I do a lot of things from habit, moving from one thing to the next almost by rote. One can forget to stop every so often and look around and say, “what else can I improve while I’m here?” Over the last year, I had a number of opportunities to reflect on this as I was plugging away at an accessibility project. The biggest hurdle about change may be stopping to make a deliberate choice to do it.
We had a legal obligation at work to make our web sites accessible. Sometimes when you can’t get people to change voluntarily, society creates a soft or hard rule to try to make it happen. As we worked through the resources and updated them, I started to realize how many small things, behind the scenes, were going on due to poor coding, poor design, what have you. They weren’t necessarily things I could change.
Privilege is a blinder. One defect in busyness is that you can miss anything that is latent and out of your ken. You don’t experience, and have no experience with it.
For example, a lot of small web sites like mine run on WordPress. It uses a theme and plugins that enable a non-technical person to have a more technical web site. And a web site can be quite a personal endeavor. Mine is. It looks a particular way to represent how I want it to look. At that level, I may not have (and didn’t) put much time into wondering how useable it was. Branding over experience.
Which is not to say that it is easy to change things. There is a cost involved in making things better. Sometimes it’s actual money, but it may just be time. I thought a lot about how it can often just be about making a deliberate choice to care.
Accessibility is a good example. I know a bit but am by no means an expert. In fact, the more I worked to fix a site, the more problems I saw even as we met the necessary guidelines. As accessibility standards have been promoted and attached to regulations, there has been some movement towards making sites accessible. If you run a WordPress site, you can now filter out themes that are designed to be accessible.
This sort of change reflects a common pattern in technology. When an issue is first identified, people who can make the change will start to. But it can take a while for it to become common, because it needs to become easier first.
Disk storage encryption is a good example of this. At first, you had to have a bit of technical understanding to make it happen. I’ve used this graphic in presentations to show the change over time, as our approach to encryption and passwords changed.
We now have strong encryption, easily available. Our web apps and operating systems support stronger authentication methods. And we still have accounts hacked and data lost because people have not yet made the deliberate choice to use those tools, and to use them correctly. I expect many of them don’t know that they have the choice, or what the choice is.
If you’ve visited this blog before, you’ll notice it has a new look. As the pandemic has given me back 20 hours a week by eliminating my commute, I had the time to make a change. I went back to WordPress’s site, found an accessible theme (TwentyNineteen) and applied it. My previous web site theme was also from Automattic and was TwentySeventeen. But in that two year span (they name themes after the year), accessibility had become baked in.
I’m still not going to be perfect. An accessible web theme can still be made non-compliant. As we were working to get our discovery layer compliant, our testing tool was misconfigured and aimed at another law library using the same discovery layer. The compliance difference was about 25% (we were in the 90%s and they were in the 70%s). Even when people work with the same tools, and have the same ability to change for the better, they have to know to do it.
But the opportunity exists, if I’m careful, thoughtful, deliberate when I make future choices.
A recent tweet (which I can’t find) touched on another situation, also accessibility-related. On Twitter, when you type a hashtag, it matters whether how you capitalize it if there are internal words. It’s not something I’d ever thought about. But it’s a good example of how, particularly in our communications, the cost of change is mostly the thought.
The explanation – and why it’s called Camel Case – is pretty obvious. Assistive devices and software lose context when you type a string of letters together, no spaces or capitals. There is no cost to stop doing this. You may not type hashtags, but it’s not hard to create a habit when you do.
Of course, once you start looking, you start seeing more opportunities. What about how you create metadata in your library systems or on your library blog? Naming conventions on your SharePoint site? Anyone using a folksonomy that is all lower-case?
It’s having the thought and taking the step to be deliberate about it. Ideally, we’d all become more cognizant of all of the possibilities. But, having watched lawyers over two decades still struggle with understanding practice technology, I realize there are limits to what people have time to learn.
But we can all change the things we learn about. I was talking with someone about language usage after the University of Michigan’s “Words Matter Task Force” created a stir with its recommended word list (I can’t find a link that doesn’t go to authoritative source). Most of the things on the list were unsurprising – gender neutral language when possible, for example – and some that were culture specific, like powwow.
The person noted that we shouldn’t be policing word usage without getting input from the affected people. That is a good approach, assuming the impacted group has a way to voice their concerns and others are listening. But it doesn’t prohibit you from making choices on your own. You don’t have to wait for a consensus to try to be better.
This will come over as hokey. But a lot of leadership relies on a foundation of kindness. The word is probably not used much because leaders don’t want to be seen as soft and it’s a soft word.
Kindness impacts your interactions with your staff and your relationships with peers and others. Your choices about being kind – or not – may feel situational but they reflect out across all of those contexts. The unkind manager, the jerk, the asshole. That’s not a persona you can contain.
It can impact the choices you make about service delivery. Where do we locate the physical objects in our collection? A choice to favor what works best for the researcher, as opposed to what’s easy to shelve and maintain for staff, can reflect those sorts of deliberate choices.
Kindness needs to be just as habitual. It helps create a mindset that will help a leader look for those small ways to improve.
We can all get swept up in our day to day. I know I do. Sometimes the ability to do anything beyond our own reach is, or seems, impossible. But we can make deliberate, small choices to do better.