Accessibility In Practice: Can Design Thinking Help?

Here at TPGi we do a great deal of work helping organizations remediate accessibility issues with their web sites and web applications. It’s very satisfying work — particularly when we do regression testing on a site or app and the issues are resolved. But we also work helping organizations with their design and development processes, helping integrate accessibility into practice so there’s no need to remediate or regression test. In this sense, if we are successful in our work, we will have consulted our way out of a job!

It’s difficult to audit an organization. There are no widely held organizational standards we can measure against the same way we can measure web accessibility against the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0). And each organization has its own culture, processes, and openness to change. Unlike adding alt text to an image, incorporating accessibility into practice requires profound changes that affect everyone in the organization.

Some organizations add accessibility into the QA process or include users with disabilities in usability testing. These steps are important and valuable, and produce incremental improvements. But we believe accessibility needs to be part of the discussion from the start of a project and considered at every step along the way. We believe everyone on the project team has a role to play in supporting accessibility, and that the necessary knowledge and skills must be required of every team member.

Innovating with a Practice of Accessibility

In “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” Clayton Christensen talks about sustaining technologies and disruptive technologies. Sustaining technologies improve products in ways that are historically valued; disruptive technologies are innovations that introduce a new value proposition and, when successful, produce new ideas and better ways of doing things.

If we consider accessibility as a “product,” an organization that has made a commitment to accessibility is likely putting forth a disruptive idea, in that accessibility may not be valued across the organization—at least not enough to drive the changes needed to make it part of practice. In addition, accessibility may introduce changes to a product line that are not widely valued by customers. The “dilemma” is that organizations that approach such disruptions with business-as-usual thinking are likely to fail. Innovative ideas need an innovation process.

Design thinking” might be a good approach to take with organizational changes as disruptive as establishing a practice of accessibility. Design thinking is an approach to problem solving that was popularized by Tim Brown from IDEO. His book, “Change by Design,” provides rationale and methodologies for using the types of activities we typically associate with design for other types of decision-making.

One of the design thinking concepts we are working with is the idea of prototyping and iterating. Rather than reworking policies, position responsibilities, training efforts, development methods, and accountability to support accessibility in practice across the board, throughout an organization, we propose to create a model for one project or project team, execute the model, and evaluate and refine the model until it works. Then we would look to applying the working model across the larger organization.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to integrating accessibility into an organization. As consultants and partners, we need to tailor our approach to fit the needs and culture of the organization. We believe this “accessibility in practice pilot” approach has a greater chance of bringing about the fundamental changes needed to bring everyone on board with accessibility.

What are your thoughts on accessibility in practice?

Categories: Development, User Experience (UX)


Jared Smith says:

A very well written article. At WebAIM, we face these same difficulties. There is no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach that works to institutionalize web accessibility. We have had success with similar approaches to what you have proposed – integrate accessibility into a small sub-group (optimally spearheaded by a strong, knowledgable advocate), then iterate and expand. But sometimes a much broader approach can also be successful, especially if there is management support and buy-in.

I think a key to success is that accessibility should work in tune with the businesses practices, not counter to them. In general, we believe that most companies know best how to make new internal practices succeed. We then help them integrate accessibility into those existing processes (often with adaptations we believe will bring better success) rather than us simply dictating some “best-practice” protocol upon them that may not be a good fit.

Sarah Horton says:

Hi, Jared. It’s great to get your insights from doing this type of work. I really like your comment about companies knowing best how to make things succeed within the organization. This type of work really is a partnership. I like that aspect of the work a lot—researching current practices and looking for natural opportunities to bring accessibility in.

I also think this work is critical to advancing accessibility and would love it if we could start talking about it more within the accessibility community. Any thoughts on how to do that?

Pooja Nahata says:

I second Jared – indeed a great article. I too have faced this issue while servicing client for Accessibility Compliance. In some cases the client after spending huge $$$ realize after remediating existing website that Accessibility should be integrated right from Requirement Gathering or rather when the project charter is set. The idea of making accessibility “de facto” within the design and development process makes good business sense and some organization are starting to support that idea. Very much agree to Jared’s point that “we work in tune with the businesses practices, not counter to them” the key is to sensitize them towards the needs of users with disabilities and business implications of non-compliance.

Kel Smith says:

I devoted an entire chapter to this topic in my book. Innovation that focuses on what people want (rather than what business want to sell) creates a perfect entry point for endorsing accessible design practices. The best examples of design doing include aspects of convergence and interoperability that have always been commonplace among users of assistive technologies — often resulting in consumer products that reshaped market influences over the years. These case studies demonstrate how to elevate accessibility from being simply a “feature” to a critical component of the product design methodology. As evidence: just look at how many apps in the iTunes store use universal modalities originally intended for children with spectrum disorders!