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Why you should build accessibility in from the start

Jonathan Zaleski Senior Director of Engineering, Applause

One in five of your customers and potential customers—nearly 20% of US citizens—have a physical or cognitive impairment. Are your applications meeting their accessibility needs?

If not, you're open to ethical, legal, and financial consequences. And if you're just bolting on accessibility after the fact, you're not keeping up. You also risk leaving 20% of the market to your competition.

Here's why you should shift accessibility left in your software development.

It's all about digital inclusivity

Inclusive adaptations in the physical world are commonplace: designated parking, wheelchair ramps, and Braille touch pads, to name just a few. In the digital world, however, these accommodations are far less common. On many sites, people with disabilities can find interacting with website elements and accessing information to be difficult if not impossible.

Using common website elements such as navigation bars, radio buttons, sliders, and forms can be particularly challenging for people with some types of impairment.

There are plenty of reasons to focus on digital accessibility, both from a moral standpoint and a financial one. Though laws mandate that digital properties be accessible to a degree, the reason to do this goes far beyond legal requirements.

A movement is underway to make digital products easy and enjoyable to use for everyone. And it's not just about people with disabilities. There are also other use cases outside of the obvious—people who are consuming information in a language that is not native to them, for example, or children who are learning how to read and could use some assistive technology. Accessibility is really for everyone.

If your organization isn't motivated by ethics to provide equal access to websites and digital workspaces, or by the potential for lost revenue, consider the liability risks. In 2019, there was an average of one ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) lawsuit filed every hour against inaccessible websites, according to UsableNet.

Start at the beginning

The problem isn't one of uncaring on the part of developers and engineers; it's that if accessibility isn't considered at the beginning of the software development lifecycle, it often falls by the wayside.

Not only does it become much harder to fix accessibility defects later on in the process, but it's also much more time-consuming and expensive to go back to development once the software is out in the world. That's why developers must take steps to ensure that accessibility is built in at the very outset of a product's or feature's lifecycle.

To shift accessibility left in the testing and development process, you need a change of mindset. First, the designers need to apply accessibility design principles to their initial designs. Fortunately, free tools, assessments, and plugins can help your organization get a head start on identifying accessibility issues

Some of these tools even go further and automatically detect and fix common accessibility issues.

Conduct design studies

Tools are a great place to start, but inclusive design studies are the best way to ensure that everyone's experience is intuitive before a product goes live.

That's because inclusive design studies take a real-world approach to accessibility by pairing user experience (UX) researchers with people who have disabilities to help development teams understand the overall usability of their products and how those with visual, hearing, motor, and cognitive impairments will experience them.

Led by a UX researcher, study participants go through a digital experience and rate the ease of use for all aspects of the experience, highlighting areas that were difficult, or even impossible, to complete for a person with a disability using a certain type of assistive technology. Based on the user feedback gathered in the study, the UX researcher can make recommendations to provide a more accessible experience.

In-time feedback

This type of real-world feedback offers insight that, otherwise, would likely not be caught until it's too late. By that point, teams can find themselves spending incredible amounts of time, resources, and money either fixing problems that could have been identified early on or defending themselves in legal battles because the company's online experiences don't meet accessibility guidelines.

By shifting accessibility left in the process, teams can reduce risk, costs, and development time. Using testers with different requirements, whether for the visually impaired or those with motor function or speech difficulties, designers can see firsthand how their decisions affect customers, while gleaning valuable insights that might have otherwise remained elusive.

Shifting accessibility testing left in the development process using a combination of automated identification tools and inclusive design best practices helps to create truly accessible digital experiences that go far beyond virtue signaling exercises. It allows you to attract a huge but largely unserved section of society, while also refocusing the spotlight on the most important part of any company: the customer.

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