How accessibility leads to better digital products for all customers with Hidde de Vries

A collage of icons representing the various considerations of accessible digital products
Published
December 14, 2020
Category

Strategy

Did you know the typewriter was first invented by two secret lovers, one sighted and one blind, to communicate with each other? I didn’t, until this interview. In the 19th century, sighted Pellegrino Turri and blind Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano came up with one of the first working typewriters. In turn, it set into motion the steps toward the first modern keyboard, which I’m writing on today. But the forbidden lovers didn’t just give us the keyboard. They also taught us one of the most important things about accessibility. When we tackle design challenges with accessibility in mind, it often –– if not always –– benefits a much wider group.

When it comes to accessibility, Hidde de Vries is a pro. The Dutch front-end developer has spent the majority of his career advocating and working towards a more accessible web. His clients include the Dutch government, Mozilla, and most recently, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).. For those who are unfamiliar with the W3C, it’s an international organization that develops open standards to ensure the long-term growth of the web, including standards for web accessibility. Independently, he also speaks about accessibility in workshops and talks, and he keeps a personal blog about all things front end.

Web accessibility mirrors accessibility in real life 

For de Vries, web accessibility can be easily explained by looking at accessibility in the real world. “In the real world, we are all very familiar with accessibility,” he says. “We have things like elevators, subtitles on TV, there [are] lots of things that we do to include as many people as we can in the services that we provide. Web accessibility is pretty much that, but on the web. We want to make sure as many people as possible can use web products.” 

According to de Vries, approximately 25% of people have some form of disability. And interestingly, this includes people who are situationally disabled (such as being in a noisy room), temporarily disabled (such as having a broken arm or recovering from an operation) and permanently disabled (such as motor impairments or health conditions). There’s also the undeniable fact that as we age, we will develop accessibility needs. Any one of us could go through a period of time where we’re living with a disability –– accessibility is important for everyone. 

While you might be familiar with some web accessibility features such as video captions and transcripts, accessibility is actually much broader. It doesn’t begin and end with add-on features; web accessibility needs to be baked into how the web is designed. De Vries gives this example of a friend: “A friend of mine is deaf, and a foodie. When she wants to order takeaway, she needs to tell the delivery person to text her, as she cannot hear the doorbell. Many platforms don’t allow her to write a comment when ordering, effectively making it very hard for her to get a simple request through.” A comment field might not be an accessibility feature, but it is making the web more accessible for a subset of people. 

Accessibility is in the web’s roots 

Something de Vries wants you to know is that the web itself is already a huge advancement for accessibility. “One thing that people often don’t realise is that what’s really cool about the web is that it is text-based,” de Vries says. “So, if you compare a web page to a physical letter, if someone cannot see, they won’t be able to interact at all with the physical letter. But if it’s on a web page, they can apply lots of tools to that web page in order to use it. For instance, they can use a screen-reader that will read out the page.” But to parse the content, these assistive tools need structure.

A big amorphous blob of text is not friendly to assistive technologies. Structured text –– text which is categorized semantically with headings, links, lists, quotes and images–– is the answer. Structured text allows assistive technologies to make sense of the page. A tool like a screen reader can then navigate through the headings, allowing the user to skip to the relevant sections. 

This goes for non-text content as well. The all-too-often-ignored alt-texts for images, subtitling in video players and properly labeling elements like buttons and links are all basic web functionalities that can mean the difference between someone being able to use your product or dropping off in frustration.

The future of accessibility

The web has become increasingly vital to living in the world. Now, we use it for everything, from doing our online banking to video consultations with the doctor. To not tackle accessibility would be to deny differently abled people access to convenience, community and essentially, the full experience of modern, connected life. As our usage of the web has grown, so has its complexity. "A lot more is happening than just displaying a document of text," de Vries says. "There are complex interactions and things open and close, disappear or show up after five seconds. There is lots of interactivity going on, and it's much harder to encode." 

For de Vries, while it might be complex, the future of accessibility is a positive one. He's excited that more people are coming together to tackle this particular challenge. From AI auto-generated video captions to standardized accessible form controls, there seems to be a growing awareness of the importance of accessibility, and the new technology to make it happen.   

Making use of reusable components 

De Vries says one of the most promising trends in tech is the emergence of design systems and pattern libraries. "Where earlier people would create web pages, they now think of their websites as systems, and that really helps, because if you create reusable components and you bake accessibility into that component, every time you use it, you're using something accessible instead of something inaccessible. That's super powerful because if you're reinventing the wheel every time, you could also be reintroducing accessibility bugs." 

Forms and form controls 

If you've ever had to slog through a badly designed form, it might not come as a surprise that a lot of inaccessibility on the web is from badly built form controls. When common form elements, like multi-selects or autocompletes, are custom-built, the developer needs to implement accessibility manually. A group called Open UI is working on better standardizing form controls across browsers. This work includes ensuring developers get more control over styling built-in controls. This is potentially great for accessibility, because with greater control, more developers will be able to choose accessible built-in controls over manually building their own. Should accessibility problems emerge in these controls, they could be fixed on the browser level, rather than on the individual developer level.

New developments in AI 

Big video platforms like YouTube have introduced AI auto-generated captions, and while this is a good start, it's exactly that –– a start. De Vries says that auto-generated captions can't replace the real thing, especially in critical situations where getting exact, specific information can be life or death, like a conversation with your family doctor. 

Other AI initiatives include digital tools which help recognize inaccessible patterns in code. De Vries says that it's developments like this that are more promising. "It's an opportunity because AI is good at recognizing patterns," de Vries says. It's all about baking accessibility into the web, as opposed to leaving it up to a few motivated individuals. 

Start by getting the basics right  

Before heading into the realm of VR/AR, de Vries says that, in terms of accessibility in digital products, we’re still not getting the basics right. “Some of the advice I [give] to developers and companies now is still the same advice as it was ten years ago. There are some things that haven’t really changed, some mistakes that are still being made.” An example is text alternatives. It’s still very common for people to post pictures without any alternatives. De Vries says he still sees news organizations, politicians and governments that don’t bother with this simple accessibility feature –– the very people who need to be communicating to as many people as possible. Adding text alternatives to an image takes seconds but can be the difference between someone understanding your web page or not. 

One of the best things you can do when you’re creating accessible products is have diverse  people in your teams. When you collaborate with people who have various disabilities, you’re going to discover the myriad of ways people will use your interface. However, de Vries understands that this might only be possible for bigger companies, for smaller teams, he suggests usability testing. There are agencies that specialise in providing participants with disabilities for your user tests. 

For de Vries, getting back to basics also means going back to the start. This looks like adding in accessibility to web development training curricula; keeping accessibility in mind during the hiring process; and implementing it into our day-to-day conversations. While creating an accessible web might seem like a monumental task, it’s easier than you think. 

Accessibility drives innovation 

The typewriter wasn't the only accessibility optimization that turned into something much bigger. Voice control, designed for people who couldn't use their hands, is now used in cars, phones, and IoT devices. De Vries puts this down to the fact that optimizing for accessibility means you have to scrutinize your product. "Often when you're doing accessibility optimization, you're looking at how people are using your product," he says. "That's, in general, a very good thing to do." And he says that it overlaps with usability testing, something for which companies pay people thousands of dollars.  

While optimizing for accessibility is the right thing to do, there are also a ton of benefits to the process. Accessibility pushes innovation, drives a more in-depth knowledge of your digital product, and gives you access to a massive group of people that were otherwise not able to use the product. 

Resources 

If you’re interested in learning more about accessibility, check out these must-read resources for digital teams: 

To hear more from Hidde de Vries and other experts, subscribe to our digital forecast YouTube playlist

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