Cat Noone, CEO, Stark
It's very hard to unsee.
Cat is a fierce advocate of building accessibility at scale in a way that works for real people.
Interview with Cat Noone, CEO, Stark
Transcript for Interview with Cat Noone, CEO, Stark
Webcast interview hosted by John Griffin, Publisher of Accessibility.com, featuring Cat Noone, CEO of Stark. John and Cat 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, Episode 2' on screen, briefly]
John: I'm John Griffin. I'm the publisher of Accessibility.com and your host for these webcasts known as Accessibility Matters. When we chose the words Accessibility Matters we did it with great purpose. One in every five persons, that have a disability today, still lives in an inaccessibility world. The people we bring to these discussions are those leaders that we think proactively work tirelessly to change that fact.
Today's guest is Cat Noone. She drives a very imaginative startup that's found huge success with a unique twist to their development. Cat, you started Stark in 2017. There are 300,000 designers and developers who agree with a philosophy that claims to blend beauty, art with systems application. How did you create that differentiation? Where -- where was this idea born?
Cat: I mean like you said, we started yeah, I guess like the end of 2017, um, but I wouldn't say that we were actively building Stark then. Um, you know it very much so was what we like to consider at this point like version negative 5 or 50 of what stark would become. But it was scratching our own itch. Um, you know we were working, um, in on a you know project that was in the health tech space and you know it was catering toward older adults, and the solutions that were out there were, you know, very dated. They were dated in thinking and in turn technology. They were catered toward, um, you know like enterprise level -- like I as an individual couldn't use it. The tools themselves weren't human readable or you know -- you know, in turn accessible. You want to talk access, they were not accessible. They're completely out of sight, out of mind.
So for me it was just like, Why -- why is it that, you know, we were able to land on the moon in the 60s but this is still not intelligent or automated or any of the above, you know. Um, and so we said, What's the -- what's the -- the bare minimum? What is like -- what can we quickly put together that will actually help us at least solve our job, you know, this -- this problem for our task in the most minimum way so we can, you know, kick start this.
We started poking around and talking to a few folks and -- and -- and yeah like we said we built, you know, this this very basic version of -- of Stark and what it would become. And, you know, started sharing things with folks and uh, you know, on the internet and people went nuts over it. They're like, “What is it that you're using?” and, uh, you know, “How do i get that in Sketch ,and because Sketch was you know all the rage at the time -- market share -- and um, and we were like, Oh! You know, this is not just a problem for us. Okay. And then at one point we said, Let's just share this really janky version of it and -- and see how folks use it.
And so we did that, and it snowballed, and it continued to snowball and -- and then at some point in like 2018, um, when it wouldn't stop picking up steam, we were like, Maybe we should jump on this full-time, like maybe there's something here. And so we rabbit-holed into this very big problem. Uh, and then in, yeah, in spring of 2018 Adobe reached out and said, like, “Hey, you know, we're working on Adobe XD, you know. Do you want to bring this to -- to XD? You know, this this would be amazing, yada yada.” And we did. And just, you know, and everything went from there. But for us it was important to, you know, at that point, you know, if we were going to solve the problem we were going to do it right. And it was important to make the -- the pricing, you know, the entry level pricing, something that – eventually, you know, once we added that – um, you know, that -- that individuals could use.
John: But wasn't there a seminal attraction to this because you started out in special education and you learned something there, too, that you went forward with and developed. Isn't that true?
Cat: Yeah. So there were a couple of things, um, that I think I took away from my time working in special ed. One was that I mean I had worked on a -- an iPad app for, um, children in particular. Now it could be any – children, adults, it doesn't matter -- but any individual, um, that capitalized and used any symbol to speech, um, solutions -- what you'd consider a PEC system. Brought that into a really, you know, digital space and made it ridiculously simple and affordable for any non-verbal individuals, you know to give them a platform to communicate and, uh, and -- and I think you know that time in special ed, um I think the one thing that I always take away from it was that I realized in that time that it wasn't just products that could be designed. It was systems and it was injustice and that all that was very systemic.
We do so much, um, to help individuals with some form of a disability play catch up, but the systems in which they're, you know, operating in were just -- were never designed for them. And so there's so much dancing around that needs to be done in order for them to live, um, in a way that is even remotely close to, you know, as easy as individuals that you know are categorically able-bodied. And that was -- that was really insightful. And I think, you know, when you figure out what, you know, a founder or CEO or you know, anybody that's making anything, joining a team, whatever, you know, does, there's always something before that. Like I think you need to -- in order to figure out what -- what makes anybody tick, you gotta tap into childhood. You know the -- there's -- there's -- there's roots somewhere. And so for me, you know, with my childhood, I think I -- I -- I'd come to be very discontent with anyone that was forgotten, that was left behind, or you know, left alone at that lunch table. I hated the idea that not everyone could participate and so that ended up becoming, even though I didn't realize it at first, this general purpose of mine and north star in terms of like, what i would work on and the things that I would say yes to, and um, and eventually say no to.
John: The user experience is often the marketing pitch. Does that square with the demographic reality as you see it?
Cat: What's interesting is that, you know, we -- we're building we're building tools for designers and developers and product managers, you know, your entire product development pipeline. This isn't -- you know, there's a misconception -- a lot of the tools that existed before Stark catered to engineers and you know we've come to realize that that's actually ass backwards (laughter).
John: That’s an interesting point.
Cat: Yeah. This work starts with design. You know, our work in general, the problem you know being solved starts with design. We know that, uh, you know through data that is very -- very uh public that, you know, 67 I think it is percent of accessibility issues start in design and we know that the handoff process to engineers, you know, is a -- is a, you know, a critical point in which a safety net can be removed where more, you know, issues can arise. This work starts with -- with designers but it's an entire -- it's not a single discipline issue, it's an entire product development pipeline issue. And that was one thing that Stark realized and, um, and you know the thing is, you know when we originally, you know, built up that like janky version -- we built it with individuals that that self-identify as blind or, you know, or low vision -- and had conversations with individuals that are deaf or hard of hearing, and -- and just so many others and, you know, I think the -- that the marketing, who we market to and who we are for are the same people that -- that are consuming the products.
You know, there are designers and engineers and product managers that, um, that you know, that have disabilities as well. Why, why, why wouldn't we build this? Why wouldn't that messaging that we have baked in be catered in a way that makes clear, you can't say that you've built a great experience if it inherently excludes. You can't say that you paid attention to usability. You know accessibility is a byproduct. It's a byproduct of inclusivity and it's -- it's -- if you do it right, um, you know it's -- it's also beautiful, right? Like the one thing we told is that, you know, those two things are not at odds. They shouldn't be at least. We want to get across to people like, You can do this and it'd be beautiful. You can do this and it be quote unquote “easy,” at least as easy as your everyday job. Nothing changes. You're just making sure that your product is usable, right? And it's usable because it doesn't exclude based on, you know, gender or race or socio-economic background or, you know, like there's for -- for us, what we're doing is feeding you back your job as a designer, an engineer, or PM, um and making sure accessibility is at the forefront of that, making sure individuals with disabilities are at the forefront of that.
Once you see people it's very hard to unsee. It's very hard to ignore that, um, and -- and most people are not -- most people don't have ill intent. At least that's what our data shows. You know, they're just ignorant, and not ignorant in the sense always that they are um ill-intended and ignoring but ignorant in that they have no fucking clue what they're doing. And -- and who can blame them? Look at the -- look at the -- the standards for this. Nobody wants to talk about that, but nobody can read the WCAG. [John: Hmm.] Nobody can understand that. That's not human readable. Nobody knows what the hell the double A and triple A are. There's a reason why that's being revisited, but nobody wants to talk about that. Nobody wants to bring that up. Or at least it’s said, but it’s said in whispers.
Part of the biggest issue with this work is the blank page dilemma. There's fear, there's uncertainty, there's doubt, and what happens when we're scared of things? we turn away from it. It's easier to turn our face away from it because then it doesn't exist. Out of sight, out of mind. We're not going to change humans, but we can change the way that we work. And so, um yeah, that's our general approach. It's -- it's obviously much more loaded than that but, um, but I think -- I think we can build technology until we're blue in the face but it's really important that we educate people. And so our job is to market this and push out the tools and the messages and the educational materials so you can do your job right from the first, you know, touch point.
John: You mentioned something in one of your articles about unified language -- a single point of language. You want to talk a little bit about that?
Cat: Yeah. So I think, um, the one thing that I always try to press there is that, you know, that -- that in particular is referencing, or rather it's regarding, um, the discussion of ethics versus business case. And that's a very, very hot debate. Um and one that at Stark we -- we take a very, you know, we take a very firm stance on. Um, I think part of the reason why people have joined the Stark community and continue to do so and rally for us to advocate for what we're doing and contribute to what we're doing is because we are very opinionated on certain things and -- on most things that we decide to take an opinion on. But because we're opinionated, um, it forms the character of the company, and the character forms the soul, and -- and from there you can fall in love.
And I think regarding language in general the one thing that we say is that, you know, as -- as individuals doing this work, you know, there's -- there's stakeholders and there's executives and there's people that you know determine the yes and the no -- and then there's the individuals that are impacted by the work that we do on a regular basis. Not just Stark but -- but just people in tech in general -- um and, it's really important that we speak the same -- same language with executives, with decision-makers. It's really important. It's okay that we'll always speak a different dialect, but it's really important that it's a dialect of the same language. Otherwise we get nowhere.
And the one thing we say at Stark is that ethics changes team culture, in general, public exposure changes executive mind, and profit and customer loss expedites action. And so when we're talking to these organizations, both small startups and you know Fortune 500, like the Silicon 6, like all of these big companies, you know people in those organizations, we've come to find that true trickle-down, like top-down impact can't happen, and goodness I hate to say this, but it's not happening by purely saying, “This is just what we need to do.” Like if -- I wish that we lived where this is the right thing to do is what governs the entire globe. But it's not, and if you look back in history it never was. Um, it's just not how humans work.
And so the one thing that we found is that the two need to exist at the same time. We need to talk about the ethical side of this, the fact that this is the right thing to do because you're -- you're a jerk if you completely ignore groups of individuals, right? Because they somehow are -- are quote-unquote “different,” according to you, right? There's this, um, there's this -- this podcast called Unlocking Us, and it's hosted by, you know, Brené Brown. Dr. Brené Brown. Um, and there is a episode that she did with Dr. Yaba Blay, and in there, um, it was -- it was -- the focus was on shifting the lens on race, but, there were these key points that they made in there that, you know, that discussed the consolidation of power through the terms of identity and the privilege of invisibility and the assumption of whiteness as a baseline for everything. And you could say at least in in this regard that there's a, you know, the privilege of invisibility that comes with being able-bodied and the assumption of, uh, able-bodied as -- neurotypical able-bodied as a baseline for everything, and anything else is just a subtraction of that. It gets measured against it. And most of the executives in those positions are, you know, what they'd consider in that episode, as male, pale, Yale. [ John: laughter]
And so -- and so you know, you -- there's just no other general understanding. You have to come with a message of, bottom line. How are the changes that you're making helping the company meet the bottom line? Well, we're going to help you increase market reach. We're going to build a really great brand that people fall in love with. Because they trust the brand, they fall in love, they keep coming back. And those are -- those are conversations that are understood. In the same way that the term accessibility -- at least you know when we first started, it's starting to change a lot now, which is great but there's still this -- this attachment of the the term accessibility being attached to compliance. And compliance is, um, compliance is scary, right? Compliance is lawsuit. Compliance is money loss. And I think for us the one thing we started doing was you know in these conversations, attaching different words to different things and seeing how it sat with some of these individuals. And so instead of always saying accessibility compliance, we talk about usability and attach these words. And then usability is, you know, these executives know usability because it's attached to user experience. See now we're starting to talk the same language. Different dialects, same language.
Different words have different meanings, they're said a little bit of a different way, but it's, depending on where you're from, but it's still the same language. Um and we found that through that you start to actually invoke this change. You don't want to give them the answer, because there's a bit of an ego trip happening too, right? You don't want to feed them the answer. You want to give them that theory, that framework, and then let them figure out how it applies to their organization. And that's part of it too that we're doing, and -- and through there it becomes, “Ohhh, I see.” And you sit there in the meeting and you watch when the light bulb goes off and you're like (mouth click), There it is. You know, and it converts. And it's a -- it's a process. It's not soundproof, but it seems to be working.
John: Maybe it's working because, uh, one of the things that you claim in your Fast Company article that I read, that losing employee diversity also helps you to lose innovation [Cat: Absolutely.] and that not accounting for the disabled in design can mean lawsuits. [Cat: Sure. Yep.] So how do you see that? Losing employee diversity is a loss of innovation. Explain that?
Cat: Yeah, sure. Um. Inclusivity in general is a driver for innovation and in turn business success because you're opening up new markets. Whether it's internally on the team or, you know, as a product. And so, um, the one thing you know that these big organizations are pitching is that they're just -- they're innovating in their space. Now you tell them that they're going to lose that innovative edge. Nope, don't like that.
We're talking to people in organizations. It's not always like the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, you know, it's their direct reports and the people that are in like the micro orgs throughout the, you know, the big company, especially like you have companies like hundred thousand people, you know, like there's many you know, micro teams within that. But -- but there, you know, there's a shared goal amongst the team. And -- and so you know I think when we look at what we're doing, you know, Stark wants to turn this work from a need-to-do to a love-to-do. And in order to do that, you know like I said, there needs to be these -- these common -- these common terms of work and identity.
Depending on who's doing the, you know, who's setting those definitions of identity can be really dangerous. Um and so, you know, we have the opportunity to change the like identity and general language attachments that come with this and if we can start to create these like synapses, these like workflow synapses, you know innovation and inclusivity, accessibility and usability, um, disability and innovation, you know then we -- we at Stark, that is a measurement of success for us.
When this space is seen as attractive -- and that was part of the big reason about Fast Co., the article there you know, who's sitting in Fast Co.? You know, there's the Teslas of the world and the Microsofts and the Apples. Those are the -- those are where, you know, the posts about them are sitting. You know, you have -- you have a company that is working to change this space, you know, in in those same columns, in those same you know categories, and now you start to see that accessibility becomes -- accessibility becomes as attractive of a topic as any other innovative company. And that's what you want. You want it to be taken seriously. That is what it takes. But it's like -- it's like going to the go to the government to try to invoke change. It'll take years before anything happens and so like how do we move things -- how do we move the needle on our front to help everyone else, like to help push everyone else where they want and need to go? And -- and hopefully that changes.
John: When Bill Gates and Paul Allen conspired to create Microsoft, one of the goals that they had was to change the world forever. Uh, and they believed that software could be like the wheel. It could change the industrial complex of the globe for many, many centuries to come. And, so far, that looks like a pretty good dream. [Cat: Yeah.] What you're describing right now has a goal extremely similar to that because 20 percent of the world's population requires accessibility and it feels like that accessibility is going to come in a large part on the backs of software deployed in terms of life occupation, anything that you can think, of safety measurements. It's not about cures, it's now about productivity. It's not about pity, it's about paychecks. [Cat: That’s right.] Uh, I think you got a pretty good shot (both: laughter) where you're going with this because, you know, you've had extraordinary success for a very nascent business, but you've accomplished a great deal and so, congratulations to you, Cat [Cat: Thanks.] and thanks a lot.
Cat: Thank you.
[On screen, scrolling: Accessibility Matters, Host: John M Griffin, Guest: Cat Noone. Closing chimes accompany 'Accessibility MattersTM' animation on screen, briefly, followed by Accessibility.com logo with text: Accessibility Starts Here®.]