Last night, I asked Siri to set a 12-minute timer for me. I was making Kraft mac and cheese for the first time and didn't want my noodles to turn into gloop. A few hours later, I watched a YouTube video. The person had a strong accent so I turned on the closed captions to follow along. In just one night, I had used two everyday products that were created with web accessibility in mind. There's a good chance you've used some of these products today, too. Perhaps you searched your photos for "beach pictures" or, when you went to bed, you set your phone to night mode.
For whatever reason, we often overlook accessibility when it comes to creating digital products. One excuse we’ve heard is that accessibility is a barrier to innovation. Yet, every day we're using products developed by teams who initially set out to create an assistive product. Even tools such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and voice recognition software started this way.
Besides it being the morally right thing to do, changing the way we think about building accessible digital products has some amazing consequences. If you stop assigning digital accessibility to the "nice to have" or afterthought category, you stop seeing it as a niche problem. Instead, it inspires a whole host of good things –– imagination, empathy, thoughtfulness, and creative problem-solving.
It will make you better at your job and open up your products to a large section of the market (with a lot of buying power); ultimately, your product will be better for everyone.
Web accessibility is innovation
Anne Taylor, the director of supportability at Microsoft, notes, "There is a myth that accessibility impedes innovations, but history shows us the opposite is true. Voice recognition technology developed in the late 1970s for patients to operate their wheelchairs is now available in everyone's phones and cars." What starts as a project to make the world more accessible, ends with a solution so innovative and useful that everyone adopts it. The sad thing is we tend to forget how these things started. Even the keyboard started as a mechanical typing machine in 1808 to enable a blind woman to write letters to her lover.
There is a strong case for using accessibility to be "a hacker's space for dreaming up the cutting-edge technology of tomorrow" to quote John Browlee's article “Why accessibility is the future of tech.” What might start as small UI and UX features to make a product accessible could become the tech everyone is using in 20-30 years. Reframe the idea that accessibility is a barrier to innovation; Accessibility is innovation.
Make better accessible products (and get better at your job)
For a lot of people –– UI and UX designers, web developers, product managers –– the role is to put yourself in other people's shoes to create a product that works intuitively. It's why we do focus groups, extensive testing, and run beta versions. During this process, we're asking: Do people get along well with my product? Accessibility is opening up that question and asking: Does everybody get along well with my product? At the core of this is empathy.
When you start thinking about accessibility with your products, it ramps up empathy to the next level. Instead of thinking of what works for you, and people like you, you're encouraged to think of people with a whole range of special needs. Does this web page work well with a screen reader? Is my font and color choice suitable for someone with poor vision? The result is a product that shows an obsessive level of detail, empathy for all kinds of users, and a much better product.
As a digital company, you have a lot of power
"When your technology changes the world, you bear a responsibility to help address the world that you have helped create," says Microsoft President Brad Smith. And this doesn't just apply to technology companies. Digital transformation means that every company, whether you sell shoes or software, is a digital company. To echo Smith, we've created a new world, one where we can buy groceries and pharmaceuticals online, stream the latest movies into living rooms, and have a fridge connected to WiFi.
When you fail to make products accessible, you're making the lives of people with special needs less productive and harder. As harsh as it may sound, you're shutting the doors to this new world on them.
CMS accessibility isn’t a guarantee
To start creating more accessible products, you need a CMS that supports you. Not all content management systems are created equal when it comes to hosting and creating content that supports web accessibility.
It all starts with your content model. There is a close relationship between the code, your content model, the browser, and assistive technology like screen readers –– we talk more about that here. You also need a CMS that supports assistive technology such as wearables and smart home devices like Alexa and Google Home. Your CMS should empower you to make accessible products and content –– if it's hindering this process, then it might be time to reconsider your infrastructure.
While it might seem overwhelming to start thinking about accessibility –– there are a lot of considerations –– we believe it’s 100% worth it. If you are struggling with where to start, perhaps look at your team or employees. Anne Taylor of Microsoft makes the point clear, “Nothing about us without us.” With 1.3 billion people living with a disability, it’s time to evaluate whether your company’s idea of diversity and inclusion includes people of all abilities, and doesn’t just stop with race and gender.