Whose job is it to ensure your website or digital product is accessible? In many companies, this responsibility rests solely on the shoulders of developers. But advocates and accessibility professionals have long argued that this approach is inefficient, ineffective, and puts an unfair burden on one part of the team. These days, the most progressive organizations are making a “shift left”—incorporating web accessibility at every stage of the experience development process, including design and project planning. The best way to make sure your experience is accessible, it turns out, is to design it that way in the first place.

But what does that look like, practically speaking? How do teams get started embedding accessibility into every job function and all project plans? We cover these questions and more in our on-demand webinar: Digital Accessibility by Design hosted by eSSENTIAL Accessibility’s accessible design expert, Karen Hawkins.

Beyond “test early and often”

As a concept, “shift left” is a spinoff of “shift left development.” This term refers to a best practice in developer circles of shifting testing for software and performance bugs earlier in the development process. By shifting quality assurance testing left, teams can catch potential issues earlier, which means less scrambling to fix problems when a deadline or launch date is looming or after a feature is live.

But what if we also designed digital experiences with accessibility in mind? In recent years, the practice of “shifting left” has expanded beyond merely testing for accessibility in the development phase to a team-wide responsibility beginning earlier in the creative cycle. That might look like:

    • Designers and UX specialists considering accessibility in wireframes, color selection and final design
    • Copywriters writing all content, including ALT text, with readability and logical flow in mind, right from the initial concept brief
    • Project planners allocating enough time and resources for accessibility work and analysis

By moving these considerations up in the project cycle, teams can make the right choices early on, catching accessibility barriers before they become a user issue, and collectively addressing issues that come up when it’s easiest—and most affordable—to do so.

Karen Hawkins, our head of UX accessible design, is a certified accessibility professional. As a former user experience director, she’s seen the downfall of leaving accessibility concerns solely to developers.

“We can’t design any type of technology without considering all of the capabilities and limitations of its users. To ensure that it’ll end up working for all of those needs and capabilities, we can’t just throw all the responsibility on one particular role, like developers,” Hawkins says. “I want people to internalize that, when it comes to digital accessibility, we all have a role to play.”

A blue circle with the steps in the traditional product lifecycle around it. A large pink counter-clockwise arrow surrounds the blue circle to show the responsibility flowing left, or earlier.

Embedding accessibility at every step

To ensure an inclusive, accessible product experience, each team member needs to ask themselves critical questions, putting themselves in the end user’s shoes.

“Whatever your workflow is, you need to stop every once in a while and put on your accessibility hat,” says Hawkins. “I do have a personal bias toward thinking that developers and user experience designers, above and beyond any other roles in the software development lifecycle, have the largest roles to play in accessibility. But there’s a ton to consider for visual designers, copywriters and content creators, project managers, and everybody in between.”

According to Hawkins, there are some key questions each member of a creative team should review to ensure accessibility is fully integrated into their process as the team shifts left.

Project manager:

Does the team have the training to apply web accessibility principles? Which accessibility regulations and standards should we be working to meet? Have we included time for consultation and accessibility review at each step of the process? Do we have third-party accessibility validation?

User experience designer:

How does this page work if I navigate using a keyboard instead of a mouse? Does the reading order of each component make sense? What would this component’s auditory experience (think a screen reader experience) be?

Graphic designer:

Have I checked all instances of text on all possible backgrounds for sufficient contrast? Have I set my minimum font size to be 12pt font (16 CSS pixels)? In my style guide, for anything actionable, have I accounted for both a hover state and a keyboard focus state? Do these states have sufficient contrast? And do they require a secondary indicator besides color?


Have I avoided jargon and chosen clear, simple words? Have I checked the readability of my content and maintained a grade eight reading level? Have I structured my content logically and used meaningful sub-headers? Is appropriate ALT text provided for all images and calls to action?


Have I used semantic HTML first and ARIA last (to convey the semantics to people using assistive technologies such as screen readers)? Are all labels programmatically associated with their controls? Have I ensured a properly nested heading structure?

Quality assurance:

Have I defined the scope of the test? Have I tested on both Windows machines and iOS machines using multiple browsers? Did I use automated and manual testing (utilizing multiple assistive technologies)?

Embedding accessibility into each team member’s work in this way improves productivity. For example, when designers deliver accessible designs, developers can focus on following the design specifications instead of fixing issues flagged by testers. Testers then shift from discovering accessibility problems to verifying that accessibility solutions have been successfully implemented.

For real-world examples and lessons on embedding accessibility in the creative process, request our on-demand webinar: Digital Accessibility by Design featuring UX design leaders from Shopify and Bounteous.

For more benefits, shift further left

In recent years, many large, high-profile companies have implemented substantial diversity, equity and inclusion policies. “Shifting left” is crucial to building accessibility into the “inclusion” part of that equation. And Hawkins says a successful shift left doesn’t stop with creative teams.

From department heads to HR reps, all the way up to CEOs and CFOs, leadership plays a vital role in successfully integrating digital accessibility. After all, they own strategic planning, establish inclusive internal policies, and control budgets, all of which will determine whether teams are equipped to thoroughly integrate accessibility into their workflows. These leaders are also in charge of recruitment and can prioritize seeking experts and employees with diverse abilities who can share their experiences and advise on best practices.

In this way, “shifting left” can be embraced as a wholesale culture shift toward accessibility and inclusion—corporate values that are important to employees and customers alike.

No time like the present

If you’re ready to get started on your organization’s shift left, or need a better understanding of what improving digital accessibility could look like for you, we’re here to help. At eSSENTIAL Accessibility (eA), we’re a full-team support solution with the experience to advise developers and designers alike. We’ll equip you with an accessibility roadmap that optimizes your existing workflows and help you reach your goals with advanced technology, expert advice, and ongoing training and support.

Get to know eA and see what makes our solution the smartest choice for digital accessibility. Reach out to our team today.