Spellcheck is one of the greatest technologies of the Microsoft Word era, an automated way for us to look less ideodic, er, idiotic. If you want a single indicator of how much design has changed since spellcheck was introduced at Microsoft, take a look at a feature that now sits right next to spellcheck in Office apps.
It’s called Accessibility Checker. It spots problems with a PowerPoint or an email, like missing annotations for the hard of hearing or low-contrast writing for those with vision impairment. It questions a core assumption in design–that you should build something for the platonic ideal of a user–and broadens it to consider users in the world at large.
What’s most notable about Accessibility Checker is that it’s actually been inside Office since 2010, buried in the menus. But by bringing this feature to the spotlight in 2016 alongside spellcheck, Microsoft was able to increase its usage five-fold. And in the coming months, Accessibility Checker will take another big step to ubiquity by working in the background of Office apps all the time. So the presentations, spreadsheets, and messages anyone writes with Office products will be more legible to everyone.
This moment serves as a point of evidence that the buzziest strategy in tech and design is no longer “convenience” or even “automation.” It’s “inclusivity,” the idea of designing products with so-called edge users, like people with disabilities, at the forefront.
And through a series of new announcements that have hit over the past two weeks, Microsoft is beginning to share work that’s decades of thinking in the making, but only just hitting its stride into products now. Those products include a new Xbox One controller with giant buttons and options for the sip-and-puff mouth switches used by paraplegic people; a conference room that can identify the speaker and take notes on what the person says; a smartphone app called Seeing AI that identifies objects for blind people (now arriving to 21 new countries); and the aforementioned Accessibility Checker. The goal? Give disabled people a more equal work life by making inclusivity a ubiquitous part of its products.
Meet Microsoft’s accessibility czar
“If I go back two to three years, we made a very, very conscious decision as a company to get into this gig in a much better way,” says Microsoft’s chief accessibility officer Jenny Lay-Flurrie. “In some ways, it’s very logical. This is an enormous marketplace. It always cracks me up that this is called a minority when you have a billion-plus people around the world with disabilities.”
Until she mentions it, I have no idea that Lay-Flurrie is talking to me over the phone with the assistance of an ASL interpreter, which is, perhaps, the biggest proof point to what she’s just said. Inclusive-inspired technologies are necessary to make more disabled people employable–which is particularly salient because the unemployment rate for disabled people is double that of the able-bodied population.
Lay-Flurrie first came to Microsoft 13 years ago to work on Hotmail, but she quickly pivoted to building Microsoft’s Disability Group. She chaired it for a decade, and in the process, met Satya Nadella. He wasn’t Microsoft’s CEO back then; he was simply the executive spearheading the Disability Group. Now, Lay-Flurrie and Nadella continue to talk regularly, and she is considered the only person within Microsoft who can speak to Nadella’s point of view on all matters of Microsoft inclusivity.
That role is key since Microsoft has consolidated much of its brand messaging around inclusivity. But it’s not just marketing. Lay-Flurrie points out that Microsoft has a dedicated disabilities hotline, for any product, and it receives 300,000 calls a year by customers needing assistance. And a new site launches this week in which Microsoft promises to do a better job articulating all of the services it offers that people might not know about.
The company’s new $100 Xbox Adaptive Controller is perhaps the ultimate expression of Microsoft’s inclusive efforts. The stock Xbox controller is a mechanical wonder, but it’s also notoriously bulky, requiring incredible finger dexterity to wield its countless pressure-sensitive buttons. You need to very literally adapt to it, strengthening your hands and learning its strange collection of controls to master them. The Adaptive Controller is modeled in the exact opposite way. Not only is it a flat object that sits on your table or a mount, rather than in your hands. It’s also programmable, with two giant buttons that you could strike with a fist instead of a finger. On top of that, it includes 19 input jacks for any third-party switches or sensors that someone with disabilities might want to plug in. The Xbox controller programs you to learn how to use it, while the Adaptive Controller can be tailored to you.
Making work better for people with disabilities
The World Health Organization defines “disability” as “an impairment . . . a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations.”
In this sense, disability is not just a health problem. As Lay-Flurrie puts it, it’s “a mismatch between an individual and their environment.”
“I believe technology can be a bridge between that, the empowering tool that can assist,” she says. “It’s not about replacing dogs, canes, or interpreters. It’s another tool in the toolbox.”
In particular, Microsoft imagines that it can do a better job of getting people with disabilities a job and keeping it. Microsoft wants to enable “people to have choice, diversity, go after that job interview with a jacket full of technology that could empower them,” says Lay-Flurrie. Just last week, at the Microsoft Build conference, she witnessed a deaf colleague walk in late. But because transcriptions were on a nearby screen–transcriptions from Microsoft’s own technologies–she could catch right up. Of course, those notes were handy for everyone else, too.
In the best-case scenarios, when Microsoft develops those tools, they benefit people with disabilities, but everyone else, too. In this sense, Microsoft believes designing around the framework of inclusivity makes the company more creative–and that creativity breeds a generalized competitive advantage in its products.
“It may not be every scenario that helps every person, but I do think that design through the lens of disability opens up more avenues for human innovation that helps us all,” she says. “I do understand, there are definitely things developed for the blind that don’t benefit me as a deaf person, and vice versa. But on the other hand, everyone loves meeting notes.”
I ask about long-term goals, and where Lay-Flurrie would like the company to be in five years. She answers with little hesitation. “I hope I’m sitting here with a raft of technology that could help with learning how to code, learning how to set yourself up in a crazy way for that job interview, getting through that college degree,” she says. “I also think there’s a massive opportunity with mental health, and how we can empower someone living with PTSD or anxiety with technology to give you a heads up: ‘Your schedule today is not going to help you. You’re meeting with this individual, and it may give you triggers.'”
If Microsoft can sell us all a bit of peace of mind, that’s a powerful business plan, indeed.