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Is your SaaS accessible to your entire market?
Accessibility is at once a compliance issue, business issue, and philosophical approach to building software. Dave Hale, co-founder of full-service web production company Craft&Crew, merges all these concepts and more into his work. Speaking with SAAS NORTH, Dave shared his practical take on accessibility for SaaS founders.
- Accessibility starts with compliance, but bridges into good user experience and a philosophical commitment to building an inclusive organization.
- The best accessibility testing is when you run user tests with people who actually need the accommodation to see if it delivers the desired outcome.
- You need to ensure accessibility throughout any integrations or third parties you work with.
Accessibility requires iteration and improvement over time, just like any software project.
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Accessibility has been a hot button issue for decades, continually evolving alongside technology. But Dave Hale, the co-founder of full-service web production company Craft&Crew, sees a problem: compliance with accessibility laws is not true accessibility. Instead, he thinks companies need to take a different approach. Speaking with SAAS NORTH, Dave shared his advice on how founders can think about accessibility in practical terms.
THE 5 PILLARS OF SOFTWARE ACCESSIBILITY
When discussing accessibility in technology, you’re likely to hear a few different kinds of comments: some say it’s simply good user experience practices. Others talk about it like a compliance action. Others still might bring it up as a team project like any other.
In reality, it’s a little bit of everything. For Dave, accessibility has five distinct levels that all technology builders need to know.
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1. ACCESSIBILITY IS A COMPLIANCE ACTIVITY:
Depending on where your business is located or operates, you will be subject to different accessibility laws such as the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) or the global W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).
Building toward the required checklists is an activity in avoiding fines, negative publicity, or customer complaints. Much like requiring encryption for cybersecurity protocols, this activity is as much about avoiding financial liability as it is building a baseline of customer trust. But that doesn’t mean you’ve built a truly accessible product.
“Even meeting baseline international standards is not actually accessible,” said Dave. “This is the bare minimum.”
2. ACCESSIBILITY IS A BUSINESS WIN:
Over 20% of Canadians – around seven million people – have some form of disability, according to Statistics Canada. This means that designing with accessibility in mind opens up a massive, underserved market of customers with disposable income, time to use technology, and often a need for technology to help them in their daily lives.
“The disability community dwarves other minority communities in size,” said Dave.
On top of the strict market argument, most accessibility principles align with good UX principles: building a technology platform that is intuitive and easy to use for users. When you bake accessibility into UX, you end up with a higher quality product that’s more intuitive for all users regardless of ability.
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3. ACCESSIBILITY IS A PHILOSOPHICAL COMMITMENT:
The third concept starts with thinking about what a business owes its customers and what type of business a founder wants to build. If someone says they want to build an inclusive business – or even just build a product that can reach the maximum number of customers – then accessibility must be included.
“You need to think about your commitment to building a diverse, equitable business,” said Dave.
Building with a philosophical approach to accessibility also brings an important piece into the technology building mix: lived experience testing.
While compliance gives you a checklist of basics, user testing an accessibility feature with people who actually need that feature will give you the real-life checkmark of if your product actually delivers the outcome it’s supposed to.
4. ACCESSIBILITY IS A SUPPLY CHAIN ISSUE
Beyond building an inclusive or accessible product yourself, true accessibility requires an audit of your supply chain and third-party partners.
For example, take an app that allows plugins to extend functionality or integrates with third parties for an explicit feature. If someone is using the core functionality of the app, it will be accessible because you built it. However, if your plugin or integration partner didn’t build with accessibility in mind, that feature set becomes inaccessible.
While you may not have complete control over third parties, it becomes a problem for you and your brand because the inaccessible feature is technically within your platform. Setting accessibility standards within your organization and holding partners to them becomes a critical step to ensuring the business, compliance, and philosophical approaches to accessibility remain true for your business.
“You need to look for ethical practices through the whole supply chain,” said Dave.
5. ACCESSIBILITY IS NOT ABOUT FLIPPING A SWITCH
Like all software building, accessibility is not about flipping a switch. This is especially true if you are adding accessibility features onto an existing product. Taking an accessibility lens to technology is iterative and happens over time.
This doesn’t mean you can be lazy and wait on critical features – that’s where the business mindset comes in of getting features shipped for your customers. Instead, it’s about building a longer term roadmap that explicitly addresses inaccessibility in existing features and builds accessibility into new features or products from day one.
“I’m not expecting an organization to flick a switch overnight and all of a sudden be radically different,” said Dave. “I’m interested in impact assessment: baseline, work being done on a regular basis, progress being made to desired end state.”
NOT BEING ACCESSIBLE IS PILING ON TECH DEBT
In Dave’s work with Craft&Crew, he’s seen enterprises with a small problem that exploded.
For instance, making PDFs accessible. For a global corporation with dozens of products and operating in different languages, it’s not uncommon for a website to contain one million PDF files or more. Even if it only took one minute per PDF to make it accessible, that’s 45 years’ worth of work to be done. Technology can thankfully accelerate (or at least automate) these processes, but it’s still a significant amount of work for one task in a list of dozens or hundreds.
This kind of problem is a result of the tech debt piled on when you ignore accessibility. It also leads to a more harrowing question Dave has had to ask clients in the past: do we have to completely rip and rebuild this system in order to make it accessible?
In accessibility, much like in insurance, there’s a question of whether something is more expensive to maintain than replace. It’s something all founders need to ask themselves when thinking about how expensive accessibility-related tech debt truly is.
Ignoring accessibility might feel like the easy and cheap decision, but it often leads to a situation where you have to rebuild your entire platform from scratch to meet regulatory requirements, customer demands, or your own philosophical commitment to business building.