We often talk about user-centered design and development, however the process rarely includes accessibility and UX research with users with disabilities or impairments. (Web) accessibility is the practice of making your websites usable by as many people as possible, thus providing equal access to information and communications technologies, including the Web, to people with disabilities or impairments. Simply put, accessibility is a basic human right.
Over one billion (or 15% of the population) people live with some form of disability. Some examples may include auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech, and visual disabilities or impairments. While a disability means that the person finds it difficult to perform everyday tasks to a level that is considered normal for most people, an impairment is medical and represents a condition or symptoms that a person experiences (i.e., low vision). These conditions can be permanent (i.e., I am deaf), temporary (i.e., I have an ear infection), or contextual (i.e., I am on a busy train and do not want to play audio). This hardly makes accessibility an edge case. Technology has been playing a crucial role in facilitating our day to day tasks, but is this the case for everyone?
In this TEDxMIT talk, Judy Brewer describes how we should strive for an accessible future: accessible technology provides unprecedented opportunities for people with disabilities. For example, people with visual impairments can now read the news thanks to the screen reader, and people with speech and motor impairments can use eye-gaze to speak with others.
But it does not stop there, essential for some and useful for all, accessibility supports social inclusion: other groups, such as older people or people in developing countries can greatly benefit from accessible and assistive technology. Different situations can hinder the experience of anyone using the web, such as watching a video in a loud environment without captions, or using the web with a poor Internet connection.
While the Web offers great potential, implementation matters, otherwise this potential remains unrealised. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) have defined a wide range of recommendations for making web content more accessible based on three conformance levels: A, AA, and AAA (from least to most accessible). Sadly, despite all of this, most websites still fail to adhere to Web Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as oftentimes in software development, accessibility is an afterthought, treated as a feature, rarely tested for, and not properly considered in the design stages.
Conversely, inaccessible websites hurt business. For example, failure to adhere to WCAG negatively affects SEO (search engine optimisation), which results in Google Search ranking inaccessible websites lower than more accessible ones. Moreover, accessible and inclusive design thinking can lead to numerous business outcomes, helping digital products be more flexible, address unanticipated problems, and drive innovation.
Inclusive design and accessibility need to be an integral part of the full product lifecycle. Everyone should know about accessibility. At Potato, we use guilds as a way to educate, encourage, and raise awareness of important aspects of product development and challenge ourselves to do better. In 2019, we established the Accessibility Guild to make accessibility part of our product thinking and culture. As members of the guild, we meet regularly to discuss accessibility topics, organise company-wide talks, learn from each other, watch accessibility-related talks, and audit digital products.
Whether you are an engineer, a designer, a product manager, or whether you work in technology or not, we all play a role in building a more accessible future. It is by no means an easy task, but fortunately we have many resources that can help us get there. You might add captions to your Instagram stories, or add alt description to your Twitter images, so next time you make a mark on the World Wide Web, I encourage you to simply ask yourself: is this accessible?