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Spotify + Inclusive Design: Global Accessibility Awareness Day Round-Up

July 2019


Article credits
Phil Strain
Shaun Bent

Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), now in its 8th year, is celebrated by companies and organisations all over the world. This year, Spotify hosted a successful and inspiring Swedish Meetup – T12t – all about digital accessibility and what it means for everyday design. Engineering Manager Shaun Bent and Senior User Researcher Phil Strain tell us how it went down.

If reading isn’t how you learn, click here for a video of the event.

Why does Spotify care about accessibility and inclusive design?

The World Health Organisation estimates that one in seven people have some form of disability - that’s over 1 billion people across the world. Spotify’s mission is to unlock the potential of human creativity by giving a million creative artists the opportunity to live off their work and billions of fans the opportunity to enjoy and be inspired by it. Accessibility and inclusive design are critical for us to achieve our mission – as the various talks at T12t made clear.

Our talk was titled Accessibility and Inclusive Design at Spotify and dealt with how the accessibility guild manages to scale its impact across the company.

We started by looking at how Spotify is structured and operates – with autonomous separated teams or squads that work on specific parts of the product. We have teams that work on every part of the product from the mobile app, desktop, web player, wearables and we provide tools for artists and advertisers.

Employees at Spotify can have common interests outside of their team or squad, so how do we enable them to communicate across team silos and empower them to pursue these interests? Guilds! A guild is a community of interest around a particular skill set, interest, or practice; they can be long or short term, sponsored or organic. One of the key goals of a guild is to facilitate knowledge sharing.

The mission of the accessibility guild is to “provide Spotify with the knowledge and resources to create inclusive experiences for everyone.” Our specific goals within the guild are to:

  • Increase knowledge of accessibility across the organisation.

  • Ensure Spotify’s product platforms are moving towards being more accessible.

  • Form a concrete accessibility roadmap that makes Spotify more inclusive for our users.

  • Plan, prioritise, and implement improvements for both design and technical accessibility.

The important thing about our accessibility guild at Spotify is that it is a cross-functional guild, which means we have designers, developers, data scientists, user researchers, customer service representatives, and product managers from teams all across Spotify.

Our accessibility guild has several ongoing initiatives. For example, we want to cultivate a relationship with the accessibility community. Last year, we collaborated with the RNIB, a visually impaired charity in the UK to conduct user research with people with disabilities. We also ran a workshop with the BBC, Autotrader, Barclays, and the UK Government to share success stories and learn from each other on how to integrate accessibility at scale and hosting events like this T12t meetup to bring together the accessibility community.

The second part of our mission is to ensure that people with disabilities are able to actually use our products. This is where User Research plays a key part in enabling us to execute on our accessibility goals. By understanding the needs of people with different types of disabilities in situations that we all come across every day, we can make changes which mean our products work well for everyone.

We also advocate for accessibility internally. We raise awareness, e.g. by running lunch and learns, holding internal talks, and hosting regular meetings where people can drop in with questions or share success stories.

We then presented a particular case study where the accessibility guild’s findings had an impact on the accessibility of Spotify. Our accessibility efforts are still in early stages, but a passionate group of experts are working to take incremental, impactful steps towards making our product more inclusive and bring audio to our users with access needs.

Shaun Bent from our Spotify Accessibility guild on the mic 🗣

After our talk, it was the turn of Sara Lerén, Director of Inclusive Design at inUse, with her thoughts on Designing for Neurodiversity.

Sara kicked things off by defining neurodiversity and outlining the differences between average, ‘neurotypical’ brains and not-so-average, ‘neurodiverse’ ones. She showed how neurotypical brains display a fairly even cognitive profile, while neurodiverse brains are more uneven – exhibiting areas of difficulty, as well as areas of excellence. She went on to illustrate this with examples drawn from her own family.

Then, Sara set out three key principles for designing for neurodiversity and making sure products work for as many types of people as possible – as follows:

  • Conduct neurodiverse user testing

This testing should ideally involve five neurodiverse users in their natural environment and result in very valuable insights. For example, a neurodiverse user with great visual comprehension will feedback astutely on visibility, visual consistency and aesthetics, while someone with non-average verbal comprehension will shed new light on understandability, verbal consistency and the match between a system and the user’s mental model.

  • Communicate inclusively

Different ways of communicating work better for different types of people, so aim to use a balance of visual, vocal, and verbal communication whenever possible.

  • Start with ‘why’

Think about why you’re doing a project and what impact you’re looking for – then move onto how people are behaving and what solutions might be helpful in the circumstances. These three questions make up Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle and can be used in any order to develop different and interesting approaches to problems.

Sara ended her talk with this quotation from climate activist, Greta Thunberg: “I think in many ways we autistic people are the normal ones and the rest of the people are pretty strange – especially when it comes to the sustainability crisis.” Her words could just as well apply to any of the many crises in our world today – and we need minds of all kinds if we’re to get anywhere near solving them.

The audience enjoying Sara's talk.

Next up was Daniel Göransson discussing Really Accessible Low Hanging Fruit.

‘Low hanging fruits’ are things that can be fixed with minimal effort and maximum gain. So in his talk, Daniel showed how quick, simple coding changes can make design elements far more interactive, accessible, or visible for users.

Daniel entertaining the crowd.

After Daniel came Victor Kaiser, from Tobii Dynavox, with an inspiring and personal talk on The Change that Leads to Independence.

Victor developed cerebral palsy as a baby and has had difficulties with his speech, reflexes, and motor skills all his life. Although he spoke a little in his early years, he often had problems making himself understood. Sometimes, he used a picture-based communication system called Bliss, but it took too long for him to express himself. And it was very hard for his teachers at school to understand what he could and couldn’t do.

That all changed when Victor started using Tobii Dynavox eye-tracking products at the age of 15. Suddenly, he could communicate at speed and progress at school. He started working at Tobii in his summer breaks, testing products and identifying software bugs. This led to a permanent job as a marketing assistant and now he spends his days copywriting and editing the Tobii website, interacting with their products, and speaking at events that raise awareness about communication for people with disabilities.

Eye-tracking technology has changed Victor’s life completely and helps him live as he wants to. Since he can’t hold a mouse or use a keyboard, he uses eye-tracking to work and write documents, as well as to chat with friends face-to-face or online. He also uses it to control everything in his environment, from his TV to his lamps and doors.

Although Sweden has a great system of support for people with disabilities, there’s still some way to go in challenging bias and promoting open-mindedness elsewhere in the world. There’s also room for improvement when it comes to software and user interfaces, so here are Victor’s top tips for designing truly inclusive technology:

  • Include non-clickable areas. When using a computer that constantly follows your eyes, it’s easy to click on things by accident. So it’s great if there are non-clickable areas in which nothing happens when you look at them – allowing you a few precious seconds to think before acting. Tobii has developed software like Windows Control and Gaze Selection for this very reason, and is working towards improvements all the time.

  • Leave space between buttons. Again, this makes it easier for an eye-tracking user to hit the target, rather than accidentally clicking the wrong button.

  • Centre objects. Testing has shown that eye-tracking users find it hard to hit targets in the corners of the screen.

  • Think about where to place action buttons. If they’re in areas of the screen where the eye naturally falls, eye-tracking users spend lots of time and energy trying to avoid looking at them!

Victor onstage at our Urban Escape office.

Bearing these things in mind when designing interfaces helps make technology more inclusive for users like Victor – and also like Molly Watt, our next and final speaker, who delivered a talk on When Accessibility Meets Inclusion.

Those who have been excluded know inclusion better than anyone else.

Molly Watt

Molly is an accessibility usability user experience consultant, which involves lots of talks, workshops, training sessions, and accessibility thinking – much of it in the field of digital technology.

She started her talk with a powerful quotation: “Those who have been excluded know inclusion better than anyone else.” This rings very true for Molly, who was born severely deaf and has undergone years of intensive speech therapy to help her communicate, be confident, and feel included in every aspect of society.

Molly’s childhood was a happy one, but she hit a huge extra challenge in her teenage years. When she started getting bad headaches and struggling to lipread, she was diagnosed with Usher Syndrome – a condition that rapidly caused her to become legally blind, as well as deaf. It meant that accessibility became even more important to her in coping with school, home life and the world around her.

Technology was a vital part of this, as she moved from the echoey analogue hearing aids available in the 90s, to more modern and sophisticated digital versions. She now uses smart hearing aids that give her spectacular sound quality and include a handy app for adjusting her hearing to suit her surroundings. They also allow her to stream phone calls and music, so she can hear every word of a conversation or song. And accessing better sound quality has not only helped with everyday life – it’s had the unexpected benefit of improving her speech too.

No wonder Molly sees technology as key to inclusion – to reaching everyone and not leaving anyone behind. But the approach has to be individualised. For instance, not all blind people use screen readers – many have some vision and prefer using magnifiers or other display accommodations. Similarly, not all deaf people use British Sign Language – there’s also sign-supported English, hand-on-hand sign, and many other means of communication.

So misconceptions are a big challenge when developing inclusive design. But having a diverse workforce can help explode stereotypes and bring vital new perspectives. Molly believes passionately that we all have our part to play in reaching the goal of full inclusivity – and that this goal really will benefit us all.

Molly Watt giving it some sass.

Molly’s inspiring talk brought the evening to a close and left the 350-strong audience with a fresh, new perspective on digital accessibility. To hear more on the subject, sign up for T12t’s newsletter or join them on Meetup for news of future events.


Phil Strain

Insight Manager

Phil founded and leads the accessibility guild at Spotify, and focuses on creating accessible, inclusive experiences for all.

Read More

Shaun Bent

Engineering Manager

Shaun leads engineering for Spotify’s Design System, Encore. Originally from the UK, Shaun has been living in Stockholm for the last few years with his pug Ned.

Read More

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