Interview with Paged on starting an accessibility-based company

This is the transcript of a German podcast. I smoothed out the text but kept the oral character a little. All typos and inaccuracies are my responsibility.

Domingos: welcome to a new podcast on digital accessibility. Today I have another exciting guest with me, namely Dana Pietralla. Dana and other people have developed a tool to help disabled people use the internet. She'll tell you exactly how this works in a moment. But first of all, thank you very much Dana for taking the time. Let's start by briefly introducing yourself.

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Dana's background

Dana: yes with pleasure, thank you for the invitation, nice to meet you. I'm Dana. I live in Cologne, am also a native of Cologne, studied psychology and have worked a lot in science, in the field of cognitive science, especially around the topic: How do we perceive people, how do people also see a lot: How do people see patterns?

I had finished my studies and wanted to take this knowledge from research with me and do something in business, or I always say in the real world, because in science it is often always such an ivory tower. And I'm now the founder of a social tech startup called paged, where we're working out various ways to give neuro-diverse people access to digital content. We are on a very good and exciting path. There's still a lot ahead of us, but it's definitely a lot of fun.

Domingos: yes, super exciting. How did you come across the topic of accessibility? You could have simply gone to a company and done what cognitive psychologists do.

Dana: that's right. Actually, this really came about from science. So, as I said, I was just dealing with the topic of how people perceive and all these memory processes or brain processes in general. And then, especially during the pandemic, I took some online courses on the subject of web development and that's when I first realized how important it is. I don't have to rely on websites being accessible. But because I have this background - or this research background - I thought oh great, especially as a psychologist it's a really exciting topic, but in my opinion it still gets far too little attention. And then I just felt like designing something.

On the one hand, I could have simply said: Okay, I'm going to go into business and do something there. But I was more interested in designing something myself and perhaps developing something myself and seeing for myself whether I could make a difference, especially in this area where a lot of things are still possible, in my opinion.

Domingos: Did you already have contact with disabled people at the university or something like that or did it just happen that way?

Dana: Yes, I definitely have a few neuro-diverse people in my circle of friends, some of them were visually impaired during my studies, and one person was also in a wheelchair. That means there was a bit of contact there. But I only really started to think about the topic when I took these web development courses and then I really realized: hey, the topic is still far too small. And at the same time I also know that I can help shape something, that I can make a difference. And of course I primarily spoke to people, hey, you're there for me as a matter of course, but what's it actually like for you, for example, to use this and that or just to take part in digital life in a normal way and I would do that too I would advise everyone to think outside the box a little. And I did that and it was really exciting because you're still learning a lot.

Domingos: I think the university is also a really good place because you can get to know a lot of different people there, with different backgrounds of course, but also with different disabilities.

Dana: definitely but at the same time, I studied at the University of Cologne, there is definitely something about accessibility in analogue space, so when it comes to access to buildings, there is still a lot to do. There is actually still a need for expansion in all possible areas. and when you really focus on it, you just think, for God's sake. It's bad how little is done about it, especially by universities, where you really should think, well, maybe a lot is being done to ensure that many people have access, but unfortunately that's not always the case. That's really bad.

Domingos: Well, I can say from my experience that I studied in Marburg. This is very accessible for blind people, but not for people in wheelchairs because the university is heavily influenced by old buildings.

Dana: Exactly, that’s always a big point. So, for example, in one building, the psychology building, for example, there is no elevator. The building is very old, so no one thought about it either, since sometime who knows how many years ago. It's just stupid, so you can't attend a lot of courses. The PC rooms are at the top and you simply cannot make it possible for people who are dependent on a wheelchair to access the PC rooms, which should actually be accessible to every student.

The company Paged

Domingos: yes, definitely. But let’s get to your company, what exactly does Paged do?

Dana: So in the end I said yes, I had dealt with the topic of accessibility and that actually comes from that area, so a lot of things that are now in UX UI design, i.e. user experience/user interface, which is more like this As far as design is concerned, everything has to do with accessibility. That you simply create products that are easy to use and easily accessible.

and I just found this whole topic really exciting. Ultimately, we are now on a journey with paged to offer different solutions that give people access to content. So, for example, we have now developed a tool that is integrated into websites, an overlay tool, where you can adapt different content. Of course, they are not free from criticism, as there are some limitations associated with them where you can say, okay, the overlays are not optimal.

And that's why we see that we gradually offer different products or develop further as a company, that we offer more and more options to give different people access to content, so in the end what Paged is for us is actually a journey, accessibility or digital To bring accessibility to broader awareness, especially in the public debate, in society itself, and to offer various options to give neuro diverse people access.

Yes, in the end that is our vision, where we want to go and we are learning all the time, looking at what options are there, what is good for this or that impairment, what is perhaps not so good. I mean, I come from Cologne. It is always said: “every Jeck is different”. And that's just how it is. And of course, offering solutions that are good for everyone is extremely difficult. That's exactly our situation right now, so we already have a tool to adapt content, but we would like to expand it so that we really have a product portfolio that addresses many different impairments.

Domingos: If I understand correctly, you are currently not targeting end customers, but rather corporate customers.

Dana: exactly right, yes, that's right, we are a B2B startup, i.e. a company that is aimed at companies or website operators in general. At the same time, we also offer various coaching, workshops, consulting services on how to achieve more inclusion within the team, but also, above all, in digital inclusion. And we are not primarily aimed at website operators, i.e. institutions Private citizen.

Domingos: You've also grown relatively quickly. There are now four of you, as I saw on the website. I would be interested to know how you got together

Dana: yes, my co-founder, Deniz, I have known him for a long time. I know him from my studies. I did my bachelor's degree in Austria and now my master's degree here in Cologne and I met Deniz during my bachelor's degree. By the way, we are not only founding partners, we are also life partners, so we are also in a relationship. We are effectively the founders of Paged. Deniz is doing his doctorate in the field of computational neuroscience, which is ultimately the interface between neuroscience and IT/AI, this track. He takes care of a lot of Paged's IT development.

And then last year we gained two more team members, Janine and Vera. In the end, Janine takes care of a lot of the business development area, speaks to companies, addresses website operators in general, of course also advertises for us, but of course also draws attention to the topic of accessibility or digital accessibility in particular and the topic of neurodiversity, that people have this on our radar because it is of course sometimes simply not an issue in certain bubbles, or people are hearing about it for the very first time.

And the other person is Vera, she is also on our tech team. She takes care of a lot of website design, website development and many different things.

We met Janine online. We placed an ad there and we met Vera through the university, so we're back to the topic of universities being a good place for exchange. We then found them through contacts at the university.

Now the four of us are working on making paged big, of course, but above all, on giving more awareness and more attention to this whole topic of neurodiversity and why it is important.

Domingos: How do you ensure that your solution is also used by people with disabilities and that it is easy to use and also contains the functions that are needed?

Dana: On the one hand, I said yes, I come from research and have worked with visually impaired people for a few years. There was still a lot of them left, but they had various illnesses such as color blindness, and some with dyslexia were represented and we have often been in contact with them, for example, and in exchange we have worked out a solution where we say: Hey, this helps us 100% now, it's always hard to say, but it's definitely a help in comparison, if it wouldn't be there.

But in general we are also in contact with interest groups, but also with private individuals who have ultimately become aware of us and then say: hey, I think this and that is really good, but this and that is still missing, for example, that would be really helpful , if you still integrate that.

For example, we had an article in the Kölner Stadtanzeiger in February. And, for example, I had a reader from the Kölner Stadtanzeiger report it, which we also thought was really cool, with whom we have been in communication for a long time now, who simply gave us a lot of information about what was already going well, but also what else is not going so well and where, for example, he needs help and what features we can technically implement that will help him, for example. I think one topic was reading scientific papers because that was very difficult for him. And things like that, we are of course totally grateful for. We are also actively looking for an exchange with people who are neurodiverse and who have wishes or maybe just have questions or say in some way: hey, this and that isn't working so well, then you can't even develop something, like that It's always really exciting for us when we exchange ideas with people who come to us.

Tips for social startups

Domingos: very cool. What tips would you give other startups? There are a lot of people, including young people, who would like to go in a similar direction, so maybe they don't want to go straight into a company, but rather want to found a startup to solve a social problem.

Dana: Of course it's difficult in general. That was a bit of an issue for me too. For example, because I don't necessarily have to rely on digital accessibility, I was a bit worried at the beginning that I wasn't directly affected and could I even be active in this area? So that in the end you are an expert in something that doesn't affect you at all.

And the answer is yes, definitely, in my opinion it is really important to deal with topics where you don't immediately benefit yourself, I would say, but where you simply make the world a little better. So you see the same thing, for example, with equality between men and women, that there was more, for example, with gender pay, because men also actively advocate for it and I think that's really important. And if you become aware of a social problem and want to change something, I would simply advise you to just start, so think about something where you say: hey, that's it, even if you don't have a product or the solution yet well, that's the case with us too, just go out into the world and share what you know, share what's not going well yet and how things can be made better. Because I think just talking about it, having an exchange, and bringing people closer to this problem is a big step. And that's why you have the courage to make a difference. I think that's the first big step in how we can make problems smaller in our world.

Domingos: yes definitely. Finally, if somebody want to track your progress, what's the best way to do that?

Dana: I really enjoy being on LinkedIn, we're represented there, you can find us there under the name "paged", where we actually post different content every week about things that are currently happening around Paged, for example events where you can follow us, Content on the area: What is accessibility, why is it important, especially now for companies, for example. You are very welcome to follow us. And on our website you will always find a lot of different information, it is currently being restructured. In a month there will be a lot of new content there. You will stay up to date with our company development. And I'm also happy when we run into one or the other at an event or something.

Domingos: yes, great, then we definitely wish you continued success and make sure we stay up to date. Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions.

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