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How anyone can gather insights for web accessibility

November 21, 2020

Last month, we looked at simple manual testing steps which can help anyone within an organization start out. This month, we’re keeping the focus on simple and beginner-friendly approaches, but with the involvement of other people.

Read "How anyone can start testing for web accessibility".

Accessibility is all about making the web for people; so there’s no better way to figure it out than by talking to people!

What are insights?

Insights are a critical piece of designing and building for people. Product design company ZURB breaks down their understanding of design insights as this:

“Design Insights are breakthroughs that reveal behavior patterns and drive bold decisions… By shedding light on behavior patterns, they can point design teams in new directions that would otherwise go unexplored. They also expose wrong decisions before it’s too late, preventing wasted time and resources.”

While ZURB’s focus is a little more pie-in-the-sky thinking around the concept of design insights, the nugget of value for any company is plain to see. Insights steer you in the right direction and help avoid wrong turns. ZURB continues by explaining that their insights come from hunches, observation, and questions. This is where the people part comes in!

Hunches, observation, and questions

If you’re part of an organization and you’ve started thinking about digital accessibility and how your company is handling it: congratulations, you’ve got one heck of a hunch. Perhaps you’ve heard a few complaints from customers or other people on your team. Maybe you yourself have run into some problems with your organization’s web presence. This could be why you found this piece (or last month’s, focused on testing) in the first place!

Combine your hunches with the results you found in testing using a keyboard, screen reader, and auditing tool(s), and you’re well on your way through the observation phase. That leaves us with questions -- so, who do we talk to and what do we ask them?

Method #1: Listen to your support team

Last month’s testing methods were wide-open for anyone with a computer and access to their company’s online material. This time, gathering insights requires one new factor: a support team.

customer support manager stands by an agent's chair, pointing to something on her screen while other agents are on headsets around them

For many tech companies, including business-to-business (B2B) platforms, mobile applications, subscription products, or more complex workflow services, customer support is very likely to be a part of the team. This can range from developers taking turns on tech support tickets, to contracted call-centre agents, to a full-service internal customer support, implementations, and white-glove account management team. For brick-and-mortar or other service companies without a complex online presence, your customer support team could be as simple as someone answering a phone at the front desk or (especially during COVID), having calls and emails forwarded to their home.

If you have any size or configuration of support team and are able to speak with them, do it! People on your team who take calls or emails from customers spend all day listening to the issues those customers face. They will know what comes up frequently, what are the biggest blockers, and what causes the most frustration.

If the support team has an adaptable ticketing process, ask if you can add questions which help gather insights around accessibility. For example, asking the customer how they are interacting with the website (eg. keyboard, mouse, touchscreen, or more specific assistive technology) can go a long way to helping focus your testing and bug-hunting.

The most important factor in asking for help from your support team is to listen and let them know how much you value their time and perspective! If you can show them the impact of their time spent helping you, that can help carry them through some of the toughest customer interactions.

Method #2: Talk to your customers

All of the manual testing, automated auditing, and speaking with your support team will get you close to simulating an assumed experience by your customers. But, it will still fall short of the real thing. That’s where talking directly with your users comes in!

young man in wheelchair sits at table with a woman holding pape

First, let’s acknowledge that not every product, team, or company has the ability to speak directly to the people consuming their goods or services. There are tools to help bridge this gap, including feedback surveys and user testing services, but these won’t work for everyone.

If you do have access to your users (whether in person, over the phone, or in the form of online survey tools) and your company does not currently solicit accessibility feedback, you are about to become a hero within your organization!

Speaking with users can result in a lot of feedback to comb through. Not all of it will be immediately helpful, but there will always be gems (or insights!) buried within. Start with a basic survey, including one or two simple questions:

  1. "How would you rate your overall experience (from 1 to 5)?"
  2. "What could we do to improve your experience?"

From there, you can iterate and improve your questions to target more meaningful feedback. Remember to pay attention not just to the obvious responses (eg. “I couldn’t use your website with a screen reader”), but also to read between the lines. For example, “I had trouble knowing which button to click” could mean an issue with contrast, colour choice, label text, iconography, user experience design, cognitive load -- really, any number of issues that could be addressed.

Part of iterating on the initial survey can involve asking customers if they would be willing to participate in feedback sessions or direct contact with you and your team. When you have the ability to ask direct, focused questions and dig further into the person’s responses, you will be amazed at the level of helpful and impactful insights you manage to collect! From my experience, you’ll frankly wonder how you ever managed to release anything to the public without engaging in this type of feedback process.

What next?

As you learn to manually test, and gather insights from support and clients, you’ll likely start catching the interest of others in your organization. Providing the key stakeholders are interested in listening to the guidance you’ve put together (and this goes a long way to building and maintaining company culture), you’ll be helping to build a more focused and invested team. Having stakeholders and the wider team on board means you’ll be closer to bringing on new help with your accessibility challenges. Depending on your organization’s size and structure, this could be in the form of ongoing audits and remediation, training sessions, or permanent internal hires to steer and maintain an accessible focus from within.

All this at the cost of a few minutes on a keyboard and a handful of conversations!

Written by

Stephen Belyea

Husband, father, habitual dork, front end developer + accessibility instigator, attempted writer, ex-pat Maritimer.

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