're actually quite problematic from a user's point of view. 

On the other hand, a lot of tools that generative AI is being used for are amazing from an accessibility point of view. There's a tool I use for seeing AI for Microsoft free on iOS. And as the name suggests, it uses a lot of image recognition AI to help me do all sorts of things. It can help me sell currency apart from all sorts of different countries. I can tell them what different colours are. I can read texts on products if you like or whatever short-form text. I can take snaps of documents and have whole letters and things read out to me. I can even store pictures of people, with their permission of course, on my phone, and if I then wave my phone at them, and it recognises one in the library, I can add a label, and it will tell me who it is I'm looking at. All this stuff, you know, that wouldn't be possible for me without it. So that's an interesting area from the kind of accessibility that's emerging, and I dare say will keep evolving.

Other than that, I think we've got work to do at the structural level. Those guidelines I mentioned before, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. They've been around in one form or another since 1999. And their current incarnation is kind of starting to tweak a bit and isn't quite a good fit for the web platform as it is now or even as it's emerging. It's got some problem areas; for example, it doesn't cover the needs of people with neurodivergent or cognitive disabilities particularly well.

And so I think we need to address that we need to make guidelines for everybody's using far more fit for purpose, we need to recognise that things like XR are emerging and we need to think about accessibility there too. It's not just the web in a browser anymore, web views pulled into native apps. It's web content you might view on your TV or your watch. There's just so much more to it now that those guidelines need to embrace. And that's going to be a big piece of work in the coming years. 

MyCustomer: Thinking a bit more about the future, then, you are a mentor to young people interested in accessibility and inclusive design. So, it'd be good to hear what advice you would give to the next generation of customer experience professionals to help them foster a more accessible digital landscape. 

Léonie Watson: Sure. Well, it certainly with the people that I mentor, and I thought you they've already got to the first point, which is to be interested in this. If you're not, then there's no point in me kind of offering any any sort of form of advice, but but if you haven't really thought about accessibility at all before my advice would be do think about it. It's not going anywhere. It's going to be more and more important for anybody entering into a career in CX or or indeed any other kind of area of the tech industry. So yeah, first piece of advice would be start thinking about it. The second bit of advice would be something I said a little earlier, which is just do a bit more every day.

Don't don't get put off by the enormity of what you think you've got to accomplish. Small steps, how you learned your profession, the skills you needed for your career. So far. None of what we do is easy. Neither is accessibility, but we figured it out so far. So I'm pretty sure your audiences got education of varying levels, you've got the skills, you know that you need to become a good professional. So you've already done a ton of difficult stuff. Adding accessibility into that shouldn't really be a thing enough to slow anybody down.

And then just have fun with it. That's the other thing. For a long time, the accessibility industry, i.e. people in my job, we spent far too long banging on about how everybody was doing a lousy job at accessibility, how everybody was awful people, terrible human beings because you weren't doing this right. 'You're gonna get sued'. It's all doom and gloom, and we did absolutely no favours to anybody, including ourselves. We really got that wrong.

We're a lot more practical about it now, and it's all about trying to encourage people. And as I say, you know, you won't get stuff right the first time every time. Nobody does. That's fine. Just Just keep trying. Keep plugging assets. Ask for advice. That's the other thing. There are tons of great communities and sources of information out there, and generally speaking, most people in the disability community are quite happy to help with genuine questions. So, if you find yourself in a pickle, you've got a problem, and you don't know how to solve it. Try to reach out and see if anybody else has come up against it and has any bright ideas.

The last thing I would probably say is if you came through any kind of formal education, particularly in any tech-related subject, generally ignore everything you were taught. The sad truth is that even now, two and a half, almost three decades since people first started talking about digital accessibility, it's not taught in the curricula in schools, in colleges or in universities. You may well get the occasional course. More often, you'll get a module that thinks about accessibility but literally nothing else. You're taught in the rest of your curricula, 'we'll think about accessibility,' so you'll be thrown tons of examples, none of which are accessible. And then, at some point, somebody will come along and go, 'Oh, by the way, don't forget to think about accessibility.' But everything you've been taught didn't set you up to be able to do that. And that's sort of the problem we've got now. 

So yeah, if you're in education, question, try and take a bit of extra time to go and figure out how to do whatever you can do effectively. And if you've come through through education, then you might have to go back and figure out some of it again; it is not your fault. I wish we could change it, but it is what it is, unfortunately.

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