Accessibility Strategy for Product Management

This is the first in a series of posts looking at accessibility strategy from the perspective of different roles and organizational types. This post will focus on the role of product manager.

Accessibility is increasingly recognized as an essential attribute of a digital product. But many organizations may not yet have developed strategies for effectively including accessibility in product development. A successful accessibility strategy involves making sure people in key roles understand their accessibility responsibilities and have what they need to meet those responsibilities.

Note: For effective and lasting impact, an organizational accessibility strategy requires executive-level support. Without this, the authority and capability of other roles to advance accessibility will be limited. This series of posts will assume there is some degree of high-level support for accessibility.

This post provides some strategic accessibility considerations for digital product managers. It may also be of use to digital program and project managers. People who manage the development or creation of digital products have a critical role in any digital accessibility strategy. They are responsible for ensuring that a digital product is created to budget and specification, and that the product team has the resources it needs to be successful.

Product managers need to take responsibility for ensuring that accessibility is effectively included in decision-making throughout the product development lifecycle, so that the product meets an acceptable level of accessibility.

The risks of ignoring accessibility

When accessibility isn’t considered in the product management process, there’s increased risk that the final product fails to meet an acceptable level of accessibility. This means the product is likely to be more difficult for people with disabilities to use.

In turn, that raises the risk that organizations that use the product may be unlawfully discriminating against people with disabilities. This could include customers, employees, and members of the public. An opportunity is also lost—if a product’s accessibility is deficient, it may lose market advantage to competitor products that have demonstrably better accessibility.

Where product managers can help support accessibility

Product managers need not be accessibility specialists, but are ideally placed to oversee an accessibility strategy throughout the product development process. They can also make sure that accessibility responsibility is effectively distributed across the product development team, and not left solely to developers, QA testers, or a single accessibility specialist.

Here are some areas product managers can influence to have a positive impact on implementing a product accessibility strategy.

Appropriately defining accessibility in product requirements

Product managers should establish that accessibility is adequately addressed in the product’s requirements.

  • If accessibility is defined in requirements, is it defined in a way that the project team can understand and apply accessibility requirements in design decisions? How easy will it be to test that accessibility requirements have been met?
  • If accessibility has not been defined adequately or at all, product managers should seek clarification on accessibility requirements at the earliest opportunity. Find out the product owner or sponsor’s expectations for accessibility, and make suggestions if they have no expectations. Meeting a global accessibility standard like the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is a reliable approach to take for any digital product. But check whether there’s an internal organizational accessibility standard that defines additional requirements.

If accessibility expectations are absent or inadequately defined, then the product manager should work with other stakeholders to define accessibility requirements before design and development begins. This may include identifying how to influence accessibility at the organization’s executive level.

Confirming the product team understands its accessibility responsibilities

Accessibility is a team game. The chances of delivering an accessible product increase when all product team members understand their role and responsibility in meeting accessibility needs. Even if the team has access to an accessibility subject matter expert (SME), they should not rely on that person for all activities and decision-making that affect accessibility.

Let’s look at some key roles in the team, and how they can impact product accessibility:

  • Visual designers should ensure visual designs meet accessibility requirements.
  • UX specialists should ensure that interaction designs meet accessibility requirements, and that user research takes into account experiences and needs of people with disabilities.
  • Content authors and media producers should ensure that the content they create meets accessibility requirements.
  • Developers should build prototypes, minimum viable products and all other functional versions of the product with accessibility in mind.
  • QA testers should test working solutions to ensure they meet accessibility requirements.

If members of a product team are unaware of their accessibility responsibilities, product managers should clearly articulate those responsibilities. This helps provide the team with a collective understanding of how accessibility should be addressed.

Make sure the product team has what it needs to meet its accessibility responsibilities

The product manager can help the team succeed by ensuring that each team member has what they need to meet their responsibilities. This might include helping team members assess their knowledge and skills, and address needs for:

  • Training on how accessibility applies to a particular role
  • Tools to support accessible content creation, including references to best practices in accessible design and development
  • Tools and processes for accessibility testing
  • Access to accessibility expertise when needed

It may also involve taking steps to establish that the team collectively understands:

  • How will accessibility be managed in the development process?
  • If third-party resources are being integrated into the product, how will their accessibility be assured? And when it cannot be assured, what mitigation process will be applied?
  • What evaluation and testing methods will be used?

Monitoring accessibility progress

Throughout the product development lifecycle, efforts should contribute to improving accessibility. This includes ensuring that current accessibility levels do not regress over time.

The product manager should establish that processes are in place for:

  • Evaluating accessibility of each visual design, piece of content, and functional code as early as possible in product development.
  • Managing and prioritizing accessibility defects, so that they are treated in a similar way to other types of defects and not left in the backlog.
  • Ensuring that accessibility considerations are taken into account when making significant decisions that affect product direction and timeline.

Reporting and documenting accessibility progress

At any point in the product development lifecycle, a product manager should be able to access and provide a report on the product’s current accessibility level. The product manager should make sure that processes are in place for quickly and accurately summarizing product accessibility. This should include a list of outstanding accessibility defects.

For other product or project processes and success metrics, make sure that accessibility is included where appropriate.

When the product is launched, how will known accessibility defects be communicated to users? The product manager should ensure that the impact of known issues is communicated in a way that affected users can deal with this impact in the best possible way.

Conclusion

A digital product manager should manage accessibility as a core element of a product development project, and continuously help the team understand and meet their accessibility responsibilities. Doing so better equips the product team to handle accessibility requirements throughout the product development lifecycle. And in turn, the chances increase significantly that the delivered product will meet a high level of accessibility.

Read the other posts in this series:

Categories: Accessibility Strategy

About David Sloan

David Sloan is a Principal Accessibility Engineer and Strategy and Research Lead at TPGi. He joined the company in 2013, after nearly 14 years as an accessibility researcher, consultant and instructor at the University of Dundee in Scotland.

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