In 2016, Fearless was awarded a contract with the Small Business Administration (SBA) to modernize their HUBZone Certifications and Compliance products to provide a better and more efficient user experience. During the discovery phase of this project, we found that SBA had challenges with the 508 compliancy of their old HUBZone map. So we knew from the get-go that we needed to put a strong emphasis on accessibility, and we were careful not to design or develop anything that would make it difficult to use with assistive technology. Because of this, we didn’t just create an application and then tack on some accessibility features at the end; we made accessibility an integral part of our problem-solving process for this software modernization project.
So, how do you ensure that your application meets the highest standards of 508 compliance? Testing, testing, and more testing! We put the HUBZone map through the ringer before we were satisfied. There were three main categories of testing that we employed for this project:
- Analysis Testing
- We used the analysis tool Tenon.io throughout the design process to constantly identify and resolve issues with the application.
- Assistive Technology Testing
- To ensure the application was accessible, we used ChromeVox (screen reader) to test the application before beginning our in-person usability sessions. While each assistive technology is different, they should interpret websites and applications fairly consistently. By using ChromeVox, we ensured that all parts of the app were labeled appropriately, the tab order made sense, and all images had the proper description tags.
- Usability Testing with WV School for the Deaf and Blind
Step 1: The Protocol
Developing a protocol is a critical step in all usability testing, as it offers the usability moderator important guidelines as the users test the application and encourages them to ask a standard set of questions to each participant. It’s important to remember that, because the purpose of the application is to allow both able-bodied individuals and those with disabilities to accomplish specific tasks, you should not make separate protocols for each. While you may need to make slight modifications to each group’s protocol based on ability, the basic tasks should remain the same. Our protocol includes:
- Introductory language stating the purpose of the session
- Important details, including privacy statement
- Basic overview of how each task will work
- Detailed procedure for each task, including a goal, description, and a prompt (the prompt is what is read aloud to the participant)
- After each task, a series of follow-up questions is asked based on the user’s responses, including a basic survey with numeric responses. The purpose of this is to receive quantitative feedback from each participant as data points
- Final questions are asked at the end both by the participant and moderator
- Wrap-up / Thank you
Step 2: Testing at the WV School for the Deaf and Blind
Finding participants for usability testing can be challenging, but thanks to our relationship with the HUBZone Council, we were put in touch with the West Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind for this project. The school allowed us to come in for a day and conduct user studies with some of their faculty members. Each session allowed us to see firsthand how visually impaired individuals navigated the HUBZone map as compared to previous sessions with sighted users. This gave us valuable feedback on the usability of our application, allowing us to identify key areas of improvement.
During each testing session, we watched how the user navigated the application, asking a variety of questions and gaining valuable feedback on each user’s findings. Surprisingly, our usability tests found that users with visual impairments were able to use the map as well as or better than sighted users! However, they still raised a number of important concerns that we were able to address in future sprints. Some of these users noted that the icons and checkboxes in the map’s legend were a source of confusion, and that the base map toggle labels were not clear. Using this feedback, we created user stories to address these and other issues, making our site more accessible to visually impaired users. Software development is a constant process of improvement and refinement, and while no website will ever be perfect for every user, performing usability testing with a diverse group of individuals can provide insightful feedback on how your software can meet the needs of the greatest number of users, regardless of ability or disability.
Building software that’s 508 compliant is a difficult, multi-step process, but it’s so worth it in the end. Following 508 standards means creating software that can be reached by the millions of Americans who have disabilities, giving them access to resources and services that they would otherwise be excluded from. And if creating accessible software isn’t enough of a draw in and of itself, there are many more benefits to building accessible applications: developing software that is accessible to users with disabilities–particularly those with visual impairments–forces you to simplify your layouts and designs, which ultimately creates a more efficient application. Streamlining your designs to make them more accessible to assistive technologies also makes them more intuitive and visually appealing to users without disabilities, and increased keyboard functionality can likewise increase user productivity. So, what’s stopping you?