Get practical tips for improving accessibility in your digital services from this episode featuring Eficode UX and Accessibility Lead Annika, who discusses the technical aspects of accessibility, meeting minimum standards, the necessity of manual testing alongside automated tools, and more. Join in the conversation at The DEVOPS Conference in Copenhagen and Stockholm and experience a fantastic group of speakers.

Annika (0:00:06): You have to take accessibility requirements, different kinds of user needs into account from the very beginning. 

Marc (0:00:21): Welcome to DevOps Sauna Season 4, the podcast where technology meets culture and security is the bridge that connects them. I'm happy to be back in the DevOps Sauna. We have a very special guest today, Annika Valtari. Hi, Annika. 

Annika (0:00:48): Hi, Marc. It's nice to be here. 

Marc (0:00:51): It's super cool to have you in the sauna. I've got my usual cohort, Darren Richardson. 

Darren (0:00:56): Afternoon. 

Marc (0:00:57): Good afternoon. We have a really important topic today, and I'm really excited to get into this with you both. And the topic today is on accessibility. Annika, I believe that you started in user experience and then moved to accessibility. So how long have you been in these lines of work now? 

Annika (0:01:18): Yeah, as you said, I started in user experience and in usability around 16 years ago. 

Marc (0:01:25): Wow.

Annika (0:01:26): And then accessibility also became an important part of my work around 10 years ago.

Marc (0:01:34): Can you open up a little bit about that journey? So what led you into accessibility and how did it start and what were the early steps for you? 

Annika (0:01:43): Well, I was actually only in one accessibility project around 10 years ago. And after that, my boss asked if I wanted to give a training to a customer about web accessibility. And I said yes. So then I just had to study what accessibility was all about so that I could actually train the customer. So that's really the story how it went. 

Marc (0:02:10): I just want to point out, so the time of recording here is spring of 2024. So that would be companies taking interest in and training on accessibility in their websites in 2014. 

Annika (0:02:24): Yes. 

Marc (0:02:24): I think that's fantastic. And I wonder how many companies are not even considering this yet or are coming really slowly to the game. 

Annika (0:02:34): There are still so many companies. 

Marc (0:02:38): And no shame in that, but we hope that we can help many people by gaining some understanding here. So could you tell us, Annika, a bit about what is accessibility and why is it important? 

Annika (0:02:50): Well, basically accessibility is about equality. So making all the information and all the web services and their functionalities usable and available to all different kinds of users. For example, regardless of the skills or the knowledge or the abilities that the users have. And why is it so important? Well, of course, why wouldn't you want to serve all your users and all of your customers equally? Of course, you're going to lose customers if you're not going to serve them well enough. 

Darren (0:03:27): And there's this idea that you have accessibility, but you also have user experience. And maybe you can help us draw a line between these two and how presumably accessibility goes beyond user experience. But how it does that and any structures involved there, how it affects user experience to have these accessibility tools. 

Annika (0:03:47): Well, yeah, accessibility is actually a very important part of user experience. User experience covers, for example, usability, for example, the ease of use and then also the accessibility. So enabling usage for all the users. And accessibility and usability often go hand in hand. They support each other and they both affect the user experience positively. For example, if you're able to use the website, it's easy to use. It's pleasant to use. Of course, that's going to result in a better user experience. But there are also some differences between accessibility and usability and how they affect the user experience. When it comes to accessibility, the technical accessibility, if you've heard about the WCAG criteria, so Web Content Accessibility Guidelines criteria, most of those criteria are very technical. And the purpose of those criteria is to make sure that people who have different abilities or who use different assistive technologies, that they are able to use the website and its contents and its functionalities. So WCAG criteria are only the minimum level that you should take into account. They do not ensure that your website would actually be easy or pleasant to use to any user. So you can never forget about the usability point of view if you want to serve your users well and provide a good user experience. 

Darren (0:05:33): So what you're saying is they kind of go hand in hand, neither really replacing or supplanting the other, but both need to be considered. 

Annika (0:05:40): Yes, they always go hand in hand, but both always need to be considered if you want to actually serve your customers well. 

Marc (0:05:50): And there's an interesting thing here, which if we're adding accessibility features later, it may result in changes to things like layouts. It might even go deeper in terms of changes to frameworks. It might not have the right enablers for accessibility and things like this. And we always talk about shift left in DevOps. And we think about it usually in terms of giving developers more responsibility and cognitive load than they can handle without giving them the tools or enablers for that. But let's set that aside at the moment and say if we shift left in design user experience, accessibility especially, then we can make sure that we have not only technology choices that will enable accessibility features, but also have a good user experience up front to make sure that it's accessible and usable by everyone. 

Annika (0:06:46): Accessibility is something that should be taken into account from the very beginning, from that point when you have an idea about a new web service or, for example, a mobile app. You have to take accessibility requirements, different kinds of user needs into account from the very beginning. And design the kind of a system that actually meets those needs. 

Darren (0:07:11): This is kind of interesting for me because we say the same in DevOps. We say the same in security, that all these things need to be taken into account from the beginning. How do you think that contributes to this idea of cognitive overload where you have developers, they have an idea. All they know is they want to implement their idea. And then maybe accessibility comes down on them and says this has to be accessible from the start. Security comes down on them and says this has to be secure from the start. And DevOps comes down on them and says this has to be flowing through pipelines from the start. Do you think there's a contribution to the cognitive load there? 

Annika (0:07:50): Well, of course, it might mean more cognitive load. But if the developers have enough knowledge about accessibility, how it should be taken into account in their own work, it shouldn't add that cognitive load at all. Because it's very simple at the end. If you know what you're doing, it should be very easy to take into account. 

Darren (0:08:16): Okay, so it shouldn't add too much of that. I'm mostly thinking in terms of startup companies who may not have the developers for involving all of these and are working on getting minimum viable products out the door. 

Annika (0:08:30): Yeah, that might, of course, be true. But if you get good developers who are aware of accessibility, it really shouldn't be that much of work. And if you think about bigger companies, if they have a design system, if you design and implement accessible functionalities and components in your design system, that's going to save a lot of money and work. All of the different projects and digital services who exploit the design system. 

Marc (0:09:00): I think about this in a couple of terms. One is training to raise the awareness. And I think that that's something that any level of company can certainly benefit from, but especially established SMEs up to enterprises. People should have the training and the awareness. But then on the other side, it's if our design team is working on good, clear, testable designs early, it's just going to save development time, money, and cognitive load later. Because everybody's going to know exactly what they're building to. It's going to have gotten customer feedback or all the different types of testing that you can do with a design. And it's also going to have the benefits of being accessible. 

Annika (0:09:48): Exactly. So, basically, user-centered design is the key also to accessibility. Thinking about the different kinds of user needs, how to actually take those into account when you design and develop those services, and also involving real end users in the process. Interviewing them, actually finding out about the different kinds of needs, wishes that they have, and also testing with the end users. Those are very good methods in ensuring both accessibility and usability. 

Marc (0:10:23): So, let's get into opening up a little bit about the importance of accessibility. And, you know, I think that there's a few different things. First, if we talk about people that actually have impairments. So, would you like to talk a little bit about, maybe you have some stories about helping people with different impairments be able to access services? 

Annika (0:10:45): Yeah, of course. Many people might not think about it that digital services, and especially accessible digital services, are actually important enablers for many users. If you think about, for example, a blind person, he's not able to read a newspaper, a regular, like, paper newspaper. But if you have an accessible news online site, a blind person is able to read all the news that he wants with a screen reader on the accessible website. So, that's a very important enabler for the blind person. Or another example, for example, a paralyzed person might have trouble going to a grocery store. But if you have an accessible online grocery shop with home delivery, that's a perfect solution. And he can do grocery shopping by himself without the help of an assistant, for example. 

Marc (0:11:49): And I think it would surprise our listeners, I'm always surprised to know, how prevalent colorblindness is, and what a big problem that this can be for a fair percentage of the population. 

Annika (0:12:03): Yeah, and actually in Finland, around 8% of males are colorblind. So, that's a lot of people, and only in Finland. And I know that, for example, one member of our team is colorblind. And at work, we use this project management Excel spreadsheet that has color coding for different stages of the project. And those color codings are actually very hard for him to understand. Like, tell apart the projects that are actually already ongoing, or that have an unsure schedule. So, it would be important also to take accessibility into account for your own employees, and make sure that they are able to do their job well, without help of others. 

Darren (0:13:00): We're still quite surprised by the 8% of Finnish men having colorblindness. That's a surprisingly large statistic. 

Annika (0:13:10): Yes, that is. And actually, around 20% of people in Finland have some kind of a disability. So, that's also a lot of people. It's around 1.2 million people in Finland who actually need accessible web services on a daily basis. 

Darren (0:13:30): Yeah, and when we start talking like that, it becomes clear that it's not, I think it might be an easy mentality for some people to drop into, that it's like a minority use case, that it's not important because it affects so few people. But when we start talking about 20%. 

Annika (0:13:46): That's not a minority anymore. 

Darren (0:13:48): That's a considerably large portion of the population that requires some kind of assistive technologies in these cases. 

Annika (0:13:57): Yes, and that's why we cannot forget about accessibility if we want to get customers. It's really an important competitive advantage nowadays, if you actually take accessibility into account and serve all the different kinds of customers equally. 

Darren (0:14:15): And on that subject, there's a couple of things I think we could discuss here, which are about what's being done at a level, say, above us. Because we can only affect what's happening on a company scale, but what about legislation? What about legal requirements? How are they moving forward? 

Annika (0:14:32): Well, there's a lot of legislation related to accessibility, even nowadays. The first EU Act was actually EU Web Accessibility Act, which, for example, concerns all the public sector organizations and also, for example, banks and insurance companies in Finland. And legislation related to this EU Web Accessibility Act, it concerns different kinds of web services, websites, mobile applications, and so on. And while these requirements have already been applied for some years, so I think that the public sector has already done a lot of work in accessibility. And also, I know that many banks and insurance companies, especially in Finland, where the legislation has actually required accessibility for a couple of years now, have also done a lot of work for accessibility. But now there's this newer EU Act, it's called EU Accessibility Act, and it is going to concern various consumer products and services next year. These services include, for example, e-commerce, so basically all the online shops, AV media services, e-books, passenger transport services, and so on. And actually, all of these organizations who provide these services or products have around one year of time to take accessibility into account. The deadline is in June 2025, and that's already quite close. So all of these organizations should now at the latest start taking accessibility into account and start thinking about how to fix their services and products, and how to develop their internal processes in the future to make sure that accessibility is actually taken into account at every step of the way. I think so. And of course, many of these organizations have already woken up. They have, for example, contacted Eficode's UX research team. They have ordered accessibility audits and trainings because they want to know what they have to do now. They only have one year left to make all the needed accessibility fixes. And that's also a very, very good thing from the organization's point of view, and also from the end user's point of view, that legislation has really made these organizations understand what accessibility is about. 

Marc (0:17:29): Will there be any self-certification documents that are required for this type of compliance, or is it something whereby, do we know anything about how that would be enforced? So my guess would be that somebody might need to self-certify, or somebody in the compliance department would have to say that this is something that we need to meet. And if they don't, then some person who might just randomly be checking websites might come and say, aha, I found something that's not compliant. 

Annika (0:17:58): Yes, it is being supervised, like which web services meet the requirements and which are not. So I know some organizations have gotten this kind of feedback that says that they have some serious accessibility issues, and they need to fix them in some period of time. And there's this accessibility statement that needs to be provided on your web service that actually should state if you have any accessibility issues at the moment. But all of these issues should still be fixed, even though that you list them on the accessibility statement. So they cannot be listed on the statement for forever. You have to actively fix the issues and try to be better every day. 

Marc (0:18:57): I think Malcolm Gladwell's term was mavens, and those are the people that go out looking for this kind of thing and then will be calling companies out when they have things that are either broken or not referenced or something like that. But let's put ourselves in the spotlight for a moment. So Eficode, and thanks to people like Annika, we have had a lot of experience in user experience and accessibility for a long time. We've helped a lot of companies. Annika, how do you think Eficode is doing in our website as far as accessibility is concerned? 

Annika (0:19:33): I think we're doing all right on our public websites, for example, Our UX research team has made also some work on improving the website accessibility, and it's on an all right level, I could say. But then I know that, for example, some internal services might not be as accessible as they should be. And that's also something that we and also other organizations should take into account also in the future. So not just the public services, but also the internal services. 

Darren (0:20:17): Is that something that's likely to be mandated by these accessibility acts? 

Annika (0:20:20): Some of them have been actually included in these EU acts. For example, intranets and extranets of public sector organizations are included in the requirements. Then there's also other legislation that actually requires the employer to provide accessible enough services for their own employees. 

Marc (0:20:47): So there's a lot of resources that are available. For example, has the 30 web accessibility tips. There's Yale's website, has some articles and checklists for developers in terms of accessibility. And there's no avoiding the fact that most people, especially people in decision-making areas of companies, should know that accessibility is important, plus all of the news. And one in five people in Finland, for example, may be having accessibility needs. But, you know, why aren't all companies working on this or we're doing our best here to help educate, but why is it so difficult to make sure that all of the companies come out and actually take care of things for their users with impairments? 

Annika (0:21:42): I think it's still about the lack of awareness. It's just something that they have not thought of for some reason. Because there's a lot of information available, a lot of good training and materials online, but I guess there's still lack of awareness. 

Darren (0:22:01): Do you think there's some unclearness in where the responsibility may lie? Like it's easy to draw the line of a developer develops, security does security, but it seems like accessibility is not falling onto anyone's lap. 

Annika (0:22:15): Yeah, but it should have clear responsibilities in the organization, like who is responsible for the accessibility, but it's not easy because actually it requires a lot of cooperation between different roles in the organization. But, for example, a product owner, it's someone who should also be responsible for the product's accessibility, but that's not enough. He should know like what kinds of actions are needed to actually fulfill those requirements. But a lot of other roles also have their own responsibilities. Designers, developers, content producers, testers, they all need to know what accessibility is about and how to take accessibility account in their own work. They have their own responsibilities that they should be aware of. 

Darren (0:23:10): So a bit of a question out of left field maybe, but when we're dealing with pipelines, we have various automated tools for testing code, for testing security, for testing everything we need to. Are there any automated toolkits for testing accessibility, for example, like website accessibility testing? 

Annika (0:23:29): Yes, there are actually a lot of good automated tools for testing accessibility, but unfortunately automated tools cannot test everything. They can test code related accessibility issues, but not content related issues, for example. So they can test around 50% of accessibility criteria. And of course they should always be exploited in your projects because they actually provide a very good, helpful tool for testing accessibility. But manual testing is also always required because automated tools, they cannot, for example, test if some... They can test if an image has an alt text, but they cannot test if the alt text is actually descriptive and good. 

Darren (0:24:22): Okay. I'm wondering now if this is actually something that's going to be at least partly solved with the use of AI. I mean, AI, we already know can make images out of descriptive text. So generating an image, matching it with the alt text, and then seeing whether the generated image or the image you give to it is identified in such a way, or even just using AI tools to generate alt text instead of having it manually generated for relevance. That's maybe an avenue that should be explored. 

Annika (0:24:56): Yeah. I know that, for example, ChatGPT can actually provide quite good alt text for at least in English. So AI can describe images very well nowadays. And I know that AI can also produce quite accessible code in some cases, if you know how to prompt it, how to actually get everything out of the AI tool. So it's something that's going to be helpful in the future. Also for the content producers, not just the developers. 

Marc (0:25:29): I really like this mixture here, because to me, having tools that will do the baseline verification, you know, that show that something is completely missing. I think in an automated way in our pipelines, I think that's really important. And then on the other side, you know, I hope that this talking about accessibility also helps software teams and R&D managers and whatnot to understand that doing more design driven development will actually solve a lot of problems up front, rather than trying to figure out that, okay, we didn't have accessibility measures here in certain areas of our site or our application. And now it's going to affect layouts. It might affect, you know, even localization and other types of things as things have to change in order to be able to make something accessible that wasn't designed that way to start with. 

Annika (0:26:20): Yeah, that sounds about right. 

Marc (0:26:22): This reminded me of a story that in the early 90s, when I was starting my professional career, I worked for a place called Capital Radio Telephone. It was one of the oldest mobile telephone companies before cellular when mobile phones had rotary dials and vacuum tubes. And anyway, the son of the owner had autism and he was visually impaired. And he, of course, had a few really amazing talents. But about the same time that the Internet was cranking up in 1995, the owner called me and said, could I come and help? Actually, it was his brother to set up some tools for his computer. And the tool was called Speakualizer. And the way that once we got it up and running, and this is Windows 3.1, I think we got it running on 95 before I left, but I remember starting it on Windows 3.1. And once I got it up and running, I simply just turned the monitor off and tried to see how well I could navigate because basically you would just wander around with the mouse. And when the mouse would find something, then it would talk with one of those typical robotic 90s kind of speech synthesizer voices. But this has been around a long time, this topic. 

Annika (0:27:33): Yeah, for sure. And nowadays, screen readers, and there are a lot of different kinds of screen readers that are actually very helpful tools for users who are blind or who have poor sight or who even have trouble reading. So speaking out loud the contents, that's actually quite a useful tool for many different kinds of users. 

Darren (0:27:58): But to simply say screen reader is a really boring name for it. Speakualizer is much cooler. 

Annika (0:28:05): That's true. 

Marc (0:28:06): I agree. It's the name that got me. So, okay. So, I have a few takeaway questions, Annika. So, when should a company start thinking about accessibility? 

Annika (0:28:17): At the very beginning when they're thinking about a new service. So, it should be taking into account in the requirements, in design, development, testing. So, all the stages of the development process. 

Marc (0:28:35): Taking Finland as an example, what is the precedence or how many people are affected by impairments that require accessibility? 

Annika (0:28:45): About 1.2 million people. So, actually 20% of the whole population.

 Marc (0:28:53): Okay. If we think about things like what's the baseline for establishing accessible or reasonable accessibility for a company? If we think about things like alt text for images, contrast, taking colors into account. Is there like a baseline that's good enough for maybe 90% of cases that companies could do in order to basically get to an acceptable level? 

Annika (0:29:15): Well, you can start with the WCAG criteria. There’s around 50 criteria. Fulfill them and your technical accessibility will be on a very good level. But remember that still don't actually mean that your online service would be usable to all the users or that it would be easy to use. So, you can never forget about the usability and user experience point of view.

Marc (0:29:44): Okay. What do you think is the biggest blocker to accessibility? 

Annika (0:29:47): Lack of awareness, lack of the needed skills from designers and developers and testers, and mainly also not knowing how to actually begin, how to start taking accessibility into account in your organization, how to change your internal processes. 

Marc (0:30:06): Annika, can you give us some quick wins for accessibility that companies could do right now? 

Annika (0:30:11): Well, first of all, make sure that all different kinds of users are able to use your services. For example, keyboard users, screen reader users, and people who have poor sight, provide good contrast and make sure that your online service can be zoomed in. Also, make sure that the user can use it on different screen sizes, including mobile screens. 

Marc (0:30:39): Excellent. Thank you so much, Annika, for raising the awareness of accessibility for Darren and I and for our listeners. Thank you for the work that you do. I think that it's super important. And I love the fact that you found this work and now you do it with such a passion. Thank you for coming on to the DevOps Sauna with us today. 

Annika (0:31:00): Well, thank you very much. It was really nice talking to you. 

Marc (0:31:03): And Darren, thank you once again for a gregarious conversation. 

Darren (0:31:07): Thanks, Marc. It's a pleasure as always. 

Marc (0:31:09): OK, that's it for this episode of the DevOps Sauna. We'll see you next time. Goodbye. We'll now give our guest an opportunity to introduce himself and tell you a little bit about who we are. 

Annika (0:31:24): My name is Annika Valtari. I work as a UX and accessibility lead at Eficode. I do a lot of accessibility consultation for different kinds of customer organization. What I really enjoy about my work is helping the customers, training them in accessibility and also telling them how to be better at accessibility and user experience. 

Marc (0:31:53): Hi, I'm Marc Dillon, lead consultant at Eficode in the advisory and coaching team, and I specialize in enterprise transformations. 

Darren (0:32:02): Hey, I'm Darren Richardson, security architect at Eficode, and I work to ensure the security of our managed services offerings. 

Marc (0:32:09): If you like what you hear, please like, rate and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform. It means the world to us.