How to Implement Accessibility in Agency Projects: Part 2

Some concepts and tips that we're using at Viget to make accessibility part of every project.

In part 1 of my series, How to Implement Accessibility in Agency Projects, I discussed some of the high-level challenges faced when implementing accessibility in client service companies and how we’re approaching them at Viget.

Talking about accessibility is relatively easy, but when project constraints like timelines and budgets are involved, putting it into practice can be challenging. We've been working on this at Viget and in part 2 of this series, I’ll share some concepts and tips that we're using to make accessibility part of every project.

Thinking About Accessibility

Making accessibility part of your team’s work can be challenging and requires a deliberate effort. At Viget, we've found that building empathy, company-wide education, and re-framing how we think to be valuable strategies.

Cultivate Empathy

If you’re reading this, you likely work at a computer… a lot. You also may have customized your setup to enhance the way you like to work. In short: you’re a “power user”. That’s great for productivity but bad for empathy. The more ingrained we are in our setup the harder it is to understand how other people use and experience their computer and the web. We can easily forget that we are not like our users. It's challenging enough to keep in mind that most people are less savvy, use less-than-cutting-edge hardware, or don’t have a high-speed internet connection. If you don’t have direct experience with disabilities (either yourself or someone in your life), it takes deliberate effort gain empathy for people who interact with the web in ways that are different from you.

You may be able-bodied now, but things happen as we journey through life that can cause us to become temporarily or permanently disabled. Has anything ever prevented you from using your computer in your normal way? Perhaps a broken thumb affected your ability to use the mouse, LASIK surgery made it difficult to focus on your screen for a week or two, or maybe your trackpad just gave out (all of these happened to me). Having even temporary dependence on accessible technologies, like I did with keyboard access and font zooming, can give us a new perspective and appreciation for the importance of building accessible products.

Try these tips for gaining better insight into how people with various disabilities use the Web:

  • Take the #NoMouse challenge and spend some time navigating by keyboard.
  • Learn the basics of how to use a screen reader and try listening to how pages are read.
  • Install Chrome extensions like NoCoffee or Funkify to experience browsing with various disabilities.
  • Check out many of the other simulations from WebAIM.
  • Hold an empathy-building workshop for your team or company where you challenge the group to perform a specific task, like selecting a round-trip flight, using only the keyboard or with one of the Funkify personas enabled.

Educate Across the Company

Lone accessibility advocates, however passionate, aren't going to make much of a lasting impact on accessibility awareness company-wide — they can’t be everywhere all the time, and if they leave the company their influence goes with them. At Viget, we found that the most successful strategy for creating a lasting company value was to harness those with a passion for accessibility to speak, write, and lead training sessions. By framing accessibility knowledge as a higher level of expertise and empowering everyone to own their role’s portion of accessibility, we quickly saw a higher level of buy-in and enthusiasm.

To that end, we built the Interactive WCAG: a tool for filtering and sharing the daunting Web Content Accessibility Guideline (WCAG) spec in a digestible format. The spec can be filtered to only view a certain level (A, AA or AAA) and a role's responsibility (copywriting, visual design, user experience design, development, or front-end development). It also creates a shareable URL so that it can be easily sent to a colleague or client.

Try these ideas for getting a discussion going in your office:

  • Lead by example — begin with your own work and show what good accessibility looks like.
  • Do a lunch-and-learn presentation or offer to speak at a team or company all-hands meeting.
  • Depending on how your company is structured, approach other discipline or project teams and ask if an accessibility presentation can get on an upcoming meeting agenda. Make sure the presentation is tailored to the concerns of that group.
  • Write about accessibility on your company's blog.
  • Hold an empathy-building session or build an empathy lab where coworkers can get a better understanding of some people's barriers to using the web.
  • Attend a local accessibility Meetup and offer to host a meeting at your office.
  • Invite an outside accessibility expert to speak at a company or team meeting (in person or remote).

Think of Accessibility as a Core Part of Usability

The introduction of the iPhone and the explosion of internet-connected portable devices that followed was a sea-change moment for web developers. At the time, we were too busy re-learning how to build for the web to realize how beneficial these devices would be for people with disabilities. Our need to start accounting for new patterns of input and output beyond the desktop computer and mouse wound up being a boon to accessibility on the web. We're now accustomed to thinking about patterns that coincide with a variety of disabilities:

  • Better readability and responsive designs for small screens also benefit those with low vision who might prefer to zoom their browser to see content better.
  • Making targets, like buttons, large enough for a finger on a touchscreen also makes it easier for users with fine motor control disabilities that can still use a mouse to target and click.
  • Considering content in smaller chunks and writing tight for small screens is great for helping those with cognitive or memory disabilities, like ADD/ADHD, focus on the page's task.
  • The popularity of touch devices largely killed hovers as a primary way of revealing and interacting with content. This was good for keyboard users because it meant that we stopped relying on the mouse hover and started designing and coding for the click as the primary way to interact with things.

Tips for Making Accessibility Part of Your Day-To-Day Work

Here are some curated tips from the Viget team on how we're implementing accessibility in our daily work:

Design

“Check your palette at every step of the way so that you don't have to adjust for contrast later on. Keep the contrast checker open in a tab for easy access.”

- Mindy Wagner, Art Director

Content

“Keyboard testing is a quick and important way to QA a site. When going through pages using your keyboard, remember to use shift+tab to make sure keyboard users can move both down and up a page in a logical way. You can find some sneaky things that way, especially when elements appear/disappear when scrolling.”

“Always dig into contrast errors when using WAVE or a similar tool. Don’t consider it an error just because it is flagged as one - look at the details and see what level and font size it's failing.”

- Becky Tornes, Senior Project Manager

User Experience

  • Question :hover with extreme prejudice.
  • Edit labels and microcopy for simplicity and directness.
  • Disable CSS to see if a UI "reads" logically when color, shape, alignment, emphasis, and other visual design elements are absent.
  • Balance working memory with the amount of content on a page.
  • Be consistent and predictable, particularly with navigation.
  • Poke yoke your data inputs. Error prevention > error resolution.

- Todd Moy, Former Senior User Experience Designer

Front-End Development

“Purposely become a keyboard-only user as often as possible. You can start small. Try giving yourself a user goal, like "As a user, I need to be able to search for careers" and try to complete it using only the keyboard. If you're developing on a Mac, you may need to adjust browser and OS settings before getting started.”

- Chris Manning, Senior Front-End Developer

Don't Reserve Accessibility for Just Production Code

When prototyping or test-coding a new feature, always build it to be accessible. Even if it's for a small internal audience or just yourself, considering accessibility at a nascent stage will get it baked in from the beginning and, most importantly, means you won't have to re-think a feature's structure or interaction model later. And who are we kidding... when the going gets tough these prototypes sometimes make their way into production.

Learn HTML and Use It Semantically

Using the correct markup for the task is the easiest way to get accessibility for free. This can be pretty straightforward if you're coding by hand but more challenging if you're using a framework or helper that outputs markup for you. The benefits, though, are significant:

  • Sectioning elements allow screen reader users to jump around the page quickly.
  • Good use of headings, similarly, lets screen reader users understand a page's content structure and jump to just want they want.
  • Using frequently built-from-scratch elements like <button>, <a> and <select> correctly instead of meaningless <div>'s provides all of the expected interactivity (keyboard focusable, clickable and correctly read by a screen reader) without the extra work of having to add it in with JavaScript.

Not using the correct element, or trying to reproduce a native control from scratch, can lead to bigger headaches down the road and a true adding-accessibility-takes-more-time result.

Support Flexibility

Building for accessibility isn't about just one disability. There's a broad range of disabilities to keep in mind and it can feel overwhelming at times. Building flexibility into your interfaces and interactions helps ensure broader access. What does that mean? To an extent, with responsive design, we're already doing it. Accounting for multiple kinds of input (mouse and touch) and output (small to large screens) makes our sites better able to accommodate a variety of situations.

Sometimes we unknowingly disable flexibility. For example, one common practice is locking a mobile browser's zoom level to ensure that the site fits the screen or to prevent some gestures from interfering with interactions. This has the unintended consequence of preventing users with vision disabilities from zooming the page to make text or images easier to see.

Prioritize Accessible Content Over Accessible Experience

We're frequently tasked with creating richly interactive sites. That's the fun part of what we do, right? In a perfect situation with plenty of time, we'd be able to make that experience accessible to everyone. I don't know about you, but I'm still waiting for that unicorn project to come along (hint: it won't). When the task of making a complex piece of functionality or experience accessible is daunting, prioritize making sure that the content is accessible. With enough time, we could make anything accessible. But when faced with deadlines and budgets, making something accessible over nothing is the better tradeoff.

An example of this concept in practice was a map page we created for a client. This page was designed with a map of clickable pushpins that brought up a little info overlay. Rather than trying to figure out how to make the SVG map accessible to keyboards and screen readers, the design already included an identical text list that we were able to rely on. The solution was to make the map inaccessible to keyboards and screen readers. The map script that we used created the pushpins as <span>'s (see using semantic HTML above) rather than <button>'s so it was already inaccessible out-of-the-box. To make it invisible to screen readers we added aria-hidden="true" to its outermost wrapper.

The result is perfectly accessible content without the added time and expense of trying to make the map accessible. This was a win for accessibility and a win for the budget! Now, of course it's possible to make the map accessible with some extra effort, but instead, those hours could be spent on other features and contributed to delivering the site on time and on budget.

Conclusion

Creating more accessible products and experiences is an essential and rewarding endeavor but carries unique challenges for those of us working in client service companies. Rather than give up or wait for clients to ask, we’ve found that the practices I outlined in this article lead to a lasting culture at Viget that values thinking about accessibility throughout a project and throughout the company. Here are just a few examples from our experience working on some fun, beautiful and disability-specific projects. Do you have any tips to share? Comments? Criticism? We'd love to hear about it below!

Jeremy Fields

Jeremy leads Viget's front-end development team, and has helped make accessibility part of every site we build. Based in our Boulder, CO, office, Jeremy has worked with clients like Time Life, PUMA, and Dick's Sporting Goods.

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