Play Your Part: Role-Based Advice for Agile Accessibility
Aug 15, 2023
If you’ve been spending time on the Level Access website lately, you may have noticed a lot of material about the benefits of adopting an agile approach to digital accessibility. It’s understandable if you encountered the word “agile” and assumed this is just a shift for developers to make. But when it comes to online inclusion, everyone involved in the software or product development life cycle can play a part in improving processes.
In fact, according to research by Karen Hawkins, Principal of Accessible Design at Level Access, teams can begin addressing 96% of the criteria in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) before development. That means product managers and designers have critical roles in guiding the creation of inclusive digital experiences. And for developers and quality assurance (QA) professionals, proactive collaboration with these teammates is integral to an effective accessibility practice. In this article, we’ll cover what agile accessibility means for different practitioners who help bring digital products to life.
Making “shift left” stick
We’ve previously written about how accessibility can be embedded earlier in the creative process, passing work “left” in development to include more stakeholders. Adopting agile accessibility means finding a way to make this shift a permanent, ongoing part of teams’ daily work and having each team member commit to continuous improvement. By embracing ongoing learning and feedback around accessibility, teams can avoid spreading the work left of development only to re-bottleneck accessibility in design—which can lead to inefficiency and negatively impact product success.
Let’s explore how four teams supporting digital experience creation—product, design, development, and QA—can work together to tackle accessibility early and often throughout the SDLC. (Feel free to navigate directly to your team’s section for role-specific advice.)
Best practices for agile accessibility, by role
As a product manager, you are in a unique position to weave accessibility into the earliest stages of digital experience creation: research and ideation. By ensuring people with disabilities are included in UX research and personas, you can make certain your product roadmap accounts for the full diversity of users’ needs. When planning a new product or feature, embed accessibility into the acceptance criteria for user stories, or clearly outline accessibility standards in project requirements (depending on your development methodology). But don’t assume your work is done once a product or feature launches. Processes need to be put in place to continually monitor live digital properties for accessibility issues and triage them in order of priority, focusing first on barriers that impact key user flows.
UX and UI design
If you’re in UX or UI design, you may already know that collaboration between design and development teams is a pillar of agile, accessible product design. Before approaching a new project, connect with developers to understand what is technically feasible from an accessibility standpoint. And as you make progress on a concept, maintain an open line of communication with technical teams. Involving developers in design reviews, specifically, will reduce rework and make the hand-off seamless.
It’s also important to proactively check your work for accessibility barriers before passing it on to development. Several accessibility tools and plug-ins can help you check color contrast, focus order, and other accessibility considerations. Finally, be sure to annotate your designs with accessibility requirements, including keyboard interactions and the templated experiences provided to screen reader users.
“Inclusive design is not just font-sizes, color contrast and alternate text. It’s understanding semantic structure that affords all users, including users of assistive technology, the ability to navigate any experience. And it’s being able to articulate this structure to development teams. Communicating the overall UX intent of your design by using annotation kits can really help advance accessibility at your organization.”
– David Franklin, Senior Solutions Engineer and Inclusive Design Leader, Level Access
Often, developers are told to “stay in their lane” when it comes to refining product requirements and weighing in on design. But if your team is taking an agile approach to accessibility, you, as a developer, need to take the opposite tack. Work with product managers to ensure that accessibility considerations are accounted for in the requirements for any new project, and actively participate in design reviews. Don’t hesitate to push back on design concepts that can’t be accessibly created with available resources.
When it’s time to build, use tooling to embed accessibility checks in your process. Adding an accessibility-specific software development kit (SDK) to your integrated development environment (IDE) will make it easy to catch issues while you code. You can also test for barriers in locally deployed projects with browser extensions and integrate accessibility testing into your framework for automated unit testing. Bridge the gap between the set of common issues that automated tests flag, and the intricacies of your specific product, by writing and running functional tests for accessibility.
Quality assurance (QA)
QA professionals might believe that their role in agile accessibility begins and ends with testing. And it’s true that embedding accessibility into automated end-to-end testing is one of the most impactful actions QA teams can take to support inclusive experience creation. But like developers, QA teams shouldn’t “wait their turn” when it comes to ensuring digital experiences are accessible. As a QA professional, you can help your product team stay agile and improve accessibility by working with product managers to ensure accessibility is included in project requirements—or in the Definition of Done used by your agile scrum teams. You can also play an active role in educating UX and UI teams about the specific accessibility checks that will be applied to new features and components, so designers know what to account for when drafting concepts.
No executive buy-in? Just start
What if your organization lacks the leadership initiative / buy-in to shift existing ways of work? The good news is, many of these changes can start with just one individual, and grow from there. Embed the practices we’ve outlined in this blog into your day-to-day and be generous with your knowledge. By building small habits, individuals can set new standards for their teams and eventually shift processes.
For example, an individual designer who prioritizes accessibility in their own work can begin to educate their peers and hold them accountable on accessibility in reviews. Similarly, a developer could offer team members a tutorial on checking for and fixing common accessibility barriers while coding. A proactive product manager might help other team members understand why accessibility is critical to achieving organizational goals—like improving usability and maximizing market share. And inclusive QA professionals can explain to designers and developers exactly when and how they’ll test for accessibility, so these teams have more clarity on what they need to prioritize.
“Product managers have the power to get the buy-in they need for accessibility improvements by building big momentum across their organizations. Go all-in on a roadshow and take an advocacy approach when you talk to stakeholders about why accessibility is an important investment. Help your stakeholders understand what it’s like for customers to use an inaccessible website by showing examples. And, don’t forget, money talks. Share what percentage of your consumer audience has disabilities, and the earnings potential they represent for your brand’s bottom line.”
– Kate Spalla, Senior Technical Product Manager, Level Access
Set every team member up for success
Passionate accessibility champions are key to a sustained digital accessibility effort. But if you want a shortcut to ensuring maximum accessibility and compliance, every team member involved in the development life cycle needs the tools, training, and support to prioritize accessibility in their work. Drawing on over 20 years of experience, Level Access’ solution is built to support an agile approach to accessibility, equipping organizations with advanced technology to address accessibility at any stage of digital experience creation, from design to QA and testing. We also upskill your team through live and self-paced role-specific training, and provide expert guidance on prioritization, program management, and strategy.
Ready to make digital accessibility a team effort and set your organization up for sustainable success? Get in touch with us today.
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