Everyone should be able to have their voice heard, and it starts with accessibility. Our goal at Explorance is to create and offer software that has the broadest reach. It means having the products and solutions we offer work on the largest variety of platforms and devices, ensuring anyone can use them without compromising usability due to visual, hearing, cognitive, or mobility impairments.
We recently sat down with Orla Mahon, a front-end developer working on accessibility, and Arnaud Friedel, a UI/UX manager – both currently working on the Blue Experience Management platform at Explorance. In the following Q&A, they offer insights into how we approach accessibility as a company.
Q: Can you tell me a bit about your educational background and what you learned about accessibility before working at Explorance?
Arnaud: I studied design in France, and I had a teacher who told us that almost everybody has a disability in some form. For example, many of us wear glasses. And you can see everywhere some usability issues that people need to face daily. For example, stairs can be difficult for some. For my teacher, his process was not to design something beautiful but rather to aim for something that could be useful and to try and accommodate the needs of as many people as possible.
Orla: I had the opposite integration than Arnaud. Rather than hearing about accessibility at university, it was thrust upon me when I started at Explorance. One of the first things I did was some accessibility fixes for Blue. It was a bit of a reality check as to the level at which every software needs to be accessible. So not only in terms of color contrast and functional layout, but we also must ensure that the software works with screen readers and has audio labels for our web apps so users can hear them as well as see them. And we think about design not just from a visual perspective but also from an audible one—does it make sense when they are listening to the playback of the website as well. It was eye-opening and shifted my perspective from a technical point of view as well.
Q: How is accessibility prioritized at Explorance?
Orla: We do a couple of rounds of VPAT and try to break it down so that we are not doing everything for Blue at one time. We are trying to integrate it more into the development process rather than waiting for the very end, and it’s working well so far. We tend to get maybe 10 to 15 issues per feature set in Blue. We now have a small dedicated team of front-end developers who are working on that, myself included. When those issues come in, they are the top priority, and in 9 out of 10 cases those are classified as blockers, which means we must fix them immediately. Once we’ve done the fixes, we send it back to the company that does the VPAT certification to verify that all those fixes are in place and match what the criteria are. It’s a collaborative process where we get the first round of feedback and then send it back to get our final certification. It works well because there are some things they might bring up for one feature that we will then keep an eye out for with other features. So typically, the further along with the process, the less pressing issues we get back, which is also encouraging.
Q: How is accessibility documented?
Orla: We now keep everything in JIRA, which is our task management software for development. We also get reports from the VPAT company we use with an overview of all the testing they did and all the assistive technologies—all our software is mobile tested with various assistive technologies for iOS and Android. The reports also include a list of all the issues they found and whether they were resolved. Sometimes it’s an issue with the assistive technologies themselves, which can happen. So, we have the actual task listing showing what development work went into it as well as an overall general report. It’s quite comprehensive and helpful to refer to it afterward.
Q: How is accessibility integrated into the design and development process at Explorance?
Arnaud: Usually, it’s the product owner and the business analyst who write the requirements, but it’s one area where we are working to make more precise. We need to give more requirements to the developers about how our search should be handled, for example. We did create all the style guides for every part of the software – i.e., how the buttons should be on focus mode and the hover state — so we are aiming to create and improve day-to-day our guides on the fonts that we are using, the colors that have been tested. I use a software called Contrast so I can test to make sure the color is compliant with WCAG standards. Now the contrast standard is 5.0 when before it was 2.5, so it’s getting more challenging to find colors, and it’s nice in some way to have that challenge. We have the Explorance accessibility bible that we are creating—our style guide—for all areas across the software.
Q: What are the trends you see with accessibility standards?
Arnaud: The requirements are getting stricter, for example, having more space in the HTML elements. It has bigger input, and the actual clickable zone for input is quite bigger now for people who have some disability with motor skills. So, you try to make all the buttons and all the actionable space bigger for them, so it’s easier.
Q: How do you work within the paradigm of meeting the standards but also creating something visually interesting?
Arnaud: I used to work in a design agency, and there was no WCAG compliance required; it was all creativity, and you didn’t think about all the users who will be on the web site. Then you start working on more educational sites, and it’s more challenging, but it’s still creativity. You are creating something. It’s still designing. Even when you work in paper, it’s a medium, and everything has constraints, but it’s still creativity.
Q: What are the trends you see with accessibility in the industry?
Arnaud: You can see that in the past two to three years, people and companies are getting more involved in WCAG and are making web sites and software more user friendly for everyone.
Orla: The vendors that we work with to discuss VPAT certification are in much higher demand than they were a few years ago. In our everyday life, those of us that are able to don’t really see much of an effect. But the fact that these companies are more in demand suggests that companies are moving in a more accessible direction, which is a good thing.
Arnaud: For me, it’s the conferences. I used to go to a lot of design conferences in France where people did not talk much about accessibility. Last year, the graphic designers at Explorance went to San Francisco for a UI/UX conference, and we had three speakers who spoke about diversity and about WCAG accessibility.
It’s also interesting to see how people are shifting to focus on diversity. You can see a lot of people now trying to design for everybody and not just a typical user. Especially today, with everything happening in the world, you need to implement inclusive design components. Our users are people from all over the world. You need to be aware of what colors mean in different places. I am trying, and I aim for the best. Sometimes it isn’t easy to do, but I aim to be inclusive.
Q: What is the impact on your job satisfaction working with accessibility?
Orla: It’s definitely made me feel that – not that accessibility wasn’t an issue before – what I’m doing has an impact on other people, especially working within the EdTech community. When working with accessibility, you know that the changes you are making are directly going to affect people positively. It might be a smaller subset of people, but we are becoming more and aware that these disabilities are more widespread than we thought. So being able to help those people in this way is something that gives me a lot of satisfaction.
Arnaud: I cannot agree more with what Orla said. Yes, it’s challenging, but it’s also important. It makes us very proud, especially when it works because sometimes you create something, and you think it will work, so when it does, we have a sense of pride.
Q: Anything else you would like to add?
Orla: There are now several of us that are working on accessibility fixes, which is very encouraging because when I started at Explorance, there was maybe one other person. So, now we have at least three, if not more, who not only have some experience with accessibility but have resolved complex issues with it. There are more and more people who are technically able to handle this sort of work, which is encouraging, and it sets a good precedent for Explorance in the future.
Arnaud: One of the biggest challenges for me was when we were working on Bluepulse, the engagement network. A lot of the time when designing, you need to be inspired by something. But the challenging part of Bluepulse is there aren’t many products out there like it, so we had to brainstorm and to create a brand-new concept. We had to see the value and to implement all the WCAG accessibility standards into something brand new. I still have a lot to learn, but that’s part of the job, and that’s what I like about it. To be able to face challenges and see what solution will be better and to improve and improve to find something that will work for everybody.