The Potential, the Pitfalls, and the Long Fight for Accessible Technology: An Interview with Prasanna Venkatesh
"There’s nothing worse than being ignored or treated as disposable by other people."
Conferences in Silicon Valley are well-known for bedazzling crowds with super screens, glossy gradients, disruption disco, and fireside chats, where platitudes like “human-centered design” are met with applause. In the before times, while attending a few of these conferences in the valley, I often took note of how artificial and exclusionary they felt, the same discussions repeated, the same voices repeating them. Which human, really, are we centering? And are we centering humanity at all when the devices in the room–phones, laptops, tablets, voice assistants, watches, VR headsets, and cameras–outnumber the humans? These devices, of course, promised greater access and connection to people, and yet, I walked away from these conferences feeling void of any connection to my own humanness, let alone a connection to another human. Enter Prasanna Venkatesh.
Prasanna and I met at a conference in Bangalore in November 2018. He waved hello, and as I approached him, we quipped about our height differences; I’m 5’5”, he’s 6’4”. At the time, I was a designer at Google Maps, and he was a designer at Swiggy, India’s largest food delivery app, headquartered in Bangalore. As we engaged in conversation, Prasanna wore a hearing aid to assist him. He has lived with hearing loss since birth. Relative to the other devices around us, this device augmented our connection with great significance. That conversation led to an ongoing friendship, which led to a design workshop we facilitated together at Swiggy, which led to this piece you’re reading now.
Prasanna is now a Director of Design at Swiggy, leading a team of twelve across a range of products. Swiggy operates in over 500 cities across India with twenty-million people using it every month. While in Bangalore in 2018, I watched a group of friends use the app to order thirty milkshakes, popcorn-flavored, at midnight. It arrived in 28 minutes. “You wanna search for food in India?” a friend asked, busting open the box with a pocketknife. “Just Swiggy it.”
In this interview, Prasanna discusses a complex accessibility prism: the access–and pitfalls–of living and working in an economy driven by convenience; growing up with hearing loss as a kid; how technology removes and creates barriers in his life; the disappointing discourse on Design and Tech Twitter; and what accessibility means in practice, particularly amid accelerating regulation, like the European Accessibility Act, set to be enforced in July 2025 for all private companies looking to sell their products or services in the European Union, regardless of where the company is based.
Prasanna and I chat on WhatsApp often. Although we live on opposite sides of the world, with different lived experiences, we share a common desire to agitate exclusionary approaches to innovation and industry. Last August, we talked again on Google Meet, joking about how our conversations were turning into a therapy of sorts. We decided to turn our conversations outward, with the hope of engaging more people on issues of accessibility. These conversations have been condensed and edited.
What was the impetus for embarking on a career in tech? Is it everything you thought it would be?
As a deaf baby from birth in an Indian household, growing up brought massive challenges to me and my family (I’ll touch on this soon). When the time came for me to start earning, my initial aim was to land a job anywhere and try to survive life itself.
Throughout my childhood, my speech was far from intelligible and I was dealing with difficult social situations in my engineering college. It was so bad that I failed 14 campus interviews, while all of my classmates got placed – all due to my speech issues. I underwent speech therapy to work on enunciation and articulation, which drastically improved my speech and allowed me to understand the importance of feedback loops when listening to yourself as you speak. This gave me a little more confidence. Luckily my college GPA was noted by Infosys, who hired me and gave me a second lease in life. The exposure I gained at Infosys prepared me for the next stage of my career, which turned out to be design. As a designer, tech is exactly how I predicted it would be; however, I underestimated the impact tech would have on the human race!
I feel that. In the last decade, what do you think is the biggest impact to humanity that the tech industry underestimated, or, unfortunately, undervalued?
Based on my experiences of leveraging technology to live more independently, there’s a massive opportunity to channel technology as a force for good and deliver a better quality of life for humans. With constant innovations in technology, complex tasks like medical diagnosis and treatment or banking have now become extremely simplified and powerful for daily use.
However, the last decade has ironically witnessed digital technology doing more harm than good. Companies are putting money into artificial intelligence and algorithms to create demand or scarcity on the web. We have all succumbed to the addiction of social media and convenience — it’s chipping away at our ability to be patient and develop sound interpersonal social skills year after year. It is sadly absurd that we’ve arrived at the point where smart suggestions are being offered to save us the effort of thinking and typing our answers!
It does feel like we’re losing agency and connection to our own preferences and decision-making skills in a world awash with Algorithms For You.
Tell me more about the significance of feedback loops. How do you define a feedback loop and in what ways did feedback loops impact your perspective on life or about yourself?
I consider a feedback loop to be an essential component of how one survives in life, by performing different actions and understanding which actions lead to beneficial outcomes and which actions lead to harm. It could be juxtaposed with the Darwinian concept of “survival of the fittest.” Essentially, strong feedback loops enable us to continually improve ourselves and be able to thrive as we move forward with the times.
In my own instance, I was able to recognize how better my speech was when I started using more of my tongue and nose to better enunciate some letters and vowels. My feedback loops essentially reflected that a better control over my vocal organs translated to better hearing and listening with hearing aids. No words can describe the palpable feeling of confidence I felt after the speech therapy sessions. I no longer felt like an outcast in society, and the subsequent feedback loops from my improving speaking abilities gave me the impetus to start interacting with strangers for the first time in decades.
How did you end up working at Swiggy?
I started my design career at Myntra, India’s leading fashion e-commerce site back in 2013, where I met my manager and mentor of nine years, Srinath Rangamani. Somewhere down the line, I felt under appreciated for my work at Myntra, and was looking to switch to a company where design was considered vital to the company’s growth, rather than just an obligatory role. Then Srinath moved to Swiggy to lead the design team there, and he coaxed me to join him. He mentored me through the three years I worked at Myntra, which allowed me to hone my design skills massively. It was only logical that I joined Swiggy to receive continued guidance from him.
Delivery apps like Swiggy have expanded access to food, groceries, and jobs. especially in cities with gridlock traffic. But the nature of designing for a delivery app is that it requires careful–and quick–thought for the entire delivery system and the people involved: the consumers, the delivery partners, the suppliers, and other essential workers, across 500+ cities in India. As a Director of Design, how do you help teams find a balanced perspective when considering this level of complexity?
Swiggy is a three-way street; the success of the platform starts with continued supply from our partner restaurants or Instamart stores, and hinges on the availability of delivery partners in the gig economy sector to be able to deliver their orders directly to customers – all this in under 40 minutes for food and under 25 minutes for grocery! Even if you are working on the consumer side of your product, you should always keep in mind the operational and logistical aspects. As a director of design, I try my best to ensure my team isn’t biased by their own experiences and try to cover all bases when coming up with the solutions. Our weekly reviews are handy in helping us keep track of use cases and scenarios we might have missed.
As consumers, I think we’re reaching this question of whether we’re looking at delivery apps in terms of what they do for the consumer or what they do for the worker. How do you ensure that your teams are considering the delivery partners in their designs? That their stories and labor doesn’t become invisible amid 25-minute delivery demands? And what can we do as consumers to care for and support essential workers in the gig economy?
Having done some deliveries myself and shadowing delivery partners, even at night, I am constantly reminded that they have the hardest job of all the stakeholders. They are the ones who move constantly throughout the day in difficult outdoor conditions to deliver hot food to customers. I’ve always made sure that my designers consider the role of delivery partners in their workflows, and we work with the delivery design team often. For example, Swiggy Genie is a pick up and drop service that requires a delivery partner to carry out the entire task, and we need to ensure the customer and delivery partner have an easy handoff and clear communication channels as much as possible. This will require design interventions on both the consumer and delivery apps, and hence, we have a shared project.
As a customer, the delivery apps we engage with should help us register that the delivery partner is a vital human component. At Swiggy, we try to incorporate interventions in the checkout and post-order flows to humanize the delivery experience, and enlighten customers about the actual person arriving at their doorstep. In difficult conditions like rain, extreme heat, or rush hours, we try to encourage customers to tip delivery partners for their efforts. On the delivery partner side, the team is coming up with better ways to provide flexibility in shifts and enable delivery partners to learn how to get more earnings.
Let’s go back to your childhood. Where were you born and what was it like where you grew up? Are there any lessons from childhood that have stuck with you?
I was born in Chennai, a city in South India. I was three when my parents found out that I was deaf. The school for deaf children where I was enrolled for a year advised my parents to make me learn sign language and stick to only English as a spoken language to survive in life, but my mum would have none of it. She basically flipped the finger by ensuring that I would be able to listen and communicate verbally instead of using sign language, and encouraged me to learn my native language Tamil along with English.
I was admitted into a prestigious school in Chennai, where I performed well academically for twelve years. Most of my classmates were friendly and cooperative, and my teachers empathized with my limitations as a deaf person. The irony is that while my school and my family ensured I didn’t have to struggle much to cope with life, they were in fact making me underprepared for the harsher realities that were to come.
It’s profound to learn how your mother preserved your native language amid potential erasure.
If it’s okay with you, I’d like to ask, what were some of the harsh realities that came?
People would stare at my hearing aids as if they were a physical abomination of sorts - their unwarranted curiosity gave me the shivers, and I always felt I was committing a sin in the eyes of society by wearing hearing aids. I spent a lot of time trying to cover my hearing aids, growing my hair a little longer, wearing a cap, because the stares behind my head cut through like butter every time I was subject to it. The trend continued through the end of my teenage years, and any shred of self belief I had was tattered.
When I joined engineering college and ended up in an institute with a more diverse population from all over Tamil Nadu, it marked four years of social anxiety and brewing inferiority complex. I never felt at ease due to the language barriers I faced, the very different and sometimes uncouth perspectives my classmates had, and the constant bullying I had to endure at the expense of my limitations. Failing 14 campus interviews in my final year was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Looking back on my childhood, I think it’s important for children to understand how to be okay with failure as much as success, and be able to look at it as a valuable learning experience. This is something I wish my parents had instilled in me earlier in my childhood.
And it’s a powerful story of how a society of ableism has failed you.
What’s one thing you wish more people understood about living with a hearing impairment?
If you come across someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, STOP using sign language or speaking slowly instinctively or show any form of sympathy to them. Any person of disability just wants to be left alone or looked at beyond their instruments of ability, and they don’t need sympathy or concern.
Second, if a deaf person’s way of speaking is unintelligible, or they try to convey something through sign language, the other person should at the least make an effort to listen or try to converse with alternative mediums like paper and pen. There’s nothing worse than being ignored or treated as disposable by other people.
How do you define accessibility, and what does it mean to engage in accessibility as a critical practice in the way we shape technology?
Accessibility, to me, doesn’t just conform to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines only; it means I am able to use the same product or service in a different way compared to abled folks. Accessibility allows people with limited capabilities to be able to operate independently to some extent. At its root, it is a practical approach to designing facilities or workflows that ensures equitable access to anyone trying to use them.
Even the best digital designers in the world do not recognize the inaccessible nature of their products, in large part, because they haven’t felt the tangible impact on people who are disabled or excluded in some way. There is still a major chunk of internet users in every country who are unable to leverage technology, and there are many reasons for this: no local language support, low network areas where product latency takes a big hit, complex workflows where people are unable to comprehend how to access the product, among other things. It is important to acknowledge and address accessibility, especially as a tech company.
When was the last time a product or service felt accessible to you?
Last month, I needed some physiotherapy treatment for my knee, and I wanted to reach out to a highly-recommended clinic. When I went to the clinic’s website, I was dismayed to realize that appointment bookings were done through phone only. However, I did see an email query form, so I used that to inform them that I was hearing impaired and requested them to contact me through WhatsApp for booking an appointment.
Imagine my surprise, when I received a WhatsApp message from their receptionist. They patiently answered all my queries and made the requested appointments on my behalf, and the whole thing went smoothly. Being used to disappointment from services like this, I felt really good at the end of the conversation. It’s a reminder that design is not just limited to apps and websites; it revolves around understanding the system in which the product or service operates, and the gaps in communication and access!
And when was the last time a product or service wasn’t accessible? What were some of the obstacles or costs you had to bear?
The last horrible experience included a banking service where all clarifications and customer queries were handled through phone calls. I made a basic transfer through my bank of 15 years, ICICI bank, to a new account. They treated this transfer as suspicious and sent me an automated phone call to ensure it was me who made the transfer. I had no idea the call was from ICICI bank, as I generally ignore automated calls, and I didn’t have anyone else to take the call on my behalf.
Moments later, I get an SMS saying my account and debit card has been locked and now I have to go through customer care to unlock it. I took the help of my friend who lives across the street to contact customer care and get my account unblocked. It all started with a seemingly harmless automated call, and ended up taking eight hours of my day. I had to give up confidential information to my friend due to lack of alternatives, and I was flabbergasted that not even the ICICI bank officer could help. Talk about really unusable technology!
What a barrier, and, ironically, a security risk.
How do you grapple, personally, with accessibility and inclusion being ignored by so many people for so long? Do you ever have to guard against feelings of hopelessness?
I don’t think people ignore it, but rather, do not understand the difficulties that people with disabilities go through, unless they have had a first-hand experience themselves or with someone they are close to. That is where the need for accessibility and inclusion is felt. Here’s a funny anecdote to reinforce this: my therapist, who has been treating me regularly, asked me to try meditation to relax and shared an audio clip with me. I had to remind her that I couldn’t make out what the speaker was saying as I usually understand by lip reading, and it dawned on her that she didn’t know what being deaf was until I pointed it out.
That’s unfortunate, and, sounds like, a common occurrence.
I don’t think I feel hopeless when people don’t consider the nuances of accessibility. Design is a nascent field with many variables, and accessibility is something we can practice only if we get buy-in from the top to make the foundational code of the product accessible.
And then there’s regulation. Do you believe the European Accessibility Act, which establishes a set of common accessibility rules for private sector companies to follow if they want to sell products and services in the EU, is a sign of progress? Why or why not?
To me, this is a big win in the fight for accessibility, because legal requirements are tangible and benchmarked. I’ve seen from my experience as an Indian citizen that any code or rule of compliance imposed by the government is binding and businesses generally don’t take the risk of non-compliance to protect their finances. I would anticipate the same for private businesses looking to sell in the EU, where they will realize the legal ramifications of non-compliance.
The one thing I would be wary of is that most of them would likely just meet the bare minimum. I feel that the EAA committee should recruit people living with disabilities to provide feedback about the usability of these companies’ products to keep them on their toes and comply towards a better future of accessibility.
Do you think companies are prepared for its July 2025 deadline, when the law will be enforced? And if not, what can they be doing right now to prepare?
I frankly doubt companies will take it seriously until the deadline is fast approaching. But to start, companies could make the following changes:
Enlist the help of agencies who specialize in accessibility audits, to enlighten you on where your products come up short on the accessibility front.
Provide budget to find and recruit people of disabilities for research or customer studies, using agencies like Fable.
Alternatively, you can encourage employees, especially designers, to study for accessibility certificate courses while providing full sponsorship. They will have more investment in your product and will deliver long-term solutions to the accessibility charter, as compared to agencies.
Facilitate expert accessibility workshops to sensitize all people in tech to the tangible consequences of their inaccessible products.
Identify champions from each team or build a central accessibility team that audits all the ongoing processes to ensure that accessibility is followed. If teams can carry out usability testing of the company’s products, identify gaps, offer solutions, and build a forecast of the financial gains that would come from making their product accessible, it can give the companies ample impetus to work towards fulfilling the objectives of the act.
As we approach the end of 2022, I’m having more conversations with people who are reflecting on how much their lives, work, or perspective has changed since 2019. How has the pandemic changed the way you engage with technology and work?
As a deaf person, I am always more comfortable with in-person meetings over video or audio calls. So, imagine my dismay at the start of the pandemic, when everyone was advised to work from home. My worst nightmare of dealing with lagging video and audio came true, and I was also leading a team of designers at work.
That sounds terrifying and exhausting.
At this juncture, Google Meet revealed itself as the hero I needed. Google’s closed captioning feature had been live for some time, and they embedded it with Google Meet and launched it just in time for remote work. Within a couple of weeks, I was able to get into a certain rhythm. I launched Swiggy Instamart in just three months, while working remotely with my team. This launch gave me the belief that I could continue to be effective at my job as a designer and manager, and I haven’t looked back since. However, there is a huge side effect to this new way of working: I find myself putting in twice the work to talk to people compared to an office setup, because I need to confirm that they have the tools and support needed to deliver on expected outcomes.
But the Google Meet captioning was my saving grace, and I am looking forward to more accessible and inclusive technology that will make it easier for remote work to thrive. In fact, the pandemic has shown that digital products will need to evolve for accessibility and inclusion to an ever-expanding population of senior citizens and children, all of whom have come to rely on technology and online services for their daily needs.
Do you ever have impatience with the discourse (Design and Tech Twitter, lol) around accessibility and inclusion?
Social media has always been a double-edged sword. On one hand, I am grateful that accessibility and inclusion is gaining a better foothold in design discussions, thanks to the efforts of certain invested individuals or companies with a strong social presence. Jenny Lay-Flurrie and Cat Noone are a couple of superwomen whom I discovered through Twitter and who have shaped my desire to be a part of the inclusion bandwagon in some way or the other.
But sadly, this is where the buck stops. I am disheartened with the design content that gets published on social media and YouTube now. I see a lot of content on how to make good interfaces, how to start your UX/UI career, and top designers to follow. A lot of this feels like vanity content that seems to be targeted towards getting more followers and social approval, and less effort is spent on trying to have healthy discussions around the difficult aspects of design and tech.
Have you ever seen a YouTube video talking about the unglamorous side of design and tech?
No, I haven't. My YouTube homepage is currently displaying videos of men teaching me how to get a job at a MAAAN1 company.
We’ve chatted before about the potential–and pitfalls–of mentorship in the tech industry. What does a meaningful mentor-mentee relationship look like? And what does it not look like?
In my mind, mentorship is less about sharing your “expertise,” and more about paying attention to the other person’s struggles, the environment in which they are practicing their trade, their fears and biases, and offering them perspective into how they can slowly and systematically work their way up to a state where they can become comfortable in their approach. As a mentor, just recounting your experiences and giving advice to your mentees without understanding the context of their situation is like a doctor prescribing medicine and treatment without doing a proper diagnosis of the patient’s illness. It makes no sense and can do more harm than good to a person’s morale and growth.
I appreciate the stakes you raise through that analogy.
What would you like to see more of when it comes to the wider tech industry’s inclusion of disabled consumers and workers?
The good news is that companies are now investing time and resources in ensuring diversity and inclusion in hiring and creating a more equitable environment for everyone. But I would love for them to look beyond the optics and encourage employees of all abilities to become champions for making their products usable and useful to consumers of disability. The only way to have true empathy for disabled consumers is to have disabled professionals or people with accessibility certificates or training be part of the solution; there’s no other shortcut to achieving accessibility in your products. Another thing that the tech industry can do is more research with disabled consumers.
What’s one thing that’s giving you life right now?
At the moment, the thing that keeps me going is my beloved team of twelve designers. My ultimate wish for the team is that everyone is confident enough to own their strengths and flaws, find ways to communicate with and leverage each other’s stories and experiences, and shape their design careers to become the best in their field.
MAAAN stands for Meta, Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, and Netflix. It is also referred to as MAANG, where the G stands for Google instead of Alphabet, its parent company. Formerly referred to as FAANG, when Meta was called Facebook.