How & why we made accessibility the core of HowToo


igital accessibility has been one of the founding principles and inspirations for HowToo since we first began to dream of building our own authoring tool. Back in 2018, Savv-e, our sister business, was encountering more and more customers who needed to meet WCAG 2.1 principles, but were struggling to find authoring tools that could meet their needs. 

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At the same time, we were beginning to attend events like A11y Camp and our own passion for making digital products accessible was growing. We began to develop a relationship with Intopia, an Australian organisation dedicated to assisting businesses like ours to improve the accessibility of their digital content. We became increasingly aware of just how much of an impact digital accessibility has on the lives people living with disability. As a business that truly believes that education is a human right, the idea that so many people were being unfairly excluded from learning opportunities was simply horrifying.

HowToo uses the WCAG 2.1 guidelines to improve the accessibility of our platform

As a result of this journey, from our very first mockups of a potential new authoring tool, we set digital accessibility as one of our highest priorities. This priority has radically shaped the design and development of HowToo. At every stage, we have sought to engage with people living with disability to hear about the challenges they face, and involved them directly in our testing processes.

One of the most important commitments we’ve made as a business is to reach WCAG 2.1 Level AA of digital accessibility in HowToo. Knowing that this was non-negotiable from the start (rather than attempting to tack it on at the end as so many companies do) has guided so many of our design decisions. Some of them are easy to spot when using the tool, while others are less noticeable. Even now, we have plenty of ideas for future features to continue improving the accessibility of the tool, and helping HowToo users to make accessible content. 

Designing for Perceivability

Perceivability is the first of the four WCAG 2.1 principles, and encompasses people’s ability to perceive what is on screen. Perceivability is a particular challenge for visual and hearing impaired individuals. For example, hearing-impaired individuals need alternate ways to perceive audio and video content. To meet this need, we designed easy to use transcript and closed caption features for relevant content blocks.

Visual impairments can come in many forms that each require different features to make HowToo perceivable. People rarely consider colour blindness as a disability needing provisions, yet there are many ways in which we designed HowToo to be more accessible for colourblind individuals. One critical design feature was checking all our uses of colour to ensure they met contrast standards so similar colours or shades weren’t placed side-by-side and rendered unperceivable. Another feature is using shapes instead of colours to define areas or as indicators for navigation.

Many people with visual impairments still have some degree of vision. They may experience dark or blurry spots in their vision. In these cases, often the most powerful feature is the ability to zoom in all screens by up to 400% and still retain the readability of what’s on screen. This can be challenging for our team, and adds additional time to our QA processes as we work to ensure that every screen is perceivable at every zoom level. The result is always worth the effort.

There are also many features for people with significant or total blindness. These people often use technology called Screen Readers that verbalise text and describe elements on the page. Screen Readers are also able to access hidden information, such as Alt Text. Alt Text is a hidden piece of text that is used to describe the content of images to make them accessible to people who cannot see them. We’ve designed the ability to add Alt Text to images in learning objects clear and easy.

HowToo is designed for everyone to be able to perceive it equitably.

Designing for Operability

Operability is the second WCAG 2.1 principle, and it’s based around people’s ability to interact with the product and operate its functions. Operability is significant for meeting the needs of a wide range of disabilities, while also presenting many common-sense design principles that improve the experience for everyone.

One of the most central features that enable operability for many people is keyboard navigation. Keyboard navigation allows people to interact with elements using the TAB and Enter/Return keys instead of using a mouse, as is often the case for visual and motor-impaired individuals. Designing for keyboard navigation is incredibly important and involves thinking about how to lay out elements in an intuitive order, as well as how to visually indicate which element the user is interactive with at any time.

Other features that we designed to improve the operability of HowToo involve giving people the time they need to understand and interact with the content. This has meant avoiding time limits on pages and giving the user complete control over the playback of videos and audio. We have also avoided any flashing or blinking content that may trigger seizures in some people.

Designing for Understandability

Understandability is the third principle of WCAG 2.1, and involves making sure that all the elements on screen are easy to understand and work through.

One way in which we have designed for understandability is by using clear, consistent and uncomplicated language through HowToo. For example, buttons with the same function (such as forward and backward navigation) are always given the same label, and are located in the same area of the screen. This is particularly useful for people with intellectual or learning disabilities, but has the added benefit of making the tool more intuitive and easy to navigate for all users.

Another way we have improved the understandability of HowToo is by identifying complex interactions and designing features to reduce and correct potential mistakes users may make. For example, users are unable to progress past a multiple choice assessment, so they don’t accidentally miss a question or accidentally submit a blank/incorrect answer.

HowToo is designed to boost understanding of the learning content.

Designing for Robustness

Robustness is the fourth and last principle of WCAG 2.1, and is largely about how the product is coded. Robust products must function reliably in a wide range of situations and tests.

To ensure HowToo is robust, all its features are tested for compatibility with different web browsers, including Google Chrome, Safari and Internet Explorer, and different screen sizes, including desktop, tablets and phones. All the elements must also be able to be correctly interpreted by Screen Readers and other assistive technologies. This requires all code to be clearly and effectively structured, and any non-standard user interface components must have a name, role and value.

Looking to the future

Designing for accessibility is undoubtedly a challenge, as there are many aspects to consider and extra time and effort must be added across every stage of the development process. From a UX standpoint, there is always a tension between how much flexibility we give to content creators versus how usable and accessible that content is for the learner. Content creators will still need to make sure their content is clear, meaningful and concise but having a tool like HowToo that can handle the other accessibility requirements will certainly make life easier for everyone.

At HowToo, we will always strive to make both learning creation and consumption easy, fun and inclusive because the value of an accessible product is immeasurable. We truly believe that we have a moral mandate to ensure that our product does not exclude anyone on the basis of ability. We are also endlessly thankful for our partners at Intopia, who continue to collaborate with us to identify more ways in which we can improve the accessibility of HowToo.

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Dec 4, 2020

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