Are Smart Collaboration Tools Meeting Diverse User Needs?

With waves of innovation in the AI of UC, a call to ensure no user is left behind

Are Smart Collaboration Tools Meeting Diverse User Needs?

I remember maybe 20 years ago, helping a friend prepare for a job interview. It was a position for which he was eminently qualified, managing a team of estates staff looking after a university campus. But one of the application requirements was a huge stumbling block, as he had been asked to prepare and deliver a presentation to the interview panel, on some aspect of the work.

Nowhere in the job spec nor his work history to date had ever needed expertise using Powerpoint. So this created an unfair selection process for the candidate, and skewed the process of finding the best person for the role for the organisation – something of a lose-lose.

I was reminded of this very situation when talking to a neurodiverse software developer recently, who had a new contract with a remote team. He is an exceptionally talented programmer – but someone who really struggles with the kind of text-based collaboration platform that that team, and every other team, now runs on. He works as brilliantly collaborating in lines of code in mob programming as he does on his own, but not in words.

However, being able to chat, banter, delegate, handoff and discuss that code in written text has now become part of that professional role, to his significant detriment.

New digital environments demand new skills

Speaking to Jane Hatton from specialist recruitment agency Evenbreak, she confirmed my concerns that these requirements can cause additional obstacles for disabled candidates: “The need to be computer-literate, as well as literate, can be a barrier for many”. While collaboration platforms facilitate home-based working and other practical benefits for disabled jobseekers, they increasingly also demand communication skills which many take for granted, but which may not be required in terms of the professional role itself.

This is something which platforms are having to respond to, and accessibility expert Nic Steenhout recently stated, “Slack is getting better, but I still have blind colleagues who ask for important info to be emailed rather than shared on Slack, for reasons of access”. In the same way that ‘shadow IT’ can be the product of tools that don’t meet users needs sufficiently, ‘shadow UC’ is the inevitable outcome of workarounds forced on users by rigid tools. (Slack does support screen reader use, but it looks really complicated, and the challenge is that such complications exclude those who have different needs, and are the experts in the specialist tech they need in order to get their work done).

AI and ML can level the playing field

So it’s good to see Microsoft Teams responding to this with tools such as Immersive Reader – which recognises that an inability to engage easily with written text on a screen does not correlate with a need or ability to understand that information, and offers new ways for help readers view the text in the most helpful way to them.

With all the investment and acquisitions in AI and cognitive layers to UC tech that we have been reporting on this platform, it is to be hoped that things will continue to improve. Already we have evidence that Microsoft’s 2018 $25m commitment to AI for Accessibility is paying dividends, in the form of improved interaction between users and software.

As AI for Accessibility describes it:

“AI is able to listen, see and reason with increasing accuracy. By making software and devices more intelligent, and still accessible, people gain independence to carry out their daily tasks and can customise the tools for their specific needs”

And just as in the physical world, environmental adaptations which make things better for disabled users – accessible buildings, visual cues, wide parking spaces – all make things easier for majority users too.


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