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Instituting a Culture of Accessibility in Your Organization: Part 1

Remember those Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercials from the 1980s? A couple of hapless people would be walking down the street, one with a chocolate bar and the other with a jar of peanut butter. The two would collide and accusations would quickly fly. “You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!” “No, you got your peanut butter in my chocolate!”

Just as the scene was about to descend into madness, sanity would prevail as both realized that the end result was better than the sum of the ingredients. Strangely, that’s a good way to approach thinking about a very real, complicated issue that product teams and business decision makers face.

Accessibility.

This word typically brings a sense of dread to most companies. It heralds ultimatums, scary lawsuits, consultants speaking arcane language, changes to your product’s visual design, and a dramatic rewrite of your source code. Budgets get eaten up, velocity slows, and product roadmaps are tattered. Chances are the right people will notice the wrong things at the wrong time.

Let’s be honest: Retrofitting for accessibility is a lot of work. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Embracing an accessibility-first mindset is a surefire way to ensure that an organization and its products have a solid foundation for whatever the future may hold.

Rather than viewing accessibility as one part of a well-made, maintainable product, view it as an essential ingredient that makes a product better in measurable ways and helps meet other important goals. An organization that embraces accessibility can expect some concrete wins:

Win #1: Being ready for the future by embracing the past

The first win is important for both accessibility and the future of the web: Embrace the fundamentals of the Open Web and use semantic, standards-based web technologies over closed proprietary systems. It’s how screen readers and other assistive technologies see and process web pages.

Standards-based markup and open technologies, the fundamental mechanisms of how the web operates, aren’t changing any time soon. In both the short and long term, the Open Web as a platform has been the clear winner. In nearly every example I can think of, products that work with the grain of the web have been successful.

However, solutions aimed at moving the web past a simple document-serving platform have not always been accessible.

Proprietary technologies might make for small wins in the present, but almost always at the expense of the future. Consider organizations that bought into technologies such as Flash, ActiveX, Silverlight, and the massive undertaking to move their products away from these unsustainable solutions.

Standards-based—and therefore accessible—site components can make adopting new web features easier. Reduced technical debt can mean adapting to new directions the platform might take much faster. This frees your organization to focus on product refinement.

Win #2: Easy to find, easy to discover

Building for accessibility helps achieve search engine optimization (SEO) and analytic goals you likely already have.

The logically-structured and semantic, standards-based markup important to screen readers is also important to search engine ranking technology. A public-facing organization or product that uses accessible code is far friendlier to searching efforts. This can even translate to services that present your content in alternate ways, such as Google’s Knowledge Panel.

Remediating damage to search ranking problems after the fact is an expensive, involved affair. Best get it right to begin with.

In addition, making content accessible not only makes everything far more friendly to analytic efforts, it presents new opportunities. Accessible content, such as closed captions for video, can provide correlations and insights that may have been previously unknowable and potentially lead to new features or optimizations.

Win #3: Plays nice with others

Accessible content is interoperable content.

Recently, successful web-based companies have been trending to a services-based approach rather than a single-source, isolated vendor model. Making content interoperable lowers the barriers for other services to work with yours, and vice-versa. As service-facing content becomes progressively more intermixed with others, it becomes that much easier to maintain—or untangle, should you need to.

It isn’t limited to just web services, either. As it is interoperable, standards-based code is predictable and therefore easier to parse—helpful for translating your content to connected devices, alternate presentation methods, etc.

Win #4: Fabulous savings

Accessibility makes for a better overall site for both developers to maintain and users to experience, and that can translate into savings.

An accessible product tends to have fewer workarounds and hacks, which can result in lower maintenance costs. An information architecture and content strategy that takes cognitive concerns into consideration can mean that potential and existing customers spend less time trying to navigate and operate and more time getting what they want.

The alternative content descriptions inherent in progressively enhanced, accessible sites mean your product is immediately available in most low-bandwidth situations. Less time means less frustration. That translates to fewer customer service and support concerns. Fewer revisits to pages translates into lower server load and bandwidth bills.

Win #5: Open to everybody

Describe a good accessibility strategy—open web, standards-based, lightweight pages, reduced dependencies, content strategy—and it starts to sound like the basics of a good mobile strategy.

Users commonly work across a range of devices to complete tasks. That means different user interaction modes in multiple, unknowable contexts. Crafting a specific "special needs” site simply won’t suffice.

Building accessible components for your product, complimented with a mobile-first workflow, ensures that the fundamental building blocks of your product function as expected on the widest range of devices. The cost of supporting device types and interaction paradigms becomes significantly lower once you can operate with the assurance that you have a stable core.

An accessible product also makes internationalization efforts much easier—especially when literacy level is accommodated for—a particular concern for companies with a large customer base. A product adapted for existing clients or emerging markets to a customer’s native tongue can be a huge factor in adoption. And if you think this will never be a concern, just wait a couple of years.

Win #6: Investing in greatness

One of the cornerstones of accessibility is empathy—understanding the needs of your users and customers. That means listening carefully. That means being humble. That means being willing to rethink assumptions. That kind of thinking sounds a lot like someone we’d all want on our teams.

Establishing an accessible-first mindset also helps to foster a corporate culture of empathy within your own company. Benefits include:

  • Empathetic designers tend to reduce their personal and professional assumptions and biases when tackling a problem.
  • Empathetic developers tend be more aware of the particulars of how web technologies operate and can engineer more robust solutions.
  • Empathetic product managers strive to understand their users, a process that helps them blaze a path for best-of-breed products that are efficient, intuitive, performant, and adaptive.
  • Empathetic marketers and advertisers anticipate and addressing a wider scope of customer needs—and shoot down ugly faux pas before they leave the ideation phase.
  • Empathetic management is introspective and can suss out the root causes behind poor performance—establishing an environment of open communication and meaningful feedback to build strong relationships with those involved with the company.

I’m also of the opinion that making your employees feel valued also has numerous other non-accessibility related benefits, including higher retention rates, better overall performance, higher engagement with responsibilities, etc.

Win #7: Risk aversion

Much like constructing a storefront that isn’t up to code, an inaccessible product is a liability. The landmark National Federation of the Blind v. Target Corp. lawsuit established legal precedence for private organizations to provide solutions for the protections outlined in the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). Noted web accessibility consultant Karl Groves maintains a (growing) list of accessibility-related litigation.

It’s becoming more common for organizations of any size to be held accountable for violating the ADA, and not just for your website. Pleading good-faith just may not count for much during legal negotiations.

Simply put, if all the incentives outlined previously haven’t motivated you, investing in an accessible product protects you against the considerable drain of potential future legal action.

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