App Maker Spotlight: Ben Ogilvie
[Editor’s note: This is part of a series of articles about app makers, highlighting ArcTouch’s talented team members. The app makers we feature crave getting their hands on the latest products and finding creative new ways to apply technology to their projects.]
Most of us at ArcTouch love what we do because we enjoy using the technology and products that relate to our work. Sometimes, however, the work is even more personal — and more than just a simple passion.
For more than a decade, ArcTouch’s Ben Ogilvie has been a champion for digital accessibility. That’s because, in 2009, his father had a bicycling accident in Houston, Texas that left him paralyzed from the neck down. After the accident, Ben spent the next several months supporting his dad’s recovery and setting up a safe home environment where he could still live somewhat independently.
He configured a voice-controlled home computer setup — using a series of disparate tools — that allowed his dad to continue his work in commercial real estate. Ben says it was incredibly and unnecessarily difficult because most mainstream productivity tools were simply not designed to be accessible.
“We were lucky that I happened to know computers pretty well and could help him navigate the various tools,” Ben recently told me. “For many, a sudden disability can be career-ending, but it shouldn’t have to be.”
The experience undeniably shifted Ben’s perspective on the importance of developing digital products and tools that are — by default — accessible to all. While the tech industry has been slow to catch up, there’s been a recent shift toward creating more inclusive digital experiences. More companies are beginning to understand the business case for developing accessible apps and digital products.
I recently talked with Ben — who joined ArcTouch in 2013 as a product manager and now serves as head of accessibility — about his experiences as a product manager, along with his very personal connection with accessibility.
When did you first become passionate about accessibility?
It started with a personal life experience in 2009, while I was working at Apple. My dad had a bicycling accident and was paralyzed. At the time, he was in commercial real estate — not a job that lent itself to fully remote work. So, over the next six months, I helped figure out how to set up his computer to be completely voice-driven. We used a combination of custom software and extensions of software, on top of the basic accessibility that existed on the Mac at the time.
We were lucky that I happened to know computers pretty well and could help him navigate the various tools. But most people don’t have in-home IT support to figure that out. For many, a sudden disability can be career-ending, but it shouldn’t have to be.
An accident like that also limits people’s ability to stay in touch with family because travel becomes much more difficult. And learning new communication technology that isn’t designed for their disability becomes too much of a hurdle. And so it made me realize that there was a need for more default behavior in software to make it usable by people with different kinds of abilities and needs.
Fast forward to a few years ago, and COVID has made those needs even more apparent with more people working from home and remotely. Products that we build across all industries need to be more accessible and inclusive.
Tell me more about how the pandemic changed your view about accessibility.
When lockdowns happened, people across all industries found that they couldn’t go into the office to do their day-to-day work. Many people with disabilities were left behind. Big employers had the resources to help provide accessible workspaces in the office. But when those offices were closed, it left many out of the loop. Many of the apps and services that companies used to enable remote work weren’t yet accessible. Several of the makers of those tools have since updated their products to make them accessible. But that didn’t happen fast enough for many.
When you talk with clients and company leaders, how do you explain why accessibility is important?
Well for one, making things more accessible is the right thing to do. Nobody wants their brand to be associated with excluding customers. So there’s a goodwill aspect to it. Two, building accessible products will help them maximize their total addressable market (TAM). In our recent post about the business case for accessibility, we highlight that there are hundreds of millions to potentially billions of people who can benefit from inclusive design. And three, there’s more evidence today that brands that choose to invest in accessibility drive fierce customer loyalty — partly because not every brand chooses to focus on that. And so the brands that do prioritize accessibility have much higher retention rates than their competitors.
When it comes to developing apps and building digital products, are some companies still reluctant to make them accessible?
Unfortunately, yes. Of course, nobody wants to be actively excluding people. But when it comes down to it, there are timeline priorities and budget priorities. Historically, a lot of companies deprioritized accessibility because of those costs or they saw it as a product feature or something you just “get for free” from Apple and Google through the OS (not the case at all). But really, the best product leaders should view accessibility in the same way as product quality. You would never defer quality or performance and put them on some future product roadmap. And similarly, you shouldn’t delay accessibility — because later may never come. Also, it’s much easier to build a product that’s accessible from the beginning because it can affect every aspect of design and development.
In some cases, companies may also be forced to make their products accessible. Otherwise, they’ll end up facing a lawsuit from customers that are actively being excluded. It is far better to work on your company’s own timeline than to be forced into an accelerated timeline that disrupts your entire organization.
You started in technology by working in an Apple Store. Tell me about that.
I started in sales and later moved to the Genius Bar doing technical support. Then I worked at AppleCare, handling customer service escalations that came from the retail stores globally.
Did that help prepare you for being a product manager?
Definitely. Spending so much time face to face with customers helped me think like a user — to have empathy for what they were experiencing. Working at the Genius Bar, I engaged with customers who spanned the gamut in their experiences with technology. I got to see first-hand the way they interacted with different products, the adaptations and workarounds they used, and the challenges they encountered when things didn’t work the way they expected.
Hearing about the friction they had in using certain products — and learning how to empathize with them — was incredibly valuable. Also, performing technical troubleshooting helped me connect the dots between user experience and the technical capabilities of different products.
When I worked with AppleCare, part of my role was to help define the requirements for the employee-facing applications we built for iPad and Web that the retail store employees used for customer service. I learned how to create product requirements and prioritize features for apps, looking at it through the lens of a large organization.
You’ve been at ArcTouch for more than 9 years. That’s a long time, especially in tech.
Why has it been such a good fit?
ArcTouch is a company that truly cares for its people. I’ve been through a lot of different seasons of life in the last nine years. From continuing to support my dad, getting married, and having kids, to enduring the pandemic and even living through a hurricane here in Houston. And while a lot of agencies are famous for high turnover and burnout, ArcTouch has always made space for people to have life happen. A lot of companies pay lip service to work-life balance. But I’m proof that ArcTouch truly does support its people outside the confines of the office.
What’s one thing people don’t understand about app development?
The more you truly understand user problems, who you’re solving for, and what their life looks like, the more likely you are to make something that they will love. Something that makes their life easier. Something that makes an impact. If you can involve real users in the earliest product discussions and prototyping/testing, you will invariably build a more successful product.
What’s one thing that companies consistently get wrong with their apps?
Prioritizing things that are visually pretty or novel over functionality, usability, and accessibility. Of course, an app can look stunningly fantastic, but it must functionally deliver on its promise. It needs to solve that user problem in a way that delivers clear value. Pretty screens alone won’t do that.
Another common mistake is to defer “accessibility” to the future roadmap and launch an app without it. Some of the best practices for accessible app design make it a priority from the very beginning. Accessibility is not just a feature; it’s a mindset. The whole design and development team needs to rally and support it right from the start. And to retrofit an app later to be accessible is more expensive and difficult.
So if you could look ahead five years, how would your job look different?
I think we will be doing a lot more XR (extended reality) work. More brands are going to be focusing on creating experiences with wearable devices, virtual reality, and mixed reality. And so a company like ArcTouch will certainly be doing more applications in the XR realm. It’s imperative that the first experiences customers have in XR are inclusive rather than exclusive.