Grey lettering or ellipses on white backgrounds annoy me. On websites, in apps, or anywhere else where it may require a magnifying glass to access. This peeve predates my recent acquisition of reading glasses. As an early adopter of most technologies including social platforms, I have always been conscious of the lack of accessibility in the design of web pages and digital devices increasingly pervading our lives.
Many years ago, I spent a few days teaching an older relative how to use his laptop so as to reduce his dependence on carrying enormous paper files to the courts to assist his work as a criminal defence lawyer. Some years later, I spent an afternoon helping my savvy, smart and business orientated Pilates teacher how to deal with battery issues on her Samsung phone. Quite frequently, I serve as the first and second line technical support for my older friends and colleagues, when they struggle with features in their smartphones or other electronic devices that they have bought. The experiences often leave me frustrated.
It is not that people have suddenly become dumb and do not understand how to operate devices without which they cannot live a modern life. It is more that much technology design is devoid of all sense of empathy for anybody who’s not young, who has not 2020 vision, who is not able-bodied without any corrective devices required to function such as reading glasses. I mentioned glasses but they’re not the only corrective devices we see around us. I have friends who wear discreet hearing aids in one sometimes both ears. I have friends who have mobility issues arising from illness, muscular atrophy, or simply because of the after-effects of some deadly disease that they survived. A lot of modern tech products do not have accommodations for such needs for assistance.
So here we are, looking at a deadly combination — a growing lack of accessibility in routine design and an exponentially growing need to have technical literacy nay fluency just to survive the day-to-day life we now have.
I grew up in India with domestic staff. As an adult, as soon as I had my own flat, I decided not to hire any domestic staff at all, choosing instead to simplify and organise my life such that I could manage it myself. In addition to privacy concerns, as a young woman living alone, I was also cognisant of the safety concerns arising from someone being aware of my routine, my house, my possessions etc.
Fast forward to today, I have deliberately chosen not to live in a “smart” house. From my vantage point as a person, who grew up with domestic staff, I remain unpersuaded of the need to have technology-enabled “staff” recording or monitoring or otherwise surveilling my life even if they are assisting with some aspects of it that I could trivially do myself. I see this as exercising responsibility for one’s own privacy over choosing hyper-convenience that cannot be quantified but could uncharitably be called just “laziness”.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not a Luddite. In fact, the contrary.
As I mentioned I have been an early adopter of many technologies and I have written about my living off the web. Like many others, I do use several apps e.g. Ocado for grocery and my banking app. They are about both convenience and ease — in case of banking, there is no choice as the nearest branch is now several miles away and the app is really convenient especially when I find myself in receipt of a cheque (yes it happens, not often, but it does). But the apps also surveil and gather data on what I do, what I buy, where I travel to and from, what I eat or otherwise purchase or consume. The trade-offs are quite evident with just a few seconds of reflection.
However when our responsibility exceeds our own personal sphere of control we need to think about accessibility in design and the technical literacy required to use technology embedded in our day to day life quite differently.
Our workplaces are typically where our responsibility or the sphere of our responsibility exceeds our own personal sphere of control and impact.
If you’re a CEO of a company in the UK, it is likely that a non-trivial percentage of your workforce has a disability of some kind (see UK population wide disability numbers here); you owe it to them to provide the assistive technologies that they need in order to contribute to their best potential. To not care about doing so would risk that they are left behind on important projects, that their progression is hampered, or that they are not invited to team events which they can’t fully enjoy or any other things that make up the glue of corporate culture holding teams together. These would hardly pass muster in a business environment with growing demand for better inclusion in workplaces. And even when assistive technologies are in use, there may be new risks, querying which would require non-disabled folk to be deeply empathetic and imaginative.
Equally when we talk about diversity and inclusion, we kind of find ourselves stuck at gender and ethnicity, which are characteristics we can observe externally with reasonable confidence. The reason I say “with reasonable confidence” is that we increasingly do not think of gender as a binary and that requires us to be more alert and conscious of how we treat every person we meet.
We are still able to sometimes think about disability as a diversity and inclusion topic. Why? Because it is one of the nine protected characteristics listed in the UK. Often organisations use these protected characteristics as a checklist to report their diversity and inclusion numbers but not always as a guidepost that should help them expand their thinking about diversity and inclusion. Indeed a search for images for “accessibility” returns images of wheelchairs nearly 100% of the time, showing how narrowly and literally the word is interpreted by those tagging images for search engines. We need to rethink the gaps in our sense of our responsibility.
What does all this have to do with tech accessibility and tech literacy that this monograph opened with?
Because this is about our responsibility to the businesses we run or oversee.
Not all of my older friends I mention serve on boards, but some of them do. I am going to try and be kind but some of them leave a lot to be desired in understanding the landscape of embedded technologies that we currently function in and that currently underpin the operations in the organisations where they are executives or non-exec board directors.
If we do not understand what is embedded in the different layers of the millefeuille of the organisations we oversee, how are we going to ask the questions related to the embedded risks and what it might take to build operational resilience in the organisation?
Without adequate tech literacy or fluency, one may not feel equipped — or confident enough — to ask questions about how the company’s products and services are being designed, the use occasions of those products and services, customer testing and feedback mechanisms, customer experience, and whether the technologies, products, devices and services are really serving the organisation’s customers and stakeholders in the way the board imagines they are or whether they are falling short. If you are a board director who lacks fluency in technologies, established or emerging, I would posit you may be failing in your duties as a director, perhaps without realising.
If this monograph has irritated you to some extent, it wasn’t the intention.
But irritation shows us that something has landed where we know we are falling short.
The real question is: what is your plan to understand technologies underpinning your own life and the organisations that you oversee?
I am acutely aware that making sense of technologies is not everyone’s cup of tea. It is what I have spent my entire career doing that in official and unofficial capacities. If you would like a chat, get in touch.
(Disclaimer: These are my own views and do not reflect the views of the boards of JP Morgan US Smaller Co.s Investment Trust or Temple Bar Investment Trust or London Metropolitan University or Harmony Energy Income Trust, where I serve as a non-exec director, and chair various committees at the time of writing.)