Last year, during our annual Shift event, we got to talk to Jen Devins, Head of Google Accessibility UX. We talked about the importance of accessibility, how technology can improve the lives of all people, not only people who are differently-abled, and what teams can do to be more inclusive during the design and development process.
Today, on Global Accessibility Awareness Day, we’d like to look back at what she shared with us.
1. Why accessible products matter
There are around 1 billion-plus people across the world with a permanent disability. Actually, 6 billion-plus people are temporarily able-bodied right now and we all might lose that at some point.
Accessibility is often seen as an improvement for a small group of people. However, 1 in 7 people worldwide have a permanent disability ranging from social, dexterity, vision, motion, hearing or cognitive abilities. Not such a small group after all.
So when your product isn't accessible, you are potentially excluding a lot of users. Maybe not direct users, but it’s more than likely that friends and family aren’t using your product because they are not able to. Companies that do focus on accessibility and inclusion often see that their users become more loyal to the brand.
Let’s look at it in another perspective. In fact, we are all temporarily able-bodied and could lose that ability temporarily or permanently throughout our lives. It’s a bit grim, but nevertheless true. And what about situations that make us less able-bodied? We often face situational disabilities, like when you can't see your screen outside during a bright day or when you can't hear because of noise around you. Essentially, putting accessibility on your roadmap will benefit more users than you might think and it will improve the overall experience of your product.
2. Getting started with Accessibility
It's sometimes hard to focus on everything in the beginning. But you should try to get the fundamentals right from the start, to meet the accessibility standards.
There are a lot of great guidelines out there to help ensure whether your website or application is accessible to people with specific disabilities that use different assistive technologies. Implementing these guidelines from the start would be the bare minimum, but still an amazing initiative to begin with.
So, what about existing products? Just take action. Get out of the building and ask users with different abilities to test your product and learn about the possible pitfalls. Only when you see how people actually use your product and face potential struggles through assistive technologies, you can comprehend how to improve it. The more you test, even after the launch, the more teams will be motivated to prioritise accessibility efforts.
3. Centralised team & integrated experts
If your company has the resources, the ideal set-up is to install a centralized team. The ultimate goal is to have accessibility as a part of the process to be more inclusive - it's just good design.
Having a centralized team that consists of people from different product areas is a fantastic way to help other teams become more aware about accessibility and help them improve their products. Naturally, that's not always possible time- and budget-wise.
Still, every team member needs to understand the fundamentals of accessibility to be able to build inclusive products. A team should be capable of implementing the baseline accessibility needs with the help from a dedicated team or an integrated expert. A central accessibility team that works with users on a day-to-day basis is really helpful for some of the trickier problems and they can teach best-practices to other team members. Either way, the key is to spread awareness around accessibility throughout every team to start building better products.
4. Creating a more inclusive design process
Get out there and actually speak with users. Or even better, go beyond and include them in the design process.
The most important thing you should do is interact and reach out to real users. Do this by conducting some research or bring people in through co-design workshops or participatory design. Why not set up a panel with a few people that you can meet with regularly, and share the progress with the teams to validate your product early on. Or get in touch with organisations for people with disabilities. They’re often very willing to engage and introduce you to the members of their community.
It might be challenging and daunting, but there are many different ways to go about that. Even researching on the internet and watching videos to understand people with different disabilities can change your design process.
5. Technology as an enabler
Technology has a lot of potential to make a difference for people with different disabilities and give them an ability back that they may have lost or never had.
AI and machine learning focusing on voice recognition can help out users with different disabilities. Google's project Euphonia helps people with ALS that are losing their ability to speak over time, to record their voice as it is today. With the help of AI, it gives them the ability to actually speak with their own voice as their abilities degrade over time.
Live Relay allows people to have conversations through their phones when they are not able to speak or hear, but the other person can. They can type in a message and it translates into audio for the other person to listen to. These are two different ways of communication using different modalities. It could even help with translations too when you don't speak the same language.
There are specific tools for accessibility users, but often, these tools can improve all of our interactions with technology. Smart Compose in Gmail and Google Docs have ways to suggest what you want to say next. It helps you write out your thoughts faster. Even Auto-Complete in Google Search is a way to help people find results more easily.
One important aspect to keep in mind is that people who need access to the technology should always be able to. Ask yourself some critical questions. Are they able to afford it? Do they have good wifi access? We need to remember that while we provide and create technology, we should reach the people that need it the most.
How we are doing at In The Pocket
We definitely see accessibility as one of the most important aspects of building great products. You can't deliver a qualitative user experience without it. At In The Pocket, we started an Inclusive Design domain which consists of a multidisciplinary team. We do research and start accessibility initiatives across the company to increase knowledge in the teams and improve the products we are working in.
We still have some steps to take to get all of our teams up to speed to build fully accessible products. And we are also actively working to include a more diverse group of users during research and validation, so we don't forget about them during the design process.
To round up, our goals are to make every product we ship fully accessible, get knowledge within every team and include diverse people in our design and validation process.