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Incorporating Accessibility into the Development Process

Chris Teplovs, Lead DIG Developer
@cteplovs

Scott Williams, U-M Web Accessibility Coordinator
@swimsy

Mike Wojan, DIG User Experience Designer
@mtwojan

Onawa Gardiner, Marketing Specialist
@onawanna

In honor of the fifth Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), we are continuing our ongoing blog series that highlights the myriad of ways DEI incorporates accessibility into our ongoing endeavors. In the first blog post in this series, DEI Director of Policy and Operations, Mike Daniel, discussed how accessibility is at the core of DEI. Following up on this post, we as members of the Digital Innovation Greenhouse (DIG) team, along with Scott Williams, Web Accessibility Coordinator for the University, came together to discuss the importance of incorporating accessibility into the design and development process in order build technology that is universally accessible and usable by all persons.

The DIG Team sat down with Scott, who has worked with DEI to conduct evaluations and has provided suggestions to increase the accessibility of DEI initiatives, to discuss how accessibility is incorporated into each step of the development process.

“DEI is a stellar example of a department implementing accessibility top-down in the organization,” Scott said. “I met with them only a few times to get the ball rolling, and, I was overjoyed to learn that with their policies, such as captioning of MOOC content, DEI continues to serve as a great guide for the rest of the University community, as well as higher education, in regards to accessibility.”

Recently, Mike Wojan joined our team as the DIG User Experience Designer to help us deliver products that are accessible to everyone on the U-M campus through universal design. Mike engages with the user community as well as a diverse community of user experience professionals in order to continue to better understand people’s needs for design. “Implementing universal design in the earliest stages of development ensures you are creating a product flexible enough to work for everyone and that you don’t have to return to the product and make accommodations later on,” Mike said. He recently attended the week-long AccessCyberlearning Capacity Building Institute in Seattle, where he studied the role of accessible technologies in cyberlearning. “At the conference I learned about the technology used to access products by people with varying needs. It’s important for us to review the accessibility of our products with those same tools to better understand and design online experiences that meet the accessibility needs of a wide range of diverse users. I’m excited to take this valuable insight and apply it to DIG projects.”

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One of the projects that we have focused on implementing accessibility into the development process is ART 2.0.  ART 2.0 aims to provide robust data on courses and programs from past academic terms in a user-friendly format to further enable personalized and engaged learning on campus. During the development cycle for ART 2.0, we focused on ensuring the process was consistent with DIG’s guiding principles, which include a commitment to the creation of a minimum viable product coupled with rapid iteration. The first versions of ART 2.0 were made available to a small group of users within six months of the start of the development phase. These early iterations showed the range of possibilities for the product but were not particularly accessible. Throughout the iteration process, we made a concerted effort towards an accessible product, moving from using highly interactive charts to present data and complex network visualizations to more accessible implementations. For example, where possible we presented numerical values and shaded cells in a table to simulate histograms rather than using less accessible approaches, like interactive charts. We also tried to adhere to the Accessible Rich Internet Applications guidelines when creating the ART 2.0 application.

Additionally, we recently reached out to Scott to evaluate the global accessibility of the application,  who had met with DEI during the inception of ART 2.0 to discuss implementing accessibility in its production process. While evaluating ART 2.0, Scott used a variety of stand-alone accessibility tools, including assistive technology, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), as the standard to determine the accessibility of the ART 2.0 interface. He evaluated how the code was written and also observed how the content of ART 2.0  was revealed to different forms of assistive technology.

“It’s important to scrutinize the accessibility of the software during each iteration of the production cycle,” Scott emphasized. “Accessibility can’t be left as an add-on task at the end of production—which is extremely inefficient and costly. Platforms need to be designed and developed with accessibility in mind from the outset, and this is what DEI is doing.”

The DIG team, as a whole, was impressed with Scott’s thorough review of the ART 2.0 interface. His report included clear, actionable items that the team incorporated into the next iteration of the product. In some cases the suggested changes were surprising: not all icons, for example, should have “alt-text”, particularly when the information provided by the icons is repeated in the surrounding text. Through additional components that make resultant data accessible, such as increasing the accessibility of highly interactive charts that enable users to sort and filter data in ART 2.0, we strive towards greater accessibility. These Web Accessibility resources at the University are a valuable asset for software development teams to leverage while developing applications and programs.

By utilizing resources, like Scott’s expertise via the Office of Institutional Equity, on accessibility as well as following our Software Development Guiding Principles we are able to work together to integrate accessibility into the design and development of software and other initiatives. In doing so, the initiatives that we seed and scale up are able to impact a wide range of users with varying usability and accessibility needs, thereby continuing our commitment to creatively use technology and targeted experimentation with digital programs in order to enable engaged, personalized and lifelong learning for the entire Michigan community and learners around the world. To learn more about how we are helping to translate digital engagement tools from innovation to infrastructure, check out the DIG portal, or learn about our paid fellowship opportunities.