Have you ever had trouble using a digital product or service? Do you remember how it felt? Did you feel excluded, or just frustrated? In this introductory post I’ll discuss some of the roadblocks to creating accessible products while offering practical advice on how to overcome them.
What is Web Accessibility?
Web accessibility is about putting people first. It’s about digital equality and inclusion. It’s about understanding the diversity of users and designing for the needs of the widest range of people – including (but not limited to) those with situational, temporary, changing or permanent disabilities. It’s not about edge cases: designing for inclusion makes the design better for everyone. It’s not about “them”, it’s about us.
So, why’s the process of creating digital products so broken that we – often unintentionally – create exclusions, or simply make the products difficult to use? How can we try to fix the accessibility process?
The Cost of Accessibility
Accessibility does have a cost: it’s the cost of being professional and doing the work well. It’s operational cost, not a line item in a project. This of course requires initial training, awareness and organizational changes, but once your organization designs, develops, delivers and sells with accessibility in mind, the cost becomes close to nothing. Retrofitting accessibility is expensive, so the trick is to start early and proactively integrate it into the work processes. You can either do it now and save money or do it later and lose money. Or you can skip it altogether, but then your customers will take notice.
It’s important to understand that accessibility is neither a feature nor only a checklist. It's a facet of quality user experience and as such, it can be a crucial differentiator and competitive advantage in the product or service you’re selling. By ensuring your product is accessible you might even avoid a lawsuit when the new European accessibility legislation becomes binding law.
Some Reasons for Poor Accessibility
- Business decisions
- Lack of knowledge, experience, time or money
- Vendor lock-in (authoring tools/3rd-party software)
- Culture or organizational structure
More specifically, I have identified the following areas of improvement:
- Accessibility Audit
- Evaluating by Principle
- Prototyping with Idealized Static Content
- Automated Checklist Accessibility
- Awareness, Motivation and Training
- Company Culture and Organizational Structure
Let’s break these down one by one.
1. Accessibility Audit
If you ask a consultant to do an accessibility audit for you, the result is often just stating the obvious: the product has barriers to accessibility. Every product has. The key is to turn accessibility audit into an organizational learning experience by working closely with the client and suggesting better practices that ensure success. It’s important to try to reduce complexity around accessibility and help solve the root causes in a sustainable, predictable and actionable manner.
2. Evaluating by Principle
It’s common to report accessibility issues by abstract principles – after all, that’s how the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are organized. However, a better approach is to think holistically and in terms of accessible Design Patterns. After you learn to evaluate and identify problematic patterns, you can use better ones.
3. Prototyping with Idealized Static Content
Prototypes and designs should offer various ways of consuming dynamic content. We all have different levels of vision, hearing, dexterity, and cognition. Even for “perfectly abled”, sometimes the situation is less than ideal: reading on your phone in bright sunlight, using your device with one hand only, or when you’re constantly interrupted when you’re trying to complete a task. These are just some simple examples.
4. Automated Checklist Accessibility
Automated accessibility testing is important, but it only tells you if it finds failures in code. These technical failures highlight just a very small percentage of all possible issues that people can experience using the product. It doesn’t tell you if the product is actually usable. Relying only on automated tests can help you achieve technical compliance, but the quality metrics should be based on accessible user experience and the ability to get things done. This means that you should always test with real users, in addition to automated testing.
5. Awareness, Motivation and Training
Product design decisions may affect the targeted audience in unexpected ways. You just might not be aware of why, how and how much. That’s why it’s important to have a Change Agent or a Champion in the organization creating awareness and transparency around possible accessibility issues. However, accessibility should be owned by everyone involved. Share the knowledge, collaborate and encourage “yes, and“ behaviour.
Finding the right arguments for a change can be challenging. It may be better to show and not tell. It’s easier to understand things after you’ve experienced them firsthand. Whatever you do, make sure to challenge the status quo and address ignorance and myths with training and workshops. The sometimes heard “…but this is a web app” excuse of not building accessibility in from the beginning is just one example of flawed thinking that needs to change.
6. Company Culture and Organizational Structure
Accessibility requires structural and process changes and a holistic view of the organization as a living system. Old-school functional silos must give way to cross-functional teams. Much like a good Scrum Master removing impediments to the team’s progress, so can the team eliminate barriers to accessibility and usability. High-performance teams already know that the key to achieving results of this caliber requires a mindset switch.
Examples of Integrating Accessibility into Your Process
- Create and use accessibility Personas when researching and designing
- Create an inclusive Design System driven development workflow
- Add accessibility guidelines in your Definition of Done and make sure the team has a shared understanding of them
I hope this post has given you some new ideas on how to integrate web accessibility into your workflow. We’ve seen how a little bit of empathy, awareness and leading by example can go a long way towards improving the lives of people using your product or service and make a positive impact on bottom line.
Remember: all technology is assistive.