Building accessible services: Our experiences from Zaizi’s Accessibility Day

Life increasingly takes place in a digital space. Much of our work, learning and even social lives taking place online. But according to the UK government at least 1 in 5 people living in the UK report a long term illness, impairment or disability that can put them at a risk of digital exclusion. That’s why it’s so important that new digital products and services have been designed to be accessible and meet the needs of all users – including disabled people and those who depend on assistive technologies. 

Accessibility isn’t just a ‘nice to have’. Since September 2018, public sector bodies have to comply with new accessibility regulations which say you must make your website or mobile app “perceivable, operable, understandable and robust”. Zaizi works with a lot of public sector clients, so we’ve been thinking about ways to ensure that the services we build are accessible.

Without impairments, it can sometimes be difficult to consider what the user experience of using one of our websites can feel like

Henry Wood, Senior Frontend Developer, Zaizi

So what is accessibility? 

Building accessible services can mean a lot of things. At its heart it’s about making sure that the things you make are clear and simple enough that most people can use it. But it also means that what you make supports those who need to adapt it. Think of a user with a visual impairment who might read using a screen reader, or want their content in large print or in audio form. Or a user with motor difficulties who might use a special mouse or speech recognition software. Or even a user who is experiencing what’s known as conditional or situational disability (for instance, they’re in a noisy or poorly lit place). 

There’s a growing repository of information about accessible services online, with resources like W3C collecting best practice approaches to accessibility. We always try to test with users with a broad range of experiences and abilities. But it’s always a good idea to try to put yourself in the shoes of your user. For Zaizi’s first Accessibility Day, we decided to do exactly that. One Friday in October, volunteers from our company – including developers, designers, product managers and business analysts – got on with their day to day tasks with a simulated impairment. Some simulated blindness or deafness, using a blindfold or earplugs. Others worked with only one arm, or without access to their mouse or trackpad. 

Designing accessible services

“Without impairments, it can sometimes be difficult to consider what the user experience of using one of our websites can feel like. This means that it becomes easier for new features to be released without accessibility in mind,” says Henry Wood, the senior frontend developer who set up accessibility day. “Because of this I felt that one of the most important aspects of improving accessibility at Zaizi would simply be awareness.” 

By understanding how users with impairments and disabilities experience our tools and websites, we plan to start an internal conversation about how we might do things better.

The Zaizi team’s experiences

Yousuf Goni, Business Analyst

Simulated impairment: One hand

I’ve previously delivered one-to-one IT training to delegates with special needs, but this was a good opportunity to get a sense of what it might be like to live with a disability and track its impact upon my work. I’m a new starter at Zaizi, and my day was filled with the reading of new policy documents and some scheduled chats with new colleagues. I worked all day just using my dominant right hand. While it didn’t stop me from being able to do these activities, it could be challenging and frustrating. I can certainly see how it could slow me down when doing some tasks, such as typing up notes. 

It could be challenging and frustrating… I can certainly see how it could slow me down

During the pandemic, many organisations like Zaizi have adapted to remote working using collaborative digital tools. I think in some cases these could make working with one hand easier. Video call recording functions help you transcribe at your own pace. Mural replaces the need for physical flip charts and stands you have to lug from room to room. I found the whole experience humbling, powerful and enlightening.

Louis Pattison, Content Designer 

Simulated impairment: Blindness

I start off by visiting the accessibility page in my MacBook’s preferences and enabling VoiceOver. This lets you control your computer using the keyboard, and gives you spoken descriptions of items on your screen. I run into problems immediately. I’ve kept the username and password of a prototype on a sticky note on my desktop, and before I know it, it’s been read out loud. Luckily I’m in my home office and none of this is confidential information. But it’s an immediate wake-up call that this will be a new experience for me. 

There’s a very steep learning curve and I find the effect of being talked at constantly quite tiring

Using a tutorial, I started to learn how to navigate my screen. You set a key as the Voiceover Modifier – I chose Caps Lock – and then used it to turn the other keys on your laptop into commands. There’s a lot of information to take in. It feels a bit like trying to commit a shopping list to memory. In an hour or two I’ve learned enough to write an email and post a Slack message while blindfolded. But it’s hard going. I might get used to it if I used this every day. But there’s a very steep learning curve. The effect of being talked at constantly is quite tiring.

As a content designer, a big part of my job is making text as clear as possible. It really drives home the importance of clear copy – wasted words are wasted time, and when you’re trying to build accessible services that’s so important.

Derek Hulley, Head of Engineering

Simulated impairment: Colour blindness

I used an extension called Colorblindly that let me experiment with various types of settings that simulate visual impairments. Fortunately a lot of my role involves browser-based apps – it would have been more difficult to apply to integrated development environments (IDEs). I was able to get everything done, although there were a few instances where the colours made a difference. Using some settings, it can be hard to discern between certain colours – telling two shades of post-it apart can be very difficult. Luckily, most of the sites I use have a clear dark/light functionality, and most applications have other visual clues such as icons or positioning. You could get used to it. 

As long as there’s an open dialogue and a willingness in the team you can find a way round it

I’ve worked with people who are colour blind, and I’ve worked with people who have more serious visual impairments. I’ve been through the pain of having to refactor an application to make it compliant, and I’ve worked with visually impaired developers and seen how they cope. It’s all about awareness. As long as there’s an open dialogue and a willingness in the team you can find a way round it.

Kelly Wharton, User Researcher

Simulated impairment: Deafness

To simulate my impairment I muted my MacBook. For this day in particular, I felt lucky it was a Friday – a day which I have few meetings on. Despite this, I quickly found that even quite simple tasks had become difficult. I watched my colleague’s ‘Chat with Nat’ video on LinkedIn and tried searching for a closed captions setting. It turns out closed captions on LinkedIn require a separate file upload from the content creator, so I couldn’t watch it. The same thing happened when I tried to watch a product walkthrough video that had been created by my colleagues. 

I am pleased to see platforms such as TikTok encouraging and enabling easy closed captioning

I’m a researcher, and I work in an area where including people with access needs is common. It was eye opening that even the simplest of tasks couldn’t be completed quickly without action from content creators – or a lot of extra effort from my side. Despite this, I am pleased to see platforms such as TikTok encouraging and enabling easy close captioning. That’s something which I hope will spread across more social media platforms and digital products.

Duncan Whitham, Lead Software Developer

Simulated impairment: Motor impairment

This task required me to work without the use of a mouse or trackpad. My first thought was: ‘What can be so hard about this? I’ll just use keyboard shortcuts.’ As it turns out I was at best, over optimistic. At worst, just plain wrong. I am a bit of a philistine when it comes to my input setup. A mouse is mandatory, as it can’t misunderstand any of my ‘gestures’, which trackpads seem to do. 

My productivity took a nosedive and my stress levels rocketed

The day begins, and I know how to tab through the apps running on my Mac. Easy. Oh, hang on – how do I switch between tabs to get the correct one in Chrome? I’ll just open a new tab and Google it… oh no I won’t, as I don’t know the shortcut. Catch 22. 

I think I lasted about an hour before my frustration became insurmountable and I reconnected my mouse. I guess with practice I would have become more proficient, but as it stood, my productivity took a nosedive and my stress levels rocketed. What did I learn? My work setup is more complicated than I had realised. Removing a key input device hobbled me to an unexpected degree. I had a very quick glimpse into the problems experienced by people with impairments. I hope that has humbled me.

Look out for a future blog when we’ll be taking away our learnings from accessibility day and talking about how we can adopt more accessible ways of working, and create more accessible services and products.

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