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NI Dev Conf: Who cares about accessibility? Andrew Gribben does!

  • Any company making digital products today has to care about accessibility, whether it’s a website like Sync NI, a mobile app for public use, or a piece of enterprise software for a business client. As we look back at some of our favourite talks from this year’s NI Dev Conf, I find myself re-watching Andrew Gribben’s great talk “Who cares about accessibility?” The answer to that question should be “everyone,” but accessibility is one of the most overlooked aspects of tech development and often an afterthought in product development.

    Why is accessibility important?

    While many of us will recognise things like disability modifications as accessibility, Andrew was keen to point out the broader reach of the concept. Improvements to physical products typically thought of as ergonomics are part of accessibility as they make the product easier to use, for example, and even technologies such as glasses are a form of assistive technology. “Accessibility isn’t about disability,” explained Andrew succinctly, “accessibility is about access.”

    As more of our everyday lives revolves around digital platforms and tools and the population continues to age, Andrew argues that it’s now vital that we keep hardware, software, and websites usable by everyone. The implication of this train of thought is that accessibility means much more than just helping those with disabilities use your product -- it also means accounting for different levels of digital skill, cultural backgrounds, and other factors you might not normally consider to impact accessibility.

    Getting companies to care

    Andrew makes the sobering point that large corporations often deal with such a wide variety of people that they can’t realistically care about accessibility for every possible case. “Large corporations can seem uncaring to people’s plight because there are so many people they have to reach in order to enact change,” as he puts it. This is where the industry as a whole can step in and adopt universal standards to make things easier to use and make it easier for someone to relate a new website or piece of software to something they’ve already learned to use.

    Andrew suggests that companies could be motivated to care about accessibility if you can research and demonstrate the financial aspect of it. “If you’re going to try and convince your company or shareholder that you need to have more of a focus on accessibility in everything you do, then really you’ve got to be able to say ‘And it’s going to cost us this much.’” Focusing on accessibility will ultimately cost money and require development time, but in the end it will produce a better product for everyone and that has a tangible value to the company.

    What can you do?

    Accessibility is such a broad-ranging topic that it can seem difficult to get any concrete rules on how to tackle it in a software engineering or product development setting, but Andrew does give some useful tips in his talk:

    1) Identify best practices: Understand the frameworks and systems you’re using and then identify any existing best practices. Search forums and discussion boards to find common pain points, find out why certain features have been designed to work the way they have, and learn about the accessibility problems involved.

    2) Empathise with actual users: Conduct research with actual end users to find out how they interact with the system rather than guessing or reasoning about how they might use it. This is particularly important when designing around a disability, as attempting to emulate that disability yourself isn’t good enough. “Ask the users,” Andrew urges. “Ask the people who aren’t able to be users because they haven’t been able to use the product what they would like to see. “ Firms have been sued successfully in the past for implementing accessibility features in ways that people with the actual target disability couldn’t functionally use, and that’s a problem no company wants to have.

    3) Ask for Help: No developer or company is expected to be an absolute expert in all accessibility issues, and there are people out there who can help. Organisations such as W3C have some fantastic resources and reference material available to the public on current accessibility standards and practices, for example. When dealing with a particular disability, age group, or cultural group, you can also reach out to known advocacy groups for help.

    Accessibility should be in everything we do

    New laws on accessibility of websites and public services are making it a more important consideration for every company that deals with public end users, so developers can no longer consider it as an after-thought or a standalone feature. ”Accessibility should just be a part of everything we’re doing,” says Andrew. “Whether we’re designers or product owners or project managers, there should be a degree of understanding of it in everything we do.”

    Check out Andrew’s full talk in the video below, and head over to the official NI Dev Conf YouTube channel to see more of this year's talks from the Northern Ireland tech sector.

    About the author

    Brendan is a Sync NI writer with a special interest in the gaming sector, programming, emerging technology, and physics. To connect with Brendan, feel free to send him an email or follow him on Twitter.

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