Tim Adnitt (Native Instruments) and Ed Gray (Avid) - Creating accessible music products

ADC'19 will be hosting a panel on accessibility with Tim Adnitt (Native Instruments), Ed Gray (Avid), Amy Dickens (Pusher), and Andre Louis (musician).  We spoke with Tim and Ed about their path into advancing accessibility and more.

Congratulations on being selected as a panelist for the ADC’19 Accessibility Panel. Can you tell us about your career journey and how this led toward advancing efforts in accessibility?

Ed Gray: Well, my journey towards advancing the efforts of accessibility at Avid began in 2009 when I was having exceptional difficulty connecting a Pro Tools TDM hardware card to my I/O, and when I started asking for help reading figures on dense M&A models. I was rapidly losing my eyesight from diabetic retinopathy and in a short time, no amount of screen contrast or magnification could help me see my beautiful plugin sliders or effects sends. I was certified as legally blind in 2010. We had done some early work to apply VoiceOver labels to some controls and this work came unhitched in a major Pro tools revision. Though my role at Avid was as Director of our third party developer programs, assisting in reconnecting and improving accessible functionality somehow seemed like a good fit! We made tremendous strides in accessibility with Pro Tools version 10.2, earning Avid the 2016 Access Award from the American Foundation for the Blind. This inspired Avid to get in the game for good, on both Pro Tools and Sibelius, driving greater accessibility functionality into these tools with successive releases. I was neither a product designer nor a product manager, but I had, and continue to have a key role in managing the efforts of our Product people and our fantastic team of external beta testers, and presenting externally as the spokesman for Avid’s accessibility efforts.

Tim Adnitt: I studied music at university, majoring in Degree Music in the mid ‘90s. It was one of the few courses that I guess now would be called Music Technology. It was really a music course that was about using technology. And that's what really attracted me to it. Then I did a Masters in Composition and managed to get a part time position at Sibelius Software. It was a very small company at the time. I was working there actually in quality assurance, but was involved in conversations about everything. When Avid acquired Sibelius, I was freelancing for them on and off. I always kept that connection. The thing that was very special about that team was that they had been together for a very long time. I actually went back there again, to a part time position. And that's when I started working more in product design. I think the key thing about Avid is that was a time where I worked with a developer who's now working with me here at Native working on accessibility. I came to Native Instruments as a product designer, and worked as a product designer for a good few years, working on Maschine, and then also Komplete Kontrol. This is a large part of my pathway towards it.

Accessibility has become more available to a larger end-consumer base today than ever before. What are the challenges in developing accessible features for a more generalist audience?

Ed Gray: First of all, accessibility is about a lot more than making the Pro Tools screen larger for visually impaired users. An authentic effort to improve the accessibility of our products means making accessibility a first-class citizen on our product roadmaps so that testing for screen reader support, color contrast, tab ordering, font size, dialog behavior and keyboard controls are required of every major release, and that we fix any functionality that is impaired by a new release. Accessibility is also about assisting people with difficulty hearing, using I/O devices, concentrating and remembering. So it’s a broad charter and as a company with finite design, development and test resources, we have to aim for the sweet spot and concentrate on the efforts that will help the most people and do so the fastest. We have a considerable backlog of accessibility features that would be done tomorrow if we were not in a constant tradeoff between and among projects.

The good news is that accessible development helps users without sensory or cognitive challenges at the same time. That is to say, accessibility is usability. It’s about thinking about how a broad range of users accomplish media production in general and through our tools. So, we need to take the optimal directions and make the right tradeoffs, avoiding false starts and rework. We rely heavily on a community of blind testers to accomplish this (see more below).

To sum up, the challenge of developing for a general audience, it’s about picking and choosing the right features for the broadest possible portion of the media creation community, then designing the improvements with care so we get them right the first time and get them out in new releases.

Tim Adnitt: I was the product owner for NKS (Native Kontrol Standard) at one time. We were able to create this synergy, because we built this into the actual platform itself. A lot of solutions often happen on a piece-by-piece level. So when you have an instrument, you make that instrument accessible. Of course, that's a wonderful thing, but then there's the effort, again, to reuse that concept when working with compatibility challenges with many different companies. Many of the musicians in the world use plugins and instruments and hardware from hundreds of different places. It's a very difficult thing for especially smaller companies to be able to do. A large challenge within accessibility teams is also about price. If the price is prohibitive, then you just can't get access to it. Everything else becomes irrelevant. I must say that Apple and increasingly Microsoft are really the gold standard for what you can do on a computer. They have been incredibly helpful and encouraging to us. Logic is a one-of-a-kind DAW for us that is accessible. They've done such an amazing job with that. So we were kind of able to latch on to that as well.

What is a typical roadmap that a product team follows when taking an accessibility feature from concept to completion?

Ed Gray: Accessibility features compete in and among other features that we’re trying to drive into Pro Tools and Sibelius. The genesis of most accessibility features is our community of blind users. They are not just checking Pro Tools out and seeing what they can do with it. Actually, from Queens to Trinidad, from Tucson to London, people are using Pro Tools and Sibelius with no eyesight and with minimal or no sighted assistance to make records and score commercials. They rely on our systems for their livelihood and have a great sense of what works and what needs attention. As a team, we aggregate these defects and feature requests as we do most others, describing how to reproduce the issue, how severe and pervasive the issue is, who’s affected, and what the workarounds are. This information is used to rank the issues for urgency and they are investigated to determine if they are quick fixes (like labeling a controller with a voiceover caption) or more involved (like making clip effects accessible). A product designer works with testers and developers to bite off a combination of bugs and issues for an agile “sprint” and the fixes are tested by internal and external testers and pushed into production if they are successful. Then we do it all over again! The objective is to bite off as much low-hanging fruit as we can and tackle a few more ambitious accessibility projects with each sprint. There are lots of tradeoffs, and I’ve yet to experience a jubilee in which all of our accessibility problems have been covered!

Tim Adnitt: Our roadmap is a constant challenge. It's always difficult because there are so many things that you want to do. There are certain things people want you to do as well. Finding out that part is obviously a key part of our strategy for the products that we have now. Ed's obviously been doing his panels at NAMM, and he's very kindly invited me to speak at the last two of those. It's been great. Hosting this type of forum has been a great part of our product development. I think the other key thing that we did at Native two years ago was holding a Native Summit at NAMM. We had a whole series of events and panels during that time. They were the kind of invite-type panels around this exact topic. We discussed a few trends and specific topics, and opened up the panel for feedback and questions. Essentially, what happened is that we had person after person saying, “Hey, you know, this has really made a huge difference.” Getting this feedback was a very emotional experience, because I think that was the first time I ever had any comprehension of the impact that this was having already and for the future. So that was an incredibly humbling experience and incredibly inspiring.

Are there any best practices that you have used when reaching out to the accessibility community for feedback or feature suggestions?

Ed Gray: Yes, to describe how we roll, Avid has a small, dedicated community of visually impaired beta testers who serve as our ongoing sounding board for identifying and prioritizing accessibility issues. An issue is not actionable until it’s written up as a bug in our defect reporting system. The team maintains a document outside of this process that ranks the accessibility issues for urgency in isolation (i.e., independently of the many Avid issues with which they compete for attention) and this list is reviewed quarterly and adjusted. The visually-impaired and sighted accessibility testers have partner memberships in our defect tracking and feature request systems and have access to pre-release builds of our tools, where they characteristically test for improvements quickly and let us know their findings in bi-weekly calls we have together. Avid has other sources of input including our User Community and a Pro Tools Accessibility Google Group. We welcome and receive input from visually impaired users and users with other special requirements at trade shows and conferences and we participate in several panels during the year. As I write this, we’re in the middle of planning more accessibility goodness for our website, including a special forum and support facility where users can submit their feedback.

Tim Adnitt: I’ve had many conversations with Mark Williams, the CEO of Heart n Soul, who's a wonderful and incredibly inspiring person. They are an award-winning creative arts company focused on providing opportunities for people with learning disabilities to express themselves in the creative arts. The beginning of my relationship with them was actually just attending those events, and taking some gear and letting people make music on them in endless different ways. That was so inspiring to see how people use your gear. It doesn't matter who they are, what they do, or how they interact with it- you always learn, you and I think those events have been incredible. That's something I think is part of the next generation or the next frontier.

Another example is when we introduced effects to Komplete Kontrol, I always remember we had in an early version (prior to release) we had a lot of interactions required to start adding effects. From the designers vantage point, the approach initially made sense. There were plenty of visual cues but when you enable that feature, use it in a different way, suddenly, you're really lost, because you have to make several interactions. That made us decide “Ok, so, less interactions is what we need.” We're all programmed differently, we all work differently, and will respond differently. For some people, it's just a better way to work at providing those different ways of creating. That is accessible in the broadest term of the word. That doesn't mean simplified, it just means really well-designed.

How do you see accessibility panels and conference visibility contributing to the education of users of accessibility features and people who have yet to explore them?

Ed Gray: Accessibility panels are essential to communicate the excitement that is going on in developing for accessibility in media creation. It has been gratifying to co-present with Tim at Native Instruments and other developers and institutions who are giving accessibility their full attention on these panels and in so doing, making their products first choice among visually impaired users and others with special requirements. These panels offer rare opportunities for developers and manufacturers to get together to compare efforts and share best practices. The reality as shown so remarkably in these panels is that accessibility is a worthy and common goal. Like a joint US-Soviet space rendezvous, competitive issues are relegated to the background. We are all working towards a common purpose where one company’s success can contribute to, and benefit from the success of any other’s. In cooperating together on these panels, we are delivering powerful, repeatable messages that will help bring users with different ability sets to the media creation party and will continue to grow our industry.

Tim Adnitt: Events like these are the first stage. I think when you talk to some people in the industry, accessibility is just not something they thought about initially and that’s understandable. I really think that these events are places where it's a great opportunity to not only hear about it but also to pick up some best practices. Another key part of it is visibility to the mainstream music industry. ADC have been very supportive of us when we've spoken. Each appearance may not have been specifically on accessibility at every every single event, but we have presented at every event. We certainly have recently talked about this exact topic during those events. There's a great community here and I think it’s growing as well. A crucial element to the growth of awareness of accessibility is that events like ADC and NAMM are not events about this specific topic. Accessibility is a growing part of it. I think that's actually very important that accessibility concerns and new developments are presented to the music community at-large. Not to say that events specifically around accessibility aren't also very important, but they each serve a different and necessary role.

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