On a different topic, what is the best way to collaborate with a visual designer on a project? What is the best way to start a discussion about how best to approach the project as a team? Who should be responsible for what aspects of design? Who should do what work and when?
Every month in Ask UXmatters, our experts provide answers to our readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].
The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:
- Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Principal Consultant at Strategic UX; Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA); UXmatters columnist
- Steven Hoober—Mobile Interaction Designer and Owner at 4ourth Mobile; author of Designing Mobile Interfaces; UXmatters columnist
- Peter Hornsby—Web Design and UX Manager at Royal London; UXmatters columnist
- Jordan Julien—Independent Experience Strategy Consultant
- Cory Lebson—Principal UX Consultant at Lebsontech; President, User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA)
- Whitney Quesenbery—Director of the Center for Civic Design; Consultant at Whitney Interactive Design; Author and Expert at Rosenfeld Media; UXmatters columnist
- Baruch Sachs—Senior Director, User Experience, at Pegasystems; UXmatters columnist
Should a UX Team Handle Accessibility?
Q: Should user experience and accessibility be the responsibility of the same team? Some companies treat accessibility as a legal-compliance issue and don’t consider accessibility until late in the development process.—from a UXmatters reader
“Treating accessibility merely as a legal-compliance issue shows a total lack of commitment to user-centered design,” states Pabini. “We know that improving accessibility benefits all users by providing greater ease of use to everyone. Well-designed applications are both more usable and more accessible, so designing for accessibility is an inherent part of the design process. There are well-established accessibility guidelines and standards and, in many cases, applying them to our designs as a matter of course is not costly.
“Approximately 20% of all people worldwide have some sort of disability. Excluding them from using our services and buying our products does not make business sense. Nor would it allow us to fulfill our responsibility to society.
“UX teams should take responsibility for designing for accessibility throughout the UX research and design process,” concludes Pabini. “Of course, checking for legal compliance toward the end of a development cycle is necessary, too, and protects our organizations from lawsuits. That’s better handled by an accessibility expert who knows how to jump through all of the legal-compliance hoops—and who may or may not be part of the UX team. However, correcting any issues that the accessibility expert discovers should be the responsibility of the UX designers.”
“There are two levels here,” replies Peter. “The legal team within an organization has responsibility for ensuring that the organization is protected against legal action, and User Experience needs to work with these teams to agree on their accessibility objective—for example, WCAG 2.0 AA. UX teams have responsibility for the delivery of accessible Web sites and applications, and the effort to ensure accessibility needs to be built into the process way before development begins—into design and the development framework. Trust your developers—most of them are good and wise. Your developers must be your allies in the effort to develop accessible products, because accessibility is critically dependent on their writing robust, compliant code.
“You make a good point about accessibility perhaps not being the responsibility of the UX team! Work closely with your test team. It’s a bad idea to test your own work, so work with your test team to ensure that everyone shares a good understanding of what makes sites and applications accessible and is aware of the automated tools that are available for testing accessibility, which can reduce your testers’ workload.”
Keep Accessibility in Mind at Crucial Points in the Design Process
“This is another one of those questions whose best answer is The Simpsons’ ‘short answer: Yes, with an if; long answer: No, with a but,’” says Jordan. “So, the short answer is yes, accessibility and user experience should be the responsibility of the same team. This assumes that you assign some responsibility for both user experience and accessibility to the entire product team—from strategists to designers to developers. I think user experience and accessibility suffer from the same misconception that one particular person—or department—should accept total responsibility for that component of a project. In fact, different aspects of user experience and accessibility are the responsibility of various roles in most organizations. Some larger organizations have a single group whose primary responsibility is accessibility. If this group exists, there should be processes in place to ensure that they get included in projects at the right time.
“If, as you mentioned, an organization treats accessibility as a legal-compliance issue, there are several W3C regional accessibility guidelines that speak to achieving compliance. Certain accessibility considerations may impact product strategy, information architecture, interaction design, usability, visual design, and even the way a development team creates and formats the code. So, in the same way that a packaging designer wouldn’t forget to designate a place for a UPC code, software and product designers need to understand the implications of achieving accessibility compliance.”
Jordan refers readers to the “Web Content Accessibility Guidelines,” on the Web Accessibility Initiative Web site for additional information. To find out more about sharing responsibilities across product teams, Pabini suggests that you read her UXmatters article, “Sharing Ownership of UX.”
“Accessibility should absolutely be the responsibility of a UX team—if you have someone who knows the nuances of accessibility,” answers Baruch. “However, you really cannot create an application or product that is completely usable, modern, and clean without its inherently being accessible. Designing for user experience is inclusive of all user groups—and that includes people who need to use assistive technologies or even just want the ability to personalize their experience so they can better use a product. This means that a UX team cannot consider accessibility only late in the development process. Not all of user experience is accessibility, but all of accessibility is part of user experience.”
Go Beyond the Letter of the Law
“I would expect the same team to cover both user experience and accessibility, because it’s important to propose an accessible design that is feasible and would make logical sense to the subset of the overall user group that relies on a product’s accessibility,” responds Cory. “That said, the UX unicorn does not exist, so there may be accessibility experts who do not have any other significant UX skills, and that is okay. These experts may or may not be part of the same workgroup as those who are responsible for other aspects of user experience. Regardless of where accessibility experts may reside within a company—or despite the fact that they may be external contractors—it is important that they work closely with the UX team when they are strategizing, designing, and evaluating a design for accessibility.
“Treating accessibility as a legal-compliance issue is okay if it provides the justification for making a Web site or application accessible—as long as organizations are willing to understand and follow the spirit of the accessibility laws, not just observe the letter of the law and do the bare minimum. Regardless of an organization’s lens on legal compliance—and like any aspect of UX research and design—thinking about accessibility only late in the development process would make problems more difficult to fix than they would have been earlier on.”