Software developers make products for people to use—it’s the whole point. That’s why it’s especially frustrating to build something you’re proud of, then discover that its major functionality is out of reach for many users.
That was my experience back in 2015, when my very first web app failed an accessibility audit. From that day on, I’ve spent much of my career learning accessibility best practices and advocating for users who depend on assistive technology. Global Accessibility Awareness Day is all about furthering this important conversation and exploring ways to improve digital access and inclusion for people of all abilities.
Accessibility is a natural fit for Intuit’s mission of financial empowerment. Our products are more than web, desktop, and mobile applications—they’re tools that enable people to lead independent financial lives. The Intuit Accessibility team is dedicated to making sure that our products reach everyone, regardless of their physical, sensory, or cognitive ability. Under the leadership of Ted Drake, Intuit’s Global Accessibility Leader, our 600-person strong Accessibility Champions program fosters a culture where everyone at the company works to accommodate the needs of all customers.
As an Accessibility Champion, I’ve been working my way through three levels, since joining Intuit in 2019. As the first Accessibility Champion Level 1 rep at our Boise site, I gained insight into how our customers use — and depend on — assistive technology, ran basic accessibility audits, and championed accessibility on my TSheets product team within Intuit’s Small Business and Self-Employed organization. A few months ago, I became a Champion Level 2, leading accessibility training, attending user interviews, tracking and fixing bugs, and allocating 10 percent of my time to other accessibility opportunities. I’m now on my way to becoming a Level 3 Champion, which will hopefully give me an opportunity to focus full-time on accessibility as a subject matter expert, helping guide product design and development for the future of Intuit.
Making products that make a difference—for all users
Among the key initiatives, I’ve led within our team is an Accessibility 101 training course to highlight common accessibility problems through real customer interviews, describe what to do — and not to do — and encourage people to join the champion program.
Here are a few lessons learned from my personal experiences that I’m doing my best to impart to Intuit developers, managers, product managers, researchers, designers, data scientists, and content/marketing writers who’ve joined me on this journey.
1. Design for accessibility up-front
Building accessibility into your product from the very beginning is much easier than trying to add it in later. Legacy features that don’t work with a screen reader can be incredibly difficult to fix. It’s like trying to add an elevator into a 15-year-old building and having to deal with all the old plumbing and electrical that exists right where the elevator needs to go. In contrast, when I’ve seen features being designed with accessibility in mind, they work for keyboards and screen readers right from the start with little extra overhead for developers. It’s analogous to designing a new building with accessibility in mind—elevators, ramps, automatic doors, hands-free door openers, etc. — to make it easy for everyone to come into the building on day one.
2. Think through UI from the perspective of those who depend on assistive tech
It’s easy to take a UI design, interpret it into code, and make it look and feel the way the designer expects, but the real challenge is to think through designs for someone who relies on assistive tech. If they can’t complete all the necessary tasks with your product using just a keyboard, or can’t interact with it using a screen reader, your work isn’t done.
3. Get back to the basics of HTML
Every HTML element was designed for a specific purpose, and the semantics of each element provide meaning to the content inside of that element. However, HTML is very flexible and can be used in ways that it wasn’t designed for — unfortunately, when we do this we break accessibility for assistive technologies. For instance, if a designer creates a custom element that looks and feels like a “button,” but isn’t normally an interactive element, it won’t be clickable using a keyboard.
Using HTML elements for the purpose they were designed will always result in a better experience. If instead the designer uses a semantic button element and applies custom styles to change the look of the button, it will be “announced” in HTML by the screen reader clickable using a keyboard, requiring no extra developer work.
4. Focus on web accessibility principles
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1, promoted by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), are organized around four principles that lay the foundation necessary for anyone to access and use web content. Sometimes referred to by the acronym POUR, the guidelines specify that anyone who wants to use the web must have content that is:
Perceivable – Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive with the senses available to them.
Operable – User interface components and navigation must be operable without requiring interaction that a user can’t perform.
Understandable – Users must be able to understand the information as well as the operation of the user interface.
Robust – Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies. As technologies and user agents evolve, the content should remain accessible.
Altogether, these strategies will ensure you’re approaching product design with accessibility in mind.
Building a better world for everyone
Accessibility awareness and practices continue to advance in exciting and meaningful ways.
For example, Intuit partners with Aira, a service founded by an Intuit alumnus that uses artificial intelligence and augmented reality to connect people who are blind or have low-vision to highly trained, remotely-located agents. At the touch of a button, Aira delivers instant access to information, enhancing everyday efficiency, engagement, and independence.
And, in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic, Disability:IN, a nonprofit resource for business disability inclusion worldwide, is helping employees with disabilities to participate fully in all aspects of remote work by providing companies with research and best practices for digital accessibility as part of its COVID-19 Response Series.
Efforts like these expand access to employment for people with disabilities, while also expanding the talent pool available to companies. By 2023, Gartner predicts that the number of people with disabilities employed will triple due to AI and emerging technologies reducing barriers to access. That makes a big difference considering that today, only 30 percent of U.S. labor force participants with disabilities are employed. As an added benefit, organizations that actively employ people with disabilities experience 89 percent higher retention rates, a 72 percent increase in employee productivity, and a 29 percent increase in profitability, according to Gartner.
Accessibility isn’t a sideline to Intuit’s business. It’s the main event. When we intentionally design and build capabilities for everyone, regardless of their ability, we power prosperity around the world as a truly inclusive company.
Learn more by exploring these resources:
- Teach Access Tutorial, created by the Facebook Accessibility team with input from other tech company leaders
- Web Accessibility, a free course created by Google Accessibility
- Intuit’s Accessibility Guidelines
- W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (W3C-WAI)
- Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1