Quick thoughts on inclusive design

I’ve been doing a good deal of work recently on website accessibility for pemco.com.  I’m about 1/3 of the way into a 9 month push to make PEMCO’s site more accessible to those surfing the web with various abilities.  While the topic warrants years of study and volumes of books, some common themes continue the drum’s downbeat.

Inclusive design involves basic, clean markup

Think building an accessible website involves fancy plugins, complex frameworks, experts with Ph.D.’s in H.C.I.?  An accessible web involves clean HTML markup that requires attention to detail, much like any markup that makes the web work.  Working inclusive detail into a site makes it stronger and more optimized for any user (desktop, screen reader, mouseless, mobile, etc.).

Accessibility and SEO are BFF’s

The work you put into accessible markup benefits SEO and vice versa.  Google appreciates your unique title tags just as much as a visitor using a screen reader does.  This doesn’t mean they’re one and the same, but there are a good number of accessibility best practices that also help SEO.  It’s a nice perk. 

It isn’t about being, “compliant.” It’s about trying your best

Many companies begin accessibility initiatives by asking, “Are we compliant?”  This question can be translated, “Are we gonna get sued??”  I say, who cares?  The better questions are, “Does our site serve a wide audience?  One that is including all, excluding none? Am I building the best site I can?”  Being inclusive is a positive culture shift in any organization, turning you away from the anxiety of covering your ass and aiming you towards the energy that propels progress. 

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Making a Digital Style Guide a Success

PEMCO Insurance is currently experiencing a renaissance, bringing levels of service to its customers that they’ve never before seen. In my short tenure (4.5 years) at PEMCO, we’ve added online access to policies, amendments, payment plans, documents, the ability to go paperless, an any-device responsive website, iOS and Android apps, among other fast and efficient features that provide direct access to PEMCO and their products.

It’s all quite exciting on the surface, but there’s also a ton of moving parts under the hood. Internal applications that drive the business and feed data to various systems are being retooled to be the most effective they can be.  These challenges arrive at my desk in the form of usability and interface design tasks. 

As all of these internal apps do different things and serve multiple departments, their connection to PEMCO can get off-the-rails a bit. Brand styles and patterns start to look and behave completely different depending on where you work. PEMCO has recognized this issue and has moved to adopt not only the organization’s brand standards, but also to go further and agree on digital style standards to bring its many tools into familiar territory, allowing users to get working rather than wasting time getting accustomed to new user interfaces when they switch apps. 

My team took to the task and produced a style guide that was very well received by PEMCO in a short period of time. The (soon to not be) secret to our success lies in these lessons learned:

– Keep your audience in mind at all times

Take shortcuts in your writing when you can assume your readers already understand a concept, but always keep asking yourself if your audience will comprehend and be comfortably guided by what you’re trying to communicate.

type sizesAn example is PEMCO’s type sizes. We wanted to present the look and feel of various styles of type very quickly without being bogged down with explicitly outlining each pixel size and font weight (the H1 is 20px, the H2 is 16px, the H3 …). Relying on the audience’s knowledge (developers) to inspect the document for CSS specifics, this approach worked for both tech and non-tech inclined and we found our audience’s sweet spot for detail. 

– Fonts and colors are great, but what your developers need are patterns.

patternsStyle guides of the past have been heavy on fonts, colors, and logo treatments. While still important, these things are a given necessity. The real meat and potatoes lies within components; common U.I. elements, how they’re used, and how they’re styled.

– Adopt a framework to fill in the gaps

Bootstrap iconYou may not come up with every pattern in a style guide. A framework can not only jumpstart your guide, but it can also offer excellent ongoing, “further reading,” if new and exciting U.I. concepts arrive in the future. I’ve relied on Bootstrap several times for this purpose. There are many other frameworks to consider.

Slider accompanied by accessible dropdown

This isn’t a new idea on the web, but I found the details of a solution to my particular challenge spread out over the net, so I’ll consolidate my findings here.  
Ugly dropdown

Ugly dropdown

The task was to make an ugly dropdown of values look better. Immediately I went into mobile-first mode and thought of a slider, but sliders have always been a sticking point for accessible browsers. After poking around, I found a stackexchange thread that suggested linking a slider alongside an accessible input (text field or dropdown). I liked the approach; I wouldn’t be eliminating the dropdown in the name of accessibility, but if you’re down (haha) with using the slider, you won’t open the dropdown and see the long list of values hidden within. Also, the double-up on UI will benefit each other, with the dropdown displaying a more specific value of where you are on the slider’s spectrum. The approach is full of win.  
Slider with dropdown

Slider with dropdown

I liked how RangeTouch worked in a majority of browsers and linked it to a regular dropdown. Here it is in action:  

See the Pen Accessible slider by Brent Enarson (@benarson) on CodePen.

Posted in Web