So … chances are, when you think of accessibility, the Oil and Gas industry may not be the first thing that comes to your mind. After all, Roughnecks are known for their arduous and sometimes very specialized hard-labor skillset. But Roughnecks also aren’t the only people involved in Oil and Gas. The industry is littered with people from all types of backgrounds, from the guy with the GED that wanted to see the world, to the MIT grad in Seismology. But the one thing they all have in common? They all age.
In general, accessibility means that a device or product, or anything you can think of really, can be used by everybody. In the Oil and Gas industry, that doesn’t just apply to rigs, but also to the software they use every day to make the entire operation run — from seismic surveys to find the oil, to the software they use to track repairs of the equipment. For software, accessibility means anyone that may have visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, learning, and neurological difficulties can use the software. That means assistive technologies may be necessary to make the content or service provided by that same software accessible. And remember that in addition to those permanently affected, many more people experience temporary difficulties because of injury or environmental effects. So our Roughnecks certainly aren’t outside the boundaries of those that may be affected.
Still, the Oilfield industry is one of those steeped in tradition. Generally, a tradition relying heavily on a mentality of hard-labor, salt of the earth types, that believe almost anything can be solved with enough elbow grease and determination. Which typically translates to, we don’t have any blind people on oil rigs, so how does accessibility affect us?
Now if you’re like me, you’ve heard this question a “bajillion” times (yes, that’s a real number, my son swears by it). Maybe not the oil rig part but something similar. And honestly, that’s a tricky question to answer. Especially if you’re like me, because my initial response is, “because it’s the right thing to do!” But to be fair, and as a person who has had to consider this from the business side on more than a few occasions, the right thing to do isn’t always the right thing to do for your business. Consider though, for example, how many people you know who wear glasses or contact lenses. Without corrective lenses, it would be much more difficult for these people to access the content from the screen. And along with the storied tradition of the Oil and Gas industry, comes the people that are old enough to recall most of those traditions. And guess how many of them wear corrective lenses…
So I found my first in. But that wasn’t quite enough to change the tides of opinion. It was just the first bullet on my list of how accessibility effects “us.”
My next point of visibility came while running some user testing sessions with a prototype for the next big software project. To be clear, we didn’t do any recruiting for individuals with disabilities, we didn’t even ask for that as an option. It was actually the Business team that set up the individuals that would participate and the times for all interviews. So imagine my surprise when one of our participants stated he couldn’t complete a task because he was unable to see a color indicator. Ok, there wasn’t much surprise, and I had been warning of this eventuality for quite some time by this point. I wasn’t even surprised when it happened a second time. But imagine my real surprise when it happened a third time — with a twist. This participant completed the task but he stressed that many of the men that reported to him out in the field wouldn’t be able to because they were color blind, so he considered this attempt a failure.
Now safety is no joking matter on an oil rig, whether it’s on land or water. It is literally the first thing out of everyone’s mouths when you ask them what their goals are or what they consider to be a successful day. “Being able to go home to my family at the end of the day the same way I left in the morning.” It is not trite and it is not towing the company line. It is sincere and it is sacrosanct for those that risk the hazards of rig life. And nothing is allowed to get in the way of that safe job task, not even software. This wouldn’t be the case with the software this prototype represented, it had no risk of safety involved. But it still indicated the importance of inclusivity when designing software for a large segment of people. I had bullet number two.
On yet another research trip to find out how our users actually used the systems we built for them, I was introduced to bullets number three and four. In a maintenance facility in West Texas, I was discussing the potential merits of … well, I can’t get into that due to non-disclosures. But needless to say, it was some really cool stuff. When a certain audio solution that might have the potential to read things back to the mechanics was discussed, I met bullet number three. Now bullet number three was the hot-shot, top mechanic for the region. Well known for maximum effort, flawless work, and a smile that could warm your heart. Number three was not only the only female mechanic in several facilities I had visited, but she was also completely deaf. And although none of them had learned sign language, the folks in this facility were all quite aware of the need to not rely on sound alone for communication. So the voice system might still work, but it would require some additional thought if it wasn’t going to completely hinder their top performer. Which lead us to bullet number four.
I’m not sure how familiar any of you may be with oil field equipment, but I can assure you there is a concerted effort towards efficiency of space. There are giant trucks and tools used to pull this stuff from the earth, but they typically have to fit into teeny tiny spaces in order to fit them all around one relatively small hole. As a byproduct, many of the accesses on these trucks are extremely narrow walkways and passages that can at times require the grace of a dancer and the balance of a world class gymnast to traverse. Very tricky indeed when you are running about the spaces flipping levers, tightening hoses, and tugging on ropes or slings. But in the maintenance facility it’s a whole different world, because you’re not only fitting yourself in a space built for someone half your size … you’re typically doing it with a wrench in one hand and a very large repair part in the other while balancing on one precariously placed right foot and hopefully a solidly placed left foot. All the while expected to follow a set of instructions in a book so big it would buckle the legs of even the most robust coffee table. They are temporarily mobility challenged because they effectively can’t use their arms or legs to turn the page.
Another bullet might be the global nature of the industry. Unlike the Airline industry, the rules governing compliance are not specifically geared towards Oil and Gas in any country. They are simply geared towards the businesses that operate within their borders. And some of the top backend Enterprise Services are already touting their compliance to one degree or another. Enterprise Services the Oil and Gas companies all use. So building their front ends to be inclusive shouldn’t be that much of a stretch and it’s just smart business when you’re operating in countries with some fairly strict but potentially ambiguous governance on accessibility.
So how do you convince a company that tames dinosaurs to design inclusively?
As is usually the case, I think education and awareness are key factors in any effort to establish change. And if you can, finding a champion in upper management certainly can’t hurt. But the bottom line is accessibility makes usability better. Communicating that accessibility does not always mean additional efforts or resources should be a go-to bullet on anyone’s list of facts. I mean, if you think about it from the start … colors, font resizing and sufficient contrast are fairly easy considerations (or tweaks) when applied at the beginning of a project. So my answer … I’m not sure yet, I’m still working on it. But I think I’ve got a pretty convincing list started.