Innovation and accessibility in user experience design


One of the defining features of the industry we work in is that innovation is all around us - there's an ocean of clever brains out there working hard to solve a myriad of problems, and we are constantly awash with new technologies, new programming frameworks, new networks and new ways of doing things.

Much of the 'innovation' that goes on across all parts of Technophobia is in learning about and evaluating new technologies, and deciding which ones to take into production. Still more involves working out how best to use a particular technology in a given situation.

One such technology is ARIA - Accessible Rich Internet Applications, which is a method of describing website interactions in a way that is readable by screen readers used by the blind and visually impaired.

ARIA is a specification published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the body responsible for managing the core programmatic definitions of the web, and is in the process of becoming a core standard (to be pedantically precise, it's currently a 'candidate specification'). It has been around in one form or another since 2008, and is now standard practice in our design process for a large portion of website projects we work on.

I spoke to Kevin Rapley, one of our senior designers, the other day to ask him how we are implementing ARIA nowadays and what kind of interactions we're translating into speech. Here's what he said:

"We're using ARIA to say things like 'ok, this is a progress bar - this is where we are within a certain transaction, and this is how much of the process we've completed so far'... We're doing other things as well, such as 'modal dialogues', so if we have some important information that needs to be raised to the user, a sighted user would get an overlay window with some information, which they'd then have to dismiss. A screen-reader needs to know that this new information has been brought to [the user's] attention, but also not lose their current place within the content. So what we need to do is say 'Ok, this element is a modal dialog. You need to deal with this content now. All the focus is on this particular part, and we're going to push back the original content until it's dismissed.' Once it has been dismissed, the screen reader will feedback that it's now out of the way and we're back where we were within the content."

All this of course needs to be thought about and designed in, and it's a kind of quality that isn't immediately obvious to most people when looking at a website. But it's crucial - not just to users of screen readers, but legally too. As organisations increasingly move towards a 'digital-first' philosophy I think we can expect stronger interpretation and policing of the requirements laid out in the Disability Discrimination Act. Added to which the promotion of an open and inclusive web is a valuable good in itself, and also one reason why mobile websites will maintain an important role alongside native mobile apps, as they are able to take advantage of standardised accessibility technologies that native apps often are not.

And it's how all that 'innovation' work manifests itself in practice.

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