Accessibility: The path less trodden

“Diversity is the world’s biggest asset and inclusivity is our biggest challenge.”

These are the words of the renowned design researcher Jutta Treviranus, and this powerful thought was shared at the recent Accessibility Scotland 2017 conference in Edinburgh. The event was a brilliant congregation of accessibility experts, enthusiasts and advocates. The topics ranged from the fantastic new innovations from the likes of Microsoft, to accessible ideas in gaming technology. Many insightful thoughts were exchanged in great spirit, making it a highly engaging event.

One of the interesting exercises tried out at the event was to have open discussions about accessibility matters of common interest. I was involved in the one about the implications of Brexit on laws and regulation around accessibility. Amongst the various arguments we made in this connection, there was one question that we all debated intently –

Should we have a culture driven by legislation or should it be the other way round – and have legislation empowered by common culture?

If the latter, we perhaps have to invest in a strategy on how to go about it. We should be encouraging learning on these concepts early on. Hence there is a need to perhaps develop awareness about inclusivity at schools and universities. We should also be ensuring that web accessibility is included in study materials for new recruits in companies. We definitely have a long way to go in making accessibility a default feature of all our work.

It is a well-known fact now that not many countries have been very successful in making accessibility an obvious aspect in their technology domain.  This less trodden path could very well be taken by the UK, to set an example to other societies. There are innumerable charities working across the country for this cause, which reflects the amazing work done here for the disabled community. We have a great opportunity in the world of technology too to become leaders on this front. This call goes out to everyone, irrespective of working in public or private sectors, to think about the impact we can potentially make by being inclusive – in our web designs, in our programming, in our testing and above all in our attitudes.

It is ironic that people with disability were one of the early adopters of technology (like speech processors etc.) but have been left behind as the new innovations are arriving in unbelievable speed. As the famous writer William Gibson has said,

“The future has arrived but it is not evenly distributed.”

Our world today boasts of advancement in technology which is beyond imagination but it is very much our battle of the moment to make sure it is in reach for everybody.

Read more about how Sopra Steria drives digital inclusivity through improved web accessibility.

One for all and all for one

Today, we celebrate Global Accessibility Awareness day, and I can’t help but mention about witnessing perhaps the most divisive times in our recent memory. While harmonious communities are at the brink of deep divisions and our collective thought process is ever preoccupied with the volatile political and social situations, it is perhaps a good occasion to remind ourselves of those who are most vulnerable. There is a need to come together to support them more than ever before. The technical community has always taken pride in transcending boundaries most effectively.

There is a greater responsibility on us now to operate in a manner which looks out for end users who are the risk of getting completely ignored.

Internet inventor Vint Cerf has recently called for it to be considered an offence if a web based service is not accessible. While the sentiment seems fully justified given the service providers can get away without doing much about web accessibility, his views seem to predominantly hold programmers / developers responsible for such aspects. In reality all roles in a software development life cycle need to contribute towards making a service accessible. Right from senior management down to the operational teams, there is an onus on every role to make the end-to-end accessibility a reality, which the accessibility experts have been highlighting all along. There is something we can all do no matter what our position is in the big IT juggernaut.

Recently, MP Dawn Butler created history by using sign language for her speech in Parliament – an utterly inspirational gesture about caring for every person in our audience and for making sure everybody understands what she was trying to convey. To think, ensuring everyone understands our work is actually a basic obligation to ourselves as it will give it most reach and recognition. Looking at the same idea with a business hat on, there is a very obvious commercial benefit to it. The more people understand / access the content the better it is for marketing and hence better for business. It is sheer common sense to make our work accessible.

In future, the new innovations may very well address these requirements completely. For example, the improved voice browsing technologies are a great alternative for people with visual or motor disabilities. But at the moment there is still a big need to build websites with consideration to the diversity in user communities. At Sopra Steria we have a full set of services to make this happen – see our dedicated website for accessibility services and service infographic.

Now is a time for all of us to renew our pledge to achieve complete accessibility in the world around us.

Seamless accessibility: improve user experience with end-to-end business support

Have you had an online experience which has been of great quality but found the accompanying business service less than satisfactory?  I recently went through a similar experience with a popular cultural festival. There was an inconsistency in the ticketing process where an online ticket purchase required a visit to the ticket collection point to get a print of the ticket. Some of these points were difficult to reach and were poorly sign posted. It got me thinking how one inadequately supported aspect of an otherwise fantastic event was sticking out like a sore thumb for me! Allowing the customers to print the tickets at home would perhaps resolve the issue? Or offering a mobile e-ticket which would also be environmentally friendly?

A similar thought was mentioned by a speaker at the Accessibility Scotland 2016 conference that I attended recently. Accessibility expert Mark Palmer highlighted:

Accessibility needs end-to-end support in a business and web accessibility is just one aspect of it

Quoting the example of booking a flight ticket for a customer travelling with a guide dog (which is yet to be made a fully online process by some airlines and can be quite laborious), he explained that unless the business processes around this idea are well designed, it does not serve much purpose to just get the IT part of it right. Say if a software implementation has delivered a perfectly accessible web based system to place order for a product but the ordering process needs the user to physically go to an inaccessible collection point to pick up the product, the purpose is defeated. Yes, we do want the web accessibility requirements fully addressed but there should be an associated review of the business set up as well.

Coming to think of it, I can see many examples around me where the quality of an online experience is not followed up in the delivery of the actual service / business process. The priority seat booking in some of the low cost airlines that still requires the customers to wait in a long queue to make sure they get to keep their hand luggage on the aircraft with them. Another instance is when I booked classes for my son with a local swimming company, which had marketed their website in all flyers. The highly presentable website did not have the option to pay the fees online; hence the transaction did not end with my online activities, I had to follow up with a phone call to make the payment. While this could be true of any online service, the same principle is applicable to accessibility i.e., user experience as a topic is not limited to the web part of the customer’s journey in accessing a service.

An excellent example of getting this idea right is the ‘Accessible Tourism’ initiative by the public sector organisation Visit Scotland. The aim of this project is to encourage tourism businesses to consider making the full experience to be completely accessible. Right from practical tips around a disabled person using their facilities to case studies of success stories, there is extensive information provided to encourage businesses to make the overall experience fully accessible. This measure is to be appreciated as a step in the right direction to encourage the thought process of thinking through the end-to-end user experience.

Can you see such processes around you where the overall service experience is inconsistent with the online service?

It could be a project you are part of, an experience as a customer / end user? Can you imagine the frustration of such an experience? Perhaps it’s something we should bring to the attention of our clients / project teams who are on such missions. Project managers and business analysts need to look at this more closely perhaps? After all, it is the end-to-end user experience which ensures customer loyalty and complete user satisfaction.

Leave a reply below or contact me by email.

Don’t forget the lampposts 

I was recently reviewing a ‘complete’ checklist for testing web applications but at no point in the list was accessibility even mentioned despite being quite thorough in other areas. I would like to try to kid myself that this was just an oversight but it is sadly all too common even though it has been a legal requirement for well over a decade. Of course, a legal requirement where enforcement is practically unheard of is rarely a motivation for an organisation to spend more money on something. That being said, there is strong evidence of the real business benefit to accessible services and information being available to the ten million disabled people in the UK (two million of which have sight problems), but that would be a whole other article.

When testing for accessibility is carried out, it is done so to a set of guidelines. The W3C[1] WAI[2] WCAG 2.0[3] are widely regarded as the guidelines to use, with the middle road AA standard the most sought after level. While the AA standard is quite adequate for the majority (AAA is better and readily achievable with a little extra effort), testing relying solely on the guidelines does not guarantee the final product is accessible and usable. It is entirely possible to have an accessible website that is very difficult to use.

When I was a child, my mother used to paint the front door of our house a bright colour in the belief, unbeknownst to me, that this was necessary for me to be able to find my way home from school. When I asked about our door and this was explained to me I thought that it was a really silly reason and promptly told her, “You just need to count the lampposts”.

This may seem like quite a bizarre anecdote to throw into a web accessibility article. However, my point is that…

just because you expect someone to do something one way does not mean they have not already found their own preferred way to do it.

The same applies to people with disabilities accessing websites and applications. The developers may intend a site/app to be accessed in a specific way but, particularly for non-visual users, the content order and methods they use will be quite different and vary upon personal preference.

Your test team can ensure the site/app designs follow the WAI guidelines, and that your content authors are trained in how to maintain the accessibility standards of your site/app but until you perform real user testing you will not know if you have completely succeeded in your goal.

There is no substitute for having a couple dozen people test your site with various technologies and tell you all the things that annoy them about it, as they will all do so in a slightly different way.

Many of the issues that arise during accessibility testing come from developers not being properly trained in HTML features for accessibility and implementing them incorrectly, which only serves to aggravate the user and drive them away from the site. This has become a particular problem with the increasing reliance on JavaScript without proper alternatives in place and most recently the use of ARIA[4] in HTML 5. ARIA has many potential benefits, particularly for fast navigation using screen readers, but when implemented poorly it can render a site extremely unpleasant to use.

Having worked in accessibility testing for over 13 years and having a lifetime’s experience of visual impairment I can’t help but feel depressed at times at how little regard is given to web accessibility.

The need for systems to be fully accessible will only increase due to the growth in essential services being provided via web applications.

With a little training and care, it is simple to implement accessibility at early development stages, thus providing a superior product that will benefit the customer and users alike (and fewer headaches for myself will be a nice bonus too).

If you have any comments about this topic, please a reply below or contact me by email.

Footnotes

[1] World Wide Web Consortium
[2] Web Accessibility Initiative
[3] Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0
[4] Accessible Rich Internet Applications