Building a culture of accessibility at Onfido

Charlotte Sferruzza

Charlotte is one of our Product Design Leads at Onfido. In this blog, she writes about designing for accessibility, and what she’s learnt from her experiences.

At Onfido, we help businesses verify people’s identities via our integrated app. Using pictures of identity documents and faces, we give our clients the assurance they need to onboard customers via remote and secure identity verification.

Access is at the heart of everything we do. Our entire product revolves around giving people access to online services. So it’s vital that our product is accessible to everyone. In my role as a Product Designer, I’ve learnt some important things about accessibility, which I’ll share in this blog.

Making your product accessible is a team effort

As a product designer, I’ve been learning and applying accessibility principles for most of my career. When talking to other designers, engineers, or product managers at Onfido, I realized we all experienced accessibility differently. We all had different knowledge about it and varying degrees of understanding.

Accessibility shouldn’t only concern designers, it’s a team effort. To ensure we’re taking the best approach towards being accessible, it has been essential for us to onboard the whole company.

Make everyone aware of accessibility

I’ve started a dialogue around accessibility within the company. My team and I gave company-wide presentations to help raise awareness. At Onfido, there are a lot of opportunities to talk to the whole team, so we regularly mention accessibility and the work we’ve done, and continue to do, around it.

At the end of 2019, we embarked on an accessibility project. We wanted to include people outside of our immediate team to encourage them to think more deeply about it moving forward. The result was an improved screen reader experience on our Android app.

We’ve put together a whitepaper about our accessibility project, what we learnt from it and what other businesses could take from our learnings. To find out more, take a look at our whitepaper

Build empathy among employees

We often run initial usability testing sessions with our colleagues, before running them with external users. It’s a great way to make everybody familiar with what we’re building, and provides an opportunity to test accessibility and build empathy.

We use different tools and techniques to create more realistic user testing environments. For example, we use Cambridge simulation glasses to simulate sight loss, and have taped users’ finger joints together when they use their phones to simulate mobility issues like arthritis.

There’s no better way to create empathy than when people experience challenging situations themselves.

Work with external experts

We started working with the RNIB and DAC a few years ago. Our main goal, even before auditing our products, was to understand accessibility beyond the WCAG guidelines.

Accessibility is about human experience, so it’s almost impossible to grasp it’s full meaning without talking to humans. Meeting with experts helped learn a lot. We shared our findings with the team and the whole company.

This introduction to the topic helped us solve simple accessibility issues. Then, we ran audits on specific products to create a roadmap that would help us tackle flagged issues in a smart way.

During our accessibility audit with the DAC, we got the opportunity to observe some testing sessions. It taught us a lot about assistive technology. But the most valuable insights came from observing people using our apps and seeing them struggling. It was impossible to make assumptions regarding accessibility problems without seeing how people really used our products. Observing them was an eye-opening experience, and really helped us understand their frustrations.

Meet the wider community

Not surprisingly (although still an issue given the lack of diversity on some accessibility panels), people with disabilities are usually the best people to talk about accessibility.

Look out for accessibility meet-ups in your area. Invite your team and enjoy an evening of learning and sharing. My favourite meet-up in London is the London Accessibility Meetup.

Put yourself in your user’s shoes

It’s a common design principle, but an important one to keep in mind.

Most smartphones have built-in accessibility features: explore them, try them, use them. I sometimes challenge myself to send text messages using voice control only. I also try to use my screen reader without looking at my phone to browse through my emails.

It’s important to test your product using accessibility features. You never know, maybe one day they’ll be vital to you.

Embed accessibility in your processes

Accessibility should be something to consider at the beginning of your design process, rather than as an afterthought. Just like making sure your product solves the right problem, you should make sure your solution is accessible.

Accessibility should be part of your design critiques and quality testing process. Audit your product frequently, and remember that automatic testing can only spot 71% of usability issues, which is why you need real people to audit it.

Make sure accessibility is at the heart of what you do

Almost everyone will experience accessibility issues at some point in their life. As you can see from the image below, disabilities can be permanent, temporary or situational.

Disabilities can be permanent, temporary or situational (source: Microsoft Inclusive Toolkit)

Building an accessible product will not only benefit the 15% of people who live with a disability in the world, it will benefit everyone. So while it’s an ongoing challenge, it’s one that should be baked in into your organisation’s processes.

Making sure your product is accessible is not a box-ticking exercise. It requires the awareness of your entire team. It takes a company-wide effort to make an impact on people in the real world.

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