By Karen Hawkins, Principal of Accessible Design, Level Access

It has long been my belief that accessibility and usability are inseparable—baked in to every usable, enjoyable experience. So, it makes sense to me (and delights me!) that, according to data from both our 2022 and 2023 State of Digital Accessibility surveys, the key reason organizations continue to work toward digital accessibility is improved usability—creating a better user experience for all. However, when digging further into the 2023 survey data, it became clear to me that, while usability may be the end goal for many, it’s not what’s driving accessibility resourcing.

In our survey, we asked respondents for their organization’s top three priorities for improving accessibility. The top response was accessibility training—a great start. To ensure optimal usability, all teams need training on how accessibility applies to their work. But the second and third most popular choices on this priorities list were more revealing to me. After training, the major priorities respondents identified for improving accessibility were hiring skilled developers and hiring skilled quality assurance (QA) professionals.

I wasn’t surprised that skilled designers, or investment in accessible design more broadly, weren’t in those the top three priorities, but I was disappointed. Designers are the professionals with the best opportunity to ensure accessibility enhances usability, which is what most organizations claim to be aiming at, long-term! Yet, so many organizations still seem to view accessibility as largely a set of problems to be “fixed” in development and QA, rather than a strength or toolset to be harnessed in design. In the rest of this piece, I’ll explain why organizations may be stuck resourcing accessibility with this reactive mindset and how shifting or adding focus on improving accessibility in design can improve the sustainability of organizations’ accessibility compliance efforts, ensuring more usable digital experiences for everyone.

Access the report

“Growing pains”

Skilled developers and QA professionals are crucial in launching and maintaining accessible websites and digital products. But by focusing resourcing only in these areas, organizations risk remaining in reactive mode—catching and solving accessibility “bugs” in development and testing rather than ensuring accessible, usable experiences from the start, in conception and design.

We often find organizations so focused on reducing all critical errors in development that conversations about how to involve or empower designers as part of the effort are beyond their scope, even years into a partnership with us. And this may not mean the organization isn’t being proactive.

For example, one of our clients prioritized up-skilling their developers and QA team in order to remediate their critical accessibility issues. That training included embedding testing for accessibility as part of their regular workflows to catch accessibility errors in development before they’re officially “bugs”, which has now become routine. They also trained their product managers on writing user stories that incorporate accessibility considerations. Both these measures are important steps toward a proactive approach that deserve to be celebrated. However, without the involvement of skilled designers and content creators, even the most committed customers risk hitting a plateau, continually fixing issues that designers could have designed out of their experiences to begin with, especially with support from an accessible design system.

Reflecting on the “top three priorities” mentioned in the introduction, many teams seem to be resourcing for the problem they’ve got in front of them now, not what will set them up for success in the long run. What organizations WANT to be doing to improve accessibility isn’t always aligned with what they’re ACTUALLY doing, based on the resources and challenges in front of them. And this “growing pain” is also confirmed in our research: incorporating accessibility earlier in digital experience creation was the single most widely reported challenge among respondents in our 2022 State of Digital Accessibility data.

It’s understandable. Resources flow to where teams experience the most acute need. Organizations faced with inaccessible experiences and the threat of legal action are likely to want to take immediate action, leaning on development and QA teams, before (or instead of) pursuing proactive education and investment in accessible design. The challenge is, even if they “solve” the problem in the short-term, without actively embedding accessibility in design and digital experience planning, repeated accessibility issues are likely to just pop back up again.

Accessible design is the anchor

Designers hold the key to breaking this cycle and advancing accessibility goals by embedding core usability considerations into the fabric of digital experiences. I feel so strongly about designers’ potential to be accessibility catalysts in their organizations that I created the Accessible Design Principles and Heuristics guide to help designers in applying the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), using designer-centric language and ideas.

It takes investment to build a skilled design team and equip them with the support and space to take up that mantle and make that proactive impact. But while many organizations are still struggling to become more proactive when it comes to digital accessibility, there is encouraging evidence that those who manage to make the shift are reaping the benefits. When asked about the most impactful actions their organizations have taken to improve digital accessibility, this year’s State of Digital Accessibility survey respondents ranked incorporating accessibility when designing (56%) as their top choice, alongside testing for accessibility during development (52%).

One recent example of the value of this proactive approach to accessibility comes from our partner Wunderman Thompson. In working on a site for Berkley Insurance, they included requirements for accessibility in design and submitted designs up front to our Level Access Design Evaluation service. This led to a reduction in accessibility issues caught in testing of about 90%. Their manual evaluation returned 16 total findings, just two of which were critical. This is an incredibly low number: in our experience, most sites of similar sizes yield 300-400 findings at this stage. So how did they accomplish this result? By shifting from a reactive “compliance” mindset to a proactive “creative” mindset, prioritizing accessibility in design to head off issues later in the software development life cycle (SDLC).

Access the guide

Wunderman Thompson’s success makes it clear that, with the right tooling and training, design teams can drive meaningful change in the way their organizations approach accessibility. And this is also borne out in our experiences with clients. For example, one of our customers introduced an accessibility transformation program to champion the principles of universal design and development. Even with only a portion of the full scope implemented, they benefited from immediate impacts, having fewer defects and reduced rework. Another of our customers, Merck and MSD, have worked to enable multi-national design teams working across a variety of tech stacks through their new corporate design system. Their new design system dramatically increased their teams’ efficiency while ensuring that their products meet accessibility requirements and stay on brand.

Empowering designers and content creators: The way of the future

Of course, the larger the organization, typically the more resources they have with which to seize the benefits of proactive accessibility in design. But the strong interest in and uptake of our new Figma plugin, along with similar tools across the accessibility solutions landscape, points to the willingness among designers to play an active role in this effort in their organizations. And what’s evident from the previous client examples is the potential organizations can unlock when that willingness is supported. An investment in improving accessibility in design saves time and resources in the experience creation process as a whole, while also supporting a better, more usable experience for users and customers.

In fact, I have a prediction. It’s a bold one, but I think it’s also fair, based on the engagement with and interest in our organization’s design tools to date. I predict that in a few years’ time, as we review our annual State of Digital Accessibility survey data, we’ll begin to see a shift in resourcing priorities toward proactivity, and an emphasis on embedding accessibility in design and planning as a best practice. Until then, I hope this article can be a useful tool in your internal resourcing conversations.

Want to get ahead of the curve?

If your organization is ready to embrace a more proactive, sustainable approach to digital accessibility and compliance, there’s no time like the present. For the solutions to help you get there, explore our design tools, or reach out to our team to get started.