Integrating Accessibility at the Big Design Conference

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September 10th found a few members of the Knowbility team — Community Programs Director, Jessica Looney and CTO, Bobby Brooks — just north of Dallas for the annual Big Design Conference. Their mission? To educate a room full of 80+ of Texas’s leading user experience, marketers, and web design experts on the importance of considering accessibility from the get-go.

“Our overall message in the presentation was that designers need to be integrating accessibility into their process when they’re making websites because part of the problem is that it’s often treated as an afterthought,” Jessica said. “Don’t let it be an afterthought. Let it be something that is done in the initial planning process.”

Their presentation included several videos from the W3C’s perspectives series, which you can check out on the W3C site if you haven’t yet (and you really should!). The series breaks down common accessibility issues such as contrast, image and video captioning, and keyboard controls in 1 – 2 minute, easy-to-understand segments. Bobby also introduced the crowd to tota11y, a user-friendly, highly informative bookmarklet from Khan Academy that enables users to visualize how their sites perform with assistive technologies.

Tota11y is an easy way to quickly see what is working and what might need improvement, especially for higher level executive presentations,” Bobby said.

Finally, the two rounded off the talk by discussing the merits of AccessWorks, Knowbility’s testing portal that pairs disabled users with sites to ensure the functionality of the site’s accessibility features. “Testing is equally important,” Bobby said. “Test your designs and be open or flexible enough to make changes along the way when access is limited.”

Jessica agrees. “AccessWorks is a great way to test a website because a huge part of testing is making sure that you have people with disabilities test for you,” she said. “Not only are you helping people with disabilities with employment but you’re also testing your own site to make sure it’s working effectively and that it’s accessible for the people who will use it.”

Following the presentation, Bobby and Jessica stuck around to answer individual questions from the audience, of which there were many. One of the most telling came from a woman who works in the branding and marketing department at AT&T. Recently, she’s come against some pushback from the accessibility department concerning her color choices for an icon she’s designing due to color contrast issues.

“She didn’t know what to do because nothing was passing,” Jessica said. “Naturally, she was frustrated. I think she was saying what most designers are feeling but aren’t saying out loud.”

Namely, the misconception that accessibility gets in the way of making a product, site, or icon aesthetically appealing. In reality, there are plenty of graphic options that are both aesthetically pleasing and accessible. This is why inclusive thinking from the beginning is so important — designers often don’t think there are many options because they will pick a color from the get-go without considering whether or not the color is accessible. Then, when they find out that it isn’t, they become frustrated.

“I think it’s just a retrain your brain kind of thing,” Jessica said. “Ignore this color wheel, look at this other one instead. It’s learning to approach it from a different perspective. There are just as many options, it just may not be the same options.”

Besides, whether or not designers take issue with it, the bottom line is, the accessibility department isn’t going anywhere. We’ve come so far, though, and resources such as tota11y, the W3C and AccessWorks are only making it easier for designers to learn the principles behind accessible design, as well as implement those principles in their own work.

“Designing for accessibility is really the recognition that the designer cannot control the device, nor how the audience will consume the design,” Bobby said. “That means designs need to be flexible enough to accommodate increased diversity in both to find a balance that includes everyone.”

Overall, the two declared the conference a success. But don’t take their word for it — check out this lovely (and informative!) graphic from one particularly inspired member of the audience. Way to go, guys!

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