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Access for All

Designing tools for scientists, with all user capabilities in mind.

A white woman smiles. She wears a brightly patterned collared top over a black shirt and is in front of a cosmic background. Her shoulder-length, light brown hair is full and blonde at the tips.
Jenn Kotler

Have you ever thought about the people who design the websites you use? Jenn Kotler, a user experience designer within the Barbara A. Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST) at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), may be someone you didn’t realize you admire. She designs tools researchers use to search and analyze telescope data. While developing each product, she iterates with users to ensure it is intuitive and gives them freedom and control to complete their analyses. Here, she shares why she turned her focus to producing accessible products, meeting users wherever they are.

Why did you work to make MAST’s data more accessible for people who use assistive technologies like screen readers and magnification tools?

A few years ago, I worked on a sonification package called Astronify, which allows scientists to map data to sound and experience the data in a completely different way. As I was gathering feedback from scientists and technologists with disabilities, I quickly learned that many data analysis tools are not accessible to people who rely on assistive technology like screen readers and braille readers. We publish a lot of MAST resources in Jupyter Notebooks, which provide a great introduction to coding and make data very visual, but break when you navigate them with screen readers. Since STScI staff have some freedom to explore new, valuable ideas—and I felt this was important—I received permission to dedicate some time to address this issue. I pulled together a team of colleagues and external contributors to tackle the problem.

We did a lot of research and usability testing with people who are blind and visually impaired. One of our developers drafted a prototype of an exported HTML notebook that can be navigated well with a screen reader. Although the Jupyter Notebook is not interactive in this format, all of the content it contains is easily readable. An important future step will be to apply what we’ve learned to interactive notebooks, because accessing information is only the first step required for science. Screen reader users also need to interact with and analyze data. In time, I hope this prototype, called Astronomy Notebooks for All, will influence all of the notebooks we share at STScI. While this fix doesn’t fully solve the problem, we have made a lot of progress.

One way we shared this work more broadly was by hosting an Accessible Notebooks Hackathon. During the event, we presented best practices we gathered from our usability research and helped attendees edit their own notebooks. These recommendations will be updated as more people contribute what they learn while doing similar work. Since this event, teams outside the institute have picked up what we started and are building on it. For example, I hosted a notebook accessibility hackathon with staff at the Vera C. Rubin Observatory. They are eager to figure out the best ways to publish their resources in accessible formats.

You also led the institute’s Day of Accessibility. How did that project arise? What are a few highlights?

We hosted the Day of Accessibility to share STScI’s work in accessible science with an event that was open to the public. I collaborated with Patrick Smyth, a blind technologist who runs the Iota School, to organize the event. The day included a keynote speech by research scientist and MacArthur Fellow Joshua Miele, who specializes in accessible technology design, along with sessions about Jupyter Notebook accessibility, data sonification, and our approach to writing immersive descriptions of our images, known as alt text.

At the end, Patrick asked audience members to activate their phones’ screen readers. The room got pretty loud, and for the first time the sighted users in the audience began to understand how people who use screen readers navigate their phones.

Overall, I hope the event helped shift attendees’ perspectives. I want the science community to understand that everyone contributes to how inclusive or exclusionary our culture is, especially people who build tools. We all need to keep accessibility in mind.

What are the broader benefits of designing with accessibility as a requirement?

Often when you design a novel solution to enable people with specific constraints to execute a task, the feature helps many more people than you might anticipate. A common example is the curb-cut effect. Curb cuts are designed for wheelchair users, but everyone uses them. Think about someone pushing a stroller or carrying large boxes. Or short dogs, like mine, who don’t like hopping off curbs.

There’s a real culture of openness and constant improvement at the institute. The people I work with care about accessibility and want to apply that to the data we share. Every one of us is invested in asking questions and broadening our perspectives.

As a user experience designer, decisions I make can directly impact someone’s ability to conduct their science with MAST data. I take that very seriously, because I believe that access to education and knowledge is the best tool that people have to improve their lives.

What do you like most about your work at the institute?

I love that our goal is to give access to information to everyone as quickly as possible. We’re committed to free and open-source science!

Article updated February 2024.