Web Accessibility: project managers take the lead

by Michael Perrone

Accessibility is an important and often forgotten element of building websites and digital products. While W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative lays out specific standards to follow, it’s surprising how many of those steps are left out in websites and products we use everyday. As the industry continues to make progress in creating a more inclusive web, we should all internalize these standards and own them in our day-to-day work. In this series, members of our project management, development, and design teams share honest reflections and tips on how we can champion accessibility.

I have an admission for you: Until recently, I didn’t think web accessibility played a major role in my job. Fresh Tilled Soil has long placed a high value on accessibility, helping to educate both our clients and our industry, but as a project manager I typically took a backseat in those conversations.

What changed? I wanted to better understand how each of the accessibility standards I’d become familiar with impacted the user, so I learned how to use a screen reader. As I began tabbing through familiar websites with VoiceOver enabled, I quickly became frustrated at the dissonance between the disjointed direction and information the screen reader was providing and the slick interface I could see on the screen in front of me. This is when I finally understood that accessibility is a holistic experience. It is about more than just color contrast and navigation structure. In order for any one element on the page to truly be accessible to all users, the user has to understand the context of that element as well, and that requires an eagle eye from all experience design disciplines.

If web accessibility can only be achieved through the expertise of the entire team, then the person with the broadest view of the project bears the highest degree of responsibility. The project manager should be leading the charge.

But how should web accessibility standards impact the way I manage a project? They should be a consideration at every step:

  • When initially discussing project requirements, I need to gauge the client’s level of understanding and commitment to web accessibility standards. The audience and ecosystem for the product may inform the degree of compliance expected.
  • During scoping, will we need to do any usability testing with users who are visually impaired? Planning for this should be done early, so the timeline accounts for it.
  • Throughout the design process, I should be checking in with each team member to make sure they are thinking about accessibility cross-functionally. Have we created a user flow that seems elegant but requires too complex a page structure to be navigated with a screen reader?
  • The team must proactively explain any relevant tradeoffs tied to the design solutions we propose, and it is my responsibility to make sure our client has the information necessary to make informed decisions.

If designing accessible products is a team sport, then I am the captain. As project manager, it is my job to make sure the right conversations are happening at every stage and lead those conversations when necessary. As I’m monitoring a project’s progress, I need to ensure that we are designing solutions with all users in mind.

Because the web is constantly evolving, learning the ins and outs of accessibility must be an ongoing process. Below are two good places to start:

Jimi Choi will be sharing some accessibility tips for developers in the next post in this series.

About Michael Perrone

Michael has spent more than a decade building his career in marketing communications, excelling in roles ranging from strategist to production management. He believes that an...