Produced by Haallas, Parempaa bittiä (‘Better bits’) is a podcast that examines design, digital service design, and UX design from different perspectives. The podcast is in Finnish, but the episode highlights are translated into English and available in a blog format.
Our guest for the seventh episode of the Parempaa bittiä (‘Better Bits’) podcast is Managing Director of Annanpura Oy and veteran accessibility expert Reijo Juntunen. Annanpura Oy is a social enterprise owned by the Finnish Federation of the Visually Impaired. It partners with authorities and companies to ensure that the e-services they provide are accessible to everyone.
Reijo and Head of Design Matti Linna from Haallas discuss topics such as the current state of the accessibility of web services. How can clients request and service providers provide web services that are sufficiently accessible and high-quality? How can we solve accessibility challenges related to responsiveness, particularly in mobile devices and various web browsers? And why are familiar models of the utmost importance for accessibility?
Can it be achieved?
On the surface, the terms ‘accessibility’ and ‘usability’ sound so similar that they could be considered synonyms. Accessibility expert Reijo Juntunen admits that they share many commonalities, particularly from the perspective of service design, but there are also differences.
“From a technical perspective, accessibility means that certain elements must be correctly tagged in the coding in order to ensure semantic functionality. It’s not enough for the service paths and other similar usability factors to be in order,” Reijo explains.
“Cognitive accessibility is the umbrella term that links accessibility and usability in how understandable the content in question is,” he adds.
Modern web services focus on accessibility to a commendable degree. This progress has been boosted by factors such as various statutory obligations that must be met in service provision. Examples include the EU’s Web Accessibility Directive and the Finnish Act on the Provision of Digital Services, which came into force in 2019.
According to the new European Accessibility Act, at least webshops with an annual turnover exceeding EUR 2 million must be accessible by 2025.
The greatest mistakes are made at the very start
“Organisations increasingly invest in accessibility. What poses a challenge is the fact that clients do not necessarily know to request accessible web services, while service providers are unable to provide sufficiently high quality,” Reijo points out.
In other words, the problem of matching supply and demand still exists. Reijo believes that the worst bottleneck can be found at the very start of the design process.
“The greatest mistakes are made right at the start, and it’s expensive to fix them later on. In web service projects, these problems often go undiscovered until the final phase, when accessibility testing is carried out.”
So how should this problem be solved? Engaging users in the initial phase of the design work is one key factor, but Reijo also sees room for improvement in testing the functionality of user interfaces.
“Unfortunately, issues with responsiveness are pretty typical today. Testing the functionality of user interfaces with various terminal devices and different user specs is not given nearly enough attention,” Reijo says.
“All design should start from the purpose, content and key elements of the service in question,” he adds.
In Reijo’s experience, users are lost precisely because services may include hundreds of different interactive elements per page – regardless of whether the page is optimised for mobile devices or not.
“In practice, pages often have a hamburger menu but the page is otherwise the same, which makes it very hard to understand and use. The user experience is poor because the page function is not optimised.”
Accessibility has long been regarded as a technical requirement, even though it is also strongly linked to the comprehensibility of the content and visual elements. Even if a service is technically accessible, its user experience may be anything but pleasant.
“If a website is technically accessible, it does not necessarily indicate whether a particular service path is functional from end to end. This should always be ensured, which brings us back to how accessibility and usability are interlinked,” Reijo emphasises.
Conventions have found their place
The importance of conventions, or familiar models, is often brought up in usability design because people are also used to doing things in a certain way in the web service context. From the perspective of accessibility, we are talking about the concept of building a mind map.
“When users go to a particular page, they assume that they will find certain things in a certain order. This is also a matter of convention,” Reijo says.
“If something deviates from convention, the client has to use more cognitive capacity to understand the page’s logic,” Reijo points out.
He says that it is understandable for designers to want to come up with something new and amazing, but people have limited cognitive capacity – and limited motor memory, which is particularly the case for users of assistive software.
In order for users to efficiently learn to use assistive tools, certain things should be located in specific spots and function as expected. Users of assistive tools find the functions based on certain motor trajectories, such as shortcut keys. If this basic logic does not work, the user is lost.
Neither rocket science nor cutting corners
The services offered by Annanpura, which Reijo represents, include various accessibility audits and testing. Reijo says that quality management is a priority at Annanpura, and two perspectives are emphasised in testing: how client journeys should work and how the producer organisation could improve its quality with regard to design and software development alike.
“We often model client journeys based on case examples and provide additional information on usability from the perspective of users of assistive tools. Our reports also usually include observations of how usability can be improved, but unfortunately it’s only hindsight at that point,” Reijo says.
“We also have clients for whom we provide quality assurance during their product development sprints. If we find a bug, we report it directly to the system and provide instructions on how to correct it. We also make sure that the corrections are carried out.”
Reijo urges designers involved in developing new services to pay attention to responsiveness, as mentioned earlier. The problem is between web browsers, particularly when using mobile devices.
“You can easily test whether the readability of content suffers when the scale of the text is adjusted. Certain programs allow these features to be partly automated, but they are very expensive to fix later on.”
Regarding the future of accessible services, Reijo believes that it is of the utmost importance to use conventions with which users are familiar. Incorporating user testing into the development work is key. This allows problems to be identified in good time.
“It’s more a question of what your budget is and what your usual practices are – in other words, do you want to carry on doing what you’ve always done or invest in truly inclusive design,” Reijo says in summary.
Reijo points out that in order to develop, organisations should seek to learn from things. They should actively collect information on detected bugs or ineffective solutions and proven features, and share information to improve overall quality.
“It frustrates me to come across projects or services that always have the same problems. This indicates a problem with quality in production, meaning that the organisation has not learned from feedback or applied it to production,” Reijo emphasises.
“Instead of accessibility simply being an element of design, coding and content creation, the entire organisation should operate interactively and constantly seek to learn.”
Investing in accessibility also undeniably offers a business benefit: developing the service provider’s operations and improving quality boosts business. It is simply mathematics that the client later returns to a service provider that offers high-quality products.
The most important lessons learned
Reijo feels that he learns something from every project he participates in. However, he thinks that one of the most important lessons he has learned is the old saying: ‘If it ain't broke, don't fix it.’
“In the last one hundred years, many have tried to invent a more efficient or new type of white cane as a mobility tool, but the only practical changes have occurred in the materials used,” Reijo remarks.
“No one has been able to create a laser cane that would eliminate the true purpose of the white cane. Sometimes we just have to accept reality and leave permanent elements be.”
Reijo Juntunen is the Managing Director of Annanpura Oy and a true accessibility expert, with more than 20 years of work experience. Reijo is a well-known lecturer on the topic of web accessibility. He also has experience in business management, sales, consultancy, and leading IT projects as a project manager and software developer.
The podcast is hosted by Haallas' Head of Design Matti Linna. Matti has more than ten years of experience in UX design and service design in various industries in the public and private sectors. At the heart of Matti's design thinking are insights gained through in-depth user and customer understanding that can be used to create useful, functional, and easy-to-use digital services. In his free time, Matti can be met at the Crossfit Hall or on the mountain bike trail.