In this episode, Josepha Haden Chomphosy discusses the nuances of building accessible software, the differences between access, usability, and accessibility, and how this all applies to the WordPress project.
Have a question you’d like answered? You can submit them to firstname.lastname@example.org, either written or as a voice recording.
[contemporary intro music]
Josepha Haden Chomphosy 0:10
Hello, everyone, and welcome to the WordPress Briefing, the podcast where you can catch quick explanations of the ideas behind the WordPress open source project, some insight into the community that supports it, and get a small list of big things coming up in the next two weeks. I’m your host, Josepha Haden Chomphosy. Here we go.
Josepha Haden Chomphosy 0:28
This is the second of my big scary topics for this month. I’ll be talking about accessibility, which much like Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, or DEI in the last episode, is one of those areas where the work is never finished. Also, like DEI in last episode, I feel strongly about accessibility and the need for accessible experiences in the world, but I’m aware that this is an area where I’m still learning.
Josepha Haden Chomphosy 1:04
WordPress has both an accessibility statement and team, which makes a lot of sense given that the software supports so many different people, and industries, and cultures. But if you’re not quite bought into the idea that software should be accessible, or that accessible software can’t also be usable, then this is the episode for you.
Josepha Haden Chomphosy 1:25
Before I joined the WordPress project, the majority of my work with accessibility was in the context of the digital divide. Now, when talking about the digital divide, there are three concepts around quote-unquote, “getting things to people,” and those are access, usability, and accessibility. Sometimes these words seem interchangeable, but ultimately they have nuanced differences that address different problems. And I like to think of them this way.
Access is making sure that someone can obtain something.
Usability is making sure that the user experience is understandable or coherent.
And accessibility is making sure that it’s usable by the largest number of people.
I have always considered each as a subset of the one that came before it. So having something everyone can access is good, but easy to access and easy to use is better. Easy to use is good, but easy to use and easily accessible is better.
Josepha Haden Chomphosy 2:27
After joining WordPress, I discovered that accessibility in the context of software building is well, substantially more complicated. There’s no such thing as perfect accessibility, or a site that is 100% accessible, and many aspects are pretty open to interpretation. It turns out that accessibility, like so many things in WordPress, is a complicated intersection of art and science.
As an example, there’s a rule that says, “Ensure that links are recognizable as links.” A fast shorthand to accomplish that, that we see all over the internet, is to underline all links or put that icon next to it that says, “This opens in a new tab.” You know that icon that’s a box with an arrow? That definitely has a name, that I definitely don’t know? That icon. [laughing] But those solutions don’t necessarily fit every context that you’ll find a link in, and that’s where we see that intersection between the art of communication and the science of necessity.
Josepha Haden Chomphosy 3:32
If you came with me earlier on the idea that accessibility is a subset of usability, and it’s not a far leap to say that the choices around accessibility implementations should always include design and the overall user experience.
I know that some of you are thinking, “But we have guidelines! Like, that’s why we have the guidelines, so that not everything has to be a gray area.” And on the one hand, yeah, that’s true. There are a lot of guidelines. There are guidelines for the code, and what the code produces, and the design elements. But I worry that when a solution is driven solely by rules, rather than reasons, we run the risk of throwing out the good along with the bad.
Josepha Haden Chomphosy 4:15
Accessibility has been a consistent topic of debate in the project for as long as I can remember, and based on all of this, it’s really clear why. There are a few big picture questions that still deserve some sort of canonical answer for WordPress, and where possible I dig in and research the positions that everyone has taken in the past. But I also have questions about how to move everything forward, especially as the editing experience gets more and more standardized across the software, which reduces cognitive load, shortens the learning curve, etc.
What is the future possibility for having a series of more niche admin interface options?
What would it be like to be able to account for functional limitations in a way that lets site builders select what is needed for their clients or organization, or just individual situations they know their sites would be maintained under?
What more could we do if part of the setup flow of WordPress was to select some bundle of potential add ons for neuro diversity, or colorblindness, or dyslexia, and more?
It’s a really big question I have.
Josepha Haden Chomphosy 5:26
And I have to be really transparent here and share that my foundational understanding of accessibility and usability is 10 plus years old, and I learned it in the context of people in education, not software. So a lot of my questions about the future of accessibility and WordPress is the result of old knowledge exploring new spaces, which means they are a little untested. And I’m so grateful for the contributors who point out what the current research and thinking is, in this incredibly complex field.
Josepha Haden Chomphosy 6:00
I normally like to wrap up the briefing with a tidy takeaway, but this particular topic doesn’t really lend itself to that. So I’ll leave you with this. I really believe in WordPress’ mission to democratize publishing. And I, for one, will never stop learning about what gives people more access to the software, and what makes the software more usable, and especially how we can combine usability with accessibility in a way that puts form and function on a level playing field.
Josepha Haden Chomphosy 6:40
And now, that brings us to our small list of big things.
Thing one, it’s that time of year where many of our community members take a short break to relax and refresh. I’ll be taking a bit of a break during the month of August, and so the WP Briefing will return again starting in September.
And thing two, huge thanks to the production crew that helps me make this podcast every couple of weeks, but a special shout out to our editor Dustin Hartzler, who makes quick work of all of my rambling thoughts.
Josepha Haden Chomphosy 7:09
And that is your small list of big things. Thank you for tuning in today for the WordPress Briefing. I’m your host, Josepha Haden Chomphosy, and I’ll see you again in September.
[contemporary outro music]