Michelle Poya Stands in Front of the San Francisco Ferry Building

Building Inclusive Digital Experiences through Universal Design

Michelle Poya is a lead user experience analyst for San Francisco Fed application services. Her job: ensure IT builds websites and apps that everyone can use.

Poor digital experiences are everywhere. “Submit” buttons that don’t work for keyboard-only users. Low-contrast color schemes that make text unreadable for people who are colorblind. Font sizes that are simply too small. The list goes on.

For many people, these poor experiences are a full-stop roadblock to getting things done.

“Striving for universal design is one of my passions,” Poya explains. “Too often, you see an accessibility review bolted onto projects as an afterthought. That’s not acceptable at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. We recognize that everyone wins when you bake inclusivity into digital experiences. It’s the same as having curb cuts on sidewalks or elevators in buildings—people who use wheelchairs depend on them and the public at large benefits from universal design across a vast range of abilities.”

Poya collaborates with a core multidisciplinary design and development team, and she regularly brings in others for user research sessions. That might mean running focus groups with stakeholders or running usability tests with employees at the San Francisco Fed’s in-house usability lab. Or it might mean partnering with LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired to test website prototypes with super-users of assistive software.

“I like what I do because I’m always helping people. Making interfaces and websites more interactive and user-friendly for people of all demographics,” she says.

Inclusion and diversity have grown as core values at the San Francisco Fed over the last few years. Poya has stepped up as an advocate for accessibility and universal design in the workplace as a FedAble employee resource group (ERG) leader. She’s coordinated a number of events to help employees learn more about what it means to live with various physical and cognitive challenges. American Sign Language training classes. Sensitivity training with LightHouse. A musical performance by a band whose members have autism.

“The idea is to build empathy and start conversations around if we’re unintentionally hindering someone from doing a job they’d otherwise be great at,” she says.

One of Poya’s favorite events was an inclusion pop-up experience. “With the craze for pop-up museums around the country, such as The Museum of Ice Cream and The Color Factory, I thought, why not do one focused on inclusion?”

The User Experience team partnered with FedAble to set up stations where employees could get a taste of what it’s like to live in someone else’s shoes. For example, they could try on gloves and try to pick up coins to simulate arthritis and other fine-motor challenges, or glasses that simulated visual impairment. Or they could explore various assistive technologies that help people do their jobs and navigate the world.

Poya credits her dad for imbuing her with an early awareness of the needs of others.

“He was always coordinating different events to do good for the community. He worked on building bridges between individuals who had Down syndrome, younger children, and senior citizens, for example. Many Christmas seasons, my family and I would deliver teddy bears to children’s hospitals. I learned from him at a very young age how to be compassionate and help others,” Poya reflects.

As Poya entered college, she wasn’t sure what kind of career would help her carry out her drive to help others. She studied communications and child development and thought of teaching. Looking for direction after graduating from San Diego State, she ended up working as a “high profile nanny,” caring for the children of several well-known actors.

Then Poya moved to San Francisco, deciding to leave child development behind and pursue a new career.

She worked as a customer loyalty representative for a daily deal site and quickly fell in love with being the “voice of the customer” in company meetings. She moved on to a social media analytics startup that required her to wear many hats. But she felt herself always coming back to the user experience.

“It all ties back to the users’ needs. I was the person who knew the most about what individuals wanted because I actually talked to them. From there it was a natural transition into conducting user research sessions,” Poya recalls.

Her role and skillset evolved.

When Poya saw that the San Francisco Fed was looking for a user experience analyst, she recognized herself in every detail. She applied and was hired, and has loved working at the Fed. It was here that she first got involved in inclusion, an area where she hopes to continue making a difference.

“I would love to continue to grow the inclusion and diversity initiative to make our workspaces even more accommodating,” Poya says.

With the FedAble ERG, Poya is also working to start a diversity employment program to hire more people who are differently-abled.

“Growing opportunity for disabled and differently-abled candidates is something we can all take pride in,” she says.