Over the past several years, organizations have increasingly recognized the value of “shifting left” when it comes to digital accessibility, prioritizing inclusion as early as ideation and design. By embedding accessibility into new design concepts, teams significantly reduce the number of accessibility barriers that are written into code. But for leading designers, this shift is just the gateway to an even more efficient and effective process for ensuring usability for all: agile design.
To better understand how digital accessibility is enhanced by agile design, we connected with Tim McLaughlin, Partner at strategic research and design firm Craft Studios. In our conversation, we explored why Craft prioritizes accessibility and how the firm employs agile principles to create inclusive, engaging experiences for its clients.
Level Access: As a design leader, why is digital accessibility a priority for you?
Tim McLaughlin: Accessibility aligns with our clients’ requirements and goals. For example, we do a lot of work in financial services—and in that industry, there are often requirements that organizations are legally or ethically obligated to adhere to. And for other types of organizations, especially start-ups, accessible experiences can be a competitive differentiator.
Level Access: How, if at all, are your clients’ expectations around accessibility changing?
Tim McLaughlin: I often connect accessibility with usability. Today, a focus on intuitive user experience (UX) is a requirement from a user’s perspective, when just 15 or 20 years ago it was a new concept. I think accessibility is now in a similar place to where usability was five years ago. Organizations are increasingly understanding the importance of digital accessibility and incorporating it into their design processes—not just as an afterthought or last-minute fix, but as a core part of the process itself. And approaching accessible design in an agile way allows teams to have significant early-stage success with accessibility.
Level Access: What exactly do you mean by “agile” when you talk about accessible design?
Tim McLaughlin: Agile can be a bit of a buzzword nowadays. But at the simplest level, it’s about breaking things up into digestible pieces, delivering those pieces, and continually testing and refining them. It’s a philosophy of cyclical delivery. Agile design means you’re not creating a feature set for the next 18 or 24 months—you start by creating a feature set for the next three months, and then you iterate on that. You can easily infuse accessibility into this cycle, so not only are you designing for context and function, but you’re also confirming and testing accessibility in a thoughtful, deliberate, and continuous way.
I’ll add that you don’t need to have an existing agile development process to start taking an agile approach to accessible design. We have clients that are extremely mature in scrum-based methodology, with traditional user stories, sprints, and daily scrum sessions. We also have clients that just aspire to be more agile. With this latter group, we start by breaking projects up into two-week, four-week, even three-month pieces—and that’s a huge victory for them.
Level Access: What’s the primary way that agile design differs from more traditional approaches to UX design?
Tim McLaughlin: I think the main difference is that with agile, you don’t have to be “done” to release or deliver a product. It’s an organic delivery—a living delivery. I mean, with digital experiences, you’re never really “done,” right? There’s always an opportunity for refinement. There’s always an opportunity for more evaluation with end users. There’s always an opportunity to push the envelope of what this experience can be, based on the available technology.
There’s a philosophical shift that happens as part of adopting this delivery method that can be pretty substantial. Some clients think, “Why did we wait so long to adopt agile?” Others are more reluctant to embrace this idea that they’re not delivering a final product. Of course, that doesn’t mean they’re delivering an incomplete product—just that with agile, you’re iterating; you’re delivering in a release-based way.
Level Access: How does accessibility fit into agile design—and what are some of the advantages of approaching accessible design in this way?
Tim McLaughlin: There’s a baseline level of accessibility that should be folded into every design process. And in my opinion, accessibility should be an inherent part of any agile design effort.
With agile, organizations can be proactive, flexible, and efficient in their approach to accessibility. It really comes down to: do you want to pay a lot to fix something later, or do you want to incorporate it into your early planning and execution? In a static delivery model, it can be difficult and complex to fix accessibility issues that are identified after an experience is built. Whereas, if you test for accessibility early on, and embrace an iterative process, you’re not only making an impact from day one—you can also identify additional opportunities to improve accessibility later in your roadmap.
Level Access: Craft focuses on design—but I’m curious, what other roles do you work with in your agile approach to creating accessible experiences for clients?
Tim McLaughlin: Our lifeblood is collaboration, plain and simple. When we partner with clients, we typically work with a product owner, a development leader, and, depending on the type of experience, someone on the brand side. Collaboration with development, specifically, is crucial in agile design. Our clients usually have well-established development teams, and we expect—if not require—that they’ll be involved in our design process from the beginning. If we’re designing in a vacuum, and they can’t deliver the design we create, we have a problem.
Level Access: We’ve talked a lot about the benefits of accessible, agile design for organizations. What are some of the benefits of this approach for users?
Tim McLaughlin: Ultimately, the user receives accessible, well-designed, smart experiences. And I don’t mean just in terms of aesthetic considerations. Every user can get the information they need on a regular basis, and in the way they want to get it.
About Tim McLaughlin
Leveraging 25 years of experience in the user experience (UX) design industry, Tim joined Craft Studios as a Partner in 2020. Craft is a strategic UX research and design agency with offices in Philadelphia and Boston. Tim works with Craft’s multidisciplinary team and clients across industries who leverage Craft’s capabilities to help define and execute on their strategic digital goals and objectives. Tim’s expertise lies within leading multidisciplinary teams while defining the research and design phases of user experience engagements for Craft’s clients across various industry verticals including banking and financial services.
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