Brand Work & Wellbeing

How creating an accessible product helped Stark build an inclusive team

By Cat Noone | Founder and CEO

February 3, 2022 | 10 min read

Cat Noone is a product designer, co-founder and chief executive officer of Stark – a startup with a mission to make the world’s software accessible. She says her organization’s focus is on bringing to life products and technology that maximize access to the world’s latest innovations. Here’s her advice on how other firms can do the same.

We’re surrounded by D&I ‘hacks’ – five ways you can build an inclusive culture; how following these steps will lead to an inclusive team. We’re looking to correct mistakes after the fact, rather than finding a wholesome solution. But what if businesses took a step back and built on a better foundation to stop those problems from arising in the first place by focusing on your main reason for existing: your product?

Creating an inclusive team is not a siloed task that happens parallel to your business journey. It should all be part of the same recipe, so that as you’re cooking up your company, your product and your team both have that key ingredient – they’re for everybody.

Stark

Cat Noone, chief executive officer and co-founder of Stark, on how to build diverse teams through a focus on accessibility

When building Stark, we learned so much about how the principles of design were equally crucial in building an accessible product, as well as a diverse and inclusive team. Here’s what we learned about building those teams.

You can’t build an accessible product without breaking down internal silos first

You can’t ‘infuse’ your product with accessibility by simply assigning the task to Sara and Michael in product development. Sure, they will be able to assess the damage to the product, and put together a strategy for your next update. They’ll hopefully flag branding issues when they arise. But to have a couple of people coordinating what should be a full-team effort will just lead to the same problems over and over again.

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Your marketers need to know that some users will be triggered by the horror-themed ad that they’ve thought up for your next campaign. Your sales representatives should refrain from using metaphors that only able-bodied individuals will actually understand. And your freelance webmaster can’t be forgetting to add large-text options to your site. Those considerations have to be discussed as a full-team priority, rather than siloed off to specific roles.

That requires any siloes to be broken down, with each team collaborating with the others under a united vision. The marketer will work closer with the graphics team to make the visuals acceptable. Your sales reps will consult with content writers to brainstorm their pitch.

“Not having ‘design’ and ‘engineering’ really act like they’re different departments, for example, leads us to act as a team. Not like two teams working together,” says Tregg Frank, one of our product designers.

What does that mean for inclusion? It starts to put each team member on a more even level. When people work through barriers to achieve the same mission, they’re working horizontally rather than vertically. The closer interaction also makes any inequalities and exclusions more visible to other team members – including leadership. “It removes the perception that any one person has the right answer,” adds Frank.

Our content manager Sagal Muse, who collaborates with a number of different areas of the company, finds that to avoid team members missing information that could be relevant to them, businesses can keep notes of events that could come in useful team-wide, such as project kick-off documents or minutes from strategic meetings. The notetaking and project management software Notion is great for sharing regular docs or changes in policy.

Your team is a key part of your community

We believe that the power of community, or the ‘crowd,’ is one of the main drivers of any product. It means building in a participative way, with a cross-section of users constantly involved in conceiving ideas, developing initiatives, trying, testing, trashing and cheerleading. An invested team member is an essential part of that same crowd.

When you’re building in tandem with your ‘crowd,’ by definition that group of people needs to be a diverse representation of society. As your team participates in the feedback process, it will become evident if they’re a heterogenous group with varied perspectives, or if they have similar insights based on shared experiences.

A successful product requires the input of a rich team with a mix of values, insights and lived experiences. That awareness will be present as you seek out the diverse voices in your team and give them room to be heard; and as you bring in new hires.

Not only that, but that culture of constant feedback allows your team members to call others out for any shortfalls they see. If their chief executive puts out a tweet without alt text or accidentally addresses someone using the wrong pronouns, the infrastructure and the internal respect is there for anyone to flag it and hold each other accountable.

It forces you to see things you can’t unsee

Put simply, an accessible product is one that’s usable by the greatest number of people. For your team, it requires being keenly aware of the obstacles people of different abilities might experience with your product.

By making that a pillar of your business, you’re immersing your team members in a constant learning process. It provides every participant with the opportunity to understand the different day-to-day experiences of other people. They’ll hear users explain how the stress and cognitive overhead of navigating and communicating with the app worsened their tinnitus, or that the color scheme of your app helped a person with visual impairments enjoy the platform’s design without inhibiting them from reading the text for their classes each day.

Once you and your team are exposed to those realities, you’ll see them everywhere else they’re present. Accessibility exists as a process because many of our systems exclude by design. Exposure to that reality will encourage your whole team to feel more genuine discontent with exclusion, and be individually accountable to challenge it, at work and ideally also at home or other spaces. And that knowledge of the real-life impact your product is causing encourages a genuine eagerness to continue to learn more about their unconscious biases.

It doesn’t stop there. As a business leader, that education will be the floodgate for across-the-board improvement beyond the product. That empathy will, hopefully, spread to your hiring practices and work culture; influence considerations you have in interactions and assessing team members; and prompt the provision of benefits, hardware and software (to name a few).

To understand your users it is also vital to bring on someone in user experience (UX) research, who truly understands the lived experiences of those that fall into a group that is so often forgotten. Culture is the habits of the system. It is everyone’s daily behaviors and contributions. If the foundations of product concept, user research and more are made by individuals that have never lived certain experiences nor can empathize with certain groups, you cannot ensure you will have true inclusivity.

Your users will make you accountable

Building an accessible product means working in intense collaboration with a variety of users. That requires you to be genuine and transparent. Give honesty and a desire to truly learn, and you’ll get honesty back.

At Stark, that first meant building our product out in the open. We shared our thesis, fundamental beliefs and the questions we continually ask around topics from leadership to product design on platforms such as Twitter, where we could then go back and forth with our community. But it also meant building our team out in the open, allowing anyone to dissect and criticize our practices. When we were told by our community that we should consider a different way of addressing a group of people, they provided us with helpful knowledge, a lived experience. We sat in that discomfort and learned from it, so that we were better for it next time.

With an increasingly conscious generation of consumers reaching adult age, the conditions within your company will become equally important to the product you have on the market. If your brand – not just your product – isn’t loved by consumers, they won’t buy in.

Users are smart enough to know that when a business’s team has people who look, think, behave and consume like them, the product will cater to that cross-section. And when it doesn’t, one can expect that bias and a lack of awareness was introduced into the solution. If you act in good faith, and are genuine about building a brand that’s for everyone, your team will mirror that. If consumers have ethical issues with how you build your company, it’s a sign to take a step back and reassess if you’re really walking the walk or just talking the talk.

Cat Noone is chief executive officer and co-founder of Stark.

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