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Cat Noone on designing for accessibility and inclusion

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Cat Noone  •  Nov 26, 2018
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There’s no good design that isn’t accessible. In partnership with Dribbble, we’ve put together a series of Q&As with designers on the forefront of accessibility and inclusivity—this time, Cat Noone—for their thoughts, stories, and helpful hints.

What’s Stark? Who’s Cat Noone?

Stark is an easy-to-use contrast checker and colorblind simulator baked right inside your design tool, and in turn, your workflow—helping you build products that are accessible, ethical and inclusive. It empowers you to address folks with visual impairments from across the spectrum, including those with low vision or who are colorblind.

What you see now is the start of what we consider a push toward changing the way the world sees design and its impact. Design isn’t just pixel-pushing: it’s servicing all people, solving problems that meet the needs of the business, and ensuring that experiences are wonderful for as many people as possible.

I’ve always loved products that were simple, easy to use, and beautiful. Who doesn’t? But in my 10+ years designing now, I’ve come to realize what I love most is a really difficult challenge.

I’m competitive, I love winning, and I love success—in all of the various ways it’s measured. When I kickstarted the first company I co-founded, it was in the publishing industry (a very archaic one at that); I realized then how much I have a thing for building products that many in the industry wouldn’t deem attractive.

Since then, and currently, I focus on building products and technology that maximize the way we connect and help others. If they don’t meet that criteria, I don’t work on it. Be it a product to help you design with accessibility in mind, a symbol-to-speech app to give a child with autism a voice in the world, or a health companion to ensure you, as a senior, can take your health back into your own hands.

I’m the type of designer and person who likes to blend archaic with startup and see how quickly but efficiently we can flip the table on its head.

What made you realize accessible design is important? When did it click?

I don’t know if there was one particular moment that it "clicked" per se. At the age of 2, my parents split, and my mother and father both went on to create new families of their own. As for me? I ended up being pawned off on and raised by my grandparents. Though it would completely change the trajectory of my life for good, it was also my first true experience with exclusion. I didn’t know it at the time, but at one point in my life my brain would register that as feeling like I didn’t have a place that was truly mine. Like the people I was supposed to call my tribe abandoned me and when I’d see them, I was part of a group that truly didn’t include me as their own.

Throughout and after college, I’d go on to spend a few years working in special education with children with autism, along with a variety of behavior and cognitive disorders. Working in a world that many in the industry probably haven’t, I’ve always known how crucial it is to create a space that doesn’t allow individuals with any form of disability to just be present, but rather included.

Afterward I’d join the world of design and technology, and as I entered the workforce, climbed higher, and started participating in decision-making conversations (at work or on social media), I realized accessible design is for more than just individuals with any form of disability—it’s about including people that aren’t white able-bodied individuals.

This isn’t just a conversation about accessibility: it’s a conversation about inclusivity.

It’s including photographs of children of color and children with Down Syndrome in the children’s apparel catalog; it’s having an array of multicultural/non-traditional names and images of people in your design mocks; it’s accounting for individuals that cannot see or hear by having Braille literature and a TelePrompter with translations of the speaker on a screen at your event; and most importantly, it’s designing appropriately, in a way that asks "Who am I excluding in my design?" along the way.

I was excluded from people that should never abandon you; it goes against nature. But I had the gift of the rest of my family that would love me every day in ways that I could never ask for more. It was a challenge I had to face whenever it surfaced in my brain or came up in conversation. But I was never blocked from functioning in society. I was never excluded because of a wheelchair, the color of my skin or the language I speak. I never read things on different products with copy that subliminally told me where I come from was not thought of during the product development. But I knew what that looked like when I saw it, and I can only imagine what that feels like to live in a world that tells you you were an afterthought, an unnecessary cost in the budget, or a task we’ll get to later.

“This isn’t just a conversation about accessibility: it’s a conversation about inclusivity.”
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What’s the most heartwarming feedback you’ve gotten from this project? What makes you keep trekking on?

Honestly, the feedback has been phenomenal since the beginning. If I had to choose though, I remember standing at an event, speaking with a product designer about what we’re doing and giving her a demo of Stark. She just stood there for a moment afterward as tears welled up in her eyes and said, "So this is the way my son sees the world?".

Let’s pause for a second. Before having my daughter, you would have thought I was the tin-woman. Now? I’m a waterfall at the Huggies commercial. Let’s not even talk about the Olympics commercial about mothers.

Though I straddle the line of ambivert, I still have these painfully awkward social misfires and kind of just look like a deer in headlights. I didn’t want to cry and lead her to believe that I was crying because there was something wrong with her son. There isn’t. So I stood like a deer, then shared some consoling words. Because ultimately, it gutted me, not only as the person working on the product, but as a parent as well.

She told me what we were doing is wonderful and necessary, not just for the world of design, but the world in general. That more people needed to take this responsibility into their own hands, and that Stark being at our fingertips made it extremely easy to access and use. She thanked me (by that I mean us), and she went on her way.

It was unexpected. And she’d be the first of many in those same shoes that I spoke with that day. She’d join the other side of the table with many designers alike that would come to thank us. They’d whisper and tell us they’re colorblind as well and look down if only briefly, almost ashamed, like they were less than a designer—or person—because of it. Scared because if they’d say it too loud, someone else who didn’t understand may hear and tell their boss, potentially resulting in them being fired.

What keeps us trekking is the quiet ones. The people with some form of disability, impairment, or disorder — be it physical or cognitive — that can’t have large reach with their voice. The ones who navigate the world not set up for those that fall into any category other than "able-bodied". Because, as we know and must repeat to our superhero-driven selves: we are all just temporarily abled.

And the conversation. Knowing what to say, ask, and when, without hurting feelings or fear of doing so, in order to move us forward. Helping those that don’t always say the right thing, educating each other where there is misunderstanding. Using our voice and privilege of being white to put a dent in the conversation and in turn industry, which hopefully has a ripple effect. To turn this messy world into a very easy to navigate one for everyone.

What do you want the standard for accessible design to be in 2019?

In the book Mismatch, Kat Holmes distills a controversial topic down so clearly in saying that "For better or worse, the people who design the touchpoints of society determine who can participate and who’s left out. Often unwittingly."

We as designers have the opportunity to invoke change. Our job is not the holy grail. Our hands are not 8 inches deep into the chest of a human being trying to save their lives. We’re designing the tools those doctors use though. When we decide to work on products that impact people, we also take on the burden of making their worlds our own, as much as possible, if only briefly. We determine what the experience is like for them and whether or not they are someone that will walk away better, more at ease, healthier, able to hear more clearly, or see color for the first time.

I challenge each and every designer:

  • Educate yourself. Join as many events about the topic as possible, follow hashtags and read literature on the topic, and chime into communities when you can (Stark has one on Spectrum).
  • If there is only one thing you, as a designer, ask yourself before passing your work onto the developers, let it be "Who have I excluded in my design?". You will never be able to design for everyone. And realistically, not every product is made for everyone. But if you can understand that this is your responsibility to ask that question, to ensure those who can be included, are, then you’ve done your job. Elect to move forward without doing all you can to tackle accessibility and in turn inclusion regardless of how hyper-aware you are? Well, that’s just irresponsibility.
  • Take responsibility (where and if you can). If you have the opportunity to educate, do so. Those who can afford to make your voices heard, raise them. The data is there—be it through user research or lawsuits settled. The cost of questioning whether or not design has an impact on the business is far too high. But the price to fix what has already been done is far more grave. Understand that it is very hard to change DNA.

Good luck and if you need the help, I can try or at least point you toward many folks who can do a far better job than me. Excited to be on this learning and taking the journey with you. Let’s try to leave the world a bit better than we found it.

Check out Cat’s Dribbble here.