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Creating an Accessible Experience: AX > UX

I thought I would share our recent experience and the learnings we had.

For many years now we as a web development industry have always reassured ourselves that we are creating accessible web sites / applications.  We spend countless hours working out exactly how a pages should look and measure pixels everywhere, this evolved recently into an entire industry worried about user experience and at the end of all this work we run a piece of accessibility software and fix whatever it tells us is broken.  We were the same as the vast majority of people, probably a little bit smug at passing the tests, fooling ourselves into thinking we are making a real effort, recently that changed for us.

What happened?

A few months back we had a client say that invotra was not accessible, I ran the tests and got everyone else to double check that we complied, we found a few little items and fixed these and updated the platform.  Proudly we went back to the client with “its fixed” listing the items we fixed, our contact was happy and let the accessibility testers know to retest.  Again it came back with “it’s not accessible“, and as it’s a major client we jumped on this to figure out what was wrong. We couldn’t, all the automated tests were passing and so we asked if we could go and sit with the users to see how they were testing.

We sent two people 200 miles to go and “see” what the issue was, we met the user who raised the concerns and the team spent a full day going through everything.  We were all really intrigued to find out what the issues are so first thing the following morning we all sat down to “see” the issues.

Andrew who attended the session then proceeded to play the screens back to us all using a screen reader, the accessibility tester from the day before was completely blind, we had all assumed some level of sight.  Suddenly it hit us all that while the screen reader could read everything the experience was horrible for the user.

We pulled everyone in to hear what it is like and have the experience for themselves, I think it is fair to say that, as a group, we all realised that for all the talk about user experience we did internally, what we meant was visual experience.   

What we learned

It was as though the clouds parted in our minds about the difference between standards and experience, suddenly a company of people who were so proud of everything we do realised that this was something we missed.  We had relied on automated tools and were happy that we did what was necessary, we had not been “fair” to this group of users and this hurt us, the thought that a company who has fairness as its core values had dropped the ball.  We learned that off loading expertise in this area to the authors of testing tools was a huge mistake, while they are great and we continue to use them we have to think about the experience not just compliance.

What have we done to address this?

The first thing we did was get full Board sponsorship to not only make our product really accessible but build an Accessible Experience.  Once this was agreed we make AX items first class citizens for releases meaning that we now report on every release about what improvements have been made.  We have a team of eight people who now have it as part of their day job to develop this and ensure that its thought of at every stage of our process.  We have brought in real experts to train everyone in the company and make sure that it is at the forefront of our minds. (More on this later.)

What has happened:

In a very short space of time we have evolved from treating accessibility as a necessary aspect of the product that we used automated techniques to verify into an organisation that is actually excited about where we can go with the accessible experience for Invotra.  

We have 18 months of planned updates and have started to figure out how we can leverage this focus to bring benefits across the platform as a whole, we have started to integrate our thinking on BIM and IoT to leverage these three key areas together to create something special for everyone.

Oh yeah and we are going to update this site in the coming days.