Creating Products and Services That Are Simply Accessible

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Today on Radio Johnny Jeff Parks talks with Derek Featherstone, who will be presenting at the upcoming edUi conference about the importance of accessible design in the creation of great experiences for every user. Derek argues that organizations need to look at accessibility as a design tool and not simply as list of requirements with which they must comply. As we build more dynamic interfaces our standard of care must also increase. As designers we should striving to make products and services that are both technically perfect and easy to use for every person, regardless of their physical limitations.


“We really want to make sure that we’re doing this for all people and not just for people that have perfect vision or perfect hearing or have full use of their hands… We want to create experiences that are just as engaging and just as magical and just as easy to use for people with disabilities as well.”

“There’s a huge cross-over between the mobile space and the accessibility space…One of the things we’ve embraced for years in accessibility is the idea of flexibility and adaptability.”

“If we look at accessibility as a design tool, and a core business requirement, we start looking at it much earlier in the design process. We start looking at it when we’re first conceptualizing a product or project.”


* Follow Derek on Twitter
* W3C World Accessibility Initiative
* Re-Research: A New Picture of Existing Data – Making a difference for your organization, using mental models” by Indi Young

Jeff On Radio Johnny today I have the pleasure of speaking with Derek Featherstone, internationally known authority on accessibility and web development and a highly sought after speaker and published author. His experiences include hands-on web development with a specific focus on delivering web standards based solutions that encourage the response beliefs of javascript and AJAX in a way that allows these dynamic web interfaces and accessibility to coexist. Focusing on big picture strategy, up to the elbows in design and code on the tactical side, doesn’t get any better than that.

I couldn’t agree with you more, Derek. Thanks so much for joining me on Radio Johnny.

Derek Thanks for having me here, Jeff.

Jeff This is great. The overarching theme today that you’d like to talk to our listeners a little bit about is creating interface magic for everyone. Maybe you could talk to our listeners a little bit about what the focus of today’s topic is about and give us a little more on your experiences and background.

Derek The basic premise in terms of creating interface magic is that we spend a lot of time and a lot of effort making sure that we create experiences that are engaging, that are a pleasure to use, and that are more than just “let’s slap this together and get it live.”

All the different clients that we’ve worked with over the years all want to do more than just the bare minimum in terms of design and in terms of providing an experience. I think that’s a really important piece of doing what we do on the web. We’re people that want to do more than just what it takes to get by, at least I know certainly our clients are that way and I’m sure most of yours and most of our listeners are as well.

The idea of doing this for all people is that we really want to make sure that we’re doing this for all people and not just for people that have perfect vision or perfect hearing, or have full use of their hands or whatever it may be. We want to create experiences that are just as engaging and just as magical and just as easy to use for people with disabilities as well.

Jeff Absolutely. You described very succinctly there why this is important, but I think it’s also important because one of the first points you talk about is the fact that we all lose our capacity as we age. In North America with the Baby Boomers being the largest generation in North America’s history this is an area that I think is critical, as you just articulated, to get right and to build into what people constitute as being a great user experience.

Derek Absolutely. That’s really what this is about is making sure that accessibility and creating things that are easy to use for people with disabilities is just seen as part of overall user experience and sort of a core requirement to make things work really well for everyone.

Jeff Exactly. To give people some perspective on this as well; I have a background of working with people with disabilities for nearly a decade, so I can appreciate the importance of this. But, I would think it gets even more complicated when we’re designing for, let’s say 20% of the screen on an iPhone or something like that. There’s a lot of talk about mobile design today. Are there moves towards trying to make things more accessible on mobile devices as well for individuals?

Derek There absolutely is. There’s a huge crossover between the mobile space and the accessibility space. A lot of the things that we do in the accessibility world are not just benefits for accessibility sake but they’re also benefits in the mobile world. One of the things that we’ve embraced for years in accessibility is the idea of flexibility and adaptability.

That’s something that we’ve really pushed, and lots of accessibility advocates have pushed, is to say the things that we’re building need to be flexible and malleable so that somebody that has specific needs can adjust and use what you’ve provided, but adjust them so that they work well with their device, or work well with their particular needs or their particular mode of interaction.

We see a lot of crossover even just at a basic philosophical level. When we’re talking about mobile design now, we’re talking about creating things that work on lots of different devices in different settings and in different scenarios. Even simple things like looking at something natively within a browser on an iPad, an iPhone, or an Android device, but then looking at that same content inside of an app on that same device there’s actually sometimes subtle differences between how the built-in browser works and the embedded browser works.

Understanding some of those subtleties and having a flexible design that can fit in both scenarios and work really well is kind of an important piece of the mobile space as well, so there’s huge crossover.

Jeff The point I really liked here on the notes you provided me was that importantly we need to look at accessibility as a design tool, as part of user experience and not simply as compliance.

From my experience and people I’ve talked to, when they think about accessibility it’s almost like a human resources job description. There are certain things that need to be complied with to fill the job and if we’re going to comply with making things accessible it’s a short checklist of things and we’re done.

But to your point, we need to stop looking at it like that and we need to look at this bigger picture and these other elements that are now coming into play with different browsers, with the advent of tablets and mobile. It’s a critical piece that I don’t hear people talking a lot about.

Derek Absolutely. That’s something for us that has evolved as a philosophy over time. It’s very natural for people to think about accessibility as a compliance requirement because in most cases it is a compliance requirement. What ends up happening in those scenarios is that we have clients that come to us at all different stages of projects.

Sometimes they come to us right at the beginning when they’re first conceptualizing a product or a project, or they’ll come to us at the design stage or they’ll come to us when they’ve already got a design mostly finished but they want us to check on a few things. In lots of cases they’ll come right near the end when the product has mostly been built and is somewhat ready for launch or they’re a significant way down the pathway of developing whatever it is that they’re developing and then they ask us for our accessibility advice then.

The idea that accessibility is a thing to be complied with and a checklist – it’s not that the checklist is not important, it’s an important piece of this, but the idea that accessibility as compliance, when that’s the pervading thought behind what accessibility is it means that it doesn’t get applied until much later in the process when it’s too late to make fundamental design changes.

Whereas if we look at accessibility as a design tool and as a core business requirement we take it into account much earlier in the process, we start looking at it when we’re first conceptualizing a product or a project and say, “Are there specific needs for content,” for example, “for different devices, for different settings? How do people with disabilities engage with this?”

I know you’re familiar with Indi Young and her work in mental models.

Jeff Yes.

Derek There are things that we look at. When she’s going through and determining the mental model of somebody that’s trying to complete a particular task, even something simple like a movie, for example, the whole process of figuring out what movies to go to.

There are things that people with disabilities may take into account or consider that other people just don’t need to. The choice of what movie to go see may not depend exclusively on friends or other things like that, but their transportation decisions may be completely different, whether or not there’s accessible transportation available at the particular movie time.

We need to take those things into account as much as possible, as early as possible in the process. That includes right from the get-go when we’re first putting our ideas together about what a product or project should be.

Jeff Exactly. You shared with me, Derek, the idea that right now you and your team are working on a redesign of 17 individual sites that are being consolidated into one for a major U.S. health insurance provider. Can you talk to our listeners a little bit about it? I think you’ve described probably what you’re going through with them as well. But, are there specific things around accessibility and is that a focal point for this particular project?

Derek It’s probably the most exciting project that we’ve ever worked on, to be honest with you.

They looked at this as an opportunity to say, “We have these 17 sites with slightly different branding and slightly different look and feel, and we need to consolidate this into one. For info structure reasons we’ve got multiple servers all over the place, there’s just a whole lot of good business sense in bringing this all into one house and having it under one new consolidated brand.” They looked at that and said, “This is our opportunity to make sure that everything we do is accessible from the get-go.”

They engaged with us a few other partners right from the beginning so that accessibility was taken into account right up front, both the strategic side and the tactical side of it. We’re involved in a lot of different things there. We’re building components for the site, we’re building templates and layouts, we’re designing things for them, we’re reviewing other people’s designs, we’re working with third party vendors to help make sure that they’re choosing the right vendors that have the most accessible code or is going to be able to produce the ultimate end result, not just in accessibility but overall usability and ease of use.

To top it off, we’re not even aiming for Level A compliance with the web content accessibility guidelines, we’re not even aiming for Level AA. We’re actually aiming for as close to full AAA compliance as we can. It really has been a dream project in that they’re dealing with accessibility and dealing with it appropriately right from the start, but also really shooting for the moon, really aiming as high as they can. That wasn’t even the right thing to say, they’re not shooting for the moon. They really are shooting for the stars. They’re aiming as high as absolutely possible.

Jeff I can’t think of a more appropriate industry than the health insurance industry for accessibility to be top of mind all the time. That is ultimately that is your target audience. People have asked me in the past, “How do we tie accessibility into usability?” When it comes down to that specific sector in particular, which is a huge industry the world over, especially in North America and the United States with the health insurance, I can’t think of a more appropriate place to start modeling that importance in that area.

Derek It absolutely is. I think that’s part of the reason that they’re shooting and aiming so high, and they know that they want to take it into account from the get-go. They had significant experience in usability and overall user experience and they’ve done studies to work with users on actually walking through processes and things on their website, and they’ve been looking to improve those things. They know that a really highly significant portion of their audience is an aging population, so they are fully aware of the implications of what they’re doing. That’s part of the reason, to credit the people that work there, they really took it on board and said, “We need to do this. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it really is a huge part of serving our customers.”

Jeff Without question. Quite frankly, in the web world where so much is (pardon the bad pun) Flash, with everything that’s just so “look at me, look at me,” it’s refreshing to hear this kind of work being done in an area where the web is actually demonstrating a value add to help people in the real world and not just through the virtual worlds that are being created by you and your team. Absolutely critical. Accessibility, I think, should be a much more broadly talked about concept and topic.

Just to finish up here, what do you think the greatest barriers are to creating accessible websites and web services? I mean this with all due respect… Is it ignorance on behalf of the client and the community or is it literally a lack of knowledge, or is it just time? What are some of the biggest issues that you’ve run into in the past?

Derek I think awareness is a huge issue. What we’re seeing happen a lot now, we’re being engaged by a particular client to evaluate the work of their other third party vendors to say, “These guys are saying that their stuff is accessible. Can you assess this for us and let us know what needs to be changed?” We’re seeing that people are starting to build accessibility requirements fully into their procurement process. That’s a huge step, because what that means is that it’s there in paperwork, which means it’s being seen much more widely across the business. So awareness is a huge issue and always is.

There’s even groups that we work with that have said in the past, “Yes, we know how to do accessible code,” or, “we know how to create an accessible website.” What we’ve actually found in many cases is that they have maybe a basic understanding but a lot of the nuances and the things that we’re talking about where we’re talking about truly creating a great experience for somebody that has a disability that’s using assistive technology or is using different settings in their browser. They understand the basics but they don’t have necessarily a lot of experience to base it on in terms of working with actual people with disabilities.

That awareness is sort of two-fold. One, it’s the general awareness of accessibility. Some people just genuinely don’t know that it’s even an issue. Then the other side of it is the awareness of how this actually works with real people and not just this theoretical concept that I’ve got this checklist and if I’ve done that I’m accessible. So awareness is huge.

The other side of things is really time. You said these two right at the beginning. Time is a huge one simply because accessibility needs to be prioritized the way that everything else does. One of the things that we see happening in this project that we’re working on with this one client, they’re fantastic, it’s an agile development process that they’re using right now, so in every sprint planning session the accessibility team is represented to the point where they’re asking us how many points should be assigned to a sprint for accessibility work that needs to be done so that it’s all done right up front and is planned for and it’s not this thing at the end, “Don’t forget to run it through this little checker.” It’s more this is planned for right up front.

That doesn’t happen absolutely everywhere. Time is a huge factor. The time isn’t necessarily an issue in that it takes so much more time to build things and design things in an accessible way. The only reason that it takes more time is because there’s a learning process that goes with it.

Once you know how to design in a more accessible way and how to build things in a more accessible way, there are some things that just take more time because there’s more hands touching the project, but ultimately once you’re aware of the design and the development implications it really doesn’t change your overall time that much for your specific work. It now becomes just how you do it in the first place, not this extra thing that you have to do.

That’s really the way that it should be, right? It should be integrated into all your processes and all your workflows, your software development lifecycle or whatever it is that you’re working on. Once it’s integrated into that and people know what they need to do then the time issue doesn’t go away completely, but it really become much less significant because it just becomes the way that we do things.

Jeff It becomes like what these experience communities are talking about all the time, which is trying to make everything ubiquitous or seamless or almost invisible – it’s just automatic. Almost electricity when you flip the light on in the morning, it’s just there.

Derek Yes, it just happens.

Jeff Exactly. Derek Featherstone, thank you so much for joining me today on Radio Johnny. I understand you’ll be talking about this at the upcoming edUi Conference as well. Correct?

Derek Yes, that’s coming up in September.

Jeff Wonderful. Derek, thank you so much for joining me today. Also, on behalf of all the people whose work and lives I know that your work is going to touch, thank you very much for all your efforts.

Derek Thank you, Jeff.

Jeff Parks

Jeff is the co-founder of DIGIA UX Inc. and actively collaborates with industry professionals from around the world through his involvement with Boxes and Arrows and Johnny Holland. Jeff is also leading workshops on Information Architecture and User Experience Design over at Follow the UX Leader, in addition to volunteering his time as a Mentor and Member of the Board of Directors for the Information Architecture Institute.

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