5 Steps to Creating a Digital Accessibility strategy

by Frank Spillers
CEO/CXO @ Experience Dynamics

Summary: Doing Web and Mobile Accessibility requires that you take a proactive approach, using proven UX research and design methods. This starts with including users with disabilities in any and all Accessibility efforts. Anything short of that will undermine or fall short in delivering not just a good experience to your users with disabilities, but also leaving you vulnerable to ongoing violations of Accessibility legislation.

Blind man listening to mobile navigation on a smartphone.
Bind man listening to mobile navigation.

How does your org think about Accessibility?

Digital Accessibility, lawsuits are on the rise. In 2020, they increased 23% over the previous year. In 2019, Domino’s pizza was sued by a blind man who could not access the company’s website. The blind man won the suit but Dominos appealed. Domino’s appeal logic reveals a lot about why Web Accessibility does not get done, or get done right.

The pizza chain said companies don’t have to make their websites and apps fully accessible as long as disabled customers have other ways to get the same goods and services, such as a telephone hotline. Ouch!

The ADA “does not demand full accessibility for each and every means of accessing the goods or services a public accommodation provides to the public,” the company argued in its appeal. What matters is the “combined means of access to those goods or services,” Domino’s said. -Bloomberg (October 7, 2019)

Domino’s appeal was overruled by the US Supreme Court. This ruling provides not only a wake-up call but also an opportunity to reset such long-held attitudes that won’t hold court moving forward.

Frist, ditch an ‘Accomodations’ Mentality

Many organizations are in a similar place as the popular pizza chain, Domino’s with regard to Accessibility. The assumption is that taking a reactive and “minimal interpretation” of access can help meet the legal obligations. This view is part of the accommodations mentality that is a standard approach, to meeting disability rights first enforced in the US in the late 1980's.

‘Accommodations’ says, this person (patron, citizen, student, employee, user) has a disability and therefore needs to be accommodated. The Accommodations mentality developed out of the delivery of physical access to spaces or services e.g. Providing a ramp for wheelchair access or giving children more time to complete a computer-based test, in schools for example. In the software example with kids, this basically amounts to offering more time to experience or work through stress, often caused by the lack of accessibility in the technology in the first place!

Accommodation has fair intentions at face value. It wants to help. But it often leads to a ‘rescue’ approach instead of an equity approach. I am reminded of a blind friend who went to a concert and asked if there was a seating area for people with disabilities. “No those are for wheelchairs” she was told. After insisting, the venue provided a folding chair and put it off to the side, adjacent to the wheelchair space.

Seeing accessibility as a thing you have to do because the law said so (an accommodation) often leads to designing and developing an inferior (non-equitable) access experience. Organizations and individuals who are (or often take) responsibility for ‘Accomodations’ end up viewing it as a legal obligation task to be fulfilled. In many cases, the ‘Accommodation doesn’t help or improve the access experience but provides a legal check box. Instead, an Inclusive Design approach is needed, where the needs of users with disabilities are designed into the experience without ‘just in time’ augmentation.

At Experience Dynamics, we have found that approaching digital accessibility with the standard Accommodations mentality can fail to solve underlying needs and provide equitable experiences. Instead, you need a new approach…

Note: These steps below are part of what we advocate at Experience Dynamics, and it’s taken us twenty years and much trial and error to refine them in our Accessibility work.

5 Steps to Creating a Digital Accessibility strategy

  1. Broaden your definition of Accessibility Compliance. What is your goal?; What or who is driving it? Are solutions and goals only being defined from an Inside-Out perspective? Have you included any user viewpoints? Beyond compliance, what quality of experience are you striving for?
  2. Define what your WCAG “AA” really means to your effort. Most organizations (including Apple- a big accessibility advocate), define compliance as meeting the W3 standard (WCAG 2.1) as “AA” compliant. But if everyone is AA, what is the point of AAA? Are you just covering your compliance backside, or are you trying to deliver a good user experience — for users with disabilities?
  3. Avoid taking a pure automated, technology-driven solution to accessibility. Much of Digital Accessibility has grown up around “checker tools” (that is accessibility compliance checker tools, including automated or AI-driven). The idea is you run a checker or it runs as part of a subscription and gives you a report…you fix it and you’re done. But after 20 years of doing Web Accessibility optimizing, I can tell you — this is not enough. Checker tools are getting better, but you have to have users with disabilities test your work. Remember: User Experience always includes users. It’s no different with accessibility.

Checker tools are great, but relying on them solely is dangerous and sloppy, so stop doing it. Everyone does and it’s creating a practice of “CYA (Cover your backside) accessibility”, that removes users from the process — a very foolish way to shoot yourself in the foot.

4. Get clear about what you mean by accessibility testing. Testing often gets used to mean internally performed code review or ‘checker tool’ (accessibility compliance checker tool) — aka internal review vs testing with actual users. Don’t say you are doing accessibility testing when you mean an internal or expert review, vs. testing with users of the representative disabilities. Both kinds of “testing” should be done.

Here’s a 30 min webinar on the importance of Accessibility Testing:

Webinar- Accessibility Testing: how to correctly evaluate Section 508 for digital accessibility

5. Take a step back and validate what it is you are optimizing. Accessibility assumes the feature or software is the right thing, in the right format, presented in the right way. All these assumptions are dangerous according to UX Design best practices. Instead, take some time to profile user needs. Do field studies with your users with disabilities- find out how they are solving the problems you help them with, find out what tools, sites, and apps they are using and that does not work/ does work for them…

In summary, if you start with accessibility as a “legal checkbox”, an ‘accommodation or a QA/optimization task, you are likely to miss the bigger picture of what accessibility efforts ought to deliver. Worse, you are likely to waste precious time and resources by delivering sub-optimal interfaces and experiences. Instead, take your good accessibility intentions (legal or otherwise) and follow good UX research and design practices:

  • Define the accessibility problems you want to solve from a user’s point of view.
  • Include users with disabilities early on, let them influence goals and accessibility optimization efforts, and have humans with disabilities test your software — not just automated compliance checker tools. This is critical for any Inclusive Design effort!
  • Back-off compliance for a moment, and see if you are meeting the core user needs to begin with…define solutions from user observations and insights. Solve accessibility problems elegantly, while still meeting guidelines — WCAG and Section 508 Refresh in the US; EU Web Accessibility Directive in Europe (or your country/region guidelines, which will likely point back to WCAG).
Frank Spillers CEO of Experience Dynamics
Frank Spillers CEO of Experience Dynamics

About the author: Frank Spillers, CEO/ CXO of Experience Dynamics, a leading UX consulting firm with Fortune 500 clients worldwide.

For over 20 years, Frank has been a seasoned UX consultant, Researcher, Designer, and Trainer. He is an award-winning expert in improving the design of digital products, services, and experiences. Frank is a Subject Matter Expert in UX Design, UX Management, Accessibility, Emotion Design, Service Design, Localization UX, Lean UX, VR/ AR UX Design. He provides private corporate training and offers courses to the largest online design organization in the world (Interaction Design Foundation). In 2001, Frank founded UX consulting firm Experience Dynamics. He provides deep learning opportunities at UX Inner Circle.

Experience Dynamics, a leading user experience design consultancy that helps high growth companies manage and win with UX/UI excellence.