Christopher Patnoe, Head of Accessibility Programs and Disability Inclusion, Google
You want to design with it in mind, you want to build with it in mind, you want to test with it in mind.
Chris's career in tech has led him to an incredibly-visible and globally-impactful role leading with accessibility program management with empathy at Google.
Interview with Christopher Patnoe, Head of Accessibility Programs and Disability Inclusion, Google
Transcript for Interview with Christopher Patnoe, Head of Accessibility Programs and Disability Inclusion, Google
Webcast interview hosted by John Griffin, Publisher of Accessibility.com, featuring Christopher Patnoe, Head of Accessibility Programs and Disability Inclusion at Google. John and Chris are in separate locations and the interview was conducted over video conferencing. The speaker is on screen at any given time.
[Introductory chime accompanies 'Accessibility MattersTM' animation on screen, briefly. Music accompanies 'Accessibility Matters' on screen, briefly]
John: I’m John Griffin. I’m the publisher of Accessibility.com. And I’m the host for this series of interviews and discussions with personalities within the disability industry. So, these interviews are conducted to prove the point that accessibility matters not just how, but why, and who exactly are these individuals that work every single moment of their life with tremendous passion to make that come forward? All right. My guest today is Chris Patnoe. He is the Head of Accessibility Programs and Disability Inclusion at a company you may have heard of every waking moment of your life. We call it Google, which still doesn’t have any explanation, but it doesn’t really make much difference, does it? Christopher, welcome to the session. Thank you so much for doing this.
Chris: Thank you for the invitation. Look forward.
John: Google is this fascinating phenomenon that is kind of become as ubiquitous in households across the globe, as a brand that is -- the only thing I can liken it to is to Kleenex. You know, it needs no introduction, it needs no explanation. Everybody that hears the word knows exactly what it’s supposed to do, what it’s about. And if there’s a market out there that Google hasn’t touched, I’d like to know what it is. Or if there’s a nation where it’s not available in some way, shape, or form, or hasn’t penetrated. And I don’t know that -- There’s so few that could make that claim. Is that a fair assessment?
Chris: I think touching and being successful are different things. What’s really exciting for me in a place like Google is the audacious ability to try something hard, and fail and not be punished for it. As long as you learn from the failure it’s not a loss. So, looking at what we did in social, for example, Google Plus. Well, it wasn’t the best product and Google’s had a history of doing poorly in social, shall I say. And that’s an area we haven’t done well, but we continue to try because we want to continue to learn. We have a reputation, fair or unfair, of putting out applications or services and killing them. But a part of this is it’s a learning process. It’s important to understand what works and what doesn’t. And you can only understand what works for a large number of people, by having and working with a large number of people. So, if you put out something and it meets the need, great, it’ll grow. If you put out something and it doesn’t meet the need, learn from it, figure it out, shut down the thing that doesn’t meet the need, and iterate and try to build something better.
John: Yeah. The risk, you know, the risk -- I mean, is the saying the only shot that you can’t make is the one that you don’t take. You know, and if you’re in the technology business, you kind of have to live with that, you know, as a guiding principle. Everything that you do has to include accessibility to those among us who need it.
Chris: And it’s a broad term. Also, the broad use of the term accessible it’s making it easy to use for everyone.
John: Right, right. Right. You speak about in that, moving into that, I’ve heard you describe the construction of the technology as being a hub to a spoke formation. Can you kind of give us some insight into that, how you see that
Chris: Sure. So, Google is a very big company. We have very successful, what we call product areas, like search, or Android or Chrome or Maps, Geo. Each of these in any normal world would be a business -- a very successful business in and of themselves, but we have them all as part of Google. And we as a central team wouldn’t have the ability to scale and be experts in all of the different fields of search, Maps, hardware, [JOHN: Yeah.] ads, you name it. So, what we do is we are the central hub. I lead program management for the central hub. I have a sister teams have of -- a design team and an engineering team. And we sort of set the message, the definition of accessibility. We create Bespoke, assistive technology like Lookout or Action Blocks. And -- But my team is responsible for internal partnerships, among other things, but right now we’re focused on the internal partnerships. These internal partnerships are partnerships with the search organization, for example. The search organization is large enough that they have their own dedicated accessibility team inside search. And they reach out to all of the sub-teams inside there. So, it’s really a hub to a hub to a spoke because we’ve grown so big.
And the important about having these separate teams inside search and Geo is that they know the language of the team. They’re in the room where conversations happen, they have relationships with leadership, and they’re able to make sure that accessibility is always prioritized. It is held above the line whether, if there has to be exception, they hold them to breaking the exception. So, if something has to go out, that’s not fully accessible, there’s a commitment made, and a commitment kept that we have people in the organization to make sure that it happens.
John: That gives birth to what has reasonably become a culture that is essential to, you know, because there needs to be buy-in all the way along the line in both directions, right?
Chris: Yes. And that’s the -- And organizations are at different levels of maturity. But all organizations have made the commitment, all of our products, there was an expectation that they’re accessible. But technology is complicated. You have an operating system that you don’t control, perhaps they have a bug that causes something to be broken on our side, we still have to be responsible for our product that sits on that other application of that other platform. So, these are why these exception process has to exist because we can’t control the whole widget. But having the team inside, holding people accountable, that accountability is tremendously important. With that accountability, they have the ability to create new and innovative technologies and experiences like the detailed voice guidance in Maps. This is a really cool product in Maps that was designed with people who are blind to create a specialized experience much more detailed in terms of walking directions when using Google Maps. So, they can innovate as well as run compliance, WCAG, and whatever we have as our best practices in terms of accessibility. But you need people in that organization, keeping the leadership accountable and hopefully holding teams responsible.
John: There’s a host of examples that you could have chosen -- Is this what you confirm the trusted expert’s program? [crosstalk] Or is that something else?
Chris: This is slightly different. The trusted expert’s program is a program where we reach out to experts in the field. An example of this is for cognitive impairments when building our Building Blocks application.
John: Got it.
Chris: We knew we didn’t know everything. So, we reached out to Lisa Seeman from the WCAG. We reached out to dyslexia experts out of the UK, and we would workshop with them and co-create and co-design and iterate ideas with them. And these are the experts that we partner with to make sure we know the best of research, the best ideas, so we don’t go down to the rabbit hole. And the important thing is to build with the community. And these are people that will partner with the community. And then we also reach out and have our own relationships too because it’s important that we have that direct connection. But these trusted experts sort of act as a crystallization of information that we learn from that and design with that.
John: Now, did that come out of the experience of failure? Or did that come out of the instinct that sort of gave birth to the vision within Google that you don’t just go off on your own and build something and put it out there and cross your fingers, you know, you better do the homework?
Chris: I think the answer is yes. Everything you learn to learn from the failure. You don’t reach out to someone and ask for their help if you haven’t screwed up and realized that you don’t understand. For me, this is one of the key parts about this work in accessibility is -- And you and I were talking about this earlier, empathy is a double-edged sword. And I think I got this loosely from Matt May at Adobe. Empathy can show you where the problem is, but only someone who has had a lived experience can show you what the problem is. If you have empathy and think I know what the problem is, and I have an idea and a solution, you’re going to invent the ASL glove. Something that doesn’t really meet the need of anyone, but it’s a cool idea for someone who doesn’t actually have lived experience.
John: Chris, you have a really interesting journey to this point. You wanted to be an opera singer. [laughing]
Chris: Oh, boy, that -- Yeah, I wasn’t very good.
John: So, how did you get to the ground that you’re standing on today?
Chris: Failure, lots of failure. Or, lots of learning. So, I’m a failed musician. I have a degree from UC Berkeley in classical music. As you said, I wanted to be an opera singer. I was good enough to think about it, but nowhere near good enough to really be it. So, in my mid-20s, I realized, you know, working in tech is probably better than waiting on tables. [laughing] I got to say, waiting on tables prepared me for tech because I learned how to work with people. I learned how to read people. I learned how to crack a joke to just to defuse a situation. I learned how to -- it’s like a lab. I had 20 to 30 people come to me every day, they come in hungry, and they give me money. And it's gonna teach me really well, how well I’m doing. So, waiting on tables in a really interesting way, prepared me for the work that I do now because so much of what I do now is working with people.
But that aside, started getting in tech, I spent 10 years at Apple learning about hardware and software. I spent three years at Sony making phones. I spent even a year at Disney Mobile making games. And then I ended up at Google because of the relationships that I built and the experience that I had gathered during this time. But I hadn’t heard about accessibility until a couple years into my time at Google. I was a technical program manager for Google Play Music, one of our shuttered programs that turned into YouTube Music. And a test engineer came into our meeting, turned on VoiceOver, I heard "button, button, button, button."
I said, “What’s that?” And she said, “Well, this is Google Play Music for someone who’s blind.” “Well, that’s stupid, how do they use it?” And she goes, “That’s why I’m here.” And it was one of those perfect answers because she didn’t say, “You idiot, you should be doing this. This is really important.” I wouldn’t have felt welcomed. I wouldn’t have felt called. But she said "This is why I’m here" and made it a problem that we were there to solve together. So, we had a couple of months, I volunteered, we have this concept called the 20% at Google.
So, I volunteered and took as a 20% accessibility for all of Google Play. But I knew I didn’t know anything. So, I hired her as a program manager. Her name is Karo Caran. She’s still at Google, she’s still doing accessibility for Google Play. So, she’s why I’m here. I hired her and she taught me a ton. I went to our AR VR team with a dream of bring accessibility into VR. Boy, was I wrong. But what I learned, like through failure, I learned that there’s a time and a place and an opportunity. And it was too early for Daydream. And then I got the opportunity, I was asked by Eve Anderson, now our Senior Director of Accessibility to build a team whose responsibility was to make all of Google’s products accessible. This is about four years ago. And I said "No," because I’m loyal to the old team. And she asked again, and fortunately, I said "Yes." Google’s journey towards accessibility certainly didn’t start when I joined. We’ve been doing this for a very, very long time. But since I joined, I’d like to think that I’ve had some part of -- towards the acceleration of the depth, and the breadth of our accessibility journey as a company.
John: As a compliment, you give it voice. You know, and I’m kind of a believer that if all you have left is voice, you’ll be okay. So, I have some interesting quotes that perhaps are the rules of the road that you’ve developed since you’ve been in that chair for four years. But they absolutely have everything to do with how you make and why you make accessibility a critical priority, mission-critical for what gets done at Google. If you rely on empathy alone you’ve missed the problem.
Chris: Yeah, I alluded to that earlier. This is something I read from Matt May, or something I originally read from Matt May that I’ve sort of adapted to the way I think about things. But the idea is empathy will show you that there’s a problem. By putting yourself in the shoes of someone, you can recognize that there is a problem there. And so many people, well, one, don’t have empathy. It’s not particularly cool to be an empathetic person in our society. But beyond that, when you have empathy, I’m thinking of say designers. There’s a problem here. Let’s go here so that the empathy can set you in a direction. And now we have 20 things that we can choose from. Well, what’s important is if you build something with someone you’re trying to build for, if say you want to build a product for someone who has mobility impairments. Better work with them to understand what the problem really is. Because as someone who’s fully-abled, you will never understand what the real problem is. You’ll be building something for people with disabilities, not with. And when you do that, you’re always going to get it wrong.
John: Next thing, "Learn to speak the language of leadership."
Chris: Yep. This is something that I learned in this job particularly. At a company like Google, over a hundred thousand people, the easiest thing for me is to sort of say my truth. This is really important because A, B, C, D, E. The only people who would agree with me would be the ones that believe that my A, B, C, D, E are important. So, what’s important if you want to convince somebody else is empathy. Again, you need to understand what motivates them. Is it FOMO? Is it competition? Is it legal risk? Is it the business opportunity? Is it what their boss thinks is important? Like understanding how to craft your pitch, how to craft your message in the language of a leader, you have the best chance of having them agree with you. It needs to be done authentically, you can’t intentionally manipulate anyone, it has to be real. But if you say it in their words, and using arguments that mean the most to them, you’ve the best chance of having it work. And this is also time-bound and context-bound. Because a year later, things could shift and that message may not be quite as resonant. So, it’s important to have the relationship with leaders to understand how to communicate with them. But speaking their language, understanding their motivators, their drivers, gives you the best chance of being successful in something like this.
John: Very profound. The next one is one of my favorites. "Don’t let people see inclusion as a tax."
Chris: This is something that happened to me. I heard this from a person when I was at Google. He said, "If we worked at insert company name here, we wouldn’t have to do all these things. We have to do A, B, C, and D with accessibility."
So, that stuck with me that doing this work
And he said, "It’s a Google tax that we wouldn’t have to do if we were in a startup."
It’s seen as a tax because it’s seen as something that you have to do at the end. You don’t pay your tax -- We pay our taxes periodically through the year, but at the end, often you’re gonna have to, if you’re lucky enough to be able to have that problem, you write a check at the end, and -- it's seen as almost a punishment for being successful or reasonably successful. But if you do it throughout the process, it’s no longer a tax. It just becomes how you do business. So, if -- accessibility is hard because one, people don’t understand it. Two, people don’t always prioritize it. And three, they don’t get it in so many different ways.
And to do it well, you need to be thoughtful about it from the beginning and not everybody’s thoughtful about it at the beginning. You want to design with it in mind, you want to build with it in mind, you want to test with it in mind. And if you do none of those things, and you’re just about to ship, and someone says "Stop, you can’t ship your product until it’s accessible." It’s gonna be really hard, it’ll be really expensive, and it’s seen as a burden because you were done. But if you make it part of what you do, you’d sort of build it in. It’s a little buffer like security, you have to make your product secure. You have to make it privacy-aware. Accessibility should be just like that. It’s just part of how you do business. So, if I do my job right, I put myself out of a job because I won’t need to be here anymore.
John: "It’s easier to have a great product when you have people who are not likely -- or not like you at the table." You alluded to this before. I’d like to hear a little bit more about it.
Chris: Sure. This is not accessibility-specific. This is about inclusion in general of which accessibility is important to mention. But if you build a product -- If I build a product for me, I’m 50, I’m male, I live in California. If I build a product that meets my needs, there’s not that many of me in the world. If I bring people who are not like me, I bring people of color, I bring women, people who are -- who have a different socioeconomic status, and we build a product meets all of their needs, then we have something that really has a chance to make an impact in the world, to really impact these people’s lives, either making it possible for them to meet their needs or helping them grow and expand to have new opportunities. But you can’t do that if all I know is myself, all I know is my worldview. So, bringing more people onto the conversation, again, you design, you co-design, you iterate, you test, and you take the feedback back into the process, then you can create a product that has the chance to really make a profound impact on many people’s lives, not just the people that look like me.
John: You’ve been known to say, you know, "Do as others do," meaning -- pointing to Amazon and Apple companies that kind of lead the tribe and have so much in -- They have a lot that’s different, but a lot that’s common in terms of that obsession with making, you know, making it work for everybody. Obviously, it’s good for your business interests, but it’s also good for the culture that you’ve created around you and the people that work there and so forth. Is that an area that you’re comfortable speaking with
Chris: Yeah, I think that’s important. I think it’s important as to realize that everybody is good at something else. Everybody is good at things that you may not be. And if you want to get better, I mean, we’re relatively new as a company compared to Apple and Microsoft. Our time as a company, I think Microsoft and Apple were doing accessibility longer than we’ve existed as a company. So, we always had some amount of catch up that we’ve had to do, but we’re pretty quick learners. But the important thing is you need to know who you want to emulate. Looking at Microsoft and Apple as great examples of people doing it right, we look to them as example of where -- our gaps in our space. We did a SWOT analysis. Where are we short and how do we fill those gaps? But what’s really cool about accessibility is when it comes to helping the user, we don’t compete. Microsoft and Apple and we collaborate a lot. We’ll fight tooth and nail in terms of selling product. But in terms of helping the communities, we actually help each other quite a bit. And here is an example.
When we were designing our disability support team, we have a free service, it's the only free service at Google for customer support that supports all people with disabilities, and on all products. We didn’t know how to start. So, we went and interviewed many different companies. And we talked with Apple and we talked with Microsoft, and they were happy to talk with us about the kind of problems that people see. And it gave us information that helped us design our service. If this was a dog eat dog world, none of them, they wouldn’t have done that. But because this is about helping people, they were willing to help us with this. So, that emulation is also having to do with being compassionate with those around you and paying it back, and giving back. So, I spent a lot of time talking to other companies about our journey and how we come up with our definitions of accessibility and our process and our ERGs and all that kind of stuff so they can raise their game because we’re all helping the same group of people. I do.
John: Do you feel that accessibility will become legitimately democratized in our world? Because in so many ways, it’s really advanced tremendously, but it still has a pretty, pretty stiff road in front of it.
Chris: I think it’s beholden to those of us who are platform manufacturers to do more. I don’t think we’re ever going to get every single startup in the entire world to take accessibility seriously. So, I think it’s incumbent upon platform manufacturers and that include us and Apple and Microsoft and more to make sure that we have robust operating systems that do more for people. It’s sort of like a layer of defense against people who want to do anything. I always said as a great example of this in which they’re adding image captions, or image captions on iOS. If there’s a picture they’ll give you a description of it. On our Chrome browser, we have image descriptions for anything on the web, and also, we’ve recently added captions for any audio stream on the web. English today, we’ll certainly expand it in the future. So, if platforms can take advantage of their breadth and their technical expertise, we can do a lot to sort of make up for the shortcomings of specific individuals or companies who don’t have the experience or wokeness to take accessibility seriously.
John: Using the current vernacular. But it almost feels as though if you’re committed, you know, and I agree, I so much agree with what you just said. If you’re committed to the cause there is no horizon. It’s technology. It keeps improving, it keeps generating innovation, you know, it obviously leads the world, American technology.
Chris: I think there’s nothing unique about America and technology. I think nothing unique about America that makes our technology better or more accessible because that’s -- We are such a -- Generally, we tend to be very myopic in terms of technology. [JOHN: Hmm.]
There’s a really broad world out there. What is resonant in Rwanda, we’re really different than what’s resonant in California, or New York. So, I think it’s incumbent upon those of us who are making technology to build relationships outside of the US because looking in, I think, a third of all, blind, low vision people in the world live in India. That’s a huge number. And the opportunity to help people is really profound there. How we go about doing that is through partnerships and understanding and take that information and bring it back to your company, or partner with people in -- to build the solutions for themselves, perhaps based off your technology. But the profound opportunity is right now for me, it’s not just America, but it’s the emerging markets that are really exciting space that we’re going to start -- that I’m hoping to start focusing on in the near future.
John: What you just soliloquized is just exactly what accessibility needs. Congratulations on like this breathtaking record of accomplishment to both you and Google. And thanks so much for doing this session today. [MUSIC BEGINS] I really, really appreciate your participation.
Chris: My pleasure, John. Thanks to you for the opportunity.
[On screen, scrolling: Accessibility Matters, Host: John M Griffin, Guest: Christopher Patnoe. Closing chimes accompany 'Accessibility MattersTM' animation on screen.]