Tech for good

How tech’s brightest stars are putting accessibility first

Some tech companies are blazing a trail by rigorously testing to make sure their software is accessible to all users – including those with disabilities.

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Harry Quan

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Today, tech firms are starting to realize it’s good for business if their technology is accessible to all users, whether disabled or non-disabled. But knowing that accessibility matters – and making it a core business priority in actions as well as words – are different things.

I’ve been speaking with two companies celebrated for putting accessibility first in product design – fast-growing accounting software business Xero and accessible app and software designers Axess Lab. I also spoke with Siteimprove – a company making software that helps businesses catch and fix website accessibility problems.

“Accessibility is important because customers are at the center of everything we do,” says Laila Coulton, Head of Digital Accessibility at Xero. “Our culture values diversity and inclusion. We want to make a difference by championing these values within our sector and the broader community. As a large tech company, we believe it’s our obligation.”

Hampus Sethfors, Co-founder and Accessibility and User Experience Specialist at Axess Lab, thinks similarly. “I see it as being on the right side of history. People with disabilities have been excluded and discriminated against. It’s time humankind stepped up. Making the digital space inclusive is a huge part of that.”

Sethfors believes improved accessibility for disabled people benefits all users. “I’ve got a baby at home and constantly find myself one-handed, lacking time and lacking sleep. Building products that work for people with impairments is a way to build awesome products for everyone.”

How common are accessibility problems?

Axess Lab examined digital products like banking apps, online shopping sites and food delivery apps to find out if disabled users can complete routine tasks. They’ve found problems so widespread that, more often than not, web users with disabilities simply can’t use them.

Most digital products have serious accessibility issues. We’ve tested many online shopping sites with assistive technology users, for instance, blind people. The user commonly can’t make a purchase. It’s frustrating for them, and lost business for the company.

Hampus Sethfors, Co-founder and accessibility specialist, Axess Lab

Sethfors thinks one of the main reasons behind this is that software engineering and web designer education rarely includes practical accessibility skills or knowledge. “Too few tech professionals have accessibility training. If you’re trained, accessibility is little or no extra effort. Picking colors with enough contrast doesn’t take longer than picking colors that contrast poorly – you just need to know how.”

Accessibility, usability or both?

Some use terms like accessibility and usability interchangeably. But are they the same thing?

Coulton of Xero says, “The two are intertwined. I challenge my teams to start with usability rather than ticking off accessibility compliance criteria. The focus should always be on the user experience. Accessibility is making sure as many people as possible enjoy those usable experiences.”

Sethfors points out, “If your product is only usable for some, it should be called Some User’s Experience, or SUX, as Ubisoft accessibility specialist Billy Gregory tweeted. Usability is more than accessibility, but a product can’t be usable unless it’s accessible.”

Accessibility can mesh well with security and affordability too. Take, for example, Motorica, who work with prosthesis users to create high-tech, secure and affordable artificial limbs. Kaspersky helps Motorica make sure its prostheses are safe from cyber-intrusion.

Focus on making things work for users

Coulton says Xero reviews designs using the Perceivable, Operable, Understandable and Robust (POUR) framework from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The World Wide Web Consortium created it in consultation with disabled web users to give standards for making digital products accessible. “We review and test code, including automated and manual testing against the WCAG success criteria. We do functional testing using screen readers such as VoiceOver, NVDA and TalkBack. We also test and research with users with disabilities.”

Sethfors says sometimes businesses get too hung up on the guidelines. “They’re long and complex, but accessibility is super interesting, fun and engaging. Instead, focus on making things work for users.”

Jennifer Chadwick, Senior Accessibility Consultant at Siteimprove, agrees. “Using a checklist to comply with WCAG is an excellent practice to introduce teams to implementing accessibility. Companies should also run regular usability testing with people with disabilities. Sites can comply with WCAG but not be optimal for users, so using the guidelines and conducting user testing is best.”

Where accessibility work fits

When is the right time in development to think about accessibility? Coulton says, “Across the whole cycle. We start with inclusive research and setting the accessibility scope. Designers and Front End Developers must ensure accessibility is part of their definition of ‘done.’ We validate with user testing and the WCAG success criteria.”

Sethfors thinks you can never start too soon. “I’d start before the development cycle and build accessibility into current business habits. If you acceptance-test regularly, add accessibility criteria. If you user-test every other month, recruit one or two diverse users for each test. Take small steps, everywhere, all the time. It’s more effective and fun, and less costly.”

Tobias Christian Jensen, Siteimprove Digital Accessibility Specialist, says it’s crucial to be proactive. “Fixing accessibility retroactively is like adding plumbing after building a house. Accessibility should be a part of every step.”

Jensen recommends adopting a practice of Shifting Left, described by Siteimprove’s Chadwick as, “Moving efforts around designing and testing for accessibility issues as far back in the workflow as you can. Everyone – from UX and graphic designers; to content writers; to developers – must consider the needs and preferences of people with disabilities as early as possible.”

Finding testers with disabilities

So at some point (ideally, many points,) you’ll need to find people with a range of disabilities to test your products. These include physical impairments, like motor impairment and using prosthesis, low vision, Deaf or hard of hearing, but also invisible impairments, like memory loss and inability to focus. Then there’s neurodivergence such as autism, ADHD and learning difficulties, and much more.

Sethfors suggests, “Find and partner with disability organizations in your area. Make sure you have a way to pay users to take part. If you need help recruiting, Fable specializes in recruiting diverse test users for larger organizations.”

Siteimprove has a rewarding partnership with Fable. “Our software monitors your efforts to meet WCAG conformance and best practice for code. We combine this with usability assessments for the most complex and high-traffic webpages by Fable’s testers. Both provide valuable reports on barriers to remove.”

Starting your accessibility journey

Accessibility is not a target you meet and walk away. It’s a commitment to continuous improvement and part of how you deliver digital products. It must be built into your processes – not extra, just part of the job.

Laila Coulton, Head of Digital Accessibility, Xero

Coulton points to Sheri Byrne-Haber’s words in her handbook for designers, Giving a Damn About Accessibility. “To avoid the peaks and valleys of the accessibility emotional roller coaster, people just getting started on their accessibility journey need to accept the following statement at face value: Your first effort at accessibility is unlikely to be outstanding. Don’t use this as an excuse.”

Sethfors adds, “If you approach accessibility in the right way, you’ll have a blast, make your team proud and create a better product for everyone.”

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About authors

Suraya Casey is a freelance writer, editor and content strategist based in New Zealand. Her interests include cybersecurity, technology, climate, transport, healthcare and accessibility.