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lunchBOX interview 001

Huw Alexander

Director | textBOX

The textBOX logo.

23 October, 2020

lunchBOX: For our inaugural lunchBOX interview we’re joined by Huw Alexander from textBOX. Welcome, Huw. Thanks for joining us. You’re interviewing yourself…business going well then?

HA: We needed to have a test interview. Also, I was lonely.

lunchBOX: So, you’re in lockdown, talking to yourself?

HA: Well, yes, but let’s call this beta-testing. That’s Greek for hoping for the best. You should probably start with the questions. Open Pandora’s Box and all that.

lunchBOX: LunchBOX. It’s called lunchBOX. I’m beginning to question interviewing you.

HA: I’m beginning to question employing you.

lunchBOX: Fair play. Let’s get started…


1. Who are you and what do you do?

HA: I should probably know this one as I’m interviewing myself. I’m you. 24 and a half hours a day. I also run textBOX. textBOX describe things for a living. And we’ve built databases that solve the issue of finding accessibility content and contacts, and we’ve developed evaluation services that review  accessibility statements. We’re also working on making breakfasts better for all and a way of closing resealable bags without significant sobbing. We also have cats.

lunchBOX: I’m not sure that the whole of that response was entirely true, but let’s move on.

HA: Should I move around the other side of the table to ask the questions?

lunchBOX: Probably best for authenticity.

2. How did you come to be involved in the world of accessibility?

HA: Serendipity. Many moons ago, I was Rights Manager at SAGE Publishing, and as part of the role I looked after requests from libraries for accessible content. This was 2003, 2004, so the early days of ebooks. We created a more streamlined system for making the content available and it provided the foundations for our ebook programme. I was fortunate enough to meet a lot of good people in the industry and accessibility as an issue just fascinated me.

3. What does accessibility mean to you?

HA: Helping people. Is that too much of a marketing censored answer? Helping organizations or institutions make things a bit better. I went to college because I liked history. I left with a degree mainly in Roman history, which is really useful to the world, but I enjoyed it. I got a job in a bookstore because I liked…books. I enjoyed helping people in a bookstore (“You know, that book with the blue cover and the swirls?”) and as a rights manager I liked figuring out which books could sell around the world. I like the world of publishing for both the people and the underlying message. Reading is good. Everyone should have access. I kind of just do things I like. I guess that’s why creating a company was inevitable. I like helping people find the books and images and publishers they love. Do we need to call the jargon police now?

4. What has been your biggest challenge in promoting accessibility?

HA: Patience. Building a small company enables you to take decisions and develop solutions quickly. I would call it agile, but some people have seen me dance. Those decisions then come up against reality and things…slow…down. Accessibility as an issue has moved front and centre in people’s minds, but sometimes organizations do not have the support they need to achieve their goals. So, learning to be patient has been key. All good things to those who wait. For a little while a least.

5. What’s been your biggest success in relation to accessibility?

HA: I was once part of a team at SAGE Publishing that won the International Excellence award for accessibility from the Accessible Books Consortium at the London Book Fair. That meant a lot. In recent times, building a company that listens to the community and responds with services that hopefully fix things. Developing the ASPIRE service into a recognized benchmark for accessibility in the industry has been very rewarding.

A couple of weeks ago, a visually impaired person in the audience described images as very stressful and that my alt-text was “very soothing.” I had to walk away from my desk for a moment. Little things make all this worthwhile.


6. What is the most enjoyable part of your job?

HA: An unexpected email containing interesting things. A new book to describe – ask me anything about psychology or American government. Taking part in presentations, even at a socially-distanced distance. I give a presentation once a year about textBOX and publishing and accessibility as part of the City University publishing programme, and that one is particularly enjoyable. Students are just brilliant, refreshing and inspiring.

An icon of a person giving a presentation.

7. How have you or your organization made a difference?

HA: I hope that we are open and helpful and responsive. I think the most important thing is to be involved and there are so many great organizations facilitating this change. We’re part of the change, but we’re small and making inroads. If I had to name one thing, then it would be our searchBOX Directory, which is making a difference every day for librarians around the world.


 8. If you could click your heels and make one thing easier for yourself at work, what would it be?


HA: More hours in a day would be handy. More flattering lighting for video calls. Discovering a silver bullet to help organizations encourage their senior management to recognize and support the accessibility efforts of their staff. That would be nice.


9. What is the most exciting development you’ve seen this year in the accessibility sector?​


HA: Mainstream adoption. Accessibility is no longer a discussion point on the fringes of conferences or in the depths of the Twitter labyrinth. Accessibility is no longer Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. You don’t need to shuffle up to someone whilst wearing a red carnation to signify you’re one of them. It’s central to platform design and content creation. It’s a hashtag now. It’s normal. As it should be. It just means better content and a better experience. For everyone involved.


10. Where do you see accessibility in 10 years? Any new developments you are keeping a close eye on?

HA: For me, how machine learning impacts the generation of image description is a major area of interest. There have been giant strides in improving AI-based image descriptions and 10 years is a long time in technology. It’s exciting. As long as we don’t accidently create SkyNet and require someone to come back.

An icon features a brain with the right hemisphere formed from network wiring.

11. How and where do you learn about new accessibility initiatives in the sector?


HA: Friends, Twitter, Jisc Community Group and listservs, Inclusive Publishing, the Publisher's Association Accessibility Action Group, curiosity . Not always in that order.


12. What or who is your accessibility inspiration?

HA: Alistair McNaught. Alistair is the gentle soul of accessibility. Wonderfully knowledgeable, endlessly kind, and utterly modest. It’s a nice combination. He also likes trees and writes a cunning haiku. These are important characteristics.


Stacy Scott from the RNIB for her dry wit and her endless patience in explaining accessibility in return for lashings of hot chocolate.

Otherwise, late nights filled with wine and notebooks.


13. Which single accessibility tool do you use the most?


HA: I write image descriptions. So technically, my imagination and the HTML alt tag. But HeadingsMap would be a useful second. It's great for making your website make sense.


14. Tell us your favourite accessibility story.

HA: Once upon a time there was a man. Let’s call him Steve. Mainly because that is his name. Steve was studying psychology and psychotherapy at University of East London. He needed to access his books in an accessible format before term started, so I arranged them for him. He wrote back:

“I don't think you truly get just how rare this kind of supportive and empowering help truly is. You have made a short and hairy blind bloke seriously happy.”

This single sentence sent me on the trajectory to launch textBOX and to describe images for a living. It’s been a hairy journey and Steve is now writing his PhD.

15. Which lunch would describe your organization and why?

HA: Tuna fish sandwiches. Honest. Hard-working. Tinned. Must include thinly sliced spring onions, cucumber, celery, badly cut crusty white bread, tomatoes, lettuce, mayonnaise, hope, faith, and a sprinkling of charity.

16. What would be your favourite setting for that lunch?


HA: Either fishing in the rain under an umbrella or with a loved one and a glass of slightly lukewarm white wine in a place that you don’t really understand anything, but it is sunny.

17. Which 10 people from any time or place would you invite to your lunch?


HA: This is a tricky one, but I'd go with the following, in no particular order. However, they’d each have to design a cocktail.

  1. Jorge Luis Borges.

  2. Tamara de Lempicki.

  3. Roland Barthes.

  4. John Coltrane.

  5. Douglas Adams.

  6. Iain Banks.

  7. Haruki Murakami.

  8. Dorothy Parker.

  9. Lee Miller.

  10. Freddie Mercury.


18. What are you reading at the moment?


HA: I’m re-listening to Somme by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore narrated by the wonderful Roy McMillan, who I am now fortunate to know and is delighted he sends me to sleep at night.

The Cheating Scandal that Ripped the Poker World Apart by Brendan Koerner in Wired. I’m obsessed with longform journalism. Sadly, I save more articles to Pocket than I actually read though.

And I’m re-reading Iain M. Banks's Culture series and currently just finishing Excession. Having been involved in digital books for nearly a couple of decades, I naturally collect hardback books. Banks is an inspiration every day. He had everything worked out.


19. What are the applications/services that you couldn’t live without at work or personally?

  1. Noun Project. All the icons in all the world. We wouldn't have a website without them.

  2. Shazam. All the song answers in all the world. I love not understanding the magic behind it.

  3. Spotify. Nearly all the songs in all the world. Except this mind-blowing Prince performance.

  4. Pocket. A way of peacefully reading content without all the adverts in the world.

  5. Longform. Nearly all the best articles in all the world to get lost in.

  6. TinEye. All the images in the world at your fingertips via reverse-image search.

20. Anything totally secret to tell us? We’re amongst friends…


HA: All of our image descriptions are written by trained cats who sleep 20 hours a day, but are very productive otherwise.


lunchBOX: Thank you for your patronage. We know that you could choose other luncheon establishments.

HA: Thank you for inviting me. It's been fun.

lunchBOX: We had to. You're paying for lunch.

HA: Say no more. Bill, please...

An icon of a can of tuna.
An icon of a closed sign.
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