Recently we gathered some accessibility experts to share best practices for building 508-compliant digital experiences: Jason Taylor, co-founder and Chief Innovation Strategist at UsableNet, Pat Sheehan, VA Section 508 Office Chief, and Linsey DeLisle, VA Section 508 Office Subject Matter Expert.
We talked about the accessibility imperative that exists not only within the public sector, but also in the private sector, and why it's so important for all of us. Here are just three of the topics we discussed.
What should your accessibility program cover?
Jason Taylor, UsableNet: It's important to try to think about, again, what is the most important aspect of your digital experience? So, we talk about making sure you focus on user stories and success stories, meaning, “What is the app or the website able to provide to people to do?” So, think about user tasks and make sure that you're making those user tasks as accessible as possible.
And importantly, I think that the first touch should be a priority for a lot of companies. What are the ways that they're reaching out to the community or employees making sure that that first touch—whether it's social or outreach or email—that they're thinking about the accessibility of the first touch because that obviously leads to the second touch. And if the first touch is inaccessible, the second touch never comes.
I think the other thing is to recognize the types of experiences people are building to deliver digital use cases are becoming more complex. They're not just static websites with images and forms. They're interactive, they're login, they're complicated—what I would describe in the olden days as web applications, not websites or web content sites.
And actually those web applications and those apps or native apps that people are building are probably the ones that deliver the most amount of value. So again, be prepared to look at and make sure that your most complicated web applications are accessible...
You've got to look at employee systems. Every employee the last 18 months is basically out to work remotely from home. If they are not accessible, you shut out people from being able to partake in employment, which is the number one area for society.
And then lastly, make sure you're looking at things like video and education material that you’re generating. It's easy to make that stuff accessible, but it's also easy to make it inaccessible. So make sure that that's on the list of things that you're attacking.
How can you lead and drive accessibility and usability in your organization?
Pat Sheehan, VA: You've got to have focus. You have to know what your main mission is going to be. In the early days, it was websites. We didn't have web-based applications, but then we got into that and as time moved on and we did more work, we were able to build a better focus on what the needs of the environment were...
So, we started off with indicating what we wanted to do, talked about our process, and wrote it down. And then we started collecting data, and that data, we turned into metrics. And with those metrics, we were able to tell leadership why we needed to have more people, why our budget needed to get bigger, that sort of thing, stuff that would allow us to do more work.
And what we learned is that you have to be able to speak to leadership in terms of what they are interested in. And in this case, it's risk.
Whether it's a risk because of 508 lawsuits, as Jason said, risks because you've got people that can't do their jobs, you've got to be able to get all that information in the process and communicate it to the folks upstairs so that they understand that when you've got 53,000, let's say disabled people as the VA does, or you've got veterans service organizations or veterans groups that are visually impaired, paralyzed veterans of America, disabled American veterans, you've got to be able to service those groups, so you need to be able to understand what their issues are.
And all of that gets communicated back through those groups into our organization, and then we speak to our upper management about that.
And that's where we start to see the results in moving progress forward. Being able to get the people in place, being able to get the tools in place...being able to start looking at websites, web-based applications, moving the testing and automating it, moving it to the front so that you can start looking at things like code before it gets executed, bringing people with disabilities in to be able to do testing with the tools that we use.
And in my case, being able to communicate to companies that are out there that say, “I can't use your product because it wasn't designed with accessibility or usability in mind. And this is what I mean by that. I can't access your product because you're asking me to do it with a mouse. And that's just not going to work for me.”
So, being able to communicate that to companies, but not only that—work with them to help provide them solutions. Within my organization, we do a great job of not only looking at products, but being able to communicate back to developers as to how they can move forward in testing and what their products need to be able to do to work properly with access technology.
So, we don't work as the 508 police within the Department of Veterans Affairs. We work as partners with companies, to move forward so that we can get more accessible products.
What 508-compliance testing methods do you recommend?
Linsey DeLisle, VA: There are three main testing concepts that we use in the VA. The first one I want to talk about is automated testing. And so there's a couple of different mechanisms to use for automated testing. And with that, it really only captures 30% of the issues. So we have background, automated testing tools that can analyze your code. And it's an API that plugs right in, and it will dump right into your own reporting tool—your defect reporting tool—508 defects.
So, there are really neat tools that'll catch bottom baseline issues from the start and you can roll those into each sprint. And that's what I mean when I say put them in your definition of done. When you lock in that code, it's absolutely key to say, okay, I locked it in. I know that this is 508 compliant from the start.
The second method is guided testing. It's part manual, part automated. And ANDI is a good one—it's a plugin to a browser. And we use Color Contrast Analyzer...there's some other really unique tools that'll plug into web browsers and also run in the background and that you partially use manually...
The last, and I think most important piece of testing, is manual testing: taking your keyboard, unplugging your mouse, and going through the application with your tab key. Take a big test case, take the user story and just do it without a mouse. And you'll be surprised, “Oh, I can't get to that area. Oh, I have to use a shortcut key that's not in my user guide to get to that area.”
Just so many things out there that we don't think about as mouse users every day: the hover over on the little eye icon, little things like that would surprise you that are not compliant...
Throw a screen reader on it. We use JAWS and NVDA in the VA primarily. NVDA is a free one so we really have no excuse not to download that screen reader. It's key to testing. Try it even with your monitors off, unplug your keyboards, throw that screen reader on and try and run a big test case. It's as simple as that—and see if you can get to all areas of the screen. And there's a lot of shortcuts with the screen readers out there. So, you can download those from the web with a simple Google search.
For a deeper dive on this topic, check out the full webinar, Create 508-compliant digital experiences quickly and painlessly.