This blog was contributed by Karen Hawkins, Principal of Accessible Design at Level Access.

If you’re part of a creative team, or your company makes software or other digital products, you’ve likely already heard of the benefits of “shift left development”—testing for issues and bugs earlier in development, before a product goes live. But when it comes to ensuring web accessibility, “shifting left” is about more than testing early and often. Truly integrating accessibility means making accessibility a part of everyone’s job, from project manager (or even CEO!) to QA tester. So, what’s in it for you? Why put time and resources into embedding accessibility into every role and project plan? Well, as I’ll explain below, if you’re looking to improve your market share, create a dynamic internal culture, and protect your brand, the better question is, “why not?” Want more on what “shift left” means when it comes to web accessibility? Check out this companion blog for practical tips on integrating accessibility across job functions.

Why shift left?

There are four key benefits for companies that choose to shift the responsibility of ensuring web accessibility “left”, or earlier, in the product development cycle by considering how to make digital products accessible before they are coded.

1. Efficiency:

Your organization can create huge efficiencies if each team member commits to embedding web accessibility in their work. For example, when designers embed accessibility, developers can focus on following the design specifications instead of fixing issues flagged by testers. Testers then shift their efforts from discovering accessibility problems to verifying that accessibility solutions have been successfully implemented. Leaving the discovery of software defects, such as bugs that cause digital accessibility barriers, for later in the product life cycle can have costly repercussions. According to research by IBM, this monetary impact increases exponentially in later product phases.[1] For instance, waiting until the maintenance phase to catch defects can mean a financial impact 30 times greater than a feature’s original cost. This is not to mention the resulting added pressure on launch deadlines when issues need to be fixed at the last minute. Prioritizing accessibility integration from the get-go is the smarter approach for budgets and timelines.

2. Reduced legal risk:

Depending on where you are and with whom you do business, your company is likely responsible for upholding accessibility standards, whether it’s the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a state-level regulation, or another global law mandating digital accessibility. The simple reality is, catching web accessibility issues before they become barriers on a website or mobile app reduces the likelihood your company will face legal risk for non-compliance. But if these issues “go live” as part of a user experience, the threat of compliance-related legal action is automatically introduced. These lawsuits have grown exponentially in recent years, so it’s best not to wait until you’re served that demand letter to make sure your products are compliant. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) offer businesses a standard to follow to achieve web accessibility, and many global regulations reference them. So it only makes sense that your teams start planning, designing, and developing for accessibility now, instead of continuing to create issues to be caught later on.

3. Increased collaboration:

In a shift-left environment, organizations need to work cross-functionally, improving collaboration throughout the digital experience development process. To be sure their plans will work together for an accessible user experience, team members are encouraged to consult one another early in their individual processes. Take, for example, the task of improving CTA (call to action) buttons on a company’s website. To make these improvements as accessible as possible, UX and UI designers, content creators, and developers may need to meet and think through issues like:

  • How will we handle long CTA text? (Will we wrap text? Cut off character count?)
  • Does the platform have technical constraints regarding where to place CTAs or how they can look?
  • How does CTA design play into the overall design system already established?

As a bonus, this type of collaboration might encourage content creators and designers to re-imagine the user experience in an innovative way that works better for users of all abilities. In short, by truly collaborating and consulting with one another in the process of shifting left, teams can find solutions that put them ahead of the competition and help them offer something unique.

4. Brand loyalty:

By embedding accessibility as a key consideration for all employees, you’ll continually improve the digital experiences you provide. And you’ll be reaching a larger audience. In the U.S. alone, there are an estimated 35 million people with ambulatory, vision, cognitive, and hearing disabilities that impact their ability to navigate the web with a mouse-pointing device. For these individuals, digital accessibility errors can present a significant barrier to participating on the web. If these users can easily engage with your website or mobile app, they’re likely to visit it more frequently. And they’re more likely to recommend your site and services to friends and family. Congratulations! You’ve just expanded your potential customer base by millions. In addition, by innovating and upgrading your digital products to serve this key customer base, you improve brand loyalty overall. Improved focus on accessible structure and design makes a website easier for everyone to use. If you continually deliver accessible websites, it shows you care about all users’ experiences, and consumers are loyal to brands that value equity.

Smoother processes, happier clients

Need proof that shifting left works? Consider this quote from Chris Long, Senior Product Manager at poq Commerce, which specializes in native mobile app creation. Long and his team partnered with Level Access to improve accessibility awareness throughout their organization.

“We’ve gone from basic testing capabilities to building accessibility into all of our processes. Now, we actually understand why we’re building with accessibility in mind, we’re always ideating with the needs of the end-user in mind, and we’re building with the mindset that we want to provide a barrier-free experience to as many customers as we can. This approach is something our clients absolutely value and gives us a market advantage.”

Make your shift 

Curious about how your company can shift left? Want to explore what integrating web accessibility best practices could look like for you? We’re here to help. Think of Level Access as your shift-left coach. Our advanced technology and skilled teams of manual evaluators will work alongside you, showing you the benefit of the old maxim “test early and often.” Left of development, we’ll also help you craft comprehensive accessibility policies with proven templates and expert advice. Plus, our Academy offers a selection of on-demand and live courses covering accessibility integration for different job functions, so you can ensure each member of your team develops the skills they need. Contact us to learn how you can get started shifting left and gaining all the benefits of digital accessibility.  [1] “Minimizing Code Defects to Improve Software Quality and Lower Development Costs”, IBM, 2008.