By changing your view of accessibility, seeking advice from experts, and making it a critical part of your code reviews, software teams can make their solutions better for everyone, improve the quality of life of their users – and reap unexpected benefits.
We've spoken to Software Engineer Quintin Balsdon and Business Analyst Brian Best to learn more.
Quintin Balsdon Brian BestExpert Software Engineer Expert Business Analyst
The moral case for accessibility is undeniable. Businesses know this and are quick to promote the initiatives they have taken part in to address it.
But if we know it is morally right, why is accessibility not yet an integral part of software development?
In part, it is because our approach to accessibility is often misguided. As Open Inclusion’s website says, “Don’t do it just because it’s on a list. Ask real users with real needs what they think. Do it because it is better.”
For example, businesses in all sectors know that user experience (UX) is a big market differentiator.
As Amazon Web Services reported in their Comprehensive Guide to the ROI of UX, 88% of online consumers are less likely to return to a site after a bad experience. That same report said “good user experience is the difference between category winners and losers.”
Yet few businesses draw the link between user experience and accessibility. Far from accessibility being seen as a way to become a ‘category winner’, it is often seen as a drain on resources for little recognisable benefit.
The level of understanding around accessibility in software is so low, many are unsure what ‘accessibility’ actually means.
So in this blog post, we are going to explore what we mean by accessible software solutions, and outline why they are not just morally right, they're also better, both functionally and commercially.
What do we mean by accessible software solutions?
Simply put, the phrase ‘accessible software solutions’ means digital content such as websites, desktop and mobile applications that are designed and developed so that people of all abilities are able to perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with them.
Which accessibility requirements should we consider?
The kinds of needs and disabilities that should influence software design include visual, auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech and other needs. These may be temporary, permanent, situational, or a result of age.
It is also important to understand that disability is a spectrum.
There are official thresholds for establishing whether a person is living with a certifiable disability or not (for example, for Blue Badge holders in the UK). But there are many who live in between those thresholds or who have yet to be formally assessed.
To underline this point, as Zühlke embarked on a recent app development project, our research into accessible software solutions led members of the team to seek assessment.
As they worked to make the app more accessible, they became aware they were benefiting from the adaptations. They began to consider if they might be on the spectrum themselves, or if they were merely seeing the proof that accessibility adaptations improve user experience for all users.
One of Zühlke's Expert Business Analysts who worked on the project was Brian Best – and as he puts it:
“It is almost like the software equivalent of a physical accessibility ramp. Those ramps do not just benefit wheelchair users, they also help those with pushchairs, the elderly, people with temporary injuries…even those looking down at their phones.”
What are the challenges to accessible software solution design?
The first challenge is that businesses and their development teams often feel they lack the training or tools needed to create accessible software solutions.
When combined with a lack of standardised guidelines on how to approach it, such solutions are often dismissed as being too difficult or costly to realise.
Quintin Balsdon is an Expert Software Engineer at Zühlke who has also worked on accessible software solutions. He explains it like this: "Some users with disabilities navigate software solutions using the buttons on an external device such as a keyboard. But I’ve seen situations where developers are only permitted to use the physical volume up and down keys – how can they build an accessible software solution if that’s their toolkit? Sadly though, the more common obstacle is a lack of willingness to engage with the problem at all."
Some businesses believe that their current approach is good enough to muddle through – completely underappreciating the scale of the issue.
Another pushback comes from the incorrect belief that there are a very small number of users with accessibility needs.
To underline just how wrong that is, according to the World Bank’s Report on Disability, over 1 billion people live with some form of disability (over 12% of the world’s population). And according to Scope's webpage on disability facts and figures, more than 4.4 million of the UK’s workforce have a disability.
Ultimately these challenges and misconceptions boil down to a lack of perceived business value in making software accessible. But not addressing the issue creates a lose-lose situation for both users and organisations because these pushbacks fail to recognise the huge potential benefits.
What are the benefits of accessible software solutions?
First and foremost, is a non-discriminatory user experience. All businesses have a moral obligation to ensure all people can use the software they produce. Especially as we have established that the number of people with accessibility needs is much higher than one many think.
Outside of the huge moral benefits, you can also create a far superior overall user experience. For example, after seeking advice during our testing phase, Zühlke’s development team worked to reduce the cognitive load our app placed on users by simplifying interfaces.
Whilst this was primarily done to improve accessibility, it benefited all our customers as it improved the overall UX of the app. Which as we know, can give you a huge competitive business advantage.
Another benefit is innovation. Specific needs require specific solutions. If you are reading this blog post on a touchscreen smartphone, you have accessibility needs to thank for it.
PHD student Wayne Westerman’s research on multi-touch surfaces, was inspired by a desire to find an accessible solution to his wrist condition. He co-founded a startup called FingerWorks that produced a line of zero-force trackpads and keyboards with integrated gesture shortcuts. According to Purdue University's website, Apple acquired FingerWorks 2005 as part of its quest to deliver the iPhone and iPad.
A further benefit is that by empowering your entire user base to get the most out of your solution, it helps your business get the most out of it too.
As Brian puts it: "There might be a bunch of people using your solution right now, in a less effective or enjoyable way, because their needs have been left out in the cold."
And Quintin adds: “This then ripples out. There's a huge unknown potential there. An unquantified existing section of your user base, including colleagues, who struggle in silence without the tools they really need.”
By making software more accessible, you also increase the total number of potential users.
This could mean you can access a wider pool of potential employees or even more customers. This is because the UX improvements you make also mean you are catering for those users who may not yet know they have accessibility needs or who fall outside of official thresholds.
How can my software department practically address accessibility?
1. Shift your mindset
Acknowledge that users with accessibility needs are not edge-cases – they represent a huge user base you can empower. Addressing the needs of these users is also a big opportunity for innovation.
2. Process change
Educate your teams about the principles and importance of accessible software design.
Next, look at your testing procedures. Code reviews often assess software at a purely technical level. To create accessible software solutions, expand these to consider user experience too.
By making changes early you can ensure that accessibility is baked into the work from the beginning – which makes it more cost effective. It is also critical to test with real users. To do that effectively, seek the advice of experts within the field of accessibility user testing.
3. Ask the experts
Make sure your strategy is not limited to saying “If I had needs I would like X”. Seek expert advice.
At Zühlke, we worked with Open Inclusion. As Open Inclusion’s website explains, they give you a framework through which to begin your accessible software development projects. They can also connect you with a network of software testers with different accessibility needs.
Their feedback can help you improve things that a lack of internal awareness or experience of disabilities may prevent you from detecting.
With the right balance of mindset change, process adjustment, and expert guidance you can drive innovation, produce better software and create a far superior user experience for all users.
Accessible software solutions undoubtedly bring new challenges. The businesses who embrace those challenges will not only reap all important moral rewards, they will also get business benefits too.
Inspired to join the team? Explore career opportunities at Zühlke.