Highlights from Virtua11y , our new web accessibility conference
- Lauren Ellis
After twenty years in the web accessibility game, we figured it was about time we launched a conference dedicated solely to it. And since we still can’t all meet in person due to COVID-19, we decided to set up our fledgeling conference as a virtual event held on Zoom Webinar from 24-26th May.
Having already run both our Interact Virtual Festival and Interact Amsterdam remotely, we knew the day would go off without a hitch. But what was most surprising and delightful about Virtua11y were the thousands of people who logged in from 41 different countries and almost every continent. (We’ll get you next time, Antarctica!)
But don’t worry if you missed it. We’ve already made all the videos available on our YouTube channel so you can catch up on the week’s learning in your own time. We’d be here all day if we listed out all the excellent insights shared by our speakers, so we’ve whittled it down to a few, key takeaways. Read on to discover our best bits.
The importance of knowing your history
Our very own head of accessibility and key contributor to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), Alastair Campbell, kicked off the week’s proceedings with his talk ‘WCAG 2.2: What’s new and what to do with it’. Alastair took us through a short history of WCAG, outlined how to implement it and then set out his vision for the future of web inclusion.
Beginning with all the questions you may be afraid to ask like “what is an appropriate structure?” and “what is a content guideline?”, he then went on to ask all the ones you never thought to, like “what do antibodies and accessibility have in common?” Which, it turns out, is a lot more than you’d expect.
After a whistle stop tour through the updates rolled out in 1998, 2008 and 2018, Alastair told us what we can expect from WCAG 3.0. Half high level, half down in the weeds, the new guidance will extend the principles, guidelines and success criterion that underpin it to help meet the ever-changing challenge of the web.
The new guidelines will many iterations before it goes live in 2023, but you can get a sneak peek today by watching Alastair’s talk.
How to go beyond the guidelines
However, as Gareth Ford Williams rightly put it in his talk ‘the Little Book of Accessibility: “WCAG is a benchmark not an ambition, a foundation not an answer.” This was a repeated call to arms across the week, with speakers in every talk slot all imploring attendees to aim for more than just WCAG compliance. WCAG is an admirable and necessary resource, but it cannot be the final step.
While the guidelines are there to help everyone create inclusive products without each of them needing to do the research themselves, we need to do more than just make technical requirements appropriate and feasible. Alastair explained why the guidelines occasionally fall short.
It isn’t because of any outright failings within the guidance, but rather because of the broad range of websites, apps and digital services it has to cover. The guidelines have to be agnostic and so inevitably some user requirements or service functionalities slip through the cracks, and it’s up to us to pick up the slack.
Organisations should use WCAG as a starting point from which they then adapt or create specific guidance for their own offering. We must proactively fill in the spaces WCAG leaves out and go beyond just fixing sporadic user requirements, and instead imagine a bold new world where barriers don’t exist. Watch Gareth’s talk now to find out how.
Test to reduce time debt
That said, right now, there may still be barriers in the issues you think you’ve already solved. A digital experience may pass all the technical markers to be considered accessible, but the actual process of getting through an experience may still be time consuming or difficult for many users.
Conducting usability testing with participants with impairments is critical here because it gifts you a robust understanding of what it’s like to complete key tasks and journeys within your digital experience. But often left unrecorded are the coping mechanisms people use. We end up capturing locations, interests and physical attributes, instead of behaviours and feelings.
And even when usability testing is done well, Gareth Ford William explains: “data is not the plural of anecdote.” We may never be able to test with enough people for it to be statistically relevant, but we still need to try anyway. Testing across devices, journeys and use contexts is a good start, but we also need to ensure we tailor our research plans to make space for incomparable experiences.
Failing to do this has a real world cost. Gareth noted how it could take 20 minutes for a blind person to complete a task that might take sighted folks two minutes. Sure, the blind person made it through the task, but is the blind person now expected to work late to make up for this lost time, or are they just expected to be less productive?
It isn’t just a matter of it being inconvenient for them to use technology to do their job. This time debt mounts and makes their life harder unnecessarily, opening them up to the risk of underperforming or losing work altogether.
If you want to learn more, follow up Gareth’s talk with Gigi Etienne’s talk, Bridging the Gap Between Physical and Digital Accessibility, which explores how we can better integrate our physical spaces and online products.
Changing the way we think about accessibility
By now, all of us should know what accessibility is and why it’s important, but not all of us know what to do about it. In her talk ‘Tips to start shipping more accessible products immediately’, Chimmy Kalu gives us that crucial next step in turning aspiration into action.
It can be tempting to step back and assume that someone else in a project team will advocate for accessibility. However, Chimmy shows us that not only is our responsibility to champion it in meetings with stakeholders and include in our QA process, but there are also things we can all do. Discover your role now.
Whether you’re a writer, developer, designer or project manager, Chimmy’s talk provides a masterclass in inclusive design, with advice encompassing everything from navigation, structure, text, typography, pixels to contrast and more.
Couple this with Alicia Jarvis’s talk, Inclusion by Design, to see how you can graduate your thinking from accessible design to inclusive design. Alongside practical guidance, she shows us how we can integrate accessibility into design research, visual design, interaction design and content design.
Moving from worthy to worthwhile
In ‘The Inclusive Organisation – 21st Century Modern’, Nomensa’s CEO Simon Norris and accessibility consultant Joel Strohmeier implore us think bigger than the usual ‘accessible products are better for everyone’ argument. Building well from the beginning does indeed improve audience share as well as the universality of products, but for Simon and Joel, we need a paradigm shift to take us to the next stage in inclusive design.
To illustrate this, they invited us to a classroom in the not-so-distant future where we have fully “transcended our environment” due to the mass adoption of inclusive design practice. Instead of designing for difference, human behaviour is approached “holistically through the lens of similarity.” This resulted in a golden age where no one was barred from using technology and we were all active participants in each other’s futures.
So, how do we get to these halcyon days? Simon and Joel debated hypothetical routes forward and potential blockers, but both settled on the importance of overhauling process. There can be no such thing as an accessibility sprint. It cannot be a moral obligation or last minute tag on. Rather, Joel and Simon argue that innovation and accessibility are two of the same.
It’s imperative that we ensure that accessibility threads through all design activities and governance frameworks. The integration of these factors builds organisational capability and in turn drives consumer value and a competitive advantage for organisations. By altering everything from how we design to the way we talk about disabilities, we can begin to build a better future. But that’s just the start. Watch their full conversation to delve even deeper.
Sign up for our next free virtual event, Collaborate
It’s only been a few weeks, but we’re already awaiting our next virtual festival. Fortunately, we have another one right around the corner. So, if this blog has got you in a mood to learn in real time, you’ll be happy to know we’ve just launched Collaborate Virtual which will run from 12 - 16th July.
Take a peek at this year’s line-up and grab your ticket for free today.
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