Three Ways to Improve DevOps to Ensure Accessibility

Designing and developing accessible solutions has become critical for organizations — from business processes to product development. With a renewed focus on human-centered design, I am often asked, “How can we effect change in an organization’s DevOps to ensure accessibility is integrated from the outset?”

There are many ways to achieve a positive effect for accessibility, but I will focus on three core strategies that ensure any web or mobile application is personalized to an individual’s needs, preferences and ability:

1) Make accessibility an integral function of design

The key is to view accessibility as a design challenge and not a constraint. In my experience, I’ve often found that a good user interface (UI) design has an innate simplicity that makes it easier to implement accessibility.

One method is to integrate accessibility into “personas” that describe specific user needs, tasks they want to accomplish, and their motivations and abilities. Understanding every possible user — people with disabilities, the aging population, or anyone facing a “situational” disability while using a mobile device — helps designers and developers ensure that each feature has a plan for accessibility.

This also helps DevOps avoid a common problem of running out of time and budget near the end of the development cycle. Too often we hear, “We had to cut something so we cut accessibility. We’ll try get to it next time.”

Part of this is simply including accessibility within an organization’s design principles and design language and establishing a core framework consistent across the enterprise. Great design is grounded in having deep knowledge and empathy for whom you are designing and how physical, cognitive and situational disabilities affect the use of a product. Using an “Empathy Map” helps everyone synthesize their observations and draw out unexpected insights.

Intrinsically placing the user at the heart of the design and development process will create an easier and pleasant experience for the most challenged individuals, and will ultimately lead to a better overall experience for the masses.

2) Conduct automated testing early in development

It has become essential to test early in the development process to find and correct accessibility conformance issues. This offers the potential to save valuable time and budget, especially because it can be used as a way to teach your development team how to implement accessibility correctly so they don’t propagate issues throughout their development efforts.

It is well known that bugs are much easier and less expensive to fix when they are caught early. By running automated testing throughout development, teams can identify and remediate accessibility concerns prior to releasing the code to the test team.

Automated testing tools give developers a complete view of accessibility issues, such as alternative text and color contrast, and then recommend the necessary corrections that improve the user experience and adhere to accessibility standards and government regulations (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, US Section 508, Americans with Disabilities Act).

A bonus result of incorporating automated testing in the development process is the team may finish testing early and bring the product to market faster.

3) Gather stakeholder feedback

Gathering feedback, especially from persons with disabilities, ensures the solution delivers an optimal user experience.

Often developers who are not familiar with assistive technology, such as screen readers, work hard to guess at the best enablement, but real stakeholders with real disabilities provide critical and valuable feedback.

When gathering stakeholder feedback, co-location does not need to be a constraint. I have participated in many feature reviews where we pull together a virtual team of developers, accessibility experts and a person with a disability.

We use screen-sharing technology so a person can walk through the interface using assistive technology. We can hear how, for example, the screen reader interacts with the user interface and discuss the user experience and expectations. If the person using the assistive technology is struggling, the virtual team can guide them through the inaccessible aspects of the user interface.

Changing the Culture of DevOps

Applying even one of these strategies will have a positive impact on your organization’s ability to create accessible solutions. Employing all three will effect immediate change in creating more inclusive and usable solutions…for everyone.

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Susann Keohane is an IBM Accessibility Consultant and Technologist in IBM Research. Her primary role is to help drive accessibility standards into IBM corporate policy and provide guidance for IBM solutions to meet current and emerging accessibility requirements. Follow Susann’s musings @skeohane1

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