How to get started on accessibility before you even have a product

Welcome! I’m Derek Featherstone, Chief Experience Officer at Level Access. You’ve heard about accessibility. You know what it means. Why it’s important. But you don’t know where to start, especially because you don’t have a product yet.

You’re pre-product. You’re a startup. Maybe you’re pre-startup.

  • What can you do to make your non-product more accessible?
  • How can you build accessibility in from the start?
  • How can you shift accessibility left?
  • How can you start sooner?

Derek Featherstone

brain floating inside a bright light bulbYou may not have a product, but…

  • You have a great idea.
  • You have a sketch.
  • You may even have a prototype.

Congratulations! You can get started with accessibility!

Why now? Why not later?

After all, you could start thinking about accessibility once you start building. Or you could “get to it in phase 2,” which we all know is code for “never gonna happen.”

The longer you wait to incorporate accessibility, the greater the chance that your product will be inaccessible (or at least expensive and time-consuming to retrofit). When you start immediately, you can iterate, test, learn, and end up with a stronger—and more accessible—product.

This page is all about finding ways to ensure that accessibility isn’t forgotten or pushed off to the end. I’ll share some ways to start thinking about and implementing accessibility in your product—while it’s still a twinkle in your eye.

Skip ahead to:

Test your competitors’ products to discover their accessibility strengths and weaknesses

magnifying glass zooming in on data pointsTake accessibility into account as part of your research and competitive analysis. We often talk about accessibility as a competitive advantage in the marketplace — people with disabilities are often very loyal customers when they find a solution that works well for them.

Five things to consider when testing your competitor’s product

1. Can you use your competitor’s product using only a keyboard?

If you can, they’re thinking about accessibility in a reasonably mature way.

2. When you’re using your competitors’ products with a keyboard, can you see a visual focus indicator?

You should always be able to see the focus outline in an interface as you’re moving through with the keyboard. If you can see it, they’ve done a decent job of making things accessible. If you can’t see it, then there’s opportunity for you to outshine them when it comes to designing for keyboard usage.

3. Do all of the form fields have visible labels that are programmatically tied to their field?

If you click on the label, you should see the focus go into the label’s field. If the product has good form labels, there’s a good chance other parts of the interface are also accessible.

4. What does automated testing tell you about the product?

Automated testing is only part of the solution, but it often serves as a good proxy for the entire picture. A team that has taken good care of accessibility in their product won’t have many issues detectable by automated tools. On the flip side, if their product has a lot of issues detected with automation, there’s a good chance they also have many other accessibility issues.

5. Does their product use semantic markup well?

Do they use <h1> to <h6> for headings? Do they use actual <button> elements and real links for things that are clickable or is all just a mess of <div> and <span> elements with click handlers attached?

How did they do?

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but if you take a look at how well your competitors are performing in each of the above categories, you’ll get a sense of where they’ve valued accessibility. Then you can note opportunities to be more accessible and give your product the competitive advantage.

I know — you’re probably saying, “But we don’t have time for accessibility. We have to get to market faster!”

I get that. I do. But remember this: the reason most people think accessibility takes longer is that they’ve always done it retroactively. That’s what eats up all the time. Doing things right from the start will save time in the long run.

Talk to people with disabilities to find out what they want from your product

People with disabilities are the original life hackers. When a product or solution doesn’t meet their needs, they find a way to fill that need themselves.

Here’s a great example. Many gamers with disabilities modified video game controllers, installing bigger buttons, sip/puff devices, mounts to enable one-handed play, etc.

It took a while, but eventually Microsoft turned that idea into the Xbox Adaptive Controller (XAC). The XAC takes into account the needs of people with disabilities and accessibility features are built into the product. Microsoft has won awards for this brilliant piece of design.

And that’s because Microsoft did the research to figure out what needs aren’t being met by existing controllers.

You can do the same. Go and talk with people with disabilities that use products like yours. See what they’re doing to solve the accessibility problems that they’re facing. Those mods and hacks express a specific need that exists that isn’t being met. Your product can be the one that meets those needs.

overlapping speech bubbles

What does accessibility success look like?

You’ve done some competitive analysis. You’ve looked at the needs of people with disabilities that aren’t being met. You’ve figured out ways that your product can meet those needs. What comes next? Now it’s time to set a vision for accessibility.

When writing your vision, act like it already happened. Write the product reviews and testimonials that you hope to receive in the first year after launch.

To get your creative juices flowing, think along these lines:

  • “I can’t believe how easy it was to use the Flubbberty service. I can’t thank you enough for the attention to detail, and how easily the app worked when I used my assistive technology. I was expecting the worst as I’ve used other competing apps, but your app… it was a dream to use. I didn’t need any help from customer service, and I can’t say that for many apps that I use.”
  • “Using the Jobstrrr app was smooth sailing… I was able to apply for new jobs and easily manage the different versions of my resume. I’ve always struggled with that — the other apps I’ve used always represented my resumes as images, but Jobstrrr allows me to make notes and put really useful descriptions on each version so I know exactly which ones I should use for each job application.”
  • “You set the bar very high — none of the other podcast services are as easy to use as yours, and I really appreciate the way transcripts are a first-class citizen in the interface. I’m grateful that you invited us to participate in usability studies for the player. I’ve felt connected to your product ever since! I’ll be recommending PodListnnnr to all my friends and encourage them to buy their own license right away.”

All of these fake testimonials tell the story of how accessibility and inclusion will unfold. They’re not bogged down in details, requirements, or implementation. They’re simply statements that you’d love to get from your clients. When you write these, you help set the tone for what’s about to come.

The best part? You don’t even need an actual product to create these.

a mountain with a flag at the summit

Have people with disabilities test your UI & UX

This final piece is all about how you can get feedback from people with disabilities before your product is launched. What do you need to get feedback from people with disabilities? How might you test prototypes at various stages?

Have a sketch or wireframe?

Take that sketch and talk through it with people with different disabilities. Explore how they solve problems. Understand their motivations and the way they think. Work with people that use voice recognition software to talk aloud about how they’d approach the interface and what voice commands they might give to accomplish tasks.

Have a Figma, Sketch, InDesign, or Adobe XD prototype?

Get people with low vision to review it. Even though it isn’t coded, you can still get feedback on colors, layout, interaction flows, and more.

Have a coded HTML prototype?

Get people that use a screen reader to run through the prototype and give you feedback.

You can do it!

These are all things that you can do before you have a completed product. Accessibility starts at the very beginning. Don’t wait until the product is almost ready to launch—or worse—after it’s launched. By then, making it accessible will be a lot more work, time, and money. Start when the product is a dream and some sketches and you can get it all done more efficiently and effectively.

A tiny purple person getting their mind in gear

Looking for ways to increase inclusion in your products and services?

Organizations often worry that increasing inclusion means throwing away their current design process, or causing major disruption to their day-to-day operations.

In an ideal world, you’d get to design the design process and make it more inclusive from the ground up. Unfortunately, that takes time, and you don’t have the luxury of waiting until you’ve perfected a new process.

But the work of inclusion is important, and even if you don’t have the full picture or have it all figured out, you can still make progress by focusing on some of the smaller pieces.

5 Top Ways to Increase Inclusion in Your Work outlines five of those smaller actions that ultimately add up to a big impact.

Download Top 5 Ways to Increase Inclusion in Your Work