An Accessible Design Maturity Continuum

Posted on Thursday, 26 June 2014 by David Sloan
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We spend an increasing amount of time helping organizations develop a culture and practice of accessible user experience (AUX). We believe that the chances of creating more inclusive, more effective, more enjoyable digital resources and experiences are increased if accessibility and diversity are integrated into the design approach right from the start. However, this typically requires a significant change in thinking and in practice within the organization. In order to help make this change, it can be useful to identify an organization’s level of what we call accessible design maturity.

Evaluating readiness for positive change

When evaluating how best to change an accessible UX strategy for the better, we start by understanding how accessibility is currently considered in strategy and activity, and then identifying how the situation can be improved. One way to do this is to refer to WebAIM’s Hierarchy for Motivating Accessibility Change, which defines a series of stages to help accessibility advocates encourage organizations to adopt accessibility.

Another useful approach is to look at an organisation’s current research and design practice, to assess readiness for integrating accessibility into a mature, user-centered design approach. A few years ago, Jess McMullin produced a very helpful modelA Rough Design Maturity Continuum. This model identified five stages of organizational design maturity, ranging from having no conscious design strategy to using design to identify and redefine challenges.

A proposed “Accessible Design Maturity Continuum”

Using a “design thinking” approach to accessibility in practice, we’ve adapted Jess McMullin’s model to help us think about an organization’s accessible design maturity. Table 1 shows a comparison between the two design continuums.

Table 1: Translating a Rough Design Maturity Continuum into a Rough Accessible Design Maturity Continuum
Design as… McMullin’s Rough Design Maturity Continuum TPG’s Rough Accessible Design Maturity Continuum
1. NO CONSCIOUS DESIGN Design value isn’t recognised. This attitude fosters design by default—however things come out is fine, because there are more important things to deal with. Accessibility isn’t recognized in the design process. Any accessibility happens by chance.
2. STYLE Design is the gateway to be hip and cool. Design is stylish, but too often is perceived and practiced as a cosmetic after thought. Efforts are limited to addition of a few cosmetic accessibility features, with little positive impact on users.
3. FUNCTION AND FORM Design makes things work better. This is the classic practice of design—but it’s still commonly limited to incremental improvements through iteration over existing solutions. Focus is on following accessibility guidelines in order to achieve technical compliance. Improvements are made, but users are not directly part of the accessible design process.
4. PROBLEM SOLVING Design finds new opportunities by solving existing problems. Design process generates alternatives within a problem space. Design also narrows down those options to a specific solution. A more strategic process of researching and designing solutions to support accessible task completion, but still within a pre-defined design concept.
5. FRAMING Design redefines the challenges facing the organisation. Framing sets the agenda, outlines the boundaries and axes of interest. And moves design from executing strategy to shaping strategy. Disruptive innovation lives here. Accessibility and diversity are integrated into the design process, driving creative thought and sparking innovation.

In more detail, the five stages in our accessible design maturity continuum are:

1. No Conscious Design

At this most basic stage, organizations have no conscious focus on accessibility, and the needs of people with disabilities are not explicitly considered or recognized in the design process.

Any accessibility features that exist happen by chance, and no deliberate efforts are made to enhance accessibility. As a result, the level of accessibility of the output of the design process is likely to be very low.

2. Style

Organizations recognize the concept of accessibility but have little in-depth understanding of the objectives and don’t see it as a priority.

Attention is not paid to fundamentals of accessible design, like sound structural markup, full keyboard accessibility or appropriate alternative text for images; certain potentially beneficial accessibility features such as keyboard focus indication may be actively resisted for fear of upsetting visual aesthetics. Instead, efforts tend to focus on the addition of a few cosmetic, very visible accessibility features, such as boiler-plate, generic accessibility statements, complex accesskey mappings or adding title attributes to every link—features that might give an impression of delivering accessibility but in reality are of comparatively limited practical help to people with disabilities.

3. Function and Form

Recognition of accessibility becomes more mature, but efforts are focused on following accessibility guidelines, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), in order to achieve technical compliance.

Activities tend to be driven by the desire to ensure that conformance is achieved, rather than supporting successful task completion. Whilst technical accessibility levels are raised, involvement of people with disabilities in research and design work to understand the problem space and validate appropriate solutions is still minimal. As a result, in some cases, well-meaning accessibility efforts adversely affect user experience for people with disabilities, for example through the presence of over-elaborate alternative text for every image, or the inclusion of static content in a page’s keyboard focus order.

4. Problem Solving

At this point, consideration of people with diverse accessibility needs plays a much stronger role in accessible design activity, and user experience design becomes more prominent.

While accessibility guidelines still play an important role in the design process, focus moves from conformance testing to supporting successful task completion by people with disabilities, and identifying, designing and evaluating ways in which people who use assistive technology can effectively navigate, receive information and enter data.

However, this more strategic approach to accessible design still exists within an established design approach, and there may be significant technical or design constraints that limit the scope to create optimally accessible user experiences.

5. Framing

At the highest level of maturity, designing to accommodate user diversity is recognized and embraced as an integral part of the design process.

People with disabilities are involved in UX research and design activities right from the start, and a more sensitive awareness of needs and preferences encourages creative approaches to identifying real world challenges and designing new and effective ways of tackling them. The result is digital products and services that can be used in diverse, and possibly unexpected situations, and in diverse and unexpected ways.

Using the continuum to measure and drive progress

First introduced at our UX Scotland 2014 workshop, we hope this accessibility maturity continuum can aid organizations in assessing their current approach to accessible UX design, how far they need to move in order to effectively embrace accessible UX, and what activities are needed in order to help them get there.

We think that adopting a design thinking approach to accessible UX—combining a solid understanding of how people with disabilities currently use digital resources with a creative approach to identifying solutions—can help organizations move more rapidly and successfully along the continuum.


About David Sloan

David Sloan is User Experience Research Lead with The Paciello Group. He joined TPG in May 2013, after nearly 14 years researching, teaching and providing consultancy on accessibility and inclusive design at the University of Dundee in Scotland. He is an active participant in a number of W3C accessibility-focused groups, and is a Steering Committee member of the annual W4A Cross-Disciplinary Conference on Web Accessibility.


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