Making the Case for Accessibility
You know accessibility is important. You want to dedicate the time to research and design a product that a wide variety of users can easily use. You want your products to make life easier for a person with a disability.
How do you convince your team to invest the time and resources for accessibility research and design?
Here are five tactics centered around empathy, flexibility, incremental changes, market share, and industry standards to convince your team to make accessibility a priority.
Valuing the importance of accessibility in design can be hard for people to grasp unless they have personally experienced a disability or know someone who has. You can show statistics of the demographic trends of people with disabilities and the growing aging population or advocate for how much bigger your product’s market potential will be if the product is usable by people with disabilities, but unfortunately, the numbers alone won’t tell the story. Statistics don’t stick in people’s minds, stories and experiences do. Build empathy and understanding by combining your facts, charts, graphs, and statistical analyses with stories, videos, images, and live demonstrations.
A few years after communicating via email became common, a deaf friend of mine said, “Email is like water to me. I can easily communicate with people via email.” Although she can read lips in both her native German and in English, communication can be difficult, especially when she is not speaking with people face-to-face. Before email and text messaging existed, she had no way to quickly communicate with people remotely. She couldn’t make a phone call without a hearing person assisting her.
Have your team envision your product being so vital to the life of someone with a disability, that it becomes like water to them.
Once you’ve completed each exercise, talk about how you can improve your website, app, or product images to make them easier to see or use for people with disabilities.
Do a group brainstorming session about how your products can be used by a variety of users, even for use cases you hadn’t originally envisaged.
There’s a concept in universal design called the Curb Cut effect, if a product is made to work better for people with disabilities (mobility, visual, hearing, and more), it will work better for everyone. A dropped curb, curb ramp, or curb cut on a sidewalk benefits not just wheelchair users, but people with strollers, suitcases, carts, and other items that would be hard or dangerous to transport from the sidewalk to the road without a ramp.
For example, closed captioning on television or online videos doesn’t only benefit the hearing impaired. Captions in noisy places such as bars, restaurants, and airports are convenient for many people. While at work or in public transit, some people might watch videos or television without earphones and rely on captions to know what is going on.
Products can be repurposed. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) created scratch-resistant lenses, memory foam, freeze-dried foods, and other inventions for space travel that are now regularly used in everyday life. The lightweight shock-absorption technology used for space suits was repurposed to create the shock absorbers in popular sneakers.
Just like NASA inventions were repurposed, other products can have unintended but positive accessibility use cases. For example, Mary speaks English, has hearing loss, and uses hearing aids. She goes to a doctor’s appointment and realizes that she can barely hear her doctor because her hearing aid batteries are low and beeping as a result. She has no new batteries. The doctor hears Mary but she can’t clearly hear the doctor. She opens the Google Translate app on her phone and asks the doctor to speak into the microphone using Translate’s speech-to-text feature. For the app to work, she selects a language, French, for Google Translate to translate the doctor’s spoken English, but she ignores the French translation. Mary reads what the doctor says in English using Google Translate’s speech recognition. She verbally responds to what the doctor has said. The doctor continues to speak into Translate and Mary reads the English transcription of the doctor’s spoken words until the appointment is over. Mary and her doctor are repurposing Google Translate for an accessibility purpose — live transcription of a monolingual conversation.
The versatility of your app might make it a lifesaver or simply make lives easier.
(Good news! Google now has an app, Live Transcribe, that offers real-time live transcription in over 70 languages using speech recognition technology.)
The truth is that accessibility may not be easy. However, if you take things step by step and first change the most obvious aspects of your product to make them more accessible, you will build a sense of progress on your team. This pride in team progress will be valuable to keep the team motivated to make more changes and design their products with a sense of empathy for users with accessibility needs.
In the May 2011 Harvard Business Review article, “The Power of Small Wins,” business researchers, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer explain the progress principle: “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.”
Make an accessibility plan that creates a sense of progress in your team. Decide which accessibility changes or features are needed for your product. Plan to make those changes or features in various stages. Acknowledge the team members who created the features or changes and have them share about their process to the rest of the team. Group sharing is important so that the rest of the team understands how they, too, can participate in accessibility.
Here are some scenarios and strategies of small changes that can create a sense of progress:
Your team dedicated months to making funny Do-It-Yourself (DIY) houseware repair videos with jokes and fun music. Add a transcript of your video. A transcript is not only important for your customers who can’t hear, but it’s also good for the search engine optimization (SEO) of your website. Search engines can’t crawl the audio and video input of your video. However, if there is a transcript, then search engines can find keywords such as “DIY dishwasher repair” or “fix the microwave” from the transcript.
You are making the website for a new restaurant. The restaurant owner wants to upload the JPEG images of the fancy printed menu to the website. There is gray text on a light beige background that matches the interior colors of the restaurant. The restaurant owner likes these images and colors because they represent what the restaurant has to offer. What could be a problem with this situation?
Problem #1: Screen readers and text in images
Screen reader software usually doesn’t read text in images. People with vision impairments relying on screen readers might not hear the menu. Potential customers may give up and find another restaurant with a text menu online. Just as with the example of the missing video transcript in Scenario #1, the lack of a text menu means that search engines won’t be able to crawl the restaurant’s site to know the food and prices. If the owner insists on using the images of the printed menu, consider adding alt tags to the images with the food names and prices. Screen readers will read out the text in the alt tags. Search engines can also crawl the text in alt tags.
Problem #2: Color contrast
Gray text on a light beige background could be hard to read for someone with low vision or for a user reading in bright sunlight or low-light conditions. The Material Design color contrast guidelines, based on the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C’s) recommendations, suggest that small text should have a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1 against its background.
Change the colors of the gray text and light beige background in the menu to meet the 4.5:1 contrast ratio.
Connect the stories with the statistics by explaining how not designing for accessibility scenarios leads to lost revenue. For example, government agencies may ask companies who want to sell products or software to the government for a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT). If your product has not considered accessibility, then your company may lose potential sales to a large buyer such as the government.
If your competitor has successfully designed a product that people with accessibility needs can use, your competitor may dominate the market. The OXO vegetable peeler is a good example of how a product designed for an accessibility need gained wide market share. Sam Farber saw how his wife, who had arthritis, was uncomfortable holding a vegetable peeler. The peeler slipped out of her hands, especially when her hands were wet. He created the OXO vegetable peeler with an ergonomic rubber grip that wouldn’t easily slip out of the user’s hand. The OXO brand grew beyond just appealing to elderly and arthritic customers and became a popular kitchenware brand.
Look for helpful guides or industry standards to help your product stay ahead of possible complications. Your product may be subject to accessibility and disability requirements in the countries where your product is available. In the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, before websites and apps were created. But as with many laws, new inventions and technology sometimes outpace specific rules and regulations.
In June 2017, a Florida federal court required a grocery store chain to make their website more accessible to a screen reader user who alleged that they could not use the site to order prescriptions to be picked up in the store or to access coupons to use in the store. The judge ordered the store to take several steps such as making its website comply with industry standards, instituting mandatory accessibility training for its web developers, and paying attorney fees. (The case is currently under appeal.) It’s important to consider accessibility early on, and continuously make improvements to your products, so that you can get ahead of challenges (and frustrated users). Industry guidelines and standards can help address this need.
Disclaimer: These materials are for your information only, and do not constitute legal advice. You should consult your attorney for advice on any particular issue.
You know accessibility is important. You want to dedicate the time to research and design a product that a wide variety of users can easily use. So you motivate your team to invest in accessibility via empathy, flexibility, incentivizing small changes, and alignment with industry standards.
But, knowing and exercising these five tactics are not enough to make accessibility a priority.
In order to ultimately drive change, you need to make accessibility part of your company’s overarching strategic planning. Paint the picture for why accessibility research and design is integral for your company’s goal and secure funding and time in the schedule. Bethany Fong, Staff Interaction Designer for Material Design at Google, recommends, “to make sure to reserve money in the budget and time in the product research and development calendar for accessibility research.” Through the holistic — and relentless — approach outlined above, you’ll hopefully begin to see how an accessible mindset becomes embedded in the foundation of the company culture and fused into every design decision, no matter how big or how small.
Written by Susanna Zaraysky, Content Strategist, Material Design
Making the Case for Accessibility
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