How UX Can Take You Beyond Accessibility to Inclusive Design
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Accessibility and good user experience planning are vital elements of any intranet or employee system design – from the process that defines the system to the hardware you choose to deliver it on, and from the operational back end through to the user interface. Usability and accessibility, however, are not the same thing. Fail to deliver on either and you run the risk of losing engagement and actively excluding parts of your workforce. Combine great user experience planning with accessibility design expertise and you can ensure your communication and collaboration tools have the opportunity to delight, inspire, and enable every employee in your business.
Usability is a way of measuring how well a specific user can use a system or product, in a specific context, to achieve a predetermined goal effectively, efficiently, and satisfactorily. Accessibility refers to making your environment, system, or website as sensible, meaningful, and usable for as many people as possible. The distinction is important as finding the balance between these is not always straightforward – meeting the needs of the many, while ensuring the best experience for the targeted audience – and it is easy to get wrong. When this happens, or when User Experience (UX) planning isn’t up to scratch, you could be delivering both a poor UX and an inaccessible system that excludes users or makes their goals harder to achieve.
Let’s assume that you already appreciate the value of UX in your system design, for your employees as much as for your customers. Great UX can make jobs easier, make tasks more efficient, and make businesses more productive. Great UX can make a workforce engaged and a business thrive.
But what about those people whose specific needs fall outside generalised personas? This is not an insignificant group. As many as 2 million people in the UK alone have a visual impairment, and around 11 million have some form of hearing loss. But accessibility needs go far beyond sight and hearing and include people with physical, mental, and emotional needs, and these needs may be permanent (e.g., registered blind), temporary (e.g., an eye infection), or situational (e.g., distracted). A 2011 United Nations report estimated there were up to 1.3 billion people with disabilities in the world.
It is a common misconception that accessibility needs to focus purely on users with some kind of disability. Accessibility design is, in fact, inclusive of everyone and maximising the ease of use to reach all abilities leads to systems that are available to everyone, whatever their current situation.
Where UX and accessibility overlap – where they work together successfully – you will find the answer to delivering inclusive, engaging, and supportive experiences for your employees and partners.
In the context of your intranets, and the other technologies employees need to do their jobs, to learn, and to grow through their work, accessibility challenges can be:
Instructions and flow through the process are hard for the employee to understand.
Visual signposts are hard to see, buttons are too small to press accurately, or maybe voice notes are hard to hear.
The additional equipment or tools (screen readers, transcription tools) are too expensive for the employee to find themselves.
Users can’t understand metaphors, idioms, or symbols ingrained in the user flow, or maybe the interface is not translated or translatable.
The social expectations related to use are not intuitive for some social groups.
To help ensure that standards are upheld there are international standards for web accessibility in place, which also apply to intranets. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1) have been established for decades and are regularly updated to reflect progression in understanding of people’s needs, and the technology that is available to support those needs. These standards have four guiding principles:
Users should be able to identify content and interface elements (such as navigation or action buttons) using their senses. For many they will interact with a system visually, but for others perceivability might be achieved through sound or touch.
Users should be able to interact with controls, buttons, navigation, and other interactive elements in a system. For many this will be through touch and movement, while for others this could mean using an assistive technology such as voice recognition, or screen readers.
Users should be able to comprehend the content and be able – because of the site’s consistency of presentation and format – to learn and remember how to use it. It should also be appropriate to its audience – your employees – in its tone of voice.
The content provided by the site – or intranet – must be robust enough to be interpreted reliably by all target users: that is all of your employees, in the case of an intranet. This also points to them being able to choose the technology they use to interact with that content – be it the intranet, document directories, and other information formats.
How to Deliver Great Usability with Accessibility
UX practitioners are now becoming more aligned to delivering interface designs that meet both the usability needs of the target personas, while ensuring a system that is accessible to all. Certainly, at Silicon Reef our UX team have developed as specialists in their ability to marry the two – often opposing – goals and produce a design that is able to engage while remaining free of obstacles for those employees with additional needs. We call this practice Inclusive Design.
The UX process works first by defining the key user types – personas – that will use the intranet or system, and then designs the flow of activities these employee personas will take towards the specific goals – missions – that they need to achieve. These flows form the framework of the interaction and interface design that will eventually characterise the intranet or tool.
The nature of Microsoft tools means that many of the flows or components are already fixed – and tested and proven by Microsoft to meet accessibility standards – so the UX challenge with implementations of SharePoint intranets and document libraries, as well as Viva, Teams and other Microsoft 365 tool customisations, is to build on those accessible components and create an even more engaging, inclusive offering for staff. Silicon Reef’s own SharePoint add-on – Beacon – is a good option for smaller, simpler sites and includes a straightforward, built-in accessibility checker that guides the user through AA and AAA measures, showing them what might pass or fail as they evolve their design.
As the UX designer moves into the application of these flows, and starts to define edge cases, they will weave in accessibility principles, create pilot or test sites and carry out all important usability testing. Where best practise rules, persona-based design, and a breadth of usability experience form the framework of UX design, it is through real user testing that UX professionals are able refine the design to make it truly inclusive.
This might include testing navigation label language and grouping of content using card sorting, running observed usability tests, or raising accessibility awareness with content editors to help them make inclusive design choices (e.g. avoiding text in images) all of which will support people to do their job quickly and easily.
Throughout this process the UX expert will consider, among many other factors, the use of:
Avoiding generic links (such as ‘Click here’ or ‘More details’) prevents users with motor, cognitive, or visual limitations carrying out unnecessary keystrokes to visit a content that is not relevant to them.
Colour and sensory characteristics
Important information should not be conveyed by colour alone (text and graphical objects should also be used) and instructions should not be conveyed in terms of colour, location orientation, sound, or size. Instead, combinations should be used, and labels should be clear.
Repeated navigation components should maintain the same order and destination from page to page.
User interface components that have the same functionality should be consistent across the intranet or toolset.
Use of headings
Using informative descriptive page titles, and ensuring page headings and labels (for form fields and interactive controls) are informative and clear.
Routes to content
There should be multiple ways to locate a page within a set of pages, to help fast track to content.
Removing sole reliance on device specific interactions, such as hover over or shake, tilt, or gesture, to convey information, or complete tasks.
Complex pointer gestures
Providing alternative keyboard or single pointer alternatives to gestures such as pinch to zoom or drag and drop.
Choosing the Right Technology to Enable Inclusive Design
Delivering an intranet with inclusive design starts with your technology selection. Fortunately, Microsoft 365 offers accessibility features as standard across its suite of intranet and employee collaboration and communication tools. There are a vast number of features across Microsoft Teams, Viva, Stream, and SharePoint but some of the more vital accessibility components, as well as some of the most recent developments – particularly in Microsoft’s newest toolset Viva – are:
Accessibility is built-in to core features such as document libraries, lists, and pages. Navigation is accessible via the keyboard – which immediately provides better support for screen readers – and keytips and keyboard shortcuts are also available. Animations can also be easily turned off.
Allows users to ‘pop out’ shared content so it doesn’t have to compete for space with participant videos and chat. This can be great for employees with low vision. Live captions and transcription is available across Teams – including in the iOS and Android app versions – so employees can view live transcripts during their call and revisit them afterwards. New ways to interact during a Teams call include sending short video messages (rather than using the keyboard to type messages) as well as using a wide set of emojis. Interactions have also been made simpler in Teams calls with one click options for starting recording or transcription, turning on or off the camera, or leaving the meeting. Flexible controls such as raise hand, background noise suppression, and focus mode help everyone create the work environment that works for them.
Provides transcription across 28 different languages and locales that scroll automatically alongside the video. And, from 2023, employees will be able to edit transcripts inline as well as searching to quickly find important sections. They will then be able to scroll through the search results and click on a portion of the transcript to be taken to that respective spot in the video. For deaf and hard of hearing workers – as well as those who work in noisy environments – captions and transcripts are a crucial tool for inclusion and productivity
Across Microsoft 365
You can convert handwritten notes to text in apps such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint for iPad. The accessibility of employee generated content has also been made easier to manage with the automatic alt text experience in PowerPoint for Windows and an accessibility checker is built into PowerPoint, Word, and Outlook to ensure employee-created content is easy for colleagues with disabilities to read and edit.
Offers a settings page to configure all personal insights and experiences across web, iOS, Android, and Mac and through this personalisation allows users to create an interaction experience that works for them. Viva has been designed to make more content available and easier to access by everyone across the business. Viva Learning – for example – allows an employee to pin a learning tab to any Teams channel so they can access it with minimum clicks at any point.
Although many intranet platforms and employee centric software come with accessibility features built in you will still need to ensure that your implementation, and front-end design, weaves accessibility into your user interface. This will usually require specialist help, particularly to guarantee that your interface meets accessibility standards such as WCAG 2.1 and EAA (European Accessibility Act) compliance. Do not fear, however, as the additional investment in inclusive design expertise delivers numerous benefits to your employees and your business.
The Benefits of Inclusive Design for Intranets
Studies show that accessible websites have better search results, they reach a bigger audience, they’re SEO friendly, have faster download times, encourage good coding practices, and always have better overall usability. This is as true for intranets as it is for consumer facing sites.
Accessibility features in tools and intranets often solve unanticipated problems and provide new, flexible ways for employees to interact with workplace technology – regardless of their abilities. And, because accessible design often considers experiences beyond screens, it can result in a more human-centric, natural, contextual experience.
An accessible intranet ensures that all staff are being treated fairly and can access this essential organisational resource. Putting accessibility on a par with UX in the development of your intranet also sends a clear message of inclusivity and diversity to your employees, and this will be reinforced as you continue to stay true to these principles in your content creation and the continuous improvement of your tools.
Extend your talent pool
22% of people in the UK have some kind of disability. By not making your business accessible to this market, you are missing out accessing talent from within this vast group.
Employers must take positive steps to remove the barriers people face due to disability. This ensures that everyone receives the same support, access, and opportunities, as far as this is possible, as someone who’s not disabled. The Equality Act 2010 calls this the duty to make reasonable adjustments.
Ready to boost your intranet with inclusive design?