October 30, 2023
Abby Wing

Abby Wing is a recent graduate of UMass Amherst, who double majored in English and History, minored in French and Information Technology, and earned a certificate in Professional Writing and Technical Communication (PWTC). Abby also completed an undergraduate honors college thesis related to web accessibility, blending the fields of technical writing and user experience (UX) together. Furthermore, she also held an internship with UMass Amherst IT. This interview was conducted during the spring 2023 semester while Abby was still taking classes. She is currently pursuing a career in technical writing and UX. For more information, please visit her LinkedIn Profile.

I know you're currently working on your honors thesis which is focused on web accessibility. Can you explain how you came to the idea for this project?

Right now I’m completing the PWTC certificate program through the English Department, and from those classes I learned a lot about web accessibility. I was taught concepts like the social model of disability and general problems that people with disabilities may face when using a website. I learned about a theory called Universal Design, which is essentially making websites and designing them with all users' needs in mind, including people with disabilities. This was an idea that was really pioneered by disability advocates. Through learning about web accessibility, general disability, and the importance of adding proper semantic HTML to web pages, I realized this was something I wanted to do more research on. Having a good background in accessibility is pretty essential going into technical writing or UX.

Once I had the idea of doing a thesis related to accessibility, the next step was thinking about which websites I wanted to look at. I was initially considering a couple different options and ended up settling on the UMass financial aid websites, which deal with cost information like tuition, housing costs, food costs, and scholarship information. I thought of focusing specifically on those pages since those are high traffic pages for prospective and current students. If their first impression of UMass is an inaccessible one, then that’s not great. I remember looking through those pages as a prospective student and being confused by a lot of the information. So, I thought that by focusing on those pages it would do a lot for not only recruitment, but also improving equity and access to important financial information for all users, not just students with disabilities.

You mentioned earlier that your PWTC classes helped bolster this idea. Are there other parts of your UMass education or experience that you drew upon as you undertook this project?

I’m an IT Communications Intern at UMass doing various types of technical writing like writing FAQs and quick start guides. I’m currently working on a project that involves revising user interface (UI) text in Joynow, which is an application used to connect to Eduroam. That project made me aware of a lot of accessibility issues within the text that’s in that interface. Overall, my internship project is thinking about the UI in terms of the text on the screen, how things are laid out, making sure that there are familiar elements like using red to indicate errors and green for progress. I think that has blended pretty well into my thesis project, which has to do with best practices for accessibility. Having this foundation for my thesis paired well with that project, and I was able to develop UI best practice guidelines for IT communications. However, in terms of inspiring the thesis in itself, I think it was mostly the PWTC courses that had an impact on me.

For people who don’t know what a usability test is, can you describe what it is and why do we need one?

Put very simply, a usability test is a way to make sure that a website or app is easy for people to use and a way to identify possible problems. There are two different types of usability tests: qualitative and quantitative. When you’re doing qualitative usability testing you’re having users go through a set of tasks, and you are listening to them think out loud and watching what they do as they go through the tasks. This involves them explaining any confusion they have, observing their reactions to things on the page, and asking them about general impressions like “How did you find getting to this information? Did you find anything difficult about that task?”

Quantitative usability testing is typically more involved with gathering metrics, meaning it has more to do with things like task completion rates. These rates are a measure of the exact amount of time that it takes users to accomplish a certain task, like finding information on a specific page and then comparing the numbers.

For my usability testing I decided to use qualitative testing. A range of 5 to 8 participants is good because one participant's experience is not representative of every person; having multiple perspectives is really helpful. I tried to get participants who identified as having different disabilities, such as cognitive disabilities like ADHD, learning disabilities like dyslexia, and physical disabilities like low vision. This was to make sure I had a representative pool and understood different experiences. But again, one person with a disability does not represent every person with that disability, so it's important to take the findings with a grain of salt.

How would you define online accessibility? When you were doing this test, what did you prioritize?

For me, online accessibility means that everyone has the same access to information. This means that a person with a disability doesn't have to go through a different system to find the information–that the information is presented in a way that is easily findable and usable for all users. An example of this would be formatting information in a table that has proper HTML, so a screen reader user can go through that table and find what they need. Without the proper HTML markup behind the website, then screen reader users who, say, have low vision cannot access the information in that table. But, [proper HTML] also benefits all users who can see things structured in a well formatted table. So online accessibility is making sure that accessibility is built into web interfaces while not making it look obvious that it’s designed for people with disabilities, and making sure everything is designed with a range of users in mind.

What connections do you see between this project and your career path?

My thesis is very related to the career I want to do, and I had that in mind when I was thinking about what kind of a thesis I wanted, which was to have something that not only leaves an impact on UMass but also that I can use in my professional portfolio. My thesis will hopefully be used to revise some of those financial aid pages, as I’m sending it to University Relations so that they can have access to my test findings. One of the PWTC courses that I took, which was about creating an online portfolio of work samples, helped me to start thinking about what kinds of samples I wanted to include–namely, a usability test and report. Basically, my thesis allowed me to show skills and familiarity with concepts related to UX and technical writing by focusing on accessibility, usability, and personas.

What’s been your most challenging part of your thesis and how did you overcome it?

I’d say there were two parts, the first part was recruiting participants; that was really rough. I didn’t give myself enough time to do that and that’s mostly because I didn’t have a monetary incentive for participants to join the testing, so to overcome that I needed to explore all avenues. I hung posters around campus, and when I realized that I wasn’t getting a lot of responses from that I kept doing different things. I asked the head of the Assistive Technology Center if I could put up a poster there, I talked about my testing in front of English classes, and I advertised it in the Writing Center (where I worked as a tutor)–all different places. I think that helped a lot, and it increased recruitment. In the end, I got 10 responses, which was my target.

The second part of the challenge was that I’m doing an individually contracted thesis. Typically for the thesis there’s an option of a seminar, where there’s deadlines set by a professor and you have the support of peers going through a similar process. But, with individually contracted theses you’re the one who’s setting all of the deadlines, and you have to be accountable to yourself. I think for me it was a matter of making sure I’m on top of the deadlines I set for myself at the beginning of the semester, because no one was chasing me down throughout that process. That has been a challenge, but I think it’s a useful skill to have, especially in my future career when I’m expected to work independently to get projects done by certain deadlines.

Have you gotten assistance along the way? Whether from a person, professor, or department.

Last (fall) semester I was in a group of other students doing individually contracted theses in the English department. Professor Janis Greve, who's in charge of departmental honors for English, contacted all of the students who were doing the individually contracted thesis in English. This led to meetings every Thursday, where we ate pizza and discussed our thesis processes and asked any questions we had. That helped me in refining the scope of my project while also learning about what other cool things students in English were doing. Hearing their feedback on my thesis helped a lot when I was initially thinking about my testing, who to recruit and what exactly I wanted to focus on in my literature review.

How were you able to balance schoolwork and doing a thesis? Do you have any tips for students undergoing this process next year?

I think the biggest thing was setting aside time for myself in the week, specific times I was going to work on my thesis as opposed to other work. Having that space helped keep me on track in the sense I told myself “I have to work on my thesis now.” Another big thing that helped was weekly meetings with Professor Solberg, who was my thesis faculty advisor. In those meetings I would ask her questions and talk about my progress, then she gave me feedback. I think having the support of my advisor has been the number one most helpful thing,  because otherwise I wouldn't know if I was doing the right thing. It’s helped me stay on track, it’s helped me learn about different resources and helped me to revise the report that I'm currently writing.

My advice for students doing a thesis in the future is to make sure you’re asking the right questions during weekly or biweekly meetings with your faculty advisor. Something that helps me do that is to create an agenda before every meeting, and in that agenda I talk about the progress that I’ve made, any questions that I have, the deadlines that I’ve set for myself and any general updates. By doing that I have a sense of what I want to discuss in those meetings, so it’s a lot more structured than showing up and not knowing what to talk about while also helping me get the most out of those meetings.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Written by DCI Kate Bergeron.