I believe in starting a conversation with fellow leaders and learning from their experiences. Making their perspectives available to the whole community is one step forward in spreading the message about the importance of UX. That’s why I have started a project of #UXFika – lightweight conversations with inspiring UX leaders, creators, and people who make a change through design.

This week’s special UXFika guest is Hampus Sethfors – co-founder of Axess Lab – an agency helping to create products that are accessible, usable and beautiful. His mission is to spread knowledge about accessibility and inclusive design.

How did you become interested in accessibility?

It was actually by accident. I started working in the UX field at a large consultancy firm around 8 years ago and got a bit bored on my first assignment. Therefore, I signed up for a hackathon and one of the categories was accessibility. One of my close relatives has Asperger’s syndrome, a type of Autism. He, and many others with Autism, usually have problems with public transportation – planning a trip, managing unexpected occurrences, problem solving in stressful environments, so my goal was to build an app that could help people like him in public transportation. Surprisingly, this simple idea won that hackathon. It was the start to where I am today and my bigger interest in accessibility.

What does accessibility mean to you?

A person with a disability gave me a very simple explanation. “An accessible product is one that I can use”. So no matter how many cool and complex definitions there are in the world, accessibility is about making sure as many people as possible are able to use your products.

“100 % of the world population spend part of their life with a disability.”

Interesting fact is that it’s much broader than you might think at first glance. On one spectrum, we have people with various disabilities. On the other hand, we are all just temporarily abled, for example, we are tired or stressed, get a headache or go to another country and cannot speak the local language. That can happen to everyone and because of that we need accessible products. Made for every human.

As designers we need to design not only for folks who are permanently visually impaired or have severe motor issues right now, but also for future selves.

A few years ago you started your own company – Axess Lab – could you tell me what you do at Axess Lab and how do you create more accessible products everyday?

We do three things. Firstly, we consult and help others improve the accessibility and inclusive design of their digital products. For instance user testing with people with disabilities, carry out accessibility reviews or pair program with developers.

Secondly, we have developers and designers who build products aimed to improve the lives of people with disabilities. Usually state financed projects where our team designs and builds most of the product, because there’s a need for specialist knowledge.

Thirdly, we do a lot of awareness spreading. So we go to many companies and talk about accessibility and lead workshops with product managers, testers, developers and designers on good practises.

Awareness spreading is really important, since accessibility is where UX was maybe 10 – 15 years ago. People started realising the problem, but it was very hard to embed it at the beginning. So there is a long process in adopting accessibility to businesses.

Which are the most useful Accessibility tools you use everyday?

The biggest and best tools are the methods that are already in the UX field and we should integrate accessibility into that. Accessibility is about user research, design thinking and so on. So you don’t need a whole new set of tools, just make some adaptations to the ones we already use.

But here are a few specific tools for everyday:

Online contrast checkers – to see if there is enough contrast in your design. Getting designers and testers to learn this tool takes around 5 minutes. It is very simple. We have a great article with all the free tools listed (so hurry up, and start using them)

Funkify is another great Google Chrome plugin that we’ve helped design – you can test various disabilities it is a good way of experiencing how it could feel to use your website with partial visual loss or parkinson disease for example.

A tip for all UX designers: turn off all the colors in your design – and check if everything that is clickable can be identified. Don’t just use blue color to identify links, try to add underline or make it look like a button to identify that it is clickable. Simple things like that.

What do you see as the biggest challenges getting accessibility thinking into businesses?

If you don’t know you have a problem and there is no obvious issue with your product – then you aren’t worried. Most people can’t really put their finger on what accessibility is and why it matters to their business.

Most haven’t seen people with disabilities struggling to use their products, they don’t know what is a screen reader or how can someone with dyslexia can struggle reading a page. If you haven’t experienced it – why would you prioritize it? Why does it matter?

So understanding the importance and the need is the first step. That’s where we as designers come in. We should champion it, we should question the normal.

I also think that everything that is new takes time. There is always the starting stretch. The initial point of reference, which entails changing the way you work, changing the way you think – who are your users, who likes your product? It takes some time.

But when you’re past the starting stretch, accessibility will not take more time or resources. It does not take more time to conduct user tests and include two people with disabilities. It won’t take more time and energy to pick colors that have good contrast (you anyway spend time choosing them).

Sometimes I hear businesses saying that accessibility takes time and is very hard – what is your take on it?

What takes a lot of time and money is building incorrectly from the start – and trying to fix it afterwards. Say you build a house and not think about accessibility – you don’t build a ramp to the entrance and then you have to redo the whole thing – that’s a huge effort. If you have it from the start and think about it from the beginning – it will save a lot of time.

So start by gaining awareness within the company and have accessibility in mind from the start – instead of making it an afterthought.

It is also about the mindset. If you just want a checklist to get over accessibility because of legislation, you are not doing it the right way. I always prefer to talk to companies that want to understand first, see how it actually works and build products because of good intentions.

One great activity to start with is user testing with a diverse user group. Actually seeing how people with disabilities interact with your product. It often creates a fire within the team, and a lot of emotions. I remember one UX:er tearing up and saying “ We have such high requirements for our product in terms of UX and design, and to see it fail so miserably when someone uses it – that hurts!” An experience like that always leads to a lot of great change. Even if user testing takes a bit of time and effort – in the long run it will always be much more effective, instead of just going through some sort of accessibility checklist.

I also think it’s important not to view accessibility as a one time effort – instead it should be integrated in processes like design, research, testing, implementation. Just like UX it is a team effort.

What are some quick tips you would give to help improve accessibility on a product?

As it is right now, most first encounters with accessibility are those long checklists. Many times you get it as a requirement in project and you have to apply it or comply with web content accessibility guidelines. But the WCAG is not very inspirational, will confuse you and probably scare you away. It is very long and difficult to wrap your head around.

Instead I try to flip it around and not focus on those guidelines, but instead on the user. Watch a video of a blind person using a screen reader, or someone with motor impairments controlling their computer using eye tracking.

Once you understand the users you can start looking at guidelines and how to implement it. Approach it like you do it within UX methodology: do research, interact with people, include different types of users. Aim to continuously improve.

Your testing process is also very important – try using your products without the mouse, use the keyboard, make sure everything works using keyboard navigation only. Learn the basics of some assistive technologies like screen readers. Incorporate that into your testing processes.

And one of the best things you can do to improve accessibility is to improve the basic usability of your product. Most accessibility issues are actually usability problems that have been amplified by a disability.

What are the best ways to start evangelizing accessibility across your organization?

Firstly, watch a few videos of people using technologies and show it to your colleagues. For example, watch youtuber Molly Burke’s Youtube channel – she shares very interesting insights on how blind person uses technology. We have compiled a great list of videos of people with disabilities using tech. With a combination of accessibility tools and practises applied everyday – you can definitely learn a lot and progress.

There are also disability organizations who you can contact if you’d like help recruiting users to start testing your product – they are usually happy to share their knowledge. Knowing that these opportunities exist is an essential step.

I also recommend becoming a champion in your own company. Start advocating for accessibility. We need to inspire people to share the message.

Are there any user experience and design concerns to be aware of when working with accessibility?

One big misunderstanding in accessibility is that if you make it accessible you make it less visually appealing, which is complete nonsense. There are many beautiful products out there that are accessible. And I’d argue that making your product inclusive and accessible is great design in itself.

So accessibility is not about making compromises on great design. View accessibility as a creative challenge, not a challenge for creativity.

What are the biggest myths in accessibility according to you?

One that I hear a lot is that different user groups’ needs conflict with each other. For example, if you build something that’s good for a blind person, it might not work for an individual with motor disability.

It is true that these edge cases exist, but it’s not at all common. If you make touch target sizes big – you make it usable for users with motor impairments, low vision and users on a bumpy train ride. Even if the impairments differ, the needs are aligned.

And when there is a conflict, you can always find a way. A typical example is pedestrian crossing, wheelchair users want a ramp and blind people want an edge. But then they came up with the “Stockholm concept” where there’s a ramp on the right side of the sign and a threshold on the left. So instead of viewing conflicting needs as a reason not to focus on accessibility, view it as a way of coming up with new, clever designs. There is always a way.

What do you want the standard for accessible design to be in 2020?

In the dream world, I want people and companies to start treating accessibility as user experience, not expecting checklist solutions and one-time efforts. I want teams to conduct user tests, research, iterations while including diverse people into these processes.

Start treating people with disabilities as everyone else. Don’t create new and separate methodologies for them. This is of course very ambitious for 2020. But the steps we could take should be towards this step. Also, companies should build more diverse teams – stop hiring the same people over and over again. We need to work with different people.

But this might be too much to hope for in 2020. In the real world, I think this year will be a lot about the new accessibility legislation for digital products. It is good because it opens up a topic and the need. However that might bring some negative consequences – it sets the bar to comply with legislation instead of making better experiences for users.

Extra bits

Recommended book:

Don’t make me think by Steve Krug – an essential book for every professional working with creating products in digital and physical space

Doing good better William MacAskill – it is very thought-provoking on how to be effective in making a difference.

Most accessible digital products used recently

Swish is great! They have improved a lot recently.
SVT play – for swedish television. They approach accessibility in a great way and have a lot of good processes in place.

If you could add a new rule to web accessibility, what would it be?

“Nothing about us, without us” – don’t talk about people and their needs without including them in the conversation.
“Don’t begin with the checklists – instead start interacting with people”

About the UX Fika Series

In UX Fika series of blog posts, I talk with people that inspire me and whom I look up to as my role-models. The motivation behind doing this is, you might see some patterns and hopefully you’d be able to learn from the amazing people that I have had a chance of learning from.

For my international friends, FIKA is a Swedish concept, a state of mind, an attitude and an important part of Swedish culture. It means making time for friends and colleagues to share a cup of coffee (or tea). With no rush, full immersion and being present in the moment. That’s why I thought “UXFika” is a perfect name for meaningful conversation with UX leaders I look up to.

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