Brett Humphrey

Behind the Scenes: Meet Brett Humphrey, Principal Product Manager and Advocate for Accessibility

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In his 25-year career at Microsoft, Brett Humphrey has taken on a number of roles and helped shape Windows into what it is today—but his real passion is accessibility.

With Global Accessibility Awareness Day close on the horizon, we spoke to Brett about his lifelong journey toward closing the digital divide, why accessibility is so important in an age of technology, and the legacy he hopes to leave through his work.

Can you tell us a little bit about your journey in tech? What led you to working in technology, and specifically on accessibility features?

“I was always around computers growing up, and I really got interested in software because of my mother’s interest. She taught herself computer programming when I was about 5, and watching her figure out how to code was inspiring. She ended up working for a small nursery company, computerizing their systems. She also took me to typing classes when I was in 6th grade, because she thought it’d be useful to me someday—she was right!

Brett, his mom, and his sister

Brett, his mom, and his sister

Later, I studied computer science at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. I started working with computers on campus and programming stuff there, and a friend of mine said, “Hey, you should interview with Microsoft.”

I ended up doing two internships at Microsoft, and I’ve been here ever since. Through the years, I have worked on different products and teams.

One day, I was asked to provide feedback on some tools to help check if software is accessible. I found the discussion so interesting that I half-jokingly said to the meeting attendee sitting across from me, “Hey, if you’ve ever got a job opening, I’d love to come work on your team.” About a week later, he called me, and the rest is history.”

What makes you passionate about accessibility?

“I’ve had low vision all my life, and in the last 6 years or so I’ve had significant decline in my eyesight. I have always wanted to make software more accessible to people who have low-vision and are blind.

So I’d say it’s a combination of having a disability and general curiosity. After I started working at Microsoft, and particularly on accessibility features, I thought, “Wow, I have a unique chance at really helping a large population here.”

But mostly, I just love problem-solving the hard stuff, and I think accessibility is a problem that needs continued time and effort.”

Brett working in the college computer center

What’s a common misconception about accessibility that you encounter—and how do you address it?

“I think people who don’t live in this space may often ask questions like “How many people are really impacted?” You know, you always get this kind of question about scope.

And to that, I’d say it’s not about the number of people, it’s about access. It’s about being involved in the digital world, and the digital world really can open a lot of opportunities for people with different abilities, from education to employment to entertainment. If we do this well, it really helps people throughout their entire life.

The other thing is that I think people often think about accessibility as being between a computer and an individual. But I think about the potential for a many-to-many conversation. I look at assistive technology as enabling that many-to-many conversation, closing gaps, and removing barriers, so that you can follow along and—no matter what your disability is—be engaged at roughly the same rate as everybody else.”

What’s one accessibility feature that you’re really proud of contributing to since you’ve been at Microsoft?

“Well, I’m super fortunate to have worked on core accessibility capabilities that ship in Windows such as the built in Magnifier, and earlier work on Narrator, and that touches a lot of people. More recently I have been working in the Teams organization where we have worked to improve how keyboard users, screen reader users, and color sensitive users can better interact with Teams.

But I think the thing I’m most proud of is the work I’ve done with the design team inside of Microsoft Teams and the cultural shift we’ve seen as a result. Leveraging user research, we heard the challenges people faced when using Teams and developed 3 design principles. We want our features and overall offering to be efficient, habituating / predictable, and understandable. These principles have become infused deeply into our design team and they’re something that will keep producing better products over time for all users.

I believe that I’m uniquely positioned to help both my team and users with disabilities. I’ve the technical and design knowledge to influence and implement changes that support people with disabilities, and I am also someone who benefits from these innovations as I live with a disability.  

Ultimately, I hope that my unique skill set won’t be needed in the future. That will mean that accessibility has become an integral part of product design and development.”

Brett Humphrey

Creating some accessible music hardware

In your opinion, what’s the most exciting trend in accessibility right now?

Well, there are really 3 things that come to mind.

One, people keep talking about “shift left” or doing better design. I’m excited about that!

Another is just awareness. Everything goes through an adoption curve, and I feel like awareness of the issues people with disabilities face when using technology continues to get better and better.

And of course, the potential of how AI can help different individuals connect with content in the way that works best for them.

I think those 3 things combined will really be transformative, and sooner than most people think. You need a reasonable understanding of design to ensure that things have a good foundation to them, as well as an awareness of the range of disabilities and how they impact people to optimally leverage AI.”

Can you share an instance of feedback from the accessibility community that really stuck with you or helped shape a product that you worked on?

“Over the past few years, more people in the disability community have engaged with early builds of Teams and have shared feedback that led us to change direction and make adjustments. For example, we changed our approach to keyboarding as well as our delayed notification system as neither was working well for customers.

Without question, feedback has been critical in shaping Microsoft Teams.”

What’s a project you’re currently working on that excites you in terms of its accessibility potential?

“Just working on Teams accessibility is exciting! I also enjoy our partnerships with other teams, such as the PowerPoint team. Their plugin for PowerPoint Live is the most accessible version of PowerPoint you can use remotely today.”

How do you envision the future of accessible technology in the next 5 years? Do you see any upcoming trends that excite you?

“Anything that can simplify the day-to-day tasks is exciting. When you live with a disability, some things just take longer—and sometimes the tools that you use to accomplish digital tasks have a steep learning curve.

When I look at the future, it’s really about making it simpler for people, easier for people to get access to the data they need, in the way they need it. So that’s why I look at the coupling with AI and the assistive technologies and think, “How can we really help make things simpler? How can we help folks with a disability to complete their tasks and do so with confidence?””

Brett Humphrey

Traveling in Budapest

This is the final interview in our 3-part series celebrating Global Accessibility Awareness Day. Make sure to catch our previous conversations with Peter Wu and Ben Truelove!