Accessibility 101 (7 Part Series)
This article is less focussed on the implementation detail of a product/service/whatever and more on informing you as to why accessibility is important at the organisational level. To begin we can set out a group of postulates to provide us with a basis for moving forward with:
- Accessibility is of paramount importance for any human-facing item that is interactive in some form.
- If someone can interact with the item, those interactions should be accessible.
- Interactions can be visual, audible, physical and mental and whichever the interaction at hand entails, that should, in and indeed of itself, be accessible.
You may think those are quite open-ended and broad postulates but they stand nevertheless as the foundation of inclusive and accessible products, services, documentation and so on, so forth.
When the word accessibility is brought up in the tech industry, it is usually being applied to websites, internal tooling, native applications and the like. More overlooked than these but just as important however is the offline interactions we make on a day to day basis.
You wouldn't believe how many jobs I have had since being a freelancer or clients I worked with in-house while being a freelancer, who had printed, physical on-boarding manuals. It is quite a surreal experience as someone who works in the digital space to be given something "old-school", never mind to go through the read, do, mess up, re-read and re-do pattern of getting set up on a complex system.
Documentation that is physical is fine, I am not saying it isn't BUT it should be simpler to understand, less bloated and contain non-text representations to support the text content in more cases than are currently, in my experience, provided.
For example, which of the following is clearer to you?
|Example 1||Example 2|
|To postulate a conceit more irksome than being addressed in sesquipedalian syntax is adamantine||Being spoken to in unnecessarily long and complicated language is a pain|
It is clear, it's example 2, right? Yet in day to day business we formalise to the point of exclusion for those that are not formally educated or exposed to such language on a regular basis. I am a native English speaker and sometimes I read a client specification and have no idea what half of it means due to the use of language being so formalised.
Simplify the presentation, content and location of your documentation and everyone will have a better time of it. This can reduce confusion, bottlenecks and misunderstandings while still increasing the speed of work, self-sufficiency and inclusivity.
Questions to ask yourself going forward when generating or maintaining documentation could be:
- Are all your tools, assets, and materials housed in one easy to find, centralised location?
- Are they the right tools, assets, and materials to help your teams succeed?
- How easily accessible is it for the teams? (permissions, etc)
- Is the most recent content in line with the latest branding?
- Is the content clear of out-of-date material?
- Is it accessible through any device while still providing the same experience and information?
- Is the content easily digestible for your teams and the customer? (Think of proposal templates, etc)
- Can you accurately track what content is being used and why that is the case?
- Can you accurately track what content isn't being used and why that is the case?
Misunderstandings in on-boarding documentation or differences in career paths can breed divergence from standard procedure. This is bad or good dependant on your viewpoint but in any case, consistency across departments and tasks is paramount to avoid issues coming up due to misunderstandings. Solidifying procedures and instilling it within teams during onboarding is the first step to avoiding this issue cropping up. Continued training and "escape hatches" where bottlenecks and issues appear should regularly be reviewed on a departmental to business-wide basis. This allows the procedure to evolve over time with staff suggestion driving the train, all the while holding a standardised set of processes to iterate upon which everyone is engrained to follow until adaption is agreed across the board. This drives understanding, the efficiency of output and inclusiveness of employed in organisational decisions which are all benefits for everyone in the chain as it were.
This is something that can be difficult to do in certain places but having fully accessible offices allows you a higher talent pool to choose from for hires, it also allows people to work generally in more open spaces with access to better facilities. Accessible surroundings help everyone and harm no one, the opposite reduces talent hiring potential and also increases the likelihood of staff complaints, imagine an accessible bathroom compared to a cubicle for example, one is clearly superior over the other in all ways except space-saving which is of little concern to the user, for want of a better term.
All digital interactions should be accessible to all users of that interface.
There are 5 main categories of diability:
- Physical disabilities
- Mental disabilities
- Cognitive disabilities
- Hearing disabilities
- Visual disabilities
You could break those down further of-course but generally speaking, these are the primary categories that I look to when evaluating accessible products.
Now for the bad news: 95% of the top 1,000,000 websites are wholly inaccessible
This probably means you aren't doing too well but there is good news: All of the major issues are fixable with minor changes to products/services by design, content, marketing and development teams, assuming the company is flexible on topics that need be addressed.
For more information on accessibility in design, development and the guidelines that fuel the laws around most countries, you can read those articles here:
The most important thing you can do however to reach the legal goals is to vet all internally used tools for their compliance with relevant standards such as WCAG 2.0, Section 508 in the United States or the European Accessibility Act (EAA) in the European Union for example. Then for all features and user-facing interfaces, test with the users of those interfaces. Automated testing can only detect 25% - 30% of accessibility issues at a maximum, thus user testing can find the other 70% - 75%. This is why, more than asking users/staff what they think about a product or service, you should also allow them to try it for a set test period, gather feedback, provide that feedback to those companies, see where they are going with that development and then implement it only when you are confident of the usability of the product. This also goes for products you are building and marketing, make sure the internal teams are meeting the standards and guidelines by mixing automated and user tests, over time this will be an ingrained practice for those teams and become second nature and ensure that end-users will have a much more enjoyable and clean experience, reduce costs and further to this reduce the chance of legal repercussions.
This brings us to the shortest section of this article as I don't enjoy thinking of accessibility in terms of purely business but for this article, it is clearly the overarching enemy at the gates and so these are the primary reasons for any business to embrace change and begin thinking in an accessible manner.
- Drive Innovation: Accessibility features in products and services often solve unanticipated problems.
- Enhance Your Brand: Diversity and inclusion efforts so important to business success are accelerated with a clear, well-integrated accessibility commitment.
- Extend Market Reach: The global market of people with disabilities is over 1 billion people with a spending power of more than $6 trillion. Accessibility often improves the online experience for all users.
- Minimize Legal Risk: Many countries have laws requiring digital accessibility, and the issue is of increased legal concern.
These reasons are also provided, as is, on the W3C: The Business Case for Digital Accessibility page
Legal cases related to breaches of Section 508 in the United States, for example, have roughly doubled year on year since 2015 and it's not just small companies getting hit. Amazon, Dominos, Beyonce, Apple and many more have all been hit with large lawsuits and lost them just as easily. In the European Union, we now have the European Accessibility Act (EAA) which is, from what I know currently, underpinned by the European Standard EN 301 549 which stipulates accessibility standards for all hardware and software sold and imported into the EU.
If you wish to avoid such legal repercussions and show you're a progressive and user-first business, begin implementing accessible practices sooner than later.
I hope this article was interesting and a good foundation to enter into the topic on the organisational level. I realise that some of this was theoretical and some practical but throughout, I should hope there were many takeaways to help you on your journey into building an accessible culture within your businesses.
If anyone has any questions, please write them in the comments below and I will be happy to answer.
As software gets more and more integrated into our lives, the industrialization of its crafting process becomes inevitable. But the over-generalization of software engineering can be crushing the creative side of programming.