Build Empathy. Build Better Products. Build Customer Loyalty.

As enterprises around the world strive to meet WCAG standards, they often allow accessibility efforts to become a legal checklist. They miss out on the biggest value driver when it comes to persons with disabilities (PWD): serving them as customers. Webex understands this. That’s why the team focused on developing empathy in their inclusive design efforts as they began to improve their world-renowned Webex platform.

Access the full on-demand webinar, Integrating Inclusivity and Empathy Into the Webex Platform, read highlights from the webinar below, or view some short highlight videos excerpted from the longer recording with our two speakers:

  • Willette Harris, Engineering Product Manager, Webex

  • Tom Bonos, Chief Revenue Officer & Operations Officer, Applause

The transcript below has been edited for clarity and length.


Tom Bonos: Today we’re talking about the Applause-Webex partnership and how we’ve worked to integrate inclusivity and empathy into the Webex platform. This is a new approach to equal access for all. Joining me is Willette Harris from Webex. Willette, it’s great to have you here. Please tell us about your role and your focus within the partnership.

Willette Harris: It’s been a wonderful partnership. My role is engineering product manager for Webex with a main focus on accessibility. My job is to help us bring accessibility and inclusivity into all the applications and software that we own and that our end users experience. I work to educate our team, working with design, engineering and product teams across the board to make sure they have the empathy, education and the understanding of what inclusivity and accessibility really is, and the people that it impacts.

Navigating the complexity and building a new culture

Bonos:. So, for the last couple of years, Webex has been replatforming, and their mission and their commitment is to make this application collaborative and accessible and inclusive for all people with all abilities and all backgrounds worldwide. As most of you may know, there are many challenges in building an inclusive and innovative platform for ease of use for all people of all backgrounds, disabilities and non disabilities.

Building, designing, developing and deploying a business application as broad as the Webex platform and all the different modules associated with it means you've got to deal with research design teams, product management, engineering, release and deploy production monitoring. The teams are so broad and the agendas within each team are very unique and different across that software development lifecycle.

So, the Webex and Applause partnership is designed with a couple of key goals. First, to embrace a shift-left approach, which means bring this inclusive design and innovation capability earlier in the innovation and development cycle, not at the end when you're just doing compliance for the WCAG standards. The approach is to make sure we're including people with disabilities in the design and development process as early as possible.

As you can imagine, from a process flow, all the different hand-offs between all the different teams are opportunities to create a misalignment. So, Applause works closely with Webex to fill the gaps. It’s really complicated, so, Willette, please help the audience understand how you all are pulling this off at Webex.

Harris: We really started off in a very siloed approach. All the teams were working very independently. We were realizing that it was creating a lot of friction points within our product, so we had to really think about how to create a more collaborative environment. We were creating a collaboration tool, but we were not collaborating internally, and that was causing a lot of problems, not just for users with disabilities, but for other users who had no disabilities. We began to really think about how we could be more inclusive and not just think about accessibility.

We had a lot of feedback regarding our platform, so we took that feedback to the teams and began to share what customers were saying. We began to show videos of users being challenged by elements of the technology. We began to really work hard to change our culture and change our processes. We started to include PWD in our design very early. You have to do this. You can’t make decisions for any specific group of persons without including them in the planning.

We also knew we had to get out of the business of just fixing bugs. Engineering was fatigued over fixing all of these different accessibility bugs, and so they were looking at accessibility and inclusivity through a very negative lens. So, we decided that we would figure out a way to uplift some of the pain points that engineering had and then worked to sprinkle in innovation so that it would create excitement around accessibility and inclusivity. So that helped increase the velocity of the number of fixes that we were getting out to our customers, but also the types of features that we were releasing to our customers. Our engineering team, product team and design team were excited about the work that they were starting to do.

Building inclusivity momentum

Bonos: How did Webex start the inclusivity program and how did you get buy-in and the momentum and make it happen? Any particular person or role that stood out to you as you've started this journey to really empower you and the team to do this?

Harris: We had such strong leadership backing that we didn't really have to work too hard to convince leadership that it was worth investing in. They were already thinking a lot about accessibility, but in a different way. They were thinking about accessibility from a product standpoint, and we were on the ground thinking about accessibility from a cultural standpoint. So, the passion that they had from the product perspective and our cultural passion worked well together. Leadership was happy because they wanted something that would last. And to do that, we needed to move beyond just making the product accessible, because often, when you do that, you tend to check the box and move on. We all wanted more overall innovation.

We worked to really try to get people excited about accessibility and inclusivity to begin to shift the mindset. We wanted a product that truly was equitable across the board and that's what we've been working on and that's what leadership has been truly promoting within Webex. Equal access no matter what. We don't want our product to limit the way you work. We want it to empower you to work in an even more efficient manner.

Bonos: We see some companies fix compliance issues once a quarter or on some limited schedule, but at Webex, it’s in every sprint. This inclusivity, empathy and design approach is in each sprint cycle on the Webex deployment team. We see it every day.

Creating ongoing organizational knowledge

Bonos: So, what are you doing about ongoing organizational knowledge?

Harris: We have a wiki where we keep all sorts of content and learning, and we have office hours where people can engage with accessibility experts around all sorts of issues, but I think the thing that really helps people within our organization retain the knowledge is the empathy and the understanding that they're building. Because if somebody with a disability uses the application every day and we connect with their pains and issues, that becomes personal. All of a sudden, people are thinking about a person they know and the issues he or she has. It becomes about people, not just bugs. This creates stickiness in terms of learning.

We learned very early on that forcing compliance does not mean you're going to retain knowledge. What it means is you’re going to get to the place where we fix the bugs that someone reported and then we're in compliance. Now we can go back to working the way we want to work, and we don't have to think about it again until the next audit. We didn’t want this. We wanted a culture where you were thinking about it whether we were being audited or not. So, that stickiness definitely needs empathy.

Incorporating insights into the software development lifecycle

Bonos: How do you ensure that after you do get the feedback and incorporate those insights into the software development lifecycle? For example, if you bring a person with blindness, or someone with dexterity issues etc., and you need to fix the challenges that they have, how do you organize to do that to make a more usable application? How do you ensure that you’re always incorporating the insights from that process and building on it?

Harris: Well, one of the things that we make sure of is that we incorporate input all along the way. For example, before the designers begin to put a firm design in place, we make sure they have input from users with disabilities early on so that it influences their design. So that is now part of our process. But when they’re creating designs, they’re also going to office hours so they can interact with accessibility experts who understand inclusive design. Our designers may not know everything yet, but they are learning and know what questions to ask. We’re also putting some of our designs in front of customers before we implement them.

We have internal people with disabilities that are part of our engineering teams and they test products as well. So, you can see that we have feedback loops throughout the SDLC. We don’t think We’ll fix this in the next release. We think about the issues long before they get into customers’ hands.

Bonos: Yeah, that's great. We’ve set up a team of folks with categorical disabilities and we consistently have those same folks iterate across the SDLC and across the Webex teams to ensure that there's that connective tissue. As each team moves to the next phase of the release, there's continual check points with continual feedback from a consistent team on the Applause side that allows that familiarity, and again, empathy that really is powerful. As we establish and continue to build out that team for Webex, that's where the partnership truly gets tight. We can be more efficient and effective because it's a continual experience.

We have an augmentation of the Webex team on the Applause side that allows for that more efficient process, communication, learning and an ability to rapidly fix things across the teams that are responsible for fixing them right from design to build to test and release. I think that has really been an efficient part of our partnership to continue to incorporate the feedback as we go, and make it more seamless because you're dealing with the same set of people across the team.

Harris: Absolutely. That has been one of the key things, that consistent team. Having Applause doing the instrument testing right along with our internal users so that we can get that rapid feedback so engineering can actually fix bugs a lot earlier. The designers can catch design flaws a lot earlier because we have experts helping the designers in office hours that Applause is providing to us. Applause also gives us a set of testers with disabilities that help test complex features. They will do two or three days of extremely hard testing and find all of the bugs that they can find, throw everything they can at that particular feature so that we can take that information and make sure that we're releasing a high quality feature.

Looking ahead

Bonos: What's next for Webex in terms of the inclusivity work? I mean, you're on a wonderful journey. You've got great backing from your executives. You've got passionate people across the whole SDLC. You're one of the most mature customers we have in this space. How can you get better? What else do you think you can keep doing to push the envelope to an even better paradigm?

Harris: We really want to continue to grow and educate our team. We want to get to a place where everyone has something beyond just a basic understanding of what accessibility and inclusivity is. We want to make sure that not only are we partnering with communities for testing, but we're building strong relationships with organizations that are truly advocates of people with disabilities or people that are marginalized. We also want to make sure that we're constantly innovating because technology changes every day, people's needs change every day. And with the advancement of technology, we want to make sure that we’re delivering the cutting edge. That's something that's extremely important to us.

We want to make sure that the education throughout our organization keeps its momentum. We want to get more people involved, continue to partner more with the people we’re trying to impact. Move away from assumptions. Change the way people think about how they work by using our technology. We want people to stop thinking about limitations.

Bonos: We're honored to be a partner of yours in your journey. This notion of shifting left is the hardest thing you could possibly do when you're building software. And you guys are pulling it off. It’s impressive to watch you do it. You're all committed.

We hope more people will learn from this and start moving their design and innovation around inclusivity earlier in the SDLC and not just be compliant with the WCAG standard.

Harris: It's not an easy shift, but it's a necessary shift because we can't have a world that is stuck in an ‘80s or ‘90s perspective. We live in a very diverse world and our innovation and our technology and our tools need to match the world we live in and the people within.

Thank you for aligning with us and having that passion and having that drive to want to make accessibility and inclusivity the cool thing to do, not just the compliance thing to do, but the cool and the right thing to do.

Learn more about how to build inclusive design into your organization. Read our ebook, Shift Left and Build Empathy Through Inclusive Design.

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Paul Hoffman
Senior Content Manager
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