Reframing Accessibility

Why inclusiveness is not a nice-to-have in product development.

Reframing Accessibility

Why inclusiveness is not a nice-to-have in product development

Something’s wrong with the way we are dealing with accessibility in digital projects right now. When you are working on a digital product there is always a chance that someone will pop the most dreaded question: “What about accessibility?” It’s the moment designers fear for their beautiful design, developers fear for their precious time and product owners fear for their budget. Because it is treated as an afterthought, it will be pushed to the bottom of the ever-growing list of features nobody will ever bother with. As long as you see it as a nice-to-have you are doing it wrong. It is time to reframe accessibility.

Accessibility is not a premium feature

Let’s be honest with each other: Accessibility can be frustrating. Even if you know what you’re doing there are so many factors that make it difficult to near impossible to create a product that is accessible to everybody. While you start with the best of intentions, somewhere along the way you will meet budget constraints, shifting priorities, or a changing team composition. All these factors will stand between you and your good intentions.

I myself have been involved in many projects where we decided to do it right this time. Where we decided to make accessibility one of our main goals, but in the end we only got halfway there. If we were lucky. Every time I wondered: What went wrong this time? It took me a while, but I figured it out. Accessibility gets shoved under the carpet most of the time because of the way it is perceived. Because it is thought of as an extra, a nice-to-have, an issue on the backlog. The truth is that accessibility is not an option. It can’t be skipped if time or budget get limited. It is a bare necessity. Let me explain why.

The most important — but lesser known reason — is the amount of users that will benefit from your efforts. The Netherlands alone count about 4.5 million people with a disability (source: in dutch). That is a little over 25% of the Dutch population, and probably a whole lot more than you expected.

Users with long-term disabilities are not the only ones who will benefit from your effort to make your product more accessible. Actually, a much larger group than you would expect will benefit from this. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that accessibility only concerns people with disabilities. Visual impairments are not only experienced by the blind, but by anyone who cannot see for any reason whatsoever. If you look at it this way, suddenly your target audience will grow enormously. Take driving a car for example. Drivers have to keep their eyes on the road. This makes it impossible for them to look at a mobile device. Similarly, the inability to tap a screen is not limited to people with a dexterity impairment. Someone with their hands full of groceries or someone who is holding a child for that matter is limited in their interaction with a digital device. In all of these cases a more accessible product means a much larger user group reaping the benefits from your efforts.

Another very obvious reason why accessibility is more than just an option is the law. You have probably heard that companies in the USA get sued when people are not able to use their digital services. These laws are not only applicable to American companies. Last year dutch design brand Moooi had to appear before the American court because they failed to make their website accessible. The amount of lawsuits in Europe is not as high as in the USA, but the laws do not differ that much. The European Parliament created something called the EU Web Accessibility Directive, which will have a noticeable impact on both public and private sector companies. Where I live in the Netherlands, we have a law (article in dutch) that states you discriminate if you do not make your digital products and services available to everyone.

Accessibility should be in the core of your project

As I explained, there are at least two good reasons why you should not mistake accessibility for a nice-to-have. It is far too important to ignore and probably needs much more attention than you give it right now. Doing accessibility the right way means it is integrated into the core of your product development. Building a product takes team effort. The same goes for making it accessible for everyone. Do not make the mistake of treating accessibility solely as a technical issue. Every team member plays a role and has his or her own responsibility. Design and development should go hand in hand. It is impossible to create something that suits everybody’s needs when you only focus on code. Code is merely a means to an end.

Some of the things designers need to think about are colours and copy. Colours can cause serious issues for large parts of the male population. About 8% of European and American males suffer from some sort of color blindness. Your copy for the interface should be consistent and easy to understand for everyone. This a big part of WCAG 2.1, the accessibility guidelines for digital products. An accessible product can be operated without seeing or touching it. We need designers to design these interfaces. This is not something you only want to leave to the developers. It is user experience design in its purest form.

Designers and developers need the support of their clients to create a product for everyone. If you’re dealing with a bunch of people that do not realise how important accessibility is, you will never be able to create an inclusive experience. Everybody needs to be on board. This is where you need your product owner. One that has their priorities straight regarding accessibility.

You can take it a step further by making it an integrated part of your brand story. Make it part of any guideline you have lying around, for example your brand guide. It should include something about the use of colours in a way that doesn’t exclude colourblind users and something about copy that fits the WCAG 2.1 guidelines. This will not just make accessibility the core of your project, but the core of your brand. It will put you at the forefront of inclusive design and accessibility.

Re-thinking Accessibility

Accessibility is not an issue that should be fixed. It should be seen as a necessary part of your product. Because that is what is.

The way to achieve this is to train yourself in thinking in different ways about your product. For example: How will it be experienced when it cannot be seen? Or if it cannot be heard? How will it be experienced with different senses? What is left of it when one of the senses is not available? The current rise of voice applications already forces you to think about your product without a visual interface.

This is a totally different way of thinking about product development. It may sound like a big change. But it is a necessary change. We, the creators of digital products, have made big changes before. Remember the phrases ‘responsive design’ and ‘mobile first’? The moment we realised people were not exclusively using desktops to access our services anymore? We had to reframe our thinking about product development and the way people interacted with our brand. It was painful and expensive but we did it.

We are facing the same paradigm shift when it comes to accessibility. The times they are changing, again. Will you be the grumpy old man that sits on the sidelines mumbling about the past? Or will you join us in reframing accessibility and make the world a better place? I know what I’ll be doing.

In my next blog post I offer more concrete solutions on how to make your app and website accessible for visually impaired people.