Best practices for making software more accessible

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Nearly 49 million U.S. consumers with disabilities face unique challenges accessing products, services and information, and if software providers don’t consider these needs in their development process, they are all but sending them to a competitor who does.

No matter the end product, if a business doesn’t address accessibility during its software development and testing, it’s losing out on an opportunity to engage with more customers. Beyond that, while accessibility standards are mandatory only for certain industries—aviation and government among them—all businesses have the responsibility to make their products accessible to everyone.

The process does not have to be daunting. New guidelines are being released that clearly spell out how to make products easier to use for all audiences, regardless of where they fall on the spectrum of abilities. The key is to implement these guidelines from the beginning of the product lifecycle, but there’s never a bad time to start incorporating them into the development process.

Best accessibility practices include the following:

Start with education and awareness
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act lays out rules that hold government entities and select industries to mandatory accessibility standards. If not followed, hefty fines may result. Companies should also be aware of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which provide a comprehensive, technology-agnostic set of best practices to help businesses optimize their products for a wide range of abilities. The most recent set, WCAG 2.1, is on the verge of release, so companies looking to get started have a perfect window of opportunity.

A first step is to make all departments aware of these guidelines and to develop a set of checklists to ensure future product releases are WCAG compliant. The guidelines should be reflected in every part of the development and product update process and should be followed for every new release.

Be as proactive as possible
Once the organization has gained some familiarity with the government’s guidelines, it should begin adapting its products as soon as possible, but keep in mind that not all changes need to be made at once. Simple fixes can ensure greater compliance going forward, and product and website audits by a trained consultant can help identify areas for further improvement.

Keep in mind, though, that It’s always easier to ensure that a product is accessible if it is developed with standards in mind from the start.

Experience your product like all of your users
The companies that are the most serious and diligent about accessibility train all of their developers in how to apply these accessibility guidelines.

App developers, for example, who are designing a product to be accessible by those with vision and hearing loss, should receive training in assistive technologies, like audio screen readers for the visually impaired and closed captioning for those with hearing difficulties. This often creates greater empathy with these users, which leads to more innovative features with their needs in mind.

Product testing should include these various assistive technologies to ensure that the accessibility features are working as intended. And products should be periodically re-evaluated post-release to ensure they remain compliant and accessible to the widest possible audience.

Whatever avenue is taken, choosing to invest in making a product more accessible doesn’t just open the door to more users; it also inculcates an organization with more open and inclusive values. Ignoring these best practices, on the other hand, only ensures that a product will not be taken up by millions of potential customers.

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