Accessibility in Practice: A process-driven approach to accessibility

By Sarah Horton and David Sloan

Note: This is the manuscript version of the paper we presented at the 7th Cambridge Workshop on Universal Access and Assistive Technology (CWUAAT ’14). The paper appears in the book Inclusive Designing: Joining Usability, Accessibility, and Inclusion, Copyright © 2014 Springer.


Attention to accessibility usually comes into play in the later phases of product development. Accessibility audits are typically performed during quality assurance and user acceptance testing phases. Remediation for any issues identified in the audit usually happens in code. However, the best fix for many complex accessibility issues may be to revisit the overall design approach; yet reworking designs at this late phase has a significant impact on timelines and processes. Any recommendation involving alternative designs is therefore usually unwelcome. Instead, the issues remain unresolved, or are resolved in a fashion that achieves technical accessibility but offers a compromised user experience.

The best approach to accessible user experience is to integrate accessibility into the design and development process. When accessibility is part of the practice of every member of the product development team, and when accessible features and functionality are built into design, content, and code, the result is a product that is accessible and enjoyable for everyone.

As user experience consultants with TPG Interactive (TPGi), a U.S.-based consultancy that provides IT accessibility services to companies, agencies, and organizations, we see a growing interest in pursuing a more holistic approach to accessibility, one that brings accessibility into the practice of designing and building web sites and applications. In this position paper, we explore drivers for this interest, including laws and policies that require early attention to accessibility. We present a framework for integrating accessibility into product development processes to bring about a fundamental change in how we approach accessibility.

The Value of Accessible User Experience

Good user experience increases satisfaction and enjoyment. Customers who have a good experience place higher value on, and are more loyal to, a product and its producer. An accessible user experience brings the benefits of good user experience to people with disabilities. This, in turn, increases the pool of loyal customers.

Good UX is good business

Good user experience is increasingly recognized as a desirable attribute of digital products, such as web sites. It effectively extends the objective components of usability to consider more experiential, subjective qualities that emerge after using a digital product (Hassenzahl, 2013). The commercial value of providing a quality user experience is increasingly recognized (Nielsen and Gilutz). Companies that are customer focused, with products that satisfy and delight, see an increase in loyalty behaviors, including repurchase and referrals (Hoisington and Naumann, 2003).

From an accessibility standpoint, how can we ensure that people with diverse accessibility needs, including people with visual, hearing, mobility, and cognitive impairments, have a quality user experience—one that is, in the words of Hassenzahl, worthwhile? Put another way, how do we achieve universal usability, with “more than 90% of all households as successful users of information and communications services at least once a week” (Shneiderman, 2000, p. 85). Note in Shneiderman’s definition, it’s not enough to provide products that are usable. To reap the shared benefits of accessible user experience, a large and diverse population must have successful experiences with digital products.

Compliance does not ensure quality

Involving people with disabilities effectively in a digital product development project can lead to valuable and often unexpected insights on how design problems can be solved (Pullin, 2010). However, current approaches to web accessibility tend to be driven by technical guideline conformance (Cooper, Sloan, Kelly, and Lewthwaite, 2012). A focus on guideline conformance can leave little room to consider context of use, and provides no direct requirement to consider user experience of people with disabilities (Sloan and Kelly, 2011). The result is that approaching accessibility from a purely technical conformance perspective can leave digital products falling short of providing people with disabilities with a quality user experience (Power, Freire, Petrie, and Swallow, 2012).

Retrofitting is costly, on all fronts

Remediating accessibility barriers at the end of the design cycle or after launch is expensive and ineffective. Given time, budget, and technical constraints, the scope for improving the experience of people with disabilities may be limited to reducing the impact of specific discrete accessibility barriers, or worse, creating a parallel version to accommodate specific disabilities. This “separate, but not equal” approach to achieving compliance produces “accessibility solutions” that are typically inferior in content and functionality, and are neglected over time, lacking the attention given to corresponding mainstream products (Wentz, Jaeger, and Lazar, 2011).

When accessibility efforts are fueled by compliance needs, prioritized based on perceived impact, and addressed at the end of the product development lifecycle, the quality of the user experience for people with disabilities will have little influence on the work that is done.

Filling the gap with accessible user experience

Accessible user experience fills the gap between accessibility as a technical quality assurance exercise and accessibility as an attribute of an overall quality customer experience. By adopting a practice of accessible user experience, product designers and developers work to ensure that as many as possible of the target audience, including those with disabilities, can successfully achieve desirable goals when interacting with a product. These goals can be task-oriented, but may also be more experiential. In either case, the outcome will be positive, both for the user and the organization.

Using Standards to Drive Process Change

Some accessibility-related standards contain provisions that are directly related to process. These provide an opportunity to integrate accessibility into culture and processes, as organizations are required to address the needs of people with disabilities throughout the product development lifecycle, and to document their efforts. Fueling the effort with process-related requirements may help remove attitudinal barriers to integrating accessibility.

For example, the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) in the United States presents performance objectives that ensure that equipment and services are accessible and usable. The rules include the directive that “Manufacturers and service providers must consider performance objectives … at the design stage as early as possible and must implement such performance objectives, to the extent that they are achievable” (CVAA, 2011). Similarly, the U.S. Information and Communication Technology Standards and Guidelines, a.k.a. Section 508 Refresh, requires that product developers include accessibility in design and development. These standards also require that people with disabilities are included in the product design and evaluation process, and that the needs of people with disabilities are considered in market research efforts (Section 508 Refresh). Complementary to technical standards for measuring accessibility of digital resources, other standards specifically focus on the process of accessible technology design, encouraging inclusive design throughout the system design lifecycle. As an example of a process standard, BS 8878 was launched in the UK in 2010 to define a procedure for commissioning and implementing accessible web sites—whether developed internally by an organization, or outsourced (British Standards Institute, 2010). Thus, BS 8878 is written to support managerial staff throughout the project lifecycle, and does not demand in-depth technical knowledge.

We see these process-related standards, guidelines, and reporting requirements providing an opportunity for organizations to adopt holistic support for accessible user experience, and build accessibility in from the start. Given a requirement to consult with people with disabilities, include people with disabilities in user research, and measure accessibility and usability of products against performance objectives—these are tasks that cannot be undertaken and reported on after the fact without slowing timelines and expending significant additional resources. When attention to the user experience of people with disabilities is part of the overall process, requirements will be easier to achieve, reporting will be more credible, and the outcome will be a better process and product, for everyone.

A Practice of Accessible User Experience

Designing and engineering a quality user experience for people with disabilities requires an organizational commitment, shared responsibility and accountability for accessibility, and supporting resources to establish a practice of accessible user experience (Horton and Quesenbery, 2014).

A key challenge to establishing a practice of accessibility within an organization is overcoming perceptions about the difficulty, complexity, effort, and cost of achieving accessibility. The challenge of changing current practices to ones that support accessibility is often seen as insurmountable.

To illustrate this challenge we provide the following scenario. A large, decentralized organization receives accessibility audits of its websites. Initially the audits are seen as too general, prompting feedback that site developers require specific code changes. Subsequent audits include detailed feedback, identifying exact locations of problems and code fixes. The detailed audits raise other concerns—namely, that there is too much that needs fixing. When asked what approach would work, the response is that nothing will solve this—the culture is too complex, with too many devolved responsibilities and competing objectives, to apply an effective organization-wide strategy for achieving accessibility.

This scenario illustrates the negative perceptions that arise from approaching accessibility as an audit and remediation process—one that involves identifying problems and fixing them. It also recognizes the challenges of implementing large-scale process change within an organization. However, process change is what makes accessibility an achievable objective. In the section on partnering with accessibility experts we discuss the role accessibility trainers and integrators—consultants who are sympathetic to organizational culture, and through practical and pragmatic approaches, position accessibility as an achievable objective. In the next section we talk about the role of organizations in making a strategic commitment to accessibility, using a framework of disruptive innovation to effect process change.

Make an organizational commitment to accessibility

For most companies, introducing accessibility into the product development process may be experienced as a disruptive innovation, as it introduces a new value proposition to the organizational culture. Initiatives that fail to appreciate and work with disruptive attributes may not be successful (Christenson, 2011). Therefore, it is crucial that organizational leadership recognizes the commitment as disruptive, and follows innovation adoption best practices when initiating and implementing accessibility.
Everett Rodgers offers a model for introducing an innovation process within an organization (Rogers, 2003). Here we use his model as the basis for implementing accessibility within an organization. We show the Rodgers phases and definitions, mapped to the context of adopting a practice of accessible user experience (following the Rogers definitions and shown in italics).

In the Initiation phases, the organization acknowledges that current design and development processes do not produce accessible products:

  • Agenda-setting: General organizational problems that may create a perceived need for innovation—Current design and development practices do not produce accessible products.
  • Matching: Fitting the problem from the organization’s agenda with an innovation—Adopting a practice of accessible user experience.

In the Implementation phases, the organization revisits current organizational structures and design and development practices, and creates a plan for successfully adopting and integrating accessibility into practice:

  • Redefining/Restructuring: The innovation is modified and re-invented to fit the organization, and organizational structures are altered—Accessible user experience is defined within the context of the organization and the digital technologies it produces or uses.
  • Clarifying: The relationship between the organization and the innovation is defined more clearly—Responsibilities and required accessibility skillset and tools for delivering objectives are defined and assigned within the product team.
  • Routinizing: The innovation becomes an ongoing element in the organization’s activities, and loses its identity—The organization builds products with accessibility built-in; accessibility is an integral part of the quality assurance process.

Establish roles and responsibilities

Product development teams come in many shapes and sizes. Product development processes range from distinct teams responsible for discrete aspects of a product to integrated teams that share responsibility for multiple dimensions. Some “teams” are composed of one person who manages all aspects of product development. Regardless, for accessible user experience, the responsibilities incumbent on each role must be defined and assimilated by the responsible party.

A systematic, guidelines-based approach is to map the Web Accessibility Initiatives Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) success criteria to the roles on the product team. The WAI-Engage Community Group is currently exploring this approach on their collaborative wiki. In the Accessibility Responsibility Breakdown (ARB) matrices, responsibility for meeting the WCAG 2.0 levels and success criteria are mapped to different project management, research, design, content, and development roles. This could be a useful starting point for establishing primary roles and responsibilities within a project team; although care should be taken to treat accessibility as a holistic and shared process across the project team and beyond.

Establish an accessibility infrastructure

Take steps to integrate accessibility into the infrastructure of the organization. Like whiteboards and post-its, OmniGraffle and Photoshop, GitHub and Sublime Text, make accessibility resources part of the product development toolkit.

  • Organizational policy: Every organization has policies—whether explicit operational policies, or implicit practices that are part of the organizational culture. Standards-based development is a good example: many product developers hold as policy developing to standards. An organizational policy can go far in articulating an organizational commitment on accessibility, and building an “accessibility-first” mindset across the organization (Kline, 2011; Feingold, 2013).
  • Content strategy: Organizations have a growing appreciation for the importance of content strategy. Including accessibility in an overall content strategy makes accessibility a strategic priority (Kissane, 2010).
  • Code repositories: Managing an accessible code repository for common user interface components, such as menus, tabs, date pickers, is a worthwhile investment. It streamlines development time, and provides a better, more consistent, more accessible user experience. There is a range of publicly available examples of accessible user interface design patterns, such as the Accessible jQuery User Interface Components Demonstration , which can be incorporated into internal repositories.
  • Style guides: Rules and conventions that support best practices help teams produce better products. Integrating accessibility into style guides helps build in accessibility features by following established and share best practices (Lynch and Horton, 2009).
  • Content and development tools: Tools can make accessibility a struggle, or something that is baked in. Look for content management software that supports accessible templates and promotes accessible content production: for example, adding equivalent text to images and marking up content using semantic markup. Look for development tools that support standards-based markup and code validation.

Build accessibility expertise on the product development team

Ultimately, accessible user experience requires a commitment from every member of the product development team, and everyone shares accountability for providing accessibility within his or her realm of responsibility. When recruiting new team members, include experience with accessibility as a job requirement, and list accessibility-related tasks in the list of job responsibilities.

Assess the familiarity and proficiency with accessibility at hiring time—whether for UX practitioners, developers or managers. Has the applicant been exposed to accessibility in her training and education? How much experience does she have with working on projects involving accessibility? Prospective employees should be able to present direct evidence of involvement with and knowledge of accessibility practices. Many programs and positions include accessibility in the description, but in reality provide minimal exposure.

The scarcity of any formal accessibility qualifications that could be used to assess an individual’s professional skills in accessibility is a hindrance to the approach of assessing prospective candidates. A professional IT Accessibility society has been in discussion, although arguments against this approach focus on the need to promote accessibility as a core professional skill rather than a specialty (Rush, 2012).

Involve people with disabilities in the product development process

Strategic product development begins with a definition of purpose, goals, and target audience. This important step creates a roadmap for the product development lifecycle, and a framework for decision-making. For accessible user experience, it is critical that people with disabilities are considered among the target audience. When the user experience of people with disabilities is integral to the strategic goals of the product, other pieces of the accessible user experience process fall into place. While participation of people with disabilities in usability evaluations towards the end of the design process can help to validate accessibility-related decisions taken earlier on, their involvement at an earlier stage can lead to valuable insights and potentially innovative approaches to design problems.

For instance, user research helps teams identify content, functionality, and design strategies that will be welcomed by and useful to the product’s target audience. Including people with disabilities in user research helps ensure that accessibility is integrated into all aspects of a product. The needs of people with disabilities are not accommodated, but rather directly addressed, in decisions about content, design, and functionality.
Involving people with disabilities does not mean consulting individually with people representing each and every type of disability, any more than user research means surveying a group large enough to fully represent the entire target audience. The range of needs and preferences for people with disabilities is the same as with all people—vast, diverse, and individualized—and we can learn a great deal and make informed design decisions by bringing in perspectives, from one person or one hundred. Whether through interviews, focus groups, surveys, or personas, for accessible user experience the only difference is that the definition of users includes people with disabilities.

Establish partnerships with accessibility experts

Accessibility consultants are often brought into a project in an auditor capacity, looking for and reporting on compliance violations. Cast in the role of “accessibility cops,” consultants often have limited positive impact on organizational accessibility awareness and processes. A better approach is to partner with accessibility experts. Bring consultants into projects early, as accessibility partners rather than compliance officers. Have accessibility expertise on projects, alongside strategy, design, programming, and content experts.

An informed accessibility perspective is also important to help guide any process and method changes that may be needed to integrate accessibility into practice. For instance, user-centered research and design methods may need to be modified in order to recognize constraints related to the nature of participants’ impairments or other characteristics, and how that impacts on data collection mechanisms and the type of data that can be collected. Prior (2011) discusses how methods can be adapted to effectively involve people with severe speech and physical impairments as co-designers; Dickinson et al (2007) provide valuable advice on involving older people in user-centered design activities.

For an effective partnership, accessibility experts should be mindful of the challenges facing designers and developers, particularly those relating to business-related constraints on design requirements, budget and timescales. Rather than point out all the ways a product fails to meet accessibility standards, give useful, actionable and achievable guidance on ways to capitalize on opportunities, such as new ways to involve a customer base of people with disabilities earlier in the design and development process, and to remedy issues. Look for opportunities to inform and train designers and developers on accessible user experience patterns and methods. Bring accessibility to the table as a challenge that is intriguing, worthwhile—and solvable.


People with disabilities are customers with demands and expectations for quality experiences like anyone else, or potential customers yet to be engaged. Providing an enjoyable and successful experience of products to customers has a high return on investment. Providing a compromised experience to people with disabilities is a lost opportunity, as well as a potential compliance issue. The most beneficial way to address accessibility is by broadening the definition of “target audience” to encompass the broad and ever-shifting range of ability, having each member of the product develop team assume responsibility and accountability for accessibility features, and providing resources and expert guidance to support a practice of accessible user experience.

Our accessible user experience framework is intended to guide organizations in planning and implementing a strategy for integrating accessibility throughout the design lifecycle, and in particular ensuring that user experience design and inclusive design activities can be combined for positive benefit. Future work, as part of the authors’ roles as accessible user experience consultants with TPG, will involve supporting adoption of the framework and measuring its effectiveness. Key success criteria will include the quality of accessible user experience of digital products developed using the framework and the extent to which the framework can be practically adopted by organizations in different sectors. As an organization offering accessibility expertise, we will also explore the most effective and productive ways of working with organizations to implement the framework element, “establish partnerships with accessibility experts.”


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Categories: Technical, User Experience (UX)