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  • JJ Rorie

Building Amazing and Accessible Products

Episode 063

In this episode, Dave Dame, director of product accessibility at Microsoft joins to discuss how great teams and organizations use principles to best build products that are inclusive and accessible to users of all ability levels. Highlights of the discussion:

  • "It’s not a disability that holds me back, it is the environment.”

  • Everyone will be disabled at some point, even temporarily. Products that were built to be accessible for one group often resonate with others, For example, closed captioning and audiobooks.

  • Characteristics of high-performing teams that are building more accessible, inclusive products.

  • Dave's advice on creating products that will make the world better than we found it.



Connect with Dave:

Episode Transcript:


disability, build, product, design, people, products, accessibility, ai, user, learn, work, accessible, teams, dave, framework, good, technology, putting, environment, ability

Intro (the incomparable Sandra Segrest) 00:03

Welcome to Product Voices, a podcast where we share valuable insights and useful resources to help us all be great in product management. Visit the show's website to access the resources discussed on the show, find more information on our fabulous guests or to submit your product management question to be answered in our special q&a episodes. That's all at product And be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform. Now, here's our host, JJ Rorie, CEO of great product management.

JJ 00:37

Hello, and welcome to Product Voices. I'm so excited to have my guest with me today, it's gonna be a great conversation. Dave Dame is Director of Product Accessibility at Microsoft. He's a seasoned technology executive. He's passionate about designing and developing hardware and software for users of all abilities. He has extensive experience in design thinking, product management, and agile delivery. He's also a very highly regarded speaker, trainer and consultant. And again, I just couldn't be more excited to have this conversation. Dave, thank you so much for joining me.

Dave 01:09

Thank you for having me, this is going to be a great talk, I'm sure.

JJ 01:13

Yeah. And you know, Dave and I met not too long ago, actually at an event and I just loved I loved you know, your speeches, I loved getting to know you. And we had the chance to chat over lunch, which I loved. So looking forward to having this conversation, not just for me, but hopefully for everyone else out there listening, it's gonna be a great time. So I want to start with something that and I'm going to quote you, I took this from one of your speeches. And I just, it just was very powerful for me. So I want to, I want to quote you, and I want to get your thoughts on this. In one of your speeches. At one point, you said, my cerebral palsy doesn't hold me back. Rather, it's the environment to be able to accommodate my disability to hold me back. So again, I just found that powerful, and I'm sure in your, in your work, literally creating products for the world. And you know, living the life that you've lived, that means a lot to you. So but tell me a little bit about that. Tell me about that, quote, Tell me about what that means. And I think that will really set the foundation for this conversation.

Dave 02:21

Well, what that means is it's not a disability hold somebody back, rather than Vironment that can accommodate their disability is what holds them back. Like, it's not like, it's not I usually roll around in a power wheelchair. It's not the fact that I can't walk upstairs that hold me back. Rather, there is no ramp for me to get in is what holds me back. So when I say it's the environment, it's that and when we design products at Microsoft, we do inclusive design where we don't believe it's the person's disability that's getting in the way of using their technology, whether we need to have that responsibility of how do we make sure that technology can accommodate their environment, so they can be productive. So it's really taking away from the medical definition of disability, and trying to put the society responsibility as, as humans, as people as community. And as product makers, we need to take that responsibility to ensure we design for one, and that extend to many.

JJ 03:35

I love that. So a lot of your work throughout your career. It's been about helping organizations marry kind of proper frameworks, and processes with culture and behavior, which again, you do those two things, right, you probably build some some great products. And it hasn't necessarily always been, correct me if I'm wrong, always about, you know, building accessible products per se. It was just about building great products, right? It throughout your career, and you've turned the corner and focused a lot on accessible products in recent years, right?

Dave 04:09

It was crazy. My younger years, people just assumed I would be the accessibility champion, right? Like Dave's in a wheelchair and use a swivel policy. He's going to be carrying the flag and to be honest, early and midway through my career, I purposely stayed away from it. For right or for wrong. I wanted to be a good product maker and like you said, I was fixing organizational mismatches because my passion was not only designing great products to go out there. But what are the processes we need to minimize the organizational environment that prevents smart people great teams to building great products out there. And when the pandemic hit like all of us, we'd Should I turn 50? And so when I was born in 1971, my parents were told, they may not live past Well, Dave may never be able to speak clearly, if at all. And even if he does, don't expect much, because there wasn't much that someone like me with cerebral palsy could do in the world in 1971. Sadly, they told my parents to put me in an institution, likely they didn't want to make that one decision that would impact the rest of my life. Not that they had the answers, but they were going to inspect and adapt to change the world. Because remember, in the 70s, it was before ABA rights, and it was before this thing called technology. And I always thought, how lucky I have been to be born with a disability in this timeframe. If I would have been born in any previous generation, I wouldn't have had this beautiful vehicle like technology that would help me go through barriers previous generations then. So growing up learning how to deal with environments that weren't set up going to school for an engineering and business degree in bulk, and then doing good products. I started thinking about how do I scale? And then by creating organizations that scale could do this, had a great successful career, and actually even broke the pledge ceiling and wizard, Vice President, but the pandemic hit, and I'm like, Wow, I'm over 50. They didn't say I would live past wealth, I'm on borrowed time. How do I want to spend these extra years, I have to make sure that I weave it better than I found it. And, you know, the opportunity from Microsoft came where I could focus on accessibility. And, you know, and it wasn't like, I was an accessibility expert, but I knew what it was like to build a great product. And Mike, every user demographic you've learned when you become in charge of a product, disability was that one segment that, you know, the first thing I had to learn what happens to be other disabilities at events, cerebral palsy, so I had to learn about the many different visible and invisible disabilities, because the more I can learn about them, the more I can work with the community, the more my team can work with the community, and design with them, the more innovation we can create, and when we design for people with disabilities, it's really putting a good foundation to support everyone else, because we're all going to be disabled one day to some of us beat you to it. So when you design for disability today, we're actually designing for the future.

JJ 07:58

I think it's a way for all product folks to think about it and kind of, you know, level the playing field, if you will, or set the foundation, right, we're all going to be disabled in some way, shape, or form at some point. And some people live with it every day, or temporarily, or temporarily. Right. And and, you know, to to build for those cases, or to build a product that takes that into account as opposed to you know, just, you know, permanent disability or one specific disability, like you said, there are so many different kinds that it's, it's virtually impossible, I would think to build for specific use cases across every specific disability, but to build in a way that that allows broader accessibility, I think is what most product teams are trying to accomplish, right? Because if you build for one, it sometimes ultimately ends up building, you know, or being accessible for others, which I think is really important.

Dave 09:05

Well think about it. We all use closed captioning, right? It was originally designed for people that were deaf, hard of hearing. But I know new parents want to have closed captioning on while they're putting their children to sleep. I know when I'm at bars trying to watch the game. I can't listen to it in a loud environment, I enjoy the captions. And then if we look at audiobooks and everything else, it's just so amazingly, because even if, even if those centers aren't experiencing a disability, there's just some times where Vanya creates a mismatch that these kinds of inclusively designed products originated from self for others. And you know, and you set the breakpoint, it's really disability. It's super complex. You're not going to learn all little bit. And like any product manager, I've seen all the similarities that when I did focus on accessibility to now that I do when we design for one group, like, I'll get Thanks, that's great, and we'll get a lot of good. But then when we leave out one group on a release, they're like, Well, what about us? And so like, every time you're designing the product, you're really trying to balance out your releases over a period of time, till we try to keep up and keep it equitable for all.

JJ 10:33

Yeah. So you know, in your work across your career, you built organizations to build great products. Are there any kind of I don't know, I'll use the term traditional, or standard types of frameworks, processes, behaviors, cultures that lend themselves more to, to turning the page on building accessible products. In other words, just, you know, building products has always hopefully been about the user and about solving problems, right. And so there's a natural, a natural nuance and a natural fit there with Okay, building accessible products and making sure they're more inclusive. But are there some some things that product teams do or have done that you've seen across successful groups that lend themselves better to Okay, now, we're going to really focus in and drill down on making sure our foundational products are accessible, are there things that tie together with good product principles and good accessible principles?

Dave 11:37

That's an amazing question. So, you know, when I think about this, because I believe like cognitive diversity, and diversity and inclusion, I think, with technology and digital products in global markets in particular, you know, we came from when we first started designing products centuries ago, where they were very local to the area where you were designing products, like you would get, like, you know, from farming days, get crops to feed your immediate proximity. Or you would build factories, because it was near the manufacturing where you are, now that we're creating global products, we're not limited to the people that are local to us, that our products are going to be used by everybody around the world, they should be made up of people building those products from around the world. We like to say that the people that use our products should be reflected to those that build them. So some of the characteristics I see are high performing teams. Like it's great, I help build organizations that rabid say, I've helped enable people so they can bring their best work and best ideas. But when you create very diverse teams, that's where the magic comes. They work really well together, they're high performing. But they're also comfortable enough with each other, to challenge each other and see through those blind spots. But even when they don't always agree, which is going to happen, they know how to come to a common enough agreement, and move forward and realize the next time they're going to do it. So it starts with diverse teams, it starts with empowering them. If they have a lot of decision making ability, they can try two or three things before they have to decide on that one thing. When I used it with Agile people would be like, What is the biggest thing holding teams back. And from my experience, it's the cost of delay of waiting for decisions. We try to say that gel is just the framework, the framework is the starting point. But they don't have the empowerment to make those decisions to leverage a framework. They're stuck waiting. And then what happens is the decision gets made later, they get a race to catch up. And then it's like, agile doesn't work. No agile works brought up the fact that they're waiting for decisions. So get in a Power team, get a framework and give him an area of trust. And then give him a good vision and continually work with them is the attributes I see. So I don't want to claim one Agile method one design framework one method, but the constant inspecting and adapting into feedback and learning to tailor it to your unique team's needs your unique organization's needs just to quickly accelerate your learning because you know I used to be product had to get it right I had to be right. Now we're moving to we have to get it right using a product. So let's Take away the anxiety from having to be right. And focus on how do we build the capability to get it right.

JJ 15:08

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. You know, what's interesting to me, and I'd love to hear your your feedback is, how have you seen great teams kind of balanced? The prioritization? You mentioned earlier, like, you know, one group saying, hey, what about us, right? So there's always this balance me, prioritization is such a key kind of key part of product management, generally speaking, but how do you, as a team, as an organization balance, the prioritization of, you know, let's say a feature that's maybe makes product more accessible to a certain group, but it costs a lot, or, you know, it's going to take a lot of time or whatever, how have you seen teams that are really good at building great products, but also building accessible products, right, and that's part of their culture, balance, that kind of rub that may exist sometime between, you know, business outcomes, accessibility, user needs, product needs, etc.

Dave 16:09

Good user, do a really good, really tried to make it easy to learn. So what I mean by that is the good hypothesis, so be able to do a high fidelity prototype, but don't work with the community and build it along the way to reduce that risk and understand and to get that out. And then the good teams know how to, we can release it maybe not completely finished. But how do we get more users using it? How do we get to doing that, and providing that feedback loop of, you know, let's build a baseline insights and what we're learning rather than what we're predicting. So the teams that do it, well do regular inclusive design sprints, they work close with the disability community, try to learn more, and it's even outside the company, right? Like, when you have your company, just for the fact that they're working with you in hired meaning. They have a lot of similarities to everyone else. But we got to realize, like any user with a disability who works at a tech company, is likely different than user with a disability that works with a finance company. So we got to remember to be context specific. So how do we create a good enough sample to learn quick, but but the companies that I've seen are doing it well, are really enlisting other companies to get testers and people to help design from a variety of industries and experience to try to see what is domain specific to their context. But what is common amongst the user and the disability itself?

JJ 18:01

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And especially bringing in that, you know, that that that user in that context, I think is so important, and it's so easy to have a hypothesis, and then, you know, be biased in how we're proving that out, and how it magically proves out. And if we were using the right context, using the right users, testers, etc.

Dave 18:27

We always got to ask ourselves, How do we know? Right? If we're good product people, we challenge our own hypothesis? How do I know? How am I going to validate? I know what I know? Or how quickly can I learn what I did know and able to adjust? Because we know the quicker we learn and adjust the cheaper it is to make learning your value pop?

JJ 18:53

Absolutely. I love that. I want to turn to something top of mind on every you know, every product managers mind these days. Ai. So let's talk about AI and what you think it will mean for accessibility and products. Maybe the good and the bad of that. What are your your kind of early thoughts on that?

Dave 19:18

I think it's like every new technology, right? If you remember when technology first came out, the thing was, Oh, can we build it and now we can almost build anything. The real question is, should we and I think AI is good, but it can be bad, right? We we have to balance the you know, we need to make sure people are best represented by the data models in a I totally agree with that kind of due diligence and governance. But what I believe what AI will do for disability, people with disabilities we pay this invisible tax which is high effort to get low value work, things to get a jobs to get done, right. So there are things that other people take for granted, whether it's excessive typing, even when you're dictating, even when you're trying to switch between applications, that tax is so high. And it takes up such a strong cognitive load on your brain, that you're investing so much in how to do it, instead of what I want to do, and why would I want to do so AI is going to be able to really reduce those high effort, low value things. So that way they capacity could be freed up, to be able to be creative, open more, to build more to express themselves more. And I think if we think about that, if you were going to build a house, you went, I don't know, maybe JJ would you went get a number nails and go, I'm gonna build a house, you would get a construction company or an AI to be able to build your design an idea while you're doing. So AI is really getting a chance to, to balance the effort an individual has to do by letting them outsource it to an AI or user to outsource it into AI to really be able to free up their capacity. So they can focus on designing bad house beautiful house, instead of how do I get the nails? How do I put it? Am I putting enough nails in? It's reducing all of that to what is my intent? What am I willing to solve with that will be great power. And if we can have AI as a tool, instead of something that drives us, it's going to be a powerful tool. But we just have to remember to use the tool responsibly, ethically, to really get the most out of it.

JJ 22:11

Yeah, definitely. By the way, I would hate to see the house that I tried to build with hammer and nails. That would not go over well.

Dave 22:20

Right. And and unfortunately, people with disabilities, even when you turn on your device, you have to watch applications putting on different screens. It's something you do unnaturally unconsciously. But think about if I keep your fingers to do it, and you had to do all that stuff. So you got to go through an extraordinary effort to set the thing up you want to do before you get to do the thing you wanted to create to do once they were opening up. And by taking away that upfront self, man, the potential and the cognitive diversity and the sharing of ideas, innovation, I get excited just thinking about it.

JJ 23:04

Yeah, it's an amazing, it's an amazing world that that can be built that way, which I agree it's wonderful. So So I guess final question that I have for you, Dave is just, you know, how do you how would you like to see the world in 10 years? And you know, what, what advice would you give to all of us out there creating products that are hopefully making the world better? To leave the world better than than we found it?

Dave 23:31

Some of the things off the top of my head is one, remember that all of us have a certain ability cycle. And we're all going to lose our abilities at time. So how do we ensure we're building the products be ready for there, even large companies, you want accessible technologies for your staff, because if they lose their ability, you want to keep that institutional knowledge as long as you can. So remember, the ability lifecycle, everybody has an expiring one, just people are, in my opinion, different splits the curriculum, to you have to keep one leg in today's world to iterate and improve it. But keep your other leg into the future. What can you imagine what can you see? Because if you don't spend enough time of what you can imagine, and what you can see, you will never build that world. If my parents stayed in the world, they were in 1971, they wouldn't have been able to think about why do the flight. Why do we struggle because in today's current world, Dave can do anything. Our users are going to be able to do so much more in the future and we're gonna get new users. We're gonna get people that work so hard to be able to communicate with the ability to be heard for the first time. And maybe that cognitive decline Everything's gonna solve the problems that we can't solve today. But for us to get those solutions tomorrow, we need the products enable those people tomorrow. So imagine the future and what else? And then thirdly, invest into it. You need to invest into prototype innovation, you better get it right, you're gonna get it wrong. Don't worry about it being perfect. Because progress over perfection, I get asked what perfect accessibility looks like, I can describe it. But I bet a lot of people know what better could be an if we could listen to them, learn from them, work with them, we can design better we are today. Because I don't want a finish line. I want us to push that finish line when we get to it. Because it's a never ending journey.

JJ 25:54

Such amazing and inspirational advice there. I think it's just poignant, right? Really, really important to, to look at the future envision that but not get so caught up in the perfect that we don't make progress. So that's amazing.

Dave 26:12

And then think about lifetime value of the customer. Right? If we make our products longer, we get a long term lifetime value the customer. I tell people, I have cerebral palsy, but my money does it. So if you want my money, you better build a product or service I can use. So we've been talking about the merits does society though, the right thing to do. But it's actually really good business and really good user acquisition. Really good revenue, really good user retention, let's build it where they don't where they were, they don't have to leave that they become a loyal member, because you've been with them through the whole user journey of ability.

JJ 26:55

I love that. And it just makes so much sense all the way around. It's it's good for business. That's the right thing to do. So, Dave, Dame, it. This has just been a true pleasure to have you on product voices to listen to your advice and to have this conversation. Hopefully we can do it again. Thank you so much for joining me.

Dave 27:15

Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

JJ 27:17

It's been a fun time. So thank you all for joining us on product voices. Hope to see you on the next episode.

Outro (the incomparable Sandra Segrest) 27:23

Thank you for listening to Product Voices hosted by JJ Rorie. To find more information on our guests resources discussed during the episode or to submit a question for our q&a episodes, visit the show's website product And be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform.


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