Product Development and Accessibility: Tips for Getting Started

When it comes to building technology products, it pays to incorporate accessibility right from the start—on multiple levels. To help your organization realize the many benefits of accessible design, here are PEAT's top tips for factoring accessibility into the entire product development lifecycle.

1. Know Your Users

Wise technology developers and product managers understand that their potential users include job applicants and employees with disabilities. Whatever tools and resources you use to identify your customer base, you can expand them to be more inclusive by:

  • Creating personas that include references to disability. Adding a brief mention of vision loss or manual dexterity problems—common enough characteristics—both humanizes the persona and gives designers something to think about. Just Ask: Integrating Accessibility Throughout Design, written by Shawn Lawton Henry of the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative, offers valuable guidance about creating personas of users with disabilities.

  • Adding accessibility information to use case scenarios. For example, let's say you are developing a tablet app to be used in sales. You could describe how a salesperson with vision loss would be able to use it to show information to a customer.

  • Seek out market reports with inclusive data. Market researchers are becoming increasingly wise to usability and accessibility issues in multi-cultural or senior markets, for example. Build that intelligence into your product's market analysis. And the next time you brief a market researcher, ask about their ability to provide information about people with disabilities—an important and expanding market segment.

2. Evaluate Your Current Products

If you are revising or updating a product instead of developing a new one, nothing beats a detailed accessibility evaluation that outlines barriers and proposes how to fix them. You may be able to use internal resources to do this, such as in-house accessibility experts or testers, or you may rely on external consultants that specialize in accessibility. Industry associations, such as the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP), may be a good place to identify such specialists. If possible, create a comprehensive gap analysis or needs assessment that shows every accessibility barrier and error, along with potential solutions and practical recommendations. Businesses commonly use this technique to determine the steps needed to make product improvements and enhancements.

3. Examine Your Product Track Records

You can learn a lot about the accessibility of your products, including detailed suggestions for improvements, by carefully listening to what others have already said.

  • Review complaints, concerns, comments, or lawsuits related to accessibility. Helpful sources for this information can be your legal department and customer support. Some product managers receive notice of public comments about their products from a press tracking service. If you do this, make sure accessibility and usability are included in the filters being used.

  • Identify sensitized enterprise customers. Many of the people who buy and use your products in the workplace care about accessibility. Government agencies, schools, public-facing businesses, and others have their own legal, economic, and other motivations for accessibility—to which you can respond.

4. Check Out the Competition

How do your competitors handle accessibility? As with other issues such as security and privacy, you can choose to become an accessibility leader or a "fast follower" who recognizes others' good ideas and emulates them. In either case, you should begin by assessing where you are in the pack. TechCheck, PEAT's accessibility benchmarking tool, is a great place to start.

5. Establish Clear Goals and Integrate Accessibility into the Development Process

When starting an accessibility effort, be proactive—but also realistic. Prioritizing which accessibility issues to address is necessary. Again, TechCheck can help. Specific goals for each product should reflect an overall accessibility strategy, not a random or "one time only" approach.

Accessibility deserves dedicated thinking and planning, but it should not be done in isolation. Rather, it should be integrated into your organization's processes. There are, of course, many product development processes, ranging in formality and how they are managed. At one extreme, companies that use a formal product specification often add an accessibility section indicating applicable laws or standards, features that are going to be included, explanations for deferred features, and even what the accessibility testing protocols will look like. Agile software development and other less formal processes often rely on an accessibility lead, a developer with specialized training whose judgment is called upon by team members as needed. Only you can determine what strategies will work best in your organization.

6. Use Available Tools

Accessibility is an increasingly essential part of technology product and services, and a lot of good general guidance and training is available. For every platform you work on, and every function or feature your product needs, there is sound, available information on how to do it accessibly. In many cases you can rely on the companies that make development environments and authoring tools—they've had requests about accessibility and know the answers. Other developers in that ecosystem are also great sources of information. Here are just a few examples of accessible development resources provided by technology companies themselves:

7. Make the Business Case

You may find that you need to develop a business case for specific accessibility features, not just accessibility overall. For example, you may need to assert that, based on support calls and public comments, an online form should be simpler and use language more consistently. This is not just an accessibility issue—it's a change that will benefit many users. Use the documentation you've gathered to support your case. Eventually you'll be adding accessibility features (including those that benefit all users) to the same wish list as everyone else, and fighting to get them accepted for development in the next release.

If you've never developed a business case, your company may have internal resources that are helpful. For example, some companies host business case development workshops and intranet resources are available. The WC3 Web Accessibility Initiative offers helpful tips for designing a customized business plan for web accessibility, which can also be applied to other technology products.

What signals success in accessibility? When it's no longer a "special issue" but rather just part of the way products are built. And it starts today!