To Make Your Product Accessible, Consider Accessibility at Each Stage of the Design Process

A wheelchair ramp on the sidewalk. Photo courtesy of Tobias Abel.

Years ago, I worked with an in-house design team on a complex web application. Shortly before I joined the company, the team released its newly redesigned “drag and drop editor” to customers.

The team was proud of what they launched. They put countless hours into designing and developing the editor. They were excited to ship a big, new feature.

But there was a problem. Customer support logs soon revealed the editor was inaccessible to people with disabilities. Customers with motor skill limitations struggled to use the editor because it required a mouse (or hand gestures on a touchscreen device). Visually impaired customers using screen readers (assistive devices) could not use it at all.

The design team uttered a collective, tragic sigh when they realized their new editor was completely inaccessible.

How did this happen? How did the design team put months of effort into a project, only to realize it was inaccessible after the feature launched?

It happened because the team members barely thought about accessibility throughout the project lifecycle.

Make Accessibility Part of Every Step

The best way to make an accessible design is to consider accessibility at each stage of the design process.

At Center Centre, the UX design school where I’m a faculty member, students bake accessibility into their designs at every step of a project. In order to pass courses and complete project work, students regularly demonstrate they’ve designed an accessible experience.

Here are a few examples of how we include accessibility in our courses:

User Research Practices Course

When conducting user research, students must include participants with disabilities. This means they recruit people with disabilities, moderate research sessions with them, and observe as other students moderate sessions.

Recruiting people with disabilities can be challenging, so my students get creative. They use their local network to find participants. They often network through friends to find participants. They even recruit people through Twitter.

During one of their team projects, students conducted a usability study on their client’s existing website. One of the study participants had low vision. She was legally blind and used assistive technology to navigate the client’s site.

During the usability session, students learned about an accessibility issue: the participant struggled to complete a form. Submitting forms was one of the most important things customers needed to do on that website.

The students shared this finding with their client. When students prototyped and usability tested the new design, they included additional participants with disabilities in the research studies. This allowed them to identify and minimize further accessibility issues.

Copywriting and Content Strategy Course

When writing content, students write using plain language. Students learn that simple, clear language is more accessible than jargon or complex words.

Plain language helps readers with low literacy, readers with cognitive limitations, and readers who are not fluent in English. Plain language is also easier to read for everyone — even “advanced” readers at high reading levels.

Students develop content during their team projects. When evaluating my students’ content, I talk with them about how they use plain language. I review their content and ask them to reflect upon how they made it accessible to readers with low literacy or other limitations. When necessary, I coach my students on how to write in simpler, more accessible language.

Front-End Development Course

When creating prototypes with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, students write accessible code.

One of my students recently completed course requirements by using Wave, an accessibility checker, on his prototype. Wave confirmed he was using ARIA roles correctly.

The student also demonstrated he could navigate his design using a keyboard. I sat next to him and watched as he used his laptop and moved throughout the prototype using only keystrokes. This showed me that if someone relied on a keyboard because they could not use a mouse, they could use my student’s design.

These are just a few examples of the accessibility requirements our students must complete as they participate in projects. By the time students finish a project, they’ve considered accessibility at each stage of the project. They’ve designed an accessible, usable, and inclusive experience.

Accessibility is for Everyone

An accessible design is not just better for people with impairments. It’s better for everyone.

Remember the drag and drop editor I mentioned earlier? The vast majority of customers, those with and without disabilities, wouldn’t use it. They preferred the old editor.

The old editor was easier to use. It wasn’t bloated with extra features like drag and drop components. It was a simple text editor. Its simplicity made it accessible to people with disabilities — and more usable for everyone.

Accessibility is a Daily Consideration

Accessibility is not something you tack on at the end of a project or do once during a project. It’s a toolbox you pull from regularly throughout the project lifecycle.

That’s why we don’t have a separate course at Center Centre for accessibility. Accessibility applies to every stage of a design project, so we infuse it into our courses throughout the two-year program.

Hopefully, we’ll see fewer inaccessible designs like the drag and drop editor I encountered a few years ago. If design teams consider accessibility in their process — every day, and at every step, as my students do — they’re much more likely to design for people of all ability levels.

Ready to Make Your Designs Accessible?

Here are some of the resources we used to infuse accessibility into our curriculum. Our students found these resources very useful in their project work:

  • Accessibility for Everyone by Laura Kalbag is one of my favorite accessibility resources. Throughout the book, Laura gives you a thorough overview of accessible design, and she explains how to create accessible designs during each stage of the design project.
  • Pablo Stanley’s article, Designing for Accessibility is Not That Hard, gives an excellent overview of accessible design, why it’s important, and how to create accessible products with your team.
  • In her article, Planning Usability Testing, Shawn Lawton Henry shows you how to include participants with disabilities when conducting user research. (This is an excerpt from her book, Just Ask: Integrating Accessibility Throughout Design. You can read the entire book online for free.)
  • Katie John and Leon Hubert, two researchers in the UK, published a fantastic article, What We Learned Doing User Research with People Who Have Access Needs. They explain how they conducted research and what they learned about crafting a good experience for the participants.
  • In The Audience You Didn’t Know You Had, Angela Colter shows you how to write simple content that’s easy to understand. She also explains why writing in plain language is not the same as dumbing down your content.
  • Google Web Fundamentals’ Introduction to ARIA resource will help you learn how to use ARIA roles in your code. ARIA roles help make your code more accessible to assistive devices like screen readers.

Thanks to my colleague Thomas Michaud for his help with this article.