In his role as Senior Director of Accessibility at Microsoft, Dave Dame is leading the accessibility portfolio for Surface Products aligning with Windows and product innovation roadmaps to empower users of all abilities.
Dave is a leadership coach, enterprise agile leader, and trainer with over 20 years of product management and leadership experience, which he leverages to drive large-scale transformation in complex organizations.
His practice focuses on scaling change by building up high-performing teams through training & empowering workforces. Over the course of his career, Dave has trained more than 600 professionals in product management, leadership, and agile delivery practices. He has worked with technology companies such as OpenText, PTC, and Scotiabank – in many cases improving delivery times by over 150%.
Dave also spends a significant portion of his time coaching well-seasoned executives and is very proud that he has played a role in the development of nearly 20 SVP-level and C-level executives.
“I have Cerebral Palsy,” says Dave Dame, Senior Director of Product Accessibility for Windows at Microsoft®. “But my money doesn’t. So if you want my money, you better build a product or a service I can use, or I’m going to spend my disposable income somewhere else.”
Imagine hearing that from the estimated 2 billion individuals worldwide who identify as having a disability. Not to mention those have a disability but don’t identify as such.“ So that’s 2 billion minimally that we know of,” Dave adds.
The fact is, he continues, we’re all going to be disabled someday. “It’s just that some of us beat you to it. So when we design products for someone like me today, we’re also designing for everyone else in the future. So why not get ahead?”
In today’s conversation with Paul Gebel and co-host Emma Rizzo, a UX Writer and Content Strategist at ITX, Dave explains that we’ve all needed accessibility features – and will need them again in the future – whether our disabilities are permanent, temporary, or situational.
Accessibility features allow those of us in the disabled community to do things they were never able to do before, Dave says. They can be innovative, and frankly, life changing. And for everyone else who is not yet disabled, these features open more options for use and often allow product people to discover the routes with the fewest pain points.
All this can be intimidating to consider. Dave Dame offers the following advice: “Don’t worry about saying the wrong thing; worry about saying nothing.” As product people, we are bound to make mistakes, that is when the learning occurs.
Interested in more on the subject of inclusive design and digital accessibility? Check out the following content from Product Momentum and ITX:
A 3-part blog series, authored by Susana Pallero, ITX Accessibility Consultant and a CPACC-certified Accessibility Solutions Specialist.
- Digital Accessibility: Making the Case to Protect a Human Right
- The Business Case for Accessible Design
- Accessible Design Inspires Innovation for All
Product Momentum’s conversation with Sheri Byrne-Haber.
Q&A with Antonella Iselli, a Senior UX Designer at ITX.
Paul [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to Product Momentum, where we hope to entertain, educate, and celebrate the amazing product people who are helping to shape our community’s way ahead. My name is Paul Gebel and I’m the Director of Product Innovation at ITX. Along with my co-host, Sean Flaherty, and our amazing production team and occasional guest host, we record and release a conversation with a product thought leader, writer, speaker, or maker who has something to share with the community every two weeks.
Paul [00:00:43] Hey, everyone. Today we have a really special episode to share with you today. The topic at hand is accessibility, and the guest that we have is the perfect person to talk about it with. David Dame, Senior Director of Product Accessibility for Windows at Microsoft. And alongside me is a special co-host for the day, Emma Rizzo. Emma, welcome to the podcast.
Emma [00:01:04] Thank you, Paul. I’m excited to be here.
Paul [00:01:06] Can you share a little bit about why this is interesting for you and what it’s done along your journey?
Emma [00:01:11] Yeah. So I’m on the UX content team here at ITX. I focus on content strategy and content accessibility. So this is a topic near and dear to my heart and it’s something I’m actively learning about right now. So it was great to join the conversation.
Paul [00:01:26] One hundred percent. I was glad to have you and there’s no real concise way to sum up the whole breadth of what we covered with David. So I’ll just say, what we closed with at the end of our talk was the idea that this can be intimidating and even scary for people to jump into. Maybe there’s a fear of insulting or offending people. And what David’s advice was, was, don’t be afraid of asking the wrong question, be afraid of asking nothing at all. And I think that that really inspired me and left me really feeling like I could make a difference. And I hope that the feeling comes through in our conversation for all of you today. So let’s get after it.
Paul [00:02:02] Well hello everyone, and welcome to the pod. Today, we’re honored to be joined by David Dame. He’s a seasoned technology executive who’s passionate about designing and developing hardware and software for users of all abilities, focusing specifically on the accessibility space for the past two years of his 20-plus-year career. He has extensive experience in design thinking, product management, and Agile delivery. Dave is a champion for accessibility and builds high-performing teams, fostering cognitive diversity and inclusion. David, thank you so much for taking the time to spend with us today. It’s a real joy to have you.
Dave [00:02:32] Thank you very much for having me today. I’m really excited for this.
Paul [00:02:36] The feeling is mutual. So I’d love to start out at a high level and bring accessibility and product management together into a headspace for us to have a conversation around. And I’m wondering, can you start us off by just giving an example of a time that championing accessibility was really important for a project in your product development career? What stands out as sort of a turning point? You mentioned the past two years of your career have really been solely focused on accessibility. What was it that catalyzed that moment for you and kind of launched this turning point in your career?
Dave [00:03:08] Well, it’s funny because previous to this, I led many products to market, and although I was born with cerebral palsy and I use a power wheelchair, I’ve never focused on accessibility. I was looking at user needs and user numbers and things like that. And then, you know, when I hit 50, I reached like Global Vice President at my previous place, and I realized there weren’t many people like me in the positions that I had, and I knew I could enable them with technology like it’s enabled me in the past.
Dave [00:03:44] But the mistake I used to make as a product maker was I wouldn’t think users were different abilities, right? We’d look at our market segment, we’d look at the atypical users. Well, for some reason I wasn’t including users with disabilities and now when I look at it, that was 2 billion people that I wasn’t thinking about extending my user reach to. Right, we all want huge acquisition numbers, but for some strange reason, I was leaving out 2 billion that I should be thinking about front and center. And if I’m forgetting about it, then maybe I need to help evangelize it and make sure we get that roadmap.
Dave [00:04:26] And then if you think about it, we’re all going to be disabled someday. Just some of us beat you to it. So when we design products for someone like me today, we’re designing for everyone else in the future. So why not get ahead? We all want lifetime value of the customer. Let’s build products that they can always use, no matter where they’re in their ability life cycle.
Emma [00:04:51] Yeah, that’s so interesting, that 2 billion number. You know, we hear that and it might be a little bit shocking to some people.
Dave [00:04:59] That’s 2 billion that identify as having a disability. We know there’s many that don’t identify as someone with a disability. So that’s 2 billion minimally that we know of.
Emma [00:05:12] Absolutely. It is interesting as well your point about how we’re all going to be disabled at some point in our lives. And something that I’ve noticed in the UX space is that when you tune in to the accessibility space, you see it everywhere. But I imagine over your career, you’ve seen a lot of changes, maybe accessibility being illuminated more than it ever has now. How have you seen this evolution from the time you started your career to your role as a product executive now?
Dave [00:05:45] That’s a great question, and I think as we progress in the world of technology, it starts with the users that we see every day. And as more people with disabilities are entering the workplace, there is more people like me. Like, I think we were omitted because not a lot of people see people like us in our environment. They might have family or know somebody, but the minute you begin working with somebody, you become part of the visible population of going into regular schools, working in normal employment. It’s like, I’ve been the canary in the cave because I’m over 50 but now excited that there’s more and more people at the colleges, universities, in the workplace.
Dave [00:06:35] Now I think we’re understanding what we thought was the user was a quite limited view. That the users can be a variety of invisible or even invisible disabilities. And if we look at temporary disabilities like somebody can break their arm or leg, or situational disabilities where they might be in a loud office and they might want to turn on captioning. We’re starting to see disabled not as a medical thing, but as a thing that is unique and that is personal to the individual.
Dave [00:07:12] So if we want to get this talent pool, if we want to empower people, our enterprise products better include it, our technology platform should include it, because even if it’s new to the organization, it will not be just a phase. Because, like I said earlier, if everybody’s losing their ability, we got to get in there now and realize if we want to enable everybody, it’s enabling everybody. So whether you’re doing B2B, business-to-business products, or even business-to-consumer, right? Like, I joke around, I have Cerebral Palsy, but my money doesn’t. So if you want my money, you better build a product or a service I can use, or I’m going to spend my disposable income somewhere else.
Paul [00:08:03] I love that line. And what you’re aiming at now is something I wanted to pull a thread on. So many of the products that we take for granted today as just aspects of our daily life, to use one as an example, Audible, right? It was initially conceived decades ago now as a way for the blind and seeing impaired to be able to enjoy books. And now, it’s now a major, if not exclusive way that people consume literature. And when people say, “I’m reading something,” oftentimes they just mean automatically that, “I’m listening to it on Audible.” What are some other things that you can share that I think would inspire product managers to think a little bit differently? You know, as someone who is, you know, not currently disabled…
Dave [00:08:43] You’re waiting for your right to passage.
Paul [00:08:46] Exactly. But I do know that at some point in my life, it’s going to become a part of, you know, my identity, my usability needs. And I know that as I’m building products for users, I have to keep that in the back of my mind. What are some other touchstones, maybe examples of products or processes that product managers can take back to their teams to begin to champion and become an ally for accessibility in the domains that we can make a difference in?
Dave [00:09:13] Well, think about, you mentioned audiobooks where originally they were made for the blind. So when we introduce a product or new technology to one segment, it becomes the only way they can consume content. But it gives everybody else without a limitation the ability to have choice. So when you’re designing for disability in mind, you’re making the one way that might make it possible for one, but anybody else, now that they have a freedom of choice, to choose and use when they read a book or when they listen to a book: “Is it when I’m driving a car? I shouldn’t be reading a book. Maybe that’s when I’ll use an audiobook.”
Dave [00:09:57] So when my team and I work together at Microsoft, we focus on multi-modal input. What are all the variety of different ways we can do for input? Not just simply keyboard, but voice… How do we use special accessories where they can interact with their technology? Because if we don’t start with input, it doesn’t matter. Nobody can use our product. So if you’re going to pick areas to focus on, think of multimodal input and multimodal output so everybody has an ability to interact with the technology as they would a person. So it’s thinking about those things. And what I learned about inclusive design, and I wish I was a lot younger when I learned this: when you’re designing for disability, well, when you go to your normal users, they’ll use something. But if it isn’t great, they’re able-bodied-ness will compensate. Emma will know this. If you’re doing a usability study, they won’t know if it’s the most frictionless way. But when you have somebody with a disability, that friction point might be a blocker. So when you block them from proceeding on their Jobs to be Done, you can analyze and study it. And when you solve for that barrier, it actually makes the usability better for everyone that might have been unconsciously overseeing that usability issue because they could compensate more naturally.
Dave [00:11:37] So when you focus on disability, it gives you that ability to stop something that isn’t totally smooth in order to make it possible but to make it better for everyone else. So think about it in that way as you’re designing and consuming. How can different people either input things into it and how can they consume it? Right. And if we can focus on those two areas, you’ve really got the floodgates open for a lot of people to use your product in multiple situations. Like, we’ve all walked into bars, and if we have our hearing but we want to watch the game or watch what’s on TV, we’ll all look at Closed Captioning. I’ve heard parents that are trying to put their child to bed. They’ll put the captioning on not to wake them up. So when you design it, sure, you’re helping people with disabilities when you’re helping people use different options depending on the situation or what they feel like at the time and what they’re able to do at the time.
Emma [00:12:47] Yeah, I’m so struck by that concept of, when you design inclusively, you’re making a product more usable for everyone. I think that’s such a great idea. And when you’re doing this usability testing, my question for you is, as you’re gathering this information and this data from the users, how do you know what to focus on? So when you’re mapping out your product roadmap, how do you prioritize what to fix or build first?
Dave [00:13:15] And this is the beauty of coming in with an Agile mindset. The truth is, you got to be iterative, right, like in your product, you can do something that solves something for somebody that’s got a mobility disability, but then you’re going to get the blind people go, “What about us?” Right? So just like in every user segment, every release, you’re not going to make everybody happy. You’re not going to get it right the first time. But the beauty of Agile iteration is you can be diverse in your releases to try to be equitable over time. Don’t judge us on a single release. Judge us on the multiple releases as we start with one and then extend to a different group.
Dave [00:14:00] And sometimes we got to learn, right? We can think we thought of everything, but we don’t as product makers, right? It’s always a hypothesis until we release it and get into user’s hands. So even though we can’t predict the future or get everything right, the beauty of agility is we can get it right. So let’s not focus on being right from the start, let’s focus on getting it right continuously as we learn more and evolve our product and evolve our user base. Just like we’ll design things for some users and then the power users will be like, “This still isn’t allowing me to do big chunks of work.” So treat every kind of disability like you might a user segment because accessibility isn’t one paintbrush. There’s many different types of disabilities, there’s visible and invisible, and the beauty is we might not ever be done. We don’t know what perfection is, but we do know what better could look like. So don’t let perfection get in the way of better.
Paul [00:15:12] I love this idea because it goes right to the concept of a digital product, a software product is never really done. It’s not a house that we’re building. There’s not nails and two-by-fours that we can count. It’s an experience that we have, in a sense, complete control over. And I think what you talked about, bringing usability testing and different groups of inclusivity and accessibility into the conversation. There’s a real decision that we have to make consciously. Either accessibility is a priority or it’s not. Either it’s a nice-to-have or it’s a focus of our conversation. And to your point, it doesn’t have to be everything all at once, but it does have to be more than just a checklist item next to performance and security listing accessibility down at the list of things to catch up on.
Dave [00:15:58] I would say it’s no longer a non-functional requirement like we did back in the day, right? You triggered my thought of, accessibility used to be with security, and used to be vocalization, blah blah blah blah blah blah. That’s compliance. Just because you can build a product somebody can use, it might not be a product that they would choose. So we can’t really stop at compliance. We got to go beyond and make sure we’re the product of choice, not, “We met the minimal requirements.” Compliance is table stakes. If you hold your hat on solely being compliant, you’ve got more work to do. You’ve got to get more, better usability.
Dave [00:16:44] I always like to say, if accessibility is the solution, then disability is the opportunity. How do we learn those mismatches? How do we solve for those things to continually make it more usable? And, you know, hopefully, you’re not just starting with user testing. Hopefully, we have diverse teams where you have people with disabilities. Because it was funny, I never had a problem getting an accessibility feature because at least when you’re a product manager in a wheelchair, nobody’s going to say, “I don’t give a damn about accessibility,” right? It was because I was made up, I was representative right in front of them that they really got to see what those mismatches, actually, the impact of those. And, you know, those that build the product should be reflective of those that use the product, because they can think of their life experiences in building those.
Emma [00:17:45] As I’m listening to you speak about this, I keep coming back to mindset and how when you’re creating inclusive products, the entire team has to be in the same mindset to embed accessibility into every step of the process. Do you have any recommendations for how leaders can foster an inclusive mindset across the whole team? Or invite more people to the table to have more representation on teams?
Dave [00:18:14] Well, it starts with hiring for people with disabilities, right? Like, not only just hire them, but grow them, right? Because a lot of times I think they hire people with disabilities and go, “We’ve done our job.” But how do you grow their career and get them to different levels and different positions of influence? So it’s not just disability at the individual contributor level. Let’s help them get through and distribute them equally across all different levels of the organization. Because I know when I was a Global VP, I heard my peers say, “Oh, we have somebody with a disability down in my organization.” But until they had to sit beside me in the same meetings, then they got it.
Dave [00:19:00] So it’s really making sure you got the representation at all levels. Because if they’re all in it and they’re visible with all the decision makers and not just the contributors, then you start getting that inclusive environment to really build products and to foster inclusive design. Because, to your earlier point, Emma, like how do you get engineers to understand disability? And there’s a beautiful practice called inclusive design where you bring people with disabilities from the community in. You might bring experts in the field, but you pair them up with great product makers and you spend a couple of days helping them understand the different ways people need to interact with their product, and then they can work together to be a part of the solution. Because it starts with involving the people that we’re building for. We can’t build it in a wing without them. We need to truly understand and build it with them. That’s part of the, ‘nothing about us, without us.’
Paul [00:20:10] David, I could listen to you talk about this topic for hours. I’m learning. With every question, we’re kind of peeling back layers of the onion, and I’m learning more and more as we go. Unfortunately, we’re just down to the last couple of questions that we have time with. And one of the ones that we ask of every guest, and I’m curious for your specific take on this one, is, it’s a simple but deceptively complex one. What’s your definition of innovation?
Dave [00:20:34] I see innovation as solving for a need we don’t know exists today, right? It’s kind of being able to really think beyond what we see: what is a future problem? Imagine a different world and imagine thinking of something somebody can’t live without. Just kind of like when we thought of the cell phone, right? Twenty years ago, nobody said, “I want a phone that’s always going to be attached to my hip and I’m never going to be able to quit looking at it.” But we thought, “How do we enable, how do we make people accessible to everybody that’s not immediately around them?” So look for a problem that people don’t realize they have and then build for that.
Emma [00:21:23] That’s a great answer. Another question that we often like to ask guests is, where are you getting your inspiration from right now? So books, podcasts, any other materials that may be inspiring you in your career right now?
Dave [00:21:38] Yeah, I’m an avid reader, so I read a lot of innovation books. You know, Seeing Around Corners was a book that I listened to on vacation about seeing things around corners that might not exist yet that will become the common thing and it’s the tip of the iceberg. So I listened to that. And really, it’s just, these days I spend a lot of time with people with disabilities because previous to that I didn’t do a lot to truly kind of observe and understand, what are their friction points enabling them? Because we don’t enable accessibility features to say we have accessibility features, but we’re enabling people to get a job, we’re enabling people to get to pay their bills. We’re allowing them to have a mortgage, fall in love.
Dave [00:22:32] So it’s not the technology we build, but, what does that innovation afford them that they previously didn’t have the best life they could? Because it goes beyond the product. It’s, what does the product need to allow them to have a full life? And understanding those stories, that I can now go on vacation maybe once in a while, or I can pay my bills online with complete independence. That I get to pay for a mortgage. Nobody ever usually talks about that. But when somebody’s never had the things that other people get to take for granted and enable them, they get to experience something for the first time. So sometimes innovation doesn’t need to be new to the world. Innovation just has to be new to somebody and to certain segments. And we got to remember this, that not everybody is fully able to use or expose to every new innovation. But we have a responsibility to do it and it lets you be able to see the appreciation and for them to fall in love again for something that you got to take for granted. That is to me what inspires me. And that’s what the beauty of innovation is.
Paul [00:23:54] I love that answer. I am sitting here with goosebumps listening to you express these thoughts and feelings and experiences that you’ve shared. I feel like I can make a difference. Just hearing you talk, I feel like the decisions that I make really change people’s lives. The small decisions and user stories and acceptance criteria that product managers are dealing with on a day-to-day, these have real-life impacts on real-life people. And I think that it’s really inspiring to hear from someone who’s leading in this space. This might be an intimidating or scary topic for people, just not knowing how to deal with it. And I hope that hearing this conversation will challenge people to want to jump in and do it scared if they haven’t had this conversation before. So I really appreciate you taking the time today, Dave. It’s been a real thought-provoking and challenging and inspiring journey having a couple of minutes of your time to think through these things out loud.
Dave [00:24:44] And I think you framed it well. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Learn about disability. I’ve heard people say, “Dave, I would have talked to you six months ago, but I didn’t want to offend you.” Don’t worry about saying the wrong thing. Worry about saying nothing and really approach people with disabilities getting comfortable being uncomfortable until that becomes the new comfortable. It starts with one thing. It starts with getting one sample user with a disability. Start with one, but just start.
Paul [00:25:18] I can’t think of a better way to wrap up this conversation, so we’re just going to leave it there and really look forward to the next time we get a chance to chat. Thanks, Dave.
Dave [00:25:26] Thank you for having me.
Paul [00:25:28] Absolutely. Cheers.
Paul [00:25:32] Well, that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency and listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get, so please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.