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Feb 2007 Contents

UPA Job Bank

UPA 2007

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Usability Sciences Corporation
Delivering business impact through the science of usability.


Thumbnail: Mike Paciello

By Cliff Anderson

Cliff Anderson is a Senior Usability Engineer at Wachovia, the fourth largest bank in the US. He has been doing usability work for almost 20 years.

Mike Paciello If you’re familiar only with usability, you may never have heard of Mike Paciello. If you’ve been exposed to accessibility, though, Mike’s name is almost impossible to avoid.

Mike has been doing accessibility work for almost 25 years, helped craft the WAI (Web Accessibility Initiative) and Section 508, wrote the first book on accessibility, and is president of the world’s biggest accessibility consulting company.

Usability is, however, an “absolutely intrinsic” part of Mike’s work. “I refuse to allow anything to be released or approved or certified or anything without performing user testing,” he states firmly. “We probably have 20 tests coming up in the next several months,” he notes.

Mike did his first testing in the early 80s, at the former Digital Equipment Corporation. “My first involvement with user testing was with the very first version of Dragon, the speech recognition application,” he remembers. “I had great mentors,” he enthuses, and cites Dennis Wixon, Chauncey Wilson, Tom Spine, and George Casaday in particular. “These are people who not only taught me about usability, but really appreciated how I was trying to apply it from a disabilities perspective.”

“Lots of what I did was standard user testing,” he confides. He often did testing with the visually-impaired “only when I could sneak it in.”

Mike’s introduction to accessibility was also at Digital while working as a technical writer. Mike originally volunteered to act as liaison with the National Braille Press, who would take manuals and redo them in Braille.

His first big break came with SGML (Standard Digital Markup Language), the precursor to HTML. “If I could take a file and output it to PostScript, why not output it to Braille or a voice-ready file?” Mike thought. “I did about a year’s worth of research, and the next thing I knew, I became one of the world’s experts at that and formed an international consortium.” The code they came up with “is still being used, and is the basis for HTML accessibility.”

The next big thing was the web, and Mike “jumped right in.” He was on the original W3C (the World Wide Web Consortium) and was “asked by Tim Berners-Lee, who was asked by Vice-President Gore, to create a program around web accessibility. Tim came to me and asked, ‘Do you think we could do this?’ So, I wrote a project plan, and we called it the Web Accessibility Initiative.”

Around that time, Mike also launched the first accessibility web portal, called Webable. “We needed an information resource,” he points out, “a way of keeping a central focus on accessibility. And this is where everybody came.”

On His Own
In 1996, Mike left Digital and was asked to become the director of the Yuri Rubinsky Insight Foundation. Rubinsky, one of the founding fathers of the Web, had also been very interested in accessibility, before his death at age 43.

Though Mike notes that he had “a lot of moral support from a lot of companies and people,” he confides that “the foundation was me. I was it.” He focused on WAI and “education and awareness.”

From the Foundation, Mike moved on to start his own company, the Paciello Group. Started in 2001, the company has a dozen employees and five offices, including three in Europe. The company does testing, consulting, development, and training, all focused on accessibility. Clients include Microsoft, Bank of America, GE, NASA, and others.

Mike himself likes to engage in “creative thinking,” as well as “being an evangelist, a champion, a leader.” He admits to not liking “the easy part, the operational piece – managing people and looking at budgets.”

As a former tech writer, one of Mike’s proudest accomplishments is his book, Web Accessibility for People with Disabilities. “It was the first book ever [on accessibility],” he points out. “The next book came out a good two years after.”

As for motivation, Mike points to the fact “there wasn’t anything there for anybody. I knew it had to be done. If we were ever going to have any affect on industry, someone had to get this message out.”

Mike found that writing the book “really wasn’t that hard. All of this stuff was in my head. It just rolled right off. I literally wrote that book in two months. I just locked up myself in my room.”

Behind his many accomplishments in accessibility lies a very strong motivation. At the same time, though, Mike isn’t totally sure where that comes from: “Every time someone asks me that question, I just cannot put my finger on it.”

He does point to the simple “opportunity to get involved with something I’ve never done before.” From there, he “became passionate about it, understood it, and all in a very short time.” “It was a natural fit,” he concludes.

Mike also thinks it may have something to do with his naturally competitive nature: “Everybody was saying accessibility could not be done. I refuse to accept the word ‘no.’ It can be done. I may not know exactly how, but it can be done.”

Finally, he also feels that, “fundamentally, my motivation is bound up with the very focus point of usability – people and designing things that work well for them. So, what motivates me, both when I started down this path and today, is the internal need and responsibility I feel to serve people and make a valuable contribution to society through technology. This is, without a doubt, what drives me. It is why I always believe the answer is, ‘Yes, it can be done.’”

You Can Do It!
Mike feels the same can be said for usability professionals who are considering doing accessibility testing themselves. He does, however, point out a few differences that novices need to be aware of:

  • Prep – “All the materials, pre- and post-test, may have to be large text, they may have to be electronic, or Braille.”
  • Recruiting – “It’s a lot harder to get a truly representative audience. It also simply takes a lot more time to do.”
  • Testing
    • “You have to double the time it will take.”
    • “You’ve got to have a trained ear for a screen reader. Most people don’t understand how fast most blind individuals use screen readers. Trying to follow a screen magnifier while it’s panning back and forth is also challenging.”
    • “Avoiding not helping, being prescriptive or directive, is equally as difficult.”
  • Reporting – “Observers are, frankly, not prepared mentally or emotionally. You’ve got to do a lot of ground-laying there. You almost have to go through the whole training process all over again.”

Before doing anything, though, Mike advises “getting yourself in front of individuals with disabilities and see how they work. Do some contextual inquiry. These users’ methods of working are not parallel to users without disabilities. It helps you develop a level of appreciation.”

As a first step to that, Mike counsels “getting in touch with your local disability organization. They’ll embrace you. You’ll start to form relations.” Another possibility is a conference, like the well-known one at California State University, Northridge. “You just have to dive into the community,” he counsels.

Though you may never be as famous as Mike, starting your own accessibility program may make you the Mike Paciello of your own group, company, or professional community. As Mike says, “Just go for it!”

Mike Paciello: http://www.paciellogroup.com/

Technology & Persons with Disabilities Conference 2007: http://www.csun.edu/cod/conf/


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