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Inclusive design and post-it notes

In my last real job before I started teaching JavaScript full time, the company I worked for sold API management software.

Customers would get access to a white-label CMS they could use to document their APIs, register developers, and manage access to different endpoints.

My job was to make that CMS look like their rest of their brand.

Imagine something like WordPress or Squarespace, but with way fewer DIY hooks. I’d add their logo and brand colors and typeface, and create a homepage they were happy with.

But one time, we had a customer who insisted on using a black background with white text and red links.

If you’ve ever seen this combination, the links are hard to read for people with normal vision, and create real problems with people with colorblindness and other vision issues.

I pointed this out to them.

We don’t care. Our CEO prefers dark backgrounds.

I pulled up their CEO’s own person website, and showed them that it in fact used a white background, not dark. “It doesn’t seem like he minds all that much.”

We don’t care. Just do the dark background.

I pulled in data about lawsuits related to accessibility issues under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Just do it for now and we’ll fix it later. We just need the CEO to sign off on it.

I ended up fighting with my boss at the time about it (he was an exceedingly kind person, so it wasn’t much of a fight).

He was very much a “just do what the customer asks” type customer-oriented person. I was viewing it as an ethical and professional obligation. As a professional web developer, I’m obligated to build things that are inclusive.

A construction company can’t ignore the fire code just because a CEO doesn’t like the look of fire alarms. Why is what we do any different?

I ultimately lost, and we shipped a dark and inaccessible background with a promise it would be fixed later. It never was.

I wish I’d had this gem from Julianna Roswell in my back pocket at the time…

Okay, just so we’re clear let’s write down who your willing to exclude with that decision.

I’ve been using this approach to accessibility and inclusive design. I ask stakeholders to put it down in writing even if it’s on a post-it note which individual, group or community they are willing to exclude based on a decision they are making. I found it has a profound effect.

There’s something powerful about making people put in words exactly who they’re willing to say “fuck off” to.

I’ll be holding on to this trick for the next time I run into an issue like this.