How design for accessibility drives innovation – Christopher Patnoe of Google tell us

Nothing about us without us” is a mantra at Google’s Accessibility and Disability Inclusion department. This means that you never want to do anything for people; you want to do it with and for people. And who better than Christopher Patnoe, the Head of Accessibility and Disability Inclusion for EMEA at Google, to explain this? He leads Google’s efforts in the accessibility of products, people, policies, and partnerships, focusing on Emerging Markets.
In this engaging conversation, he enlightens us on how accessible design helps to be creative, break barriers, and inspires changes.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity 

First question: The ever-growing impact of technology on our lives makes it essential to address the inclusion of individuals with disabilities, ensuring that they can benefit from the advancements in tech. 

Could you share the Google philosophy, how does Google view the importance of creating a more accessible world through technology, especially considering that accessibility is a critical aspect of innovation?

Christopher Patnoe answers:There is an expression: “Nothing about us without us”, which is the mantra that we use when it comes to understanding what and how we need to build something. In other words, if people are left behind, our work is far from complete. Focusing on the needs of the most marginalized, we can achieve a better outcome for everyone.
If you don’t build for the broadest group of people as well as you can, you’re going to miss it, and you’re going to miss it and you are going to miss the opportunity for innovation. You’re going to miss the opportunity for creation of something that’s profoundly useful. Well-designed solutions should adapt to users’ circumstances, meeting them where and when they need it.
The key to creating something is to do it broadly and thoughtfully, but most importantly, in collaboration with the communities you aim to support. Only then can you identify the problems and discover effective solutions.

Second question:: At Google, you build products for the world, i.e. with Pixel 8 (‘The World’s Most Accessible Camera’ To Blind People‘) The people you design for come from different places, ethnicities, socioeconomic positions and identities, including disability. 

What are the fundamental principles that guide product inclusion development and inclusive design, ensuring that technology and products are accessible and beneficial to all?

Christopher Patnoe answers: It’s everything I just talked about. You want to design with and for. For example, on the pixel eight, we’ve released a new magnifier. We released it just a few weeks ago after a conversation that we had with the head of inclusive design at the Royal National Institute for the Blind. We were early days of the conversation around our accessibility discovery center, and he was saying: “Google, you could have the best magnifier with all the brains and lens and assistants. You guys could make it really, really powerful!”
He was right! We got the organizations behind it and we released our first magnifier this past October.  Last year we released a selfie mode called Guided Frame, which provides you real time feedback to helping blind people. We did this in conjunction with the community, of course, but it was so popular, thet we  actually extended it to the front camera. Now both sides, you can take advantage of these tools  that allow someone to take and center a good picture.  

Third question: Ensuring access and inclusion for people with disabilities is vital to UX professionals. Because at the end of the day, promoting digital inclusion creates conditions where more users can use and adopt a product.

What are the main challenges that companies face when striving to incorporate accessibility into their products and services?

Christopher Patnoe answers:Yeah, I’ve spoken with many companies, and I’ve been part of Google as we go through this conversion of making it just part of the DNA.
One of the first challenging aspects is grabbing people’s attention to recognize it as a significant issue. Once awareness is established, the next steps involve securing support for addressing the issue, obtaining leadership backing, and ensuring that the organization is committed to the cause.
The tricky part usually comes when you’re just starting out because you’re mainly focused on following the rules and laws. You’re going to be doing the bare minimum.
You need to have innovation. So having parallel streams of compliance and innovation, the compliance is like brushing your teeth and eating the broccoli. You have to do it because you have to do it to make yourself feel good and keep running. But you don’t look forward to doing it. Maybe it’s a really good broccoli dish but the innovation is where you take the broccoli and then you turn it into 55 different pieces of amazing stuff. So now you have this thing that started off as a compliance, and now you have the camera we have. We have a camera that can talk to you telling you how to make a better picture. Or we have reading mode, which is helpful for people who are dyslexic or low vision or ADHD. Imagine your student’s taking notes, you read something here, you write back down, you come back up and it’s a wall of text. I’m distracted. I can’t see. But if we highlight it and dim out the other part, we can help you focus exactly where you need to go. So designing not for a tick box, but designing for a challenge, make it interesting, make it exciting, make it not just about one person.
This is not just a feature for blind people, this is a feature about reading. And who can we help when it comes to reading? That’s when the innovation really starts to come. It’s about the task, not the person.

What advice would you offer to those companies looking to make their offerings more accessible or to companies that might not immediately see the correlation between accessibility and innovation, to take action?

At the end of June in 2025, the European Accessibility Act is going to be enforced. This means your products need to be accessible, and each EU country has its own specific definitions of accessibility with slight variations. If you want to sell in Europe, you have to do it.

The question is: do you do a kicking and screaming, or do you do it with a sense of adventure and a desire to beat your competitors and to create something really powerful?

It might be the designer on the ground who recognizes the opportunity and the need, and then  they would go to their manager. You, as an individual, can start the conversation for your  company.
It’s really wonderful to be able to take that idea and see change happen. But again, don’t lean too heavy on compliance because then you use that lowest common denominator tick box thing. Then you realize, okay, well, if we and our three primary competitors have to do this, we’d be better for us to do it sooner so people would recognize that our brand is better, our products are better. Then while they’re struggling to keep up, we get to focus on the innovation. Make it a competition. Again, this really is about the language of speaking to leadership, but make it fun, make it a challenge. Then…how do you bring the community in? Because the challenge is once you get to say, “Okay, let’s do it, now what?” Now is when you need to start partnering with the organizations that represent the users that you want to. You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken. That’s where the partnership with the community is really important.
Finally, give yourself the session to fail, because you’re never going to get it right the first time. Sometimes you won’t get it right the second time. But if you force yourself to be perfect, you’re never going to really be pushing those boundaries. So give yourself permission to make a  mistake and have it be okay. There’s no failure mode, so no one gets blamed. It’s all about supporting the communities and you do it with them, not for them.

Fourth question: Diversity & inclusion is an important part of the game industry which helps developers create better games, build better branding, and embrace more users. Moreover, accessibility is a hot topic, when everyone can play your game, you win. A research carried out in the US identified that 20% of casual gamers have some kind of deficiency. The number is even greater compared to the total number of people with deficiencies in the US, representing 15% of the country’s population. So it’s necessary to look at these numbers and challenge the industry to design more accessible games to include people with specific needs. The numbers above represent a great business opportunity, but more importantly, accessibility in games is beneficial to society.

What’s your advice for developers, start upper, entrepreneurs who want to join this market?

Christopher Patnoe answers: Yeah. It’s been really fascinating watching the triple A side of the industry change since Microsoft released their Xbox adaptive controller. I guess it was 2018. Gosh, it was so long ago. They did the Super Bowl AD and it exploded. We’ve seen studio after studio competing with each other on accessibility. What I want to say is that there’s an appetite for this, and the big players have already recognized it. Clearly, there’s a reason for it. Even if you don’t understand it right now, trust me, there’s real money here. There are real players, and they’re some of the most loyal players you’re ever going to have on your game. So how do you start? You start by bringing someone in. Well, you start by saying, Okay, I trust you. We’ll do an audit. I hate the word audit, but we’ll do a play test, and we’ll have a couple of people come in and test the game to let us know how bad it is.

You don’t have to wait. You can add captions to your games and make sure fonts can be changed. You can do this today. Most games have captions, but changing the font is actually an important thing. Think about things like color palette and color contrast and multimodality. For example, don’t just use colors, use colors and shapes to represent things, because if someone is colorblind and you’re just using colors, they’re going to miss something. You could do these very simple design things today and start building up the expertise and your muscles. This is just good design. It’s not just an accessibility thing. But then when you want to start bringing in the community, now you get to start talk about some of the design challenges.
For example, The Last of Us II is a first-person shooter that was completely unassisted by someone who’s blind, who’s legally blind. That’s a great design. They used the APX, Accessible Player Experience from AbleGamers as the framework that allowed them to think about this. If you haven’t looked at it, take a look at it.
It’s a great place to start and think about treating accessibility as a design challenge as opposed to something that you need to fix. It’s the social model as opposed to medical model. In recap, try it. Start doing the obvious good design things like captions, like multimodality, colors, font sizes. Do these things that are just good design for anybody. And then when you have something that is thoughtfully designed to that point, then bring the community in, figure out where the next level of things are broken, and then get a design system, get a design methodology that allows you to solve these problems, not as tick boxes, but as an interesting design challenge.

Fifth question: How crucial will be accessibility for businesses in the next decade, especially in the eyes of  investors? 

Christopher Patnoe answers:What’s interesting is as we look at the aging of population, as the boomers are our retireeing, and  as Gen X are starting to retire, you’re going to see a massive shift in demographics where things  like accessibility and just needing a little help becomes really, really significant. If I remember  correctly, the World Health Organization (WHO) said there’s going to be 900 million people  with profound hearing loss by 2050. That’s almost a billion people just with hearing loss. And  there’s hundreds of millions of people who are blind, more than are more than low vision, they  are including things like dyslexia. The needs are just going to grow more and more and more. So  in 10 years from now, it could be the difference between having a business and not having a  business because the needs of who we want to serve are changing in a real significant way  right now. Again, the question is, do you want to be the one kicking and screaming and doing it  just a tick box away, or do you want to be the one innovating?  So even as a small company, maybe you have three people that you talk to, but that’s 300 %  more than you would have had otherwise. So it’s better to get started in small steps and build up  your expertise, build up the ability, build up the innovation. A product can’t be innovative if people can’t use it. 

Sixth question: What background do your employees have within your department?

Christopher Patnoe answers: I think having a good general design training, you don’t need to be a visual designer. You don’t  need to be an interaction designer. But you want to be a person who has a good sense  of design. You want to have a good understanding of technology. You don’t need to get a degree.  I’m a failed opera singer: I fell into this completely by accident. But I had experience in design and in tech, and I built it up over time. So the thing that’s most important is to be willing to learn and work hard because the technology is going to evolve around you. So if you focus too narrowly too soon, you’re going to have to start retraining yourself. But if you can teach yourself how to learn and teach yourself to be excited about the technologies and then lean  into the new things that have value, that will carry you a whole lot farther than a degree  from a specific university.

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