Engineering

Designing Slack for everyone

A conversation with Slack’s Accessibility Product Manager George Zamfir

working in officespace
Image Credit: Josh Cochran
Over the past year, Slack’s accessibility team has made a bunch of improvements to help ensure Slack can be used by everyone, no matter their ability.

So far, the team has released features like support for large text and screen reader improvements on iOS and Android, easier ways to adjust your zoom preferences, and an option to stop animations (like GIFs and animated emojis) from playing automatically. Soon, they’ll release keyboard navigation support for people who use Slack without a mouse.

While they’ve made a lot of progress, George Zamfir, Slack’s Accessibility Product Manager, stresses that there’s a lot more work to do.

 

Zamfir

 

In Slack’s Toronto office, we talked to Zamfir about his team’s approach to doing this work across departments, and what he thinks are encouraging trends across the digital accessibility community.

Slack: Why is it important to develop an internal culture that values inclusive design early on?

Zamfir: The attitude we’re adopting at Slack is that building an accessible product makes for a better product overall. When you consider how different the user experience is for a blind person using a screen reader or a person with limited fine motor skills who relies on their keyboard to navigate, it quickly becomes clear that addressing accessibility needs can’t be left to the end of the product development cycle, they have to be factored in from the beginning.

Standard accessibility guidelines are just that: guidelines. They’re the minimum. But we’re not here to check a box, we have to work across the organization to provide the best user experience.

Slack: How do you support a culture where accessibility is a priority?

Zamfir: The thing to remember is that accessibility touches every facet of a product, it’s not just something that one team owns. One of the first things you have to do when you’re building a team is to find the people who are already championing or are interested in accessibility in your organization and support them with knowledge and training. Eventually these champions will become advocates for accessibility within their own teams and disciplines.

Slack: Can you give us some examples?

Zamfir: When I started at Slack, I was fortunate to see there was already awareness and internal support for accessibility from people across disciplines & levels within the organization. In addition to the core team of myself and accessibility engineer Todd Kloots, these people have become advocates and some of them are now an essential part of our team.

Simone Davalos works with the Customer Experience (CE) team and, in addition to supporting customers with disabilities, she also coaches the larger CE team on accessibility, disability and even etiquette tips for communicating with people with disabilities (for example, avoid asking people who use screen readers to send visual aids, like a screenshot). John Fitzgerald (also on the CE team) synthesizes customer feedback and helps us prioritize the most important work.

 

This mutually-supportive team structure is ideal because it’s scalable: the more people you identify as champions, the more they’re empowered to pass that knowledge onto team members within their disciplines, which helps to reinforce these principles as teams and the organization grows.

 

Kirstyn Torio, who works on QA, has been hard at work testing the new keyboard navigation model and coaching her team on how to test product features for accessibility. Sharanya Viswanath has been automating keyboard testing and helping us scale accessibility testing and engineering at Slack.

Then there’s Hubert Florin, a designer who took an early interest in accessibility needs and — of his own accord — changed the color of links in Slack to a darker shade of blue so that it’s easier for people with visual impairments to read in Slack.

This mutually-supportive team structure is ideal because it’s scalable: the more people you identify as champions, the more they’re empowered to pass that knowledge onto team members within their disciplines, which helps to reinforce these principles as teams and the organization grows.

Slack: Outside of Slack you’ve been active in the broader community of digital accessibility practitioners. What are some insights or trends you’re seeing?

Zamfir: When I started accessibility meetups in Toronto a few years back, there wasn’t much cross-industry collaboration. But now we’re seeing organizations that are entirely dedicated to supporting more training, development and certifications in this area, like Teach Access, who partner with academic institutions to train software engineers and designers on accessibility.

Knowing that tech companies often partner with academia to find talent, it’s a very encouraging sign to see as they’re potentially picking from pools of applicants who are already aware and trained on accessibility. It’s a win-win-win.

Slack: May 18th is Global Accessibility Awareness Day. How will Slack participate?

Zamfir: We’re encouraging teams across Slack to stop using a mouse. Try it, even just for one hour. Try navigating a website or app with just your keyboard, like the many people with disabilities do every day, and you’ll learn a lot about why attention to accessibility is so important.

 

Lima Al-Azzeh is relinquishing her mouse for Global Accessibility Awareness Day.

Visit Slack to see how we can help you and your team get more done together.

 

Slack is the collaboration hub, where the right people are always in the loop and key information is always at their fingertips. Teamwork in Slack happens in channels — searchable conversations that keep work organized and teams better connected.