Organisations' ability to deliver value to their users today is tightly linked to their ability to develop digital products, software and applications.

Technology, in particular mobile, has become so pervasive it’s no longer enough to build apps and features that are just functional and visually appealing – they need to be accessible by all.

The tech industry, and every industry heavily relying on tech, is in a significant adjustment period as organisations realise – through feedback or sometimes even lawsuits – that they have not built products and apps with users with impairments and disabilities in mind.

Technology leaders, especially developers who are the ones building the software and apps of tomorrow, need to shift their thinking around accessibility and what it means to be inclusive in a digital world.

Accessibility for all: who is all?

Accessibility shouldn't be thought of only for people with visually obvious physical disabilities but address the five major categories of disability: visual, hearing, motor, speech and cognitive.

It is also important to remember that most people are likely to experience impairments at least once in their lives, meaning that the development of digital products and features for disabled users has a far wider reach and potential benefits than most organisations might think.

Let’s say an organisation develops a feature for visually impaired users – this will also benefit the user who wakes up one morning with a migraine and can’t look at a screen.

If you think about it, we will all need accessibility features at some point.

Common pitfalls when putting accessibility first

Many organisations still think that accessibility features are a nice-to-have, or something that you build specifically for a certain group of users.

But as we’ve seen, the reality is that accessibility features actually benefit all users.

Once you understand this, then a whole new mindset can set in.

Much like mobile-first, working accessibility-first means shifting the way organisations and developers approach building applications at a high level.

A common misconception of accessible design is that you can just loop back over a finished product and make a few tweaks to add in accessibility in retrospect. Yet that’s not the case.

Rethinking tech design

For Australian organisations willing to reorient the way they think about building digital products, and empower developers in their accessibility-first approach, here are a few considerations:

1. Accessibility should be core to the Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

MVP is an approach used by many software companies that consists of asking what’s the smallest useful thing they can ship, to get a feature out into the world and start testing.

It’s a great way of chopping down big ideas into buildable chunks and identify primary values of a new feature. It naturally supports a feedback and iteration loop that’s great for design and development alike.

Accessibility needs to be included in this process.

2. Diverse user testing is indispensable

User testing often starts with good intentions but ends up with a low follow-through because it is difficult and time-consuming to organise.

However, getting that feedback from real users is extremely valuable, and always worth the time and effort.

Unfortunately, the reality often looks like a quick hallway testing with employees from other departments, or one-off interviews with a few long-time customers.

Users with impairments and disabilities are almost never included, which ends up creating significant testing biases.

There are many ways organisations can create more diversity in their user testing groups. An easy one is to partner with a local disability support group.

3. Accessibility should be on everyone’s agenda

Accessibility-first means stirring away from outsourcing the accessibility work to an external team or a product, not leave it all on the shoulders of one subject matter expert.

It needs to become part of everyone’s knowledge base, so it can be baked into products from the very beginning.

Hiring an accessibility consultant could be a great way to start this process, but making one person the specialist isn’t a long-term solution. This needs to truly become an organisation-wide mindset and shared responsibility.

4. Management support shouldn’t be underestimated

If designers and engineers don’t feel confident in their ability to design and build accessible software, it’s important for management to provide them with the education, training, and resources they need to build that skillset.

This is a great way of solving the problem at the root level, as well as create that culture of shared responsibility.

5. Accessibility Guidelines

Another great way to get started on building with an accessibility-first mindset is to use publicly available resources. For example, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provides global accessibility guidelines and legal benchmarks for web/mobile apps.

If there’s one thing to really remember as organisations make a step forward in their accessibility-first thinking is that accessibility isn’t something that can be added later – or worse, cut entirely. Accessibility-first is about rejecting the idea that accessibility isn’t a necessity and fostering a mindset that if it doesn’t work accessibly, then it doesn’t work at all.

Kathryn Grayson Nanz is Developer Advocate at software product creator Progress, with a passion for React, UI, design, and sharing with the community.

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