Accessibility is a process – and this is how you get started with it

Tea Dickman5.10.2021DesignReading time 8 min

Accessibility is a qualitative feature of digital products and services, and it should be taken into account throughout their whole life cycle.

One shouldn’t implement a service accessible once and then forget about it - the accessibility work should be continuous. Accessibility is not a project but a process and it needs to be maintained continuously and actively worked with throughout the organization's operations.

Another reason one shouldn’t stop developing accessibility is because the accessibility standards and laws are continuously changing and further defined.

In an ideal case, accessibility is part of daily service development and the design of new features that takes several devices and tools into account. 

How do you then kick off with accessibility? How do you make accessibility into a living process that goes hand in hand with the digital service lifecycle? How do you make accessibility a natural part of a service's good usability?

Here are the steps summarised:

  • Get both internal and external expertise on the topic

  • Make an accessibility audit 

  • Create your company’s accessibility statement and publish it on your website

  • Prioritise the needed development areas potentially together with your digital services partner

  • Start by taking small steps, keeping in mind the broad lines of the business  

  • Develop and maintain accessibility regularly

Let’s go through the steps more thoroughly. 

Evaluating the current state of accessibility and building an accessibility statement

The first step is to get a realistic picture of the current state of accessibility of the organisation's services and make this information visible to the users of the service. 

To map out the current state, an accessibility audit is conducted, which results in an accessibility statement. The statement explains the current state of accessibility within the digital service, and a timeline of when the issues will be fixed.

The statement will be published on the organisations’ web service, and the issues mentioned in it should be solved as soon as possible during the service development process. The report will also function as a roadmap of the extent of the fixes needed and their estimated budgets. The report should be on the site as long as the fixes have been made. 

According to The European Accessibility Act the governmental and publicly-funded operators’ accessibility statement should already be published, as the transition time for accessibility requirements ended this summer. In addition to these public operators, this involves also e.g. the finance sector, national post, and insurance companies.

The law on offering digital services explains this legislation in more detail. The WCAG standard describes the attributes of the three-step accessibility rating, and you can check whether your operating sector is included in this legislation on AVIs web service.

The Social and Health ministry is working on an initiative, which expands the accessibility requirements to concern also the private sector in more detail. The legislation will also involve your business if your company produces for instance eCommerce services or audio books. According to the initiative the European Accessibility Act is planned to become a part of Finnish legislation during next year. Further information about the European Accessibility Act can be found from the Social and Health ministry’s web service.

The accessibility audit can be either done by an organisation on its own, or it can be outsourced to accessibility specialists. Digital service design professionals - like us at Frantic - do accessibility audits for organisations. 

The time used in developing an accessibility audit and statement depends on the type of the digital service. An expert can make an audit for a content-focused online service within a week, whereas more complex functional services, such as online stores, ERP systems, and bank services, require more time. 

You can also utilize experts by experience to test the services. The Finnish Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and the Inclusion Finland KVTL’s ‘Selkeästi meille’ project do a lot of work with cognitive accessibility. Via the Finnish Federation of the Visually Impaired you can find information about discussion forums, through which you can recruit visually impaired users. 

The most important thing is to start

An organisation itself defines what the easiest way to approach the topic is. You can get started with a smaller entity, whilst keeping in mind the bigger picture of the business. 

You may want to pinpoint a certain business area that you wish to productize and make accessible, or you may wish to start fixing the existing service with small changes. 

Your digital development partner can help you define what are the most crucial business areas you should concentrate on and how the accessibility work can be made part of the service development roadmap. 

It’s not a bad alternative to approach accessibility by making cosmetic fixes to the user interface (e.g. by clarifying the use of colours and texts) in your organization. This is a natural first step, especially from a designer's perspective.

However, fairly soon you will need to include a developer in the process so that the service is made also technically accessible. In service development, a designer and a developer work in tight collaboration – good interaction and final approval and testing of the features before launching are the keys to success. 

An investment that bears fruit

Investing in accessibility may at first feel like a big input, but it’s definitely worthwhile in the long run.

The expenses of creating accessible services depend purely on the size of the services and whether you need to adjust the overall service accessible or just parts of it. It’s also easier and cheaper to take accessibility as part of the process of designing a new service, rather than fixing problems in old systems. If a system is at the end of its lifecycle, it may be a good idea to design a new service with accessibility and usability in mind from the get-go and shut down the old service.

Once a service is designed with accessibility in mind from the start it’s also easier to develop the service further. Once accessibility is absorbed as part of the organizational culture, it will become a natural part of the employees’ everyday life in all that is done, from planning to development. Once you make the initial investment, it will become part of the sustainable development and part of the staff’s expertise.

You should invest time in training the personnel to make accessibility a part of the whole organisation's agenda. An expert partner can come to the organisation to kick off and coach on the accessibility work. Especially when you’re starting the design of a new service you should network and find yourself a digital development partner who has expertise and experience on accessibility and can offer you certified professionals to work with.

You can train the personnel via paid education programs, but there is also training on offer for free. Accessibility courses, training, and certificates are mainly paid, but you can also study the topic independently with the extensive material offered online. Furthermore, there is a lot of literature on the topic: the WCAG standard is available online, and on the AVI website you can find a lot of information on accessibility and for instance a layout for creating an accessibility statement. Programs for the accessibility assessment, such as screen reading programs, are available automatically in Windows and Mac operating systems. You can also install free add-ons on your browser, such as Accessibility Insights and Wave.

In the beginning of September, I participated in a panel discussion at the Department of Treasury’s online event. The topic of the discussion was Accessibility as a competitive advantage - tools for organizations. If you want to find out what’s cooking in the field of accessibility, you can watch a recording of the session here (in Finnish). 

And as you probably guessed: we at Frantic can support you in taking accessibility as part of your organisation's operations and service development. Get in touch with Maija Typpi-Häkkinen (maija.typpi-hakkinen@frantic.com) and we can put the first steps and more advanced leaps in order!

Tea Dickman Design

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