Podcast Episode 21 - Interview with EasyChirp Creator Dennis Lembree

This week on the IAP, we talk with Dennis Lembree, creator of EasyChirp, an accessible interface for Twitter.

Show Notes & Links


Announcer: This is the IAP - Interactive Accessibility Podcast with Mike Guill and Mark Miller. Introducing Mike Guill and Mark Miller.

Mark: Hey, welcome to the IAP. Thanks for helping us keep it accessible. Do us a favor. If you're enjoying the IAP, share it. Tell someone about it. Hey, even link to it from your accessible website. Mike, how are you doing?

Mike: Pretty good, Mark. We have a guest this week.

Mark: We do! This is kind of a special episode of the IAP because it's the first time we've had a guest. So why don't you introduce him, Mike.

Mike: Alright! Well, I'll let him introduce himself. Dennis, you want to say a bit about who you are and what you come from and what you do?

Dennis: Sure! Thanks, guys. My name is Dennis Lembree. I live outside of San Jose, the south bay of San Francisco. In the day, I work at Paypal on the accessibility team. At night, I have two projects that I work on. One is WebAxe.org, a blog and sometimes a podcast that I've been for eight years. And then I also do EasyChirp.com or EasyChirp.org. It's the web-accessible Twitter application.

Mark: Nice! So before we even got on the podcast, we're all chatting, you said that out on the west coast where you are, it's getting cold. So can you tell me what the temperature is that you're complaining about, that's cold over there?

Dennis: It was pretty cold last night, the lowest at like 48 or so.

Mark: And when I took off for my run this morning here on the northeast coast, it was 26°.

Dennis: That's cold.

Mark: So I think our definition of cold is kind of different from each other.

Dennis: Yes. Although I did grow in Michigan, so I do know what cold is like.

Mark: You know. You know what it's like. You know what I mean? You just maybe happily forgotten.

Dennis: Yes.

Mark: So now tell us a little bit about EasyChirp here. Mike and I were having a conversation about you prior to the podcast and he was telling me that you actually started this a while back under the banner of Accessible Twitter. And then it became EasyChirp. What I want to know about it is what you inspired you to start something this cool? And where is it today? It sounds like you stay up with it pretty well and you've gone through several iterations of it.

Dennis: Yeah. Well it's currently being re-launched and you could access it and log in, try it out on EasyChirp.org. I call it the soft beta re-launch. It all started in early 2009. I became an active Twitter user. I've been in the accessibility business for a while and I noticed there were some things about the Twitter website that weren't accessible. It's only been recently since Twitter.com has been making like some real improvements. But for a while there, the keyboard accessibility was pretty bad. So I saw there was a lot of room for improvement and someone suggested to me, "Why don't you use their API and just create a whole new one?" I'm like, "Okay."

Mark: And when you say their keyboard interaction or keyboard accessibility was really bad, you mean that it really required somebody to use a mouse to effectively interact with Twitter at the time. Is that what you're saying?

Dennis: Yeah. Yeah, at the time, the reply and the favorite links weren't even accessible by keyboard and most things that were accessible by keyboard, there was no clear visual focus indicator. The screen is barely, barely doable if at all. Nowadays, the website is a lot better thanks to Todd Klutz who's heading up that effort over there.

Mark: Nice.

Dennis: But you know, the difference between my app and their app is like just mine – well, by the name, it's now called EasyChirp. It started as AccessibleTwitter.com. I went through a name change. Part of the reason is because I wanted to take the word accessible out of there just because you've got to admit, there's a little bit of a stigma with that word.

Mike: Right, right.

Dennis: And I wanted to take the word Twitter out of the name of the app.

Mike: Well, I was going to say, Dennis, that's actually a really good point that you bring up, that there's a stigma around the word accessibility, which is a little bit too bad. I was at the Boston Accessibility. I'm not going to remember the name of the gentlemen off the top of my head, but I listened to a guy who puts in one of the big issues he said he has is that if he calls a game accessible, he blocks out like a whole group of the market – being like a whole market where people go, "Oh, this is a game for blind people and it's no fun for us." And that's not at all that he's trying to do. I don't know that it's necessarily what you're trying to do. He's trying to make a game that's fun – and oh, by the way, if you have a disability, then you can still enjoy this game. So I think it's an interesting thought you have there. I'm curious to find out how well it worked for you or if you got a new audience when you re-branded that way.

Dennis: That's pretty much the same line of thinking that I had. Also, EasyChirp is a lot shorter than the Accessible Twitter, so it's a much better handle for tweets.

Mike: It doesn't chew up your allotted characters.

Dennis: Yeah. That reasoning is pretty much the same. So for screen readers, I still think the experience on EasyChirp is a little more easy and straightforward than Twitter.com, but there are many other reasons why the app can appeal to someone. First of all, it's just a lot easier to use. For someone who's a beginner at Twitter or maybe someone who has a cognitive impairment or someone who just wants a really clean, easy layout.

Mike: I was going to say, I could tell you from personal experience that there are Twitter websites (and sometimes the Twitter app), if you have a limited bandwidth connection, it's a horrible experience. I'll give you a real world example. And Dennis, you've been sitting beside when this happened. We had a conference somewhere where the wireless connectivity is in high demand. And so not only can you not always count on getting a good connection, but it's going to be slow. So you either use the very slow wireless connection at the conference or you use your hotspot or something, which is like a dial-up. When you're on that, EasyChirp is a way better experience because the page loads fast. You can use it on your tablet or on your phone or on your laptop. It doesn't matter.

Dennis: Right! That was kind of the idea. It's just like a universal design. It's very light. So if you're on a really heavily-trafficked WiFi or if you're on dial-up in the middle of Nebraska somewhere, it's still going to work pretty well. Not only that, but if for some reason you don't have Javascript on your device or browser (or you don’t want Javascript or whatever), it's still fully-functional. So if you're on a text-only browser or whatever...

Mike: Yeah, I can say from experience there that I've used EasyChirp on a flip phone and Opera Mini in text-only...

Mark: Nice.

Dennis: Oh, sweet.

Mark: Well, you know, Mike, you and I talk about this a lot like this universal design where there's a kind of accessibility stigma like we talked about and that really, accessibility people are trying to get the rest of the world to embrace this idea of universal design, which would include accessibility. So Dennis, I guess that's what I'm kind of impressed with here is that early, you sort of recognized all this. And instead of saying accessible Twitter, you said easy, which if we think about universal design, I think that that's a great word. We're looking to make things easy – easy for somebody with disability, easy for the mom that's in a rush with the kids tugging on her and she's out in the bright sunlight – and I'm not talking about just Twitter, but I'm talking about anything. She's got to do something quick on her iPhone. She's not going to find a little button. She's not going to be able to find that thing that's really low contrast because the sun is on her eyes. She's going to be half there cognitively when she does it because she's got all these other distractions sort of spinning around her. And so easy, I just love that word for this product and I think it was just a great choice and I think it's a great flagship out there for that kind of universal design and demonstrating how accessibility really is that universal design.

Dennis: Yeah, thanks. I think the name works well. You kind of brought up a couple of other points about the app. It has high color contrast, so if you're on a tablet outside or something, it should still be visible or let keyboard accessibility or something in there that remind me of that. It's very keyboard-friendly. So if you're a sighted keyboard user, you're going to love EasyChirp. The focus indicators are very good. The interaction, there's a lot of focus management going on, so you don’t have to mouse-click and do something that you really wanted to type into and stuff.

Mark: So you recently just revamped EasyChirp?

Dennis: Yeah. So what happened was six months ago EasyChirp, I had closed down their original API, the application programming interface to get at the data for Twitter. I had delayed more than I should have. I wasn't even positive if I was going to go ahead and revamp the site and re-do it with the new API. I kind of wanted to, but I wasn't sure.

Mark: Because you were kind of impressed with the progress they've made in accessibility?

Dennis: Well, that was part of it, but I wasn't sure about it at the time or if the community...

Mark: Personal reasons as well.

Dennis: Yeah, and if the community even wanted it or not. So when I was at CSun last February or March, a few folks told me that they really like the app and they would really like to see it continue. They used it and blah-blah-blah. Somebody suggested I do a Kickstarter. So that's what I did. I ran a Kickstarter.

Mark: Oh, seriously?

Dennis: Yeah.

Mark: That is cool!

Mike: Yeah.

Dennis: Yeah, I made the goal. So once it made the goal, I pretty much had to do it, no. But it was fun. I got one helper, Andrew Woods up in Seattle. He helped with a little more in the PHP techie kind of stuff. We worked together on Git (borrowed from Dirk Ginader's Pro Git account, so thank you, Dirk). So it took a few months, a little longer than I was hoping. I thought maybe about four months. And then I did the soft beta re-launch about a month ago and now we're just working out a few more issues and then hopefully in a few weeks, we'll get the official launch up on EasyChirp.com, but it is available on EasyChirp.org right now.

Mark: Nice.

Mike: Yeah, I've been checking out the beta. It's pretty cool.

Dennis: Thanks, yeah. Some people say they were surprised because it's not much different than the old one. That was kind of the point because I thought the design and evthign fit the needs of the app. I liked it. I made a few little modifications. The back-end is completely re-written. The front-end code, I moved to HTML 5 and some other little things, but on the surface, to a regular user, it looks really similar to the old one. The main difference is this is it's faster due to the new architecture in the back-end, but also, just as much due to the new Twitter API that's faster than the old one. So that made it a lot better.

Mark: Do you have metrics around uses for this at all or downloads or something like that. I know it's probably awesome when you go to some convention and people are talking about I and saying, "Hey can you keep this up. We love it."

Dennis: I haven't checked recently, but I did throw in a Google Analytics, Javacript to the bottom of the pages. My usage has been – let's see, pretty consistent. I guess you could say...

Mark: But you know you've got a bunch of people out there using it. It's not like three people have downloaded this and you love it so much, you just keep doing it. You've got a base out there of people that you know are using that.

Dennis: I have several hundred years. It's not as many as I would like to see. I wish more advocates would use the app. But at the same time, it's there for anyone who might need to use it for any reason. But like you mentioned before, it shows the community and the web development community that you can make a totally robust, light-weight accessible social media application that's totally has graceful degradation and everything. And you can do that in HTML 5.

Mark: Well, it's interesting hearing you talk. I've got a couple of things that come to mind. One is I think you're going to be flooded now with people downloading that because you're on the IAP.

Dennis: Awesome!

Mike: Yeah, I think both people who are listening are going to go to the URL right now.

Mark: Yeah, right. Yeah, those two people are going to go out right away. No, but seriously, for you guys who are listening, go check this thing out even if you're happy with what you have. Give it a whirl. If you're learning about accessibility, interested in accessibility or an accessibility expert, I think you need to check it out and just see what that universal design kind of concept looks like when it ends up in the palm of your hand.

Mike: Well, you know what? Get the bookmark and save it before you need it because I can tell you, it comes in handy. The only cost is really the cost of the time it's going to take you to make a bookmark on your tablet or your phone or whatever because you're going to find yourself somewhere with a crappy cell signal or Internet connection and you're going to wish you have something light weight like that.

Mark: Or like in the middle of a dessert in Arizona with the sub beaming down on you and you're like, "I've got to tweet. Need water" and you're going to wish you had that app.

Mike: Maybe you, Mark.

Mark: Maybe me, right. And the other thing I think is really cool here that kind of sprung out of this is that Kickstarter campaign. It occurred to me when you were talking about that, Dennis that Kickstart is a really cool kind of thing. In a way, it's almost a bit of accessibility for the average Joe that can't necessarily pull together a big business plan and go out and get investors and do all these kind of stuff because they don't know how, because they don't have the time, because they've got other priorities.

Dennis: Exactly!

Mark: So Kickstarter, it's a way of being accessible as well not necessarily from a digital access standpoint. And I think that that's really cool. I also think that if you're out there, if you're listening to this and you have an idea that can help people out especially in accessibility if we can plug that ourselves, but with anything, this Kickstarter campaign is a way to move things forward and maybe put something out there that's useful to a group of people that you wouldn't otherwise be able to do. So I think it's really cool that you leverage that kind of new way of doing things to revamp what essentially is an old product for you.

Dennis: Yeah, it was a great opportunity to take. I'm glad Kickstarter accepted my proposal because they don't accept everybody's proposal for campaigns.

Mark: Really?

Dennis: Yeah, yeah.

Mark: That's interesting. See, I've never used Kickstarter. That would be a good question. How was your experience overall and what was the general process that you went through to get this through Kickstarter.

Dennis: Well, obviously, I had to write a proposal, then submit. Then they replied. They requested that I add certain information. I did not add one thing that they asked for, but I did add a couple of screenshots of the old app and a couple of other pieces of information. And then they approved it.

Mark: Right.

Dennis: Yeah, they suggested for incentives, you could do different levels of backing, like certain amounts. So if you gave over a hundred dollars, then I send you stickers and stuff or something like that. I gave away some t-shirts and I can't remember exactly what the levels were. I mailed out a lot of stickers and some t-shirts. So if you find me in a conference, I still have some stickers that I put in my bag. Come ask me.

Mark: I want a sticker even though I didn't donate.

Dennis: That's right. I was AHG outside Denver a couple of weeks ago and gave away some stickers. That was fun!

Mark: And that's when you interviewed our fearless, Kathy Wahlbin too, right?

Dennis: Yes, yes. Just a couple of weeks ago. So I haven't put out a podcast myself on WebAxe since January. I've obviously been busy. So interviewed a few folks at Accessing Higher Ground and also, besides Kathy, Jamie Johnson and Greg Krauss. Those two folks work in higher ed. But yeah, I had a little talk with them and put together a little podcast on WebAxe.org.

Mark: And we'll make sure that we – well, we'll make sure in the show notes that we put links to all your stuff so people can check out the website and also EasyChirp and find that podcast.

Mike: Yeah, we'll put it all in the show notes, the links and stuff.

Dennis: Great! Cool!

Mark: Well, Mike, do you have anything else for Dennis?

Mike: No, you covered it all, man.

Mark: Come on!

Mike: We can sit and chat with Dennis for hours though. I mean, it'd be a super long episode.

Dennis: I have one assignment for you all.

Mark: Okay, yes. We're listening.

Dennis: So when you log into EasyChirp, do the page zoom and do the Ctrl-plus and see how far you can get and you're set up. That's your assignment.

Mark: So page zoom, Ctrl-plus.

Dennis: Yeah. Well, you can do text zoom if you want, but most people by default set up a page zoom nowadays. Go to EasyChirp and do a page zoom more than several times. See how far you can get until it breaks.

Mike: I can go deep away.

Mark: Are we reporting this back to you are you just flexing your accessibility muscles here with this demonstration?

Dennis: Actually, that's the point. Thank you. You can report back to me on Twitter of course @easychirp. I also have two other accounts, @webaxe for the blog and then my personal account is @dennisl.

Mark: And by the way, if you do tweet at Dennis, he will respond about as quickly as you press send. He responds back. My first contact with Dennis was to tweet at him. It was like instantly, I get this tweet back like, "I'm in the middle of listening to a presentation at a conference. Can you shoot me an email with details on it. I was like, "Wow, that's a fast respond for somebody who's busy."

Dennis: This is true. I am on Twitter a lot.

Mark: Yeah. Go figure, right?

Mike: You see, that's how he handles his [inaudible 00:22:59]. If he doesn't get a response back immediately, he's too busy for it to go by the sides. Get that off the desk right away, right?

Mark: Right!

Dennis: Yeah, that's kind of true. I just get it out of the way, so I don't have to remember too many things.

Mark: Exactly!

Mike: Well listen, Dennis, I really appreciate you coming on with this. I was thinking before you came on about how we all have celebrities that we look up to. It could be a celebrity in Hollywood. It could be a celebrity with something personal. I do the martial arts, so I have these certain people that I would love to meet. We have this sort of personal celebrities – just following your tweets, going through your website, kind of hearing people talk about you all the time. You were sort of this mystical celebrity dude that I was really excited to meet and you didn't disappoint. This was a great podcast. And I just love to hear people who dig in and do something because they believe in it like EasyChirp and like WebAxe. So I just have to say it was very cool having you on. I think you're a fantastic first guest for the IAP here.

Dennis: Yeah, thanks a lot, man.

Mark: Yeah. And I know Mike thinks highly of you too because he's one of the people that talked about you.

Mike: In fact, I should've started off this show with my story about the first meeting with Dennis.

Dennis: Oh, geez!

Mark: What was that? Is it quick? Can we do it?

Mike: Remember, Dennis? It was Access U in Austin.

Dennis: Oh, yeah! Oh, at the airport? Well, we met. But then at the airport, we were like delayed and we hang out together.

Mike: Yeah;, we both got delayed for like another day or two. We had to camp in the airport. No, it wasn't that long. It was like a couple of hours, but...

Dennis: Yeah, where you guys are all sprawled out on the floor. Your stuff is everywhere and like, "Oh, we're stuck!"

Mike: If you've ever been to that Austin Airport, it's not that big of a place. There's only a few places we can go. We kept running into each other every ten minutes.

Mark: I haven't been in that airport. I've only been in the DFW, but I could imagine.

Mike: It's significantly smaller than DFW.

Mark: Is it?

Dennis: It's a nice airport. I like how they have the stage with music by the bar and they have like – what's it called? The South Leak.

Mike: Yeah, they have the South Leak out there.

Dennis: Basically like six street transposed into an airport, the South Leak.

Mike: Not quite six streets, but yeah.

Mark: Well listen, Dennis, if ever I am caught in an airport, I hope you're there to hang out with me too.

Dennis: Yeah, I can be fun at times.

Mark: Alright! Well, listen, thanks a lot, Dennis. I really appreciate you jumping on with us. And like I said, I'm honored to have you as the first guest for the IAP. I hope to have you back again some time.

Dennis: Thanks, Mark. Thanks, Mike. I'll talk to you guys later.

Mark: Alright! Well, this is Mark Miller thanking our guest, Dennis Lembree. Mike, that's your cue.

Mike: To say what? Who I am?

Mark: Yeah! This is Mark Miller. Come on, let's do it. Try it again. This is Mark Miller...

Mike: ...and Mike Guill...

Mark: ...reminding you to keep it accessible.

Announcer: The IAP - Interactive Accessibility Podcast brought to you by Interactive Accessibility, the accessibility experts. You can find their Access Matters Blog at Interactiveaccessibility.com/blog


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