In the education industry, we want our products to support all students. Education technology tools should be accessible to any student, regardless of their native language, learning abilities or need for special accommodations. Yet trying to achieve true accessibility while keeping up with the pace of new technology can leave many feeling like a dog chasing its tail.
We wouldn’t be in this line of work if we didn’t love discovering new innovations. Like you, we see a world of possibilities opening up as tech like AI and VR take hold. But everytime we pull something brand new into our product design, we face new, unanswered, and maybe unanswerable questions about accessibility.
We know what you’re thinking: your team is already strapped for time and budget. How can you possibly manage to strike a balance between both innovation and inclusivity? Working with finite resources, you often run into questions like do you make a current feature more compliant with 508(c) or build three new features required by an RFP?
These difficult decisions won’t go away anytime soon. Here are five ways to weave accessibility into your process and take a proactive approach in addressing these challenges.
Prioritize accessibility from day one
The most common accommodations are often inexpensive to build if you incorporate them from the beginning of your process. For example, the curriculum writing stage is a critical time to think through scaffolding within core materials. But all too often, product teams only start to think about accessibility as first adoption approaches, forcing your team to augment and even reimagine the features of a nearly-completed product. Adding conversations about accessibility in the early stages will save you time and money in the long run, so set aside at least 10 minutes of every kick-off meeting to announce accessibility as an early priority.
Train your team
You’re only as strong as your weakest link. Every person who has a hand in building your product needs to have at least some basic training in accessibility. Period. Unless you’ve made your team watertight, inclusive accomodations are bound to slip through the cracks — leading only to more and more ideas left on the product development table.
Make the most of your on-hand resources by facilitating an internal training session led by your in-house accessibility expert. Or, dig deeper into the resources available from industry leaders, such as the National Center on Accessible Education Materials or the American Disabilities Act National Network.
Know your target user
Determine who your priority users are — not just for your company as a whole, but specifically for each product segment. Focusing on the demographics of your current and target users will better inform the hard decisions and trade-offs you’ll invariably have to make. Knowing your target users allows you to make sophisticated choices in the interest of teaching and learning, and saves you from throwing flashy technology at problems that don’t benefit from it. Design decisions like these will help you build trust with educators, and ensure your product is perceived as more than a shiny new toy.
Conduct user testing
Get your product in the hands of real students and teachers early and often. This will give your team a better idea of the classroom challenges your product faces. Be sure to include a diverse group of users, some who receive accommodations and some who don’t. Talk to teachers about the realities of differentiating. Getting real-world insights into how students and teachers interact with your product, as well as other products, will focus your team on what really matters and spark creative problem solving. Teacher and student feedback can lead to more cost-effective solutions that yield better results in the classroom.
Get a second, or third, opinion
Often, your product development team is so closely following the plan that it becomes impossible to step back and see where accessibility can fit into the product. An outside expert can identify those gaps and disrupt the cycle your team is stuck in. A fresh perspective encourages your team to rethink how accessibility has been addressed in the past, and how they can incorporate it into their work going forward.
Looking for more ideas to pull accessibility into product development? Reach out to us here.
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5 Ways to Make Sure Your Product Balances Innovation with True Accessibility was originally published in Noteworthy — The Journal Blog on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.