I had the privilege of working with Tessa Hurr (PM on the Power BI team) on a presentation for the 2020 Microsoft Business Applications Summit (MBAS) about five features in Power BI that increase report accessibility. This 23-minute presentation is almost entirely demos, and only a few slides. While we talk about some features such as alt text and tab order that are primarily used for accessibility purposes, we also talk about how chart titles, header tooltips, and report themes can be used to make your report more accessible.
The conference was entirely online this year, and you can catch the sessions on demand now. I hope you’ll take some time to watch my session as well as the other great content that came from the conference. You can watch my session on the MBAS website.
If you’ve never thought about accessibility in data visualization before, here is what I want you to know.
Your explanatory data visualization should be communicating something to your intended audience. You can’t assume people in your intended audience do not have a disability. People with disabilities want to consume data visualizations, too.
We can’t make everything 100% usable for everyone. But that doesn’t mean we should do nothing. Achieving accessibility is a shared responsibility of the tool maker and the visualization designer. There are several things we can do to increase accessibility using any data visualization tool that don’t require much effort. Regardless of the tool you use, you can usually control things like color contrast, keyboard tab/reading order, and removing or replacing jargon.
Accessible design may seem foreign or tedious in the beginning. We tend to design for ourselves because that is the user we understand most. But if we start adding tasks like checking color contrast and setting reading order into our normal design routine, it just becomes habit. Over time, those accessible design habits become easier and more intuitive.
I hope that one day accessible design will just be design. You can be part of that effort, whether you are a professional designer, a database administrator just trying to show some performance statistics, or an analyst putting together a report.
Listen to the podcast for my top 5 things you should do to make your data visualizations more accessible.
I had the pleasure of presenting a full-day pre-conference session on the Friday before SQLSaturday Austin-BI last weekend. I could spend paragraphs telling you how enjoyable and friendly and inclusive the event was. But I’d like to focus on one really cool aspect of my speaking experience: I had both live captioning and sign language interpreters in my pre-con session.
First, let’s talk about the captions. While PowerPoint does have live captions/subtitles, that only works when you are using PowerPoint. When you show a demo or go to a web page, taking PowerPoint off the screen, you lose that ability. So we had a special setup provided by Shawn Weisfeld (Twitter|GitHub).
How the Live Captions Worked
The presenter connects their laptop to the Epiphan Pearl with an HDMI cable so they can send the video (picture) from the laptop. The speaker wears a lavalier microphone, which sends audio to the Pearl. The transcription green screen computer takes audio from the Pearl, sends it to Azure to be transcribed using Cognitive Services, and overlays the returned transcription text on a green screen input that is sent back to the Pearl. The projector gets the combined output of the transcription text and the presenter’s computer video output.
You can see an example of what it looked like from my presentation on Saturday in the tweet below. There are lots more pictures of it on Twitter with the #SqlSatAustinBI hashtag.
While this setup requires a bit more hardware, it worked so well! It took about 10 minutes to get it set up in the morning. As the speaker, I didn’t have to do anything but wear a mic. It transcribed everything I said regardless of what program my laptop was showing. There was very little lag. It seemed to be less than one second between when I would say something and when we would see it on the screen. While I try to speak clearly and slowly, sometimes I slip and fall back into speaking quickly. But the transcription kept up well. Some attendees said it was great to have the captions up on the screen to help them understand what I said when I occasionally spoke too quickly. The captions are placed at the top of the screen, above the image coming from my laptop, so I didn’t have to adjust my slides or anything to allow space for the captions.
The live captions were a big success. They helped not only people who had trouble hearing, but also those who spoke English as a second language and those who weren’t familiar with some of the terms I used and needed to see them spelled out.
Presenting With Sign Language Interpreters
This was my first time presenting with sign language interpreters to help communicate with my audience. Since the pre-con session lasted multiple hours, there were two interpreters in my room. They would switch places about every hour. They were kind enough to answer a few questions for me during breaks.
I asked them if it was difficult to sign all the technical terminology used and if they tried to study up on terms ahead of time. One of them told me that they don’t study the subject and they fingerspell all the technical terms. Most of my terms were spelled on my slides, and I saw the interpreter look at the slide to get the spelling. When someone asked a question about the font I was using, the interpreter asked me to spell it out, since it wasn’t written anywhere. I asked if having printed slides helped (I provided PDFs of the slides to the attendees at the beginning of the session). One of the interpreters told me no, because they were already watching the signer for questions and watching my slides and listening to me.
What I loved most about having the interpreters there was that the person using the service got to fully participate in the session. They asked questions and made comments like anyone else. And they participated in hands-on small group activities.
Check out this great photo of one of the interpreters in action during a small group activity.
Having ASL interpreters didn’t require any extra effort on my part. I didn’t have to practice with them beforehand or provide them with any of my conference materials. They were great professionals and were able to keep up with me through lecture, demos, small group exercises, and Q&A.
Sign language interpreters cost money. And they should – they provide a valuable service. In this case, the interpreters were provided by the State of Texas because the person using the service worked for the state government. Because this was training for their job, the person’s employer was obligated to provide this service. So we were lucky that it didn’t cost us anything.
While the SQLSaturday organizers were coordinating the ASL interpreters, they found out that there is a fund in Texas that can help with accessibility services when a person’s employer doesn’t/can’t provide them. It may not be the same in every state, but it’s definitely something to look into if you need to pay for interpreters for an event like this.
Make Your Next Event More Accessible
I have organized events, and I understand the effort that it requires. I’m so happy that Angela and Mike made the effort to make SQLSaturday Austin-BI a more inclusive event. I would like to challenge you to do the same for the next event you organize or the next presentation you give at a tech conference.
Your conference may not be able to afford the Epiphan Pearl (note: the original model we used is discontinued, but there is a new model) and the Azure costs. I’d like to see SQLSaturdays join together and purchase equipment and share across events – it would be great if PASS would help with this. Or maybe a company involved in the community could sponsor them? If we can’t do that, we could always start small with the built-in capabilities in PowerPoint and work our way up from there.
It was a great experience as a speaker and as an audience member to have the live captions. And I was so happy that someone wanted to attend my session and was making the effort to sign up and request the ASL interpreters. I hope we see more of that in the future. But we need to do our part to let people know that we welcome that and we will work to make it happen.
Every once in a while, someone asks a question like “Can Power BI be accessible?” or “Is Power BI WCAG compliant?” It makes me happy when people recognize the need for accessibility in Power BI. (I’ll save the discussion about compliance not automatically ensuring accessibility for another day.) But most people don’t appreciate the answer to either question.
The answer is that WCAG compliance and accessible design are highly dependent upon the report creator. Microsoft has added many built-in accessibility features such as keyboard navigation, high contrast view, and screen reader compatibility. But they can’t make your report automatically accessible as there are accessibility features requiring configuration by the report designer. We need to set the tab order and alt text and use descriptive chart titles – there is no artificial intelligence to do this for us (yet?). Beyond that, things like color contrast and colorblind-friendly design are almost entirely the responsibility of the report designer.
Accessible design used to be solely the domain of UI developers. But as we democratize analytics to have everyone building reports, we now have to create awareness and a sense of responsibility among Power BI report creators, especially those who don’t consider themselves developers.
There is a similar challenge going on with data security. It used to be that people thought of it as a concern only for the IT department. Now, it is widely accepted that everyone in an organization plays a role in maintaining data security. I hope the same attitude will be widely adopted when it comes to accessibility in data visualization and analytics.
This challenge is present in any low-code environment with users of diverse backgrounds and technical expertise, which means it is relevant to the entire Power Platform and other similar tools. There is a white paper on PowerApps Accessibility Standards and Guidelines that has a great description of the situation.
PowerApps embodies the idea of “democratization of development”—anyone in your organization can quickly and easily create a powerful app and share it broadly. But the app maker has an ethical, and sometimes legal, obligation to support “democratization of usage” as well—any user of your app must be able to use it as it was intended.
Based upon the popularity of the Power Platform, I’d say the democratization of development has been a wild success. But we still have some steps to take to democratize usage. Microsoft is doing their part to make their products accessible and to fix accessibility bugs quickly. Now we need to recognize and honor our obligation to design inclusively.
The Microsoft Docs on accessible report design were recently updated to provide more guidance. I hope you’ll check them out and start implementing the recommendations in your reports.
DCAC recently had a custom PowerPoint template built for us. We use PowerPoint for teaching technical concepts, delivering sales and marketing presentations, and more. One thing I love about working at DCAC is that each of the 6 consultants is also a speaker at conferences. So we all care about making presentation content understandable and memorable.
In addition to the general desire to be an effective presenter, I have a special interest in accessible design. I speak and consult on accessibility in Power BI report design. So I feel a responsibility to try to be accessible in all areas of visual design. In addition, I know that making things more accessible tends to increase usability for everyone.
PowerPoint templates in general reduce manual efforts to assign colors, set fonts and font sizes, and implement other design properties such as animations. I’m all for making a decision once, templatizing it, and making it easy to instantiate. But most of the templates available within PowerPoint and sold online don’t follow good presentation design practices. That is to say, the formatting gets in the way of the content.
Having a template made
Anyone can make a PowerPoint template. You just have to learn how master slides work. Lots of marketing and graphic design companies offer to create PowerPoint templates. But they are mostly concerned with staying on brand or making something shiny. And people make presentations because we want to communicate information. I wanted our template to make it easy for us to follow some good design practices, including accessibility.
So I reached out to my friend Echo Rivera who has her own company, Creative Research Communications, that specializes in making visually engaging presentations about highly technical topics. I came across one of her tweets a couple of years ago and visited her website. Some of the things I have learned from Echo’s courses and blog posts include:
Echo worked with me to make a template that followed good design practices but was flexible enough for a variety of content and audiences. And we also made the template fairly accessible! I’m pleased with the way our template turned out. A template can’t do everything for you, but it can give you a good start.
The process of presentation template design
I found the process of designing the template interesting, so I thought I would share a bit about that.
First, I sent Echo some samples of the presentations we give and some ideas on a color palette. We met to discuss our corporate personality, our presentation needs, and our goals for the template. Then a few members of the DCAC team helped me pick some potential images for the title slide.
Next we picked icons and colors for sections that we thought we would commonly include in presentations. We stuck with a white background on some content slides to make it easier to use images and diagrams from online (so we wouldn’t have to expend effort removing image backgrounds when they weren’t transparent). It also made it easier to choose colors with good contrast.
Once we got the full draft of the template, the team reviewed it and tried it out on some slides. And because things were going too smoothly, we decided we didn’t like the image we selected for the title slide, and chose another one. We made a few adjustments to default font sizes so that slides would fit our company name and slide headings with long technology names on a single line. We also adjusted the position of the slide heading text on slides with the line and icon at the top (shown below) so the text didn’t sit directly on the line.
We made a version of the slide template that has a small single-color logo on each slide. I plan to use this for sales slides and other situations where we need to ensure our name is on a slide when taken out of context (like a screenshot of a single slide). But the logo is small and not distracting so it doesn’t negatively impact design.
We made the template expecting that team members would adjust the master slides and use the provided multi-purpose layouts as needed for each presentation. We will change icons and use blank slides to add diagrams and big images. We also have multiple options for title and thank you slides.
Benefits of our new PowerPoint template
There is a lot to the new template, and examples below are shown without a ton of background explanation. But I couldn’t write this blog post and not show some examples, and I didn’t want this post to turn into a novel.
Our slides use color contrast to create visual interest while staying close to our corporate color palette.
The spacing and font sizes allow for about 6 lines of text max in an all-text slide. Our default font size for text content is 32pt.
We used icons and color to denote sections in our presentations.
I think the best thing that this process has done is encourage us to use less text and more images. Check out the recently created slides from one of John’s presentations below.
color contrast that meets WCAG standards (3:1 for large text, 4.5:1 for smaller text)
avoiding using color as the only means of conveying information
avoiding color combinations that are problematic for people with color vision deficiency
Echo worked patiently and diligently with me to measure and adjust colors to meet these criteria. It was great to have someone that understood these goals.
Feedback from other team members
To be honest, I think it took some time for the template to grow on people. But most of us have warmed to it. If you are used to small images, lots of text, and extensive use of clip art and smart art, switching to the template can be a bit difficult. But that’s kind of the point.
Echo gave us some videos on how to use the template and some slide makeover examples when she delivered the template, and I asked the team to watch this TEDx talk. That reinforced the design goals and choices.
I asked the team for comments, and this is what they said.
“I like having a professional-looking, themed template that isn’t just something out of the box that looks like everyone else’s. The template, plus the helpful background info force you to think about what you are puking onto a single slide. It will lead to some semi-major rewrite/re-evaluation of about every presentation I do.”
“The template, in part with its notes and reminders, helps me to ensure that I put the proper amount of context on a given slide. It’s a balancing act with font size and content. If I have to reduce the font size below 32 pt and I still have content to provide, it goes on another slide.”
Will every slide we make be perfect and beautiful? No. But this template will help us avoid common mistakes like having too much text on the slide, and it provides some built-in accessibility without us having to remember to make adjustments.
I really enjoyed working with and learning from Echo, and I recommend her for your presentation design needs. I want to note that she prefers that you take her training before she does custom design work for you so you have a mutual design foundation to build upon. But her courses are great, so that’s not a hardship.
It’s also a privilege to work with people that share and support my goals of effective presentation delivery and accessible design. PowerPoint templates are part of the branding and marketing collateral in an organization, and I love what this says about DCAC.
I’m happy to be speaking at Microsoft Ignite this year. I have an unconference session and a regular session, both focused on accessibility in the Power Platform.
The regular session, Techniques for accessible report design in Microsoft Power BI, will be Wednesday, November 6 at 2:15pm. In this session I’ll discuss the features available in Power BI for making accessible reports and demonstrate techniques for making your reports easier to use. This session will be recorded, so if you can’t make it to Ignite, you can catch it online.
My unconference session, Accessibility in the Microsoft Power Platform, is a chance to have a discussion about accessibility in Power BI and PowerApps. It will be held on Thursday, November 7 at 10:45 am. Unconference sessions at Ignite include facilitor-led discussion and exercises that encourage audience participation where everyone can share their experiences and opinions. If you will be at Ignite and want to share struggles or successes in improving accessibility or raising awareness of accessibility issues, please join me.
This year at Ignite there is a reservation system for unconferences. You can RSVP while you are building your schedule on the website. Walk-ins will be accepted just before the session, assuming there is room. But please RSVP if you want to be sure to get a seat in an unconference session. Unconference sessions are not recorded, so this will be an in-person session only. But I will post materials through the Ignite website once the session is over.
If you will be at Ignite, please stop by and say hello and meet Artemis the Power BI accessibility aardvark.
I’m busy building presentations for some upcoming conferences, so in lieu of a full blog post, please read my twitter thread about making your presentations more accessible. All but one of these tips are applicable regardless of the software that you use to build presentation content.
Why lose the engagement of a single person in your audience because of poor design choices? Most of the design tips I list are not that difficult to implement, and many of them can be built in to your presentation template, which I hope you are customizing to fit your content (and yes, I’m aware of the struggle of using templates provided by conference organizers). See below for my thoughts on the built-in templates in presentation design software.