Digital Works #9: Accessibility and inclusive design

Digital Works #9 took place in the Rosebery Room at Sadler’s Wells in London. This time around the discussions were focused on accessibility, user experience and inclusive design.

I’d put a call out on Twitter asking for recommendations of speakers on this topic and a number of people responded with the same name, Robin Christopherson – Head of Digital Inclusion at AbilityNet. I was also pleased to welcome UX Consultants, Pete Underwood and John Goodall from Bunnyfoot.

We are all biased

Robin started things by highlighting that everyone carries biases and assumptions with them in their day-to-day lives and interactions with the world.

At their worst this means we are designing and delivering products and services which ignore and exclude significant numbers of potential users. Embracing accessibility and inclusive design means we need to confront and address these biases. With the reality that around 70% of disabled people are unemployed there is clearly a long way for us to go before we are enjoying a truly inclusive, accessible society.

And, as Robin highlighted, we are all ‘computing on the edge’ in disabling situations on an almost daily basis.

Disabling situations

The explosion in mobile device usage, and the emergence of ambient computing have been great in democratising access to technology. However the assumption that most people are using computers in a mostly controlled/controllable environment (i.e. a desktop computer set up just how the user wanted in a scenario where light, noise and distraction could be mitigated) no longer holds true.

We need to assume that people will be regularly impaired – whether temporarily or not – when accessing our digital experiences, products and services, and design accordingly. Accessibility is not a bolt-on, it is an essential mindset that we need to adopt in order to deliver meaningful, useful, usable products and services.

If someone can’t use your website whilst using a screen reader, or when on a train with a coffee in one hand, or if they suffer with tremors, or if they are trying to read small text in a low light situation then they are all being disabled by the experience you are delivering.

Tech for good

Robin then explained that many disabled people are technology super-users. He  painted an exciting and inspiring picture of how technology helps him interact with the world, from demonstrating how he uses JAWS to use his laptop (in a far swifter and more efficient way than I ever could) and the Microsoft Seeing AI (he reckoned he probably uses his camera more than anyone else in the room), through to explaining how he has an Alexa in every room in his house.

Robin encouraged us all to see technological developments as something to be aware of and to embrace as he strongly believes that many of these advances serve the goal of delivering accessible products and services for all. He drew parallels with the emergence of the smartphone, no-one now says ‘let’s make our thing work on a smartphone’ it’s assumed to be a given. He expects the same will soon be true of ambient computing interactions.

Technological advances

Robin shared some of the technological advances he has seen at the various conferences he attends as a speaker. From flying taxis (which will be very noisy and shake a lot – a potentially very disabling environment) to driverless cars (which will leave us all with way more ‘dead time’ to spend accessing digital content and services) and the next generation of smart glasses which will ‘bake in’ some of the AI-driven AR tech that he had already demonstrated with the Microsoft Seeing AI potentially allowing blind and visually impaired users to ‘see’ the world around them, all of these new technologies had an accessibility advantage or consideration.

CAPTCHA is evil

Robin ended his session with a depressing example of the experience of having to solve a CAPTCHA without being able to see. It was, frankly, depressing – and impossible. As Robin said “you have just experienced 30 seconds of what I experience all day, every day”.

There is nothing more impactful than someone sharing their lived experience with you. Robin’s session was a powerful and inspiring example of the positive impact technology can have, but also a spur to all of us that we have to do more, and do better, in ensuring everything we do is accessible to everyone.

Practical Accessibility

We then heard from Pete and John from Bunnyfoot who delved into the murky and often confusing world of compliance.

The widely agreed, and legislated for, standard for compliance is WCAG 2.1 AA, in practise this means that your digital experiences need to be:

  • Perceivable
  • Operable
  • Understandable
  • Robust

John then shared a few tips around making your product and content more accessible, one of which was familiarise yourself with assistive technologies. If you’ve never used a screen reader, and you don’t understand what your website is like to use with that device then you aren’t going to be able to meaningfully improve that experience.

John also shared his ’10 point accessibility checklist’:

1. Make sure all elements can be accessed by keyboard alone, and that focus is clearly visible

Your users may struggle to (or prefer not to) use a mouse

2. Plan the page structure and its headings

Headings help your users with scanning and orientation

3. Provide appropriate, descriptive alt text for images

Help screen reader software convey the nature of images to your users

4. Use good colour contrast and text size

Help your users differentiate text from backgrounds by providing good contrast

5. Design accessible form controls

Help your users to provide the information you are asking of them

6. Provide all content in text

Allow your users to access your content in whatever way they need to be able to
understand it

7. Make sure the reading order of the page is logical

Help orientate your users by providing a predictable path through your pages

8. Make sure links are prominent and meaningful

Help your users interact with and navigate around your website easily

9. Include a ‘skip to content’ link

Don’t force your users to read through the same information on every page

10. Present content in a clear, concise and non-distracting manner

Help orientate your users by providing a predictable path through your pages

Ultimately whilst many of this tips will absolutely make your content and products more accessible they will also make your digital experiences more usable for everyone. Additionally many of the things outlined here require much technical expertise and can be actioned immediately by content administrators and managers.

UX Maturity

Pete introduced the concept of UX Maturity. To me this seemed as applicable to broader digital competence and maturity, and the description of less mature organisations achieving things thanks to ‘enthusiastic individuals’, lacking ‘processes and senior buy-in’ and ‘approving if things are free but there being little budget commitment beyond that’ felt all-too familiar in relation to almost all digital activity, whether that’s in relation to design, development or content.

Challenges

Discussions then turned to the challenges faced by those in attendance around getting buy-in around accessibility. Pete and John shared some successful approaches they have seen in their work with a variety of organisations.

Calling back to Robin’s session, all of these approaches had the same thing in common, they were aimed at achieving empathy. Empathy with the agendas of senior management, with the frustrations and challenges of your users, with the realities of the day-to-day.

Whether that’s around spending time understanding the frustrations and pain-points of your colleagues; running regular sessions that introduce ‘the voice of the customer’; doing early user testing with colleagues; sharing insights and examples of customer frustrations with senior management; showcasing your work and achievements in communal areas (both digital and IRL).

Achieving buy-in is only going to happen when you are able to demonstrate your understanding of broader challenges, frustrations and priorities and how your work helps meet and solve those.

Download Pete and John’s presentation slides.

Conclusions?

I found the discussions inspiring and practical. I hope everyone who came felt the same.

There seemed to be no disagreement that this topic was essential, but there still seemed to be difficulties in getting broader organisational buy-in and investment. It felt that on the whole the cultural sector is getting better at ‘physical’ signs of accessibility ‘in real life’ (ramps, wheelchair seats, audio described performances, etc) but there is still a lot of work to do in the digital space.

Digital touchpoints are often going to be the first way that your users engage with and find out about you. If that experience is difficult, or frustrating, then that isn’t going to inspire confidence and excitement about the relationship beyond that.

We all have more we can, and should, do. There’s lots of easy and obvious stuff that can change from tomorrow. Of course there are more difficult and technical things that won’t be solved in a day but it feels imperative that we meet this challenge head on if we, as a sector, really want to live the values we spend so much time talking about.

if you want to speak at, host or attend a future Digital Works event please get in touch events@substrakt.com