by Bhala Dalvi
From the Editor: Bhala Dalvi is the vice president of technology and the executive sponsor of accessibility at Expedia Inc. located in Bellevue, Washington. His was one of the more moving presentations at the 2017 National Convention because it was so clearly motivated by sincerity, enthusiasm, and the pride that comes with success. Part of what made it wonderful was the humility surrounding what Expedia has done, its willingness to share it with other industry-leading companies, and its absolute commitment to emphasize the importance of working with the National Federation of the Blind to achieve accessibility—not after it is needed, but before. Here are remarks that, while they are somewhat technical, clearly indicate what can be done with commitment, a willingness to learn, and a willingness to be a great corporate citizen:
Thank you for that gracious introduction, Mr. Riccobono. I’m honored to be at the NFB convention and excited to talk about Expedia’s journey to accessibility.
First of all, we have good news! I’m happy to share that as of June twenty-ninth, our brand-new Expedia webpages for booking a hotel, flight, cars, or other travel itineraries have been handed off to the NFB for its final feedback. We want to thank the NFB for helping Expedia be the best example of an accessible travel website. I am also proud of all the hard work and effort that our teams put in for the last four-plus years to make this happen.
I will tell you how we got here. But before I do that, I want to spend a few minutes to talk about why we invested in this space. Why make our site accessible? When Travelocity became part of the Expedia family, we came to know that Travelocity had an existing contract with NFB. We were interested in understanding how Expedia stacked up, so we invited President Riccobono and Anne Taylor, director of access technology at NFB to visit our Bellevue headquarters. And, let me tell you, that first conversation was uncomfortable for us. We had completed a regular assessment of our site and found we were 50 percent compliant, and we felt good heading into the meeting. But Anne did a live demo of using our website to our leadership team. During the demo, Anne could not even get past the home page! It was clear that even if we had 90 percent compliance, if a legally blind person gets stuck somewhere in the path and cannot complete their booking, that score is of no use. We need to make the full path compliant to be truly accessible.
Our leadership team felt strongly that we did not just want to follow the letter of the law. We wanted to go deeper and make our website inclusive to users with the diverse set of abilities. We want to invest in “doing the right thing.”
As my favorite author Simon Sinek says, “When there is clarity on ‘why,’ it inspires everyone to take action!” We chose to push ourselves to think outside the box and deliver an innovative, accessible experience.
Now comes the part where the rubber hits the road. We operate more than 200 websites and 150-plus mobile apps in forty-plus languages worldwide. We have over 5,500 technologists working in twenty-plus major offices around the world. We needed to weave accessibility through not only our products but the people and the technologies used to build these global products.
Fortunately, we have done similar broad changes across our site, and we have a playbook to make these kinds of changes. We started by hiring an experienced accessibility resource on the team. The focus was on two things: 1) Build the knowledge base. Create a library of documentation and training material that we can share with the rest of the organization. 2) Conduct an assessment of our hotel shopping and booking path for accessibility. This would give us an idea of the size of the challenge ahead of us.
Throughout different phases of our accessibility journey, we built a strong partnership with NFB. We sought input, guidance, and expertise from the NFB team. Their support was invaluable and shaped our thinking throughout our journey.
The first area we decided to focus on making accessible was our hotel path. Initially we thought accessibility was all about testing. We believed everything would be caught by the testers at the end of the product lifecycle, and we focused most of our energy and training on testing. We quickly learned that finding issues during testing was way too late. We were forced to slip dates due to refactoring of code or necessary design changes because too many issues surfaced.
Lesson one—retrofitting code and making it accessible is hard! Accessibility must start from initial product inception and has to be top of mind throughout the entire development lifecycle with each of the product disciplines responsible for their key pieces.
Along the way, as we got a better sense of the scope, we realized we needed more than a one-person team if we were to be successful. We added a talented group of subject matter experts who we formed into the Accessibility Team. These folks continue to look for ways to serve the product, user experience, and engineering teams and help them be successful.
Having a small accessibility team of experts is a great start. But they won’t be able to make our massive website accessible by themselves. We needed a larger organization to align with the goal and drive this massive effort. We needed to make accessibility part of our engineering culture.
We formed a small grassroots effort within Expedia called Accessibility Champions Network. The champion network is a group of advocates within the engineering, product, and UX [user experience] teams. They help incorporate accessibility throughout the product cycle. They aim to implement accessibility early and eliminate costly retrofitting. The Champions owned accessibility within their team but are supported by the central accessibility team through training, tools, networking, and other resources. This group rallied for accessibility day-in and day-out.
Making our entire website accessible one page at a time would be costly and time-consuming. Fortunately for us, we had been building our website using the UI component library. A dedicated team is responsible for building and maintaining this component library. This team took on the challenge of updating the library components and making them accessible. This meant that the rest of the teams were able to move quickly and to easily make their pages accessible because they were able to benefit from a library of accessible components. I can’t emphasize the importance of the UI component library in our success. I want to share a quick story here. We had Amy Mason, our NFB contact, join us for GAAD [Global Accessibility Awareness Day] last year. We had her sit down and give us feedback. Our engineers were able to incorporate feedback real-time into library component(s). She loved it! She was truly impressed how quickly we were able to make changes, and we loved being able to get additional real-world feedback.
Our passionate accessibility team identified and leveraged every opportunity possible to create awareness on the subject of accessibility across the organization. This was super important in developing our accessibility culture. I want to share a couple of examples here.
We have an internal forum called product review. This is open to anyone in the company to attend. Everyone from our CEO Dara to the engineers working on our products attends the product review. We were lucky to have a blind employee demo the changes we made to the site. This was very powerful in creating awareness at every level in the organization—we needed both to continue improving as well as demonstrating the progress we had achieved.
Here is another example of communication about this initiative. We host internal and external hackathons as part of our efforts to foster innovation. Last year we invited engineers from the Seattle-area tech community to join and had a special prize to give to a hacking team that built an accessible travel experience during the event. The special prize we supported during this hackathon was a big hit and really shed some light on users with disabilities outside of our company.
Most folks didn’t know Expedia had an accessibility program, but all of them were really excited about our inclusivity; many didn’t understand screen readers or that people with visual impairments could even use the internet. It was really empowering for our team to represent those with disabilities as well as be on the other side of the fence after they had been fixing bugs for so long. It was a great opportunity for generating innovative accessibility ideas.
There is an important lesson for others embarking on this journey. Accessibility needs to be top-down and bottom-up. We needed leadership support to ensure it was a priority, but we also needed the folks doing the day-to-day work to “get it” and be able to speak to the need among their peers. As I said earlier, when the organization “gets it,” it helps shape the culture.
In addition to getting a broader alignment and getting teams excited, we also invested in building an in-house accessibility testing lab. This lab included hardware, software, and documentation necessary to provide easy testing opportunities for designers, developers, and testers, including a dedicated screen reader testing machine.
In my experience, cross-cutting changes of such a huge magnitude always have some side effects! Sometimes they are good and at other times, not so much. I am happy to share that the side effects of accessibility were all good. We found that making the components and pages accessible always had a positive impact on the usability for all users. We ran into serious challenges making mobile date picker accessible. This forced us to dig deeper in our design and implementation. But the end result was a date picker component that is much easier to use for all users.
Another side effect of implementing accessibility was the improvement in overall quality of our code. Accessibility forced us to simplify the designs, ensure important attributes are always present, etc. and all of these lead to a better-quality product. Ask any seasoned engineer and they will tell you that simple is always easy to maintain!
In summary, in my mind, three things made our journey successful. 1) A Clear “why;” 2) Making accessibility an integral part of our product development lifecycle; and 3) Creating an environment and culture to support the accessibility we were determined to bring to our product.
Now that we have made our website accessible in this way, what is next? As we look to the future, we would love to share our learning and make it a little bit easier for others embarking on the journey of accessibility and inclusion. One way we are doing this is by sending our team to attend and present at relevant conferences. We are also doing presentations at some of the local code academies, just another example of how we are extending our hand in helping to proliferate accessibility throughout the industry and potentially influencing technology curriculums.
In addition to making our website accessible, we are trying to integrate what we have learned to make our workplace more accessible. We want to make it easy for individuals with disabilities to join our workforce. I attended an all-day meeting earlier this week. Our president prepared a document to kick off this meeting, and he used images in this document. Our head of HR challenged him and asked him to include alt text in the slide to make sure the document was accessible. While we did not have any attendees with a disability, the point was, doing the right thing does not need to wait for it. It starts with everyone taking small steps. We know this is a long journey, but we know if we maintain our resolve and take one step at a time, we will make it happen.In closing I want to thank all of you for your valuable time. Last but not least, I want to thank the NFB for your continued partnership and support.