Expert interview: Digital accessibility with Adem Cifcioglu of Intopia


In the first of a new series of expert interviews, MyHost meets Adem Cifcioglu, co-founder of international agency Intopia, and catches his infectious enthusiasm for digital accessibility.

Our interview with Adem was so good that we’ve split it into two parts. Here, we talk about all the positive reasons to embrace accessibility, ways to collaborate on projects, and why it’s so much better to think in terms of usability rather than compliance. In part two we look at how the accessibility industry in Australia has developed so far and where it’s going next.

“Accessibility, to us, is a subset of usability. It’s about independence.”

When you talk with Adem Cifcioglu about digital accessibility, this is his starting point. It’s a typically optimistic, positive outlook on his favourite subject. Adem is a co-founder of digital agency Intopia and one of Australia’s most active accessibility advocates. In an hour-long conversation with him we heard the bright side of a topic that too often gets ignored, or reduced to unenjoyable compliance. The way Adem sees it, accessibility is all about building things that people can use for themselves. Things that work - and work well - for as many people as possible. And what could be better than that?

“Accessibility is about independence. So if you're selling me a product or service and I can independently interact with you without the help of my Mum, Dad, brother, sister, or whoever else, it means I can do everything myself. If people have no choice but to get someone else to help them, their independence is gone.

I push the independence factor because the aim is to remove barriers. That’s good in itself, but if you want to look at the benefits for your organisation, when you remove barriers you can make more money because you open your doors to a bigger market.

We’ll get to the size of that market soon, but first a bit more about the guy we’re hearing from. Adem has been a big part of Australia's accessibility scene for over a decade. He was one of the organisers behind community initiatives and events like the Melbourne Web Accessibility & Inclusive Design Meetup, A11y Bytes, and A11y Camp. In 2016 he co-founded Intopia, a digital agency focused on inclusive design and development. Today Intopia's accessibility testers, trainers, and consultants work with some of the biggest brands in Australia, and help create things used by tens of millions of people. He says, “We jumped in with the aim of doing good things with good clients, and making the digital world more accessible.”

Adem deliberately talks in terms of things being more or less accessible, rather than fully accessible, because that’s a more realistic way of viewing things.

“Accessibility isn’t all-or-nothing. It's not on or off, and it’s never perfect. When I say accessibility I'm not just talking about screen readers and assistive technology, either. I'm talking about whether you've done the responsive design properly, so I can use it easily on a mobile device. I’m asking whether I can increase and decrease font size. Can I use it with a keyboard? And, yes, can I use it with a screen reader or magnifier, or any of those sorts of technologies?”

"Accessibility is about independence." (Image: Sherm for Disabled And Here, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 4.0.)

The more accessible the digital world gets, the better. Look at the population of Australia. There are over 25 million people here, and 1 in 5 have a disability of some sort. The country is ageing, too, and more than half of people over 65 report a disability. Between them, all those Australians with disabilities have a disposable income of around $40B.

You might think that businesses wouldn’t need much encouragement to target a market that big, but it isn’t always a priority.

The bad old days of last-minute accessibility

“My co-founder, Sarah, and I were accessibility practitioners, working with various organisations. We'd get the call two days before a project or product launch: ‘Hey, so someone's told me that you can help me with this accessibility thing. What is it? How does it work? Oh, and I need it before we go live in two days.’

“And that's not possible, at least 9 times out of 10. Particularly at the corporate level these projects go on for months, and to try and get accessibility done in a day or a week is impossible.”

Last-minute engagement tends to come when companies treat accessibility as a form of compliance. While it’s true that inaccessible websites have led to lawsuits, there are better reasons to take accessibility seriously, and better results to be had if you chase the upside rather than just avoid the downside.

“I tend to avoid talking about potential legal issues. Yes, you might be able to get someone over the line by saying, ‘If you don't do this, you could get sued’, but that turns what can be a really fun and rewarding piece of work into a compliance exercise. People should have fun when they’re designing and building things, not do the bare minimum so they can tick a box.”

“Instead, look at all the potential benefits to organisations, like the size of their customer base. If you have two or three online retailers all selling the same thing, and one of them is more accessible then they’re open to more customers.

"I’m a wheelchair user - I'm going to pick the store with a counter that’s wheelchair height." (Image: Dominique Davis for Disabled And Here, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 4.0.)

“And people with disabilities talk, just like everyone else. Communities talk. I’m a wheelchair user - that’s my assistive technology. Say I have two choices when I'm going into a store or a bank branch, and one's got a counter that’s wheelchair height. I'm gonna pick that one that's got the right counter height. That works for me, right? I don’t need to get out of the chair, or go to a spot where there's a lower table they put there just in case. Then when I’m talking to anyone else in a wheelchair, I'm going to go, ‘Go here, where it was actually really easy to move around and independently do things’.”

This example illustrates how usability and accessibility intersect. A low table in an out-of-the-way corner of a bank branch may be accessible, but a counter at the right height is much more usable for anyone in a wheelchair, like Adem. The just-in-case table is compliant, but is it really enough?

People should have fun when they’re designing and building things, not doing the bare minimum so they can tick a box.

The way Adem sees it, when developers or designers think of accessibility as compliance they aim for a minimum standard. “They’re not thinking about what makes a good experience. They’re asking, what’s the bare minimum that we can do to tick this box? Am I compliant yet?”

This leads to what Adem calls “technical compliance” - a situation where the boxes are ticked but the experience isn’t actually much better for the people who ought to benefit most. “You can be completely compliant with WCAG, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, and still be hugely inaccessible. If it’s not usable it’s not accessible.”

WCAG - the official guidelines

WCAG (pronounced “wikk-ag”) sets the global benchmark for accessibility. The guidelines have been around since 1999 and the latest version, WCAG 2.1, was released by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in 2018. The 13 guidelines are organised under four main principles - that for all users, web content should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Under each guideline are a number of success criteria which let you measure your accessibility by degrees. It’s a big document, but specialists like Adem almost have it memorised.

“The guidelines and success criteria, and the technical side of things, is only half the equation though. From a building website and apps perspective, there's UX involved in that whole project process. Accessibility, to us, is a subset of usability. It's doing things to make your product or your service more usable. For everybody.

"Can I use it easily on a mobile device? Can I increase and decrease font size? Can I use it with a keyboard? A screen reader? A magnifier?" (Image: Sherm for Disabled And Here, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 4.0.)

“Obviously, from a guidelines perspective, accessibility focuses on people with disabilities. But, geez, why tick all the WCAG boxes without taking any other usability into account?”

The Mega Menu From Hell: Compliant, but unusable

Adem has a favourite example of technical compliance in action.

“Many years ago, I had a client, a large online retailer, with what I’ll affectionately call The Mega Menu From Hell. It was five or six levels deep. So you have a menu, then sub-menu, then another sub-menu, down to the end. It was great, except it didn’t work. We had to make it properly keyboard accessible and screen reader accessible.

“As the accessibility consultant, I said that of course we can do that. Sure enough the W3C had a menu pattern that you could use to add attributes and roles to elements in HTML, which turned things into a menu. And then you bind your up and down arrow keys so you can move through menu items with the keyboard, and hit Enter to expand and collapse.

“It was technically compliant with everything. It was a work of art. All I can say is, thank goodness we put it through usability testing! Usability testing with people with disabilities is really important. It's one of the things at the centre of what we do at Intopia.”

Testing, testing

Adem watched a user equipped with Jaws, their usual screen reader, try to get to grips with the website that he’d been working on.

“One of the tasks was to open a particular page. Screen readers will give you shortcuts to do particular functions, and the first thing the user did was use a shortcut to bring up the list of links on the page. Because you navigate a website using links, right?“

The problem was that Adem’s careful development used the ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications specification) menu pattern, which turned links into menu items. By doing what they always did and heading straight for links, the user missed the menu entirely. Their number one navigation technique didn’t work.

“So they moved around the page and tabbed onto a thing called Navigation Menu. They started tabbing through that.” This second attempt let Adem see his new menu in action.

You can be completely compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and still be hugely inaccessible. If it’s not usable it’s not accessible.

The first submenu sounded right. Expecting another press of the Tab key to take them through that section, the user was surprised when it skipped to the next submenu instead. With confusion mounting, they headed back and guessed that the Enter key would work instead. With the submenu now open, they hit Tab and…once again skipped to the top of the next submenu. “And they said, ‘Umm…why??’”

It took three attempts to find and open the right submenu, then two attempts to land on arrow keys to move through the options. Success came, eventually, but this compliant experience was hardly a good one.

The user’s feedback was straightforward: “I’m navigating a website, and you do that with links. Give me a list of links that I can bring up. It’ll take me 30 seconds instead of spending 5 minutes working out how to use a menu.”

“We’d used an unexpected menu pattern, which for expert users probably would have been fine. We would have been in trouble if we launched like that, though, because 95% of your population are not experts. We ended up ripping out all our nice menu code and going back to links. We made sure that submenus only showed up when they were opened, so the link list didn’t give you 17,000 links from the mega-menu all at once.”

Lessons for your business

Not every business can have its own in-house accessibility team, or consultants on tap, but there are still some first steps that you can take.

Test websites with real people

The Mega Menu From Hell shows why it’s important for tests to include people who reflect everyday users of websites, rather than power users. That’s why website testing is one of Intopia's key services. As Adem puts it, “you have to recruit testers through all levels of experience - you want a broad cross-section of the real-life situation.”

“We brief our clients on what to expect and the fact that different people will have different experiences. Even within disability groups, the experience is very individual. Every person's disability is unique. I’ve got cerebral palsy, but it will be different to someone else's cerebral palsy. One screen reader user is different to another screen reader user, one person's dyslexia is different to another person's dyslexia.”

Involve people with disabilities as you build

This is Adem's number one piece of advice for companies that are looking to improve their accessibility: “Involve people with disability in your design and development process. Get an understanding of how they actually use products and services. That's the most valuable thing, because at the end of the day they're going to be the people who are using your product or service and they’ll either become a detractors to your brand, or your biggest advocates. We talk!”

"Involve people with disability in your design and development process. Get an understanding of how they actually use products and services. That's the most valuable thing." (Image: Dice Bundy for Disabled And Here, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 4.0.)

Ignore the fear of getting it wrong and try!

Any business can work on the basics of accessibility. Adem would rather see designers and developers try, rather than fear getting things wrong. “Sure, accessibility is a specialisation, but that doesn't mean no one else can do it.”

Take the example of a drop-down menu. Designers don’t need to be accessibility gurus to make sure that it passes colour contrast for readability, and that it has focus indicators for keyboard navigation. Similarly developers can take care of basic keyboard navigation, like Tabbing through options and using Enter to select.

To help you do everything you can, Intopia has created free tools including an Accessiblity Not-Checklist that gives you step-by-step guidance, and a Figma accessiblity annotation kit.

Sure, accessibility is a specialisation, but that doesn't mean no one else can do it.

To Adem it’s a positive thing any time non-specialists consider accessibility while they build. Every bit of good work that gets done upfront means less retrofitting and re-work later. But he also says that it’s unrealistic to expect even the most diligent designers and developers to get the same results as an accessibility specialist. “We live and breathe the guidelines,” he says, “so we keep up with everything, and we instinctively know things that others won’t. If accessibility isn’t your only job, there will be things that you don’t know.”

In the drop-down menu example, that could mean connecting its behaviour to the document object model (DOM), which screen readers rely on to know how a page’s content is reordered when the menu opens. It could also include decisions that account for users’ expectations - for example how the Space bar or Escape key work as you navigate the menu.

Use automated tools, but don't always rely on them

On the subject of in-house, non-expert accessibility work, Adem is also a (qualified) fan of automated testing tools, even if they are far from perfect.

“It's great! If someone’s using the tools that are out there, that means they're trying. They're trying to make it better, and make something accessible. You can't and you shouldn't penalise anyone for that, because anything is better than nothing.

“Automated accessibility testing can pick up somewhere between 20 and 30% of the WCAG success criteria - only the things that you can reliably pass or fail. Anything open to interpretation needs some sort of manual check. For example, an automated testing tool can tell you that an image has alt text. If the alt text isn’t blank, it’ll come up as valid. This may change in the future with AI, but right now if your picture is of a cat and your alt text says ‘dog’, automated testing can’t tell you that this is wrong. It’s the same thing with button labels - the answer is going to come back yes or no. If it has a label, that's great. But is the label fit for purpose?”

Automated accessibility testing can pick up somewhere between 20 and 30% of the WCAG success criteria.

“As an accessibility consultant I can come in after you’ve fixed all the issues that can be reliably tested. So it's leaving us to do the more technical work, rather than counting images that don't have alt text or finding headings that are H2s but should be H3s.”

Work together

Closer collaboration means that different experts don’t step on each others’ toes. “There is absolutely a misconception that accessibility has to be ugly, but some of this comes from the old way of doing things where accessibility was left till the end of a process. When you're retrofitting something to get to a launch that's two days away, are you going to go back to your design team and ask them for some nice focus indicators? No, you're gonna go in there yourself and go: ‘okay, um, on focus: border, two pixels wide, black’, then move on. I've designed some stuff that is quite ugly but it didn’t look bad because it’s accessible, it looked bad because I'm not a designer.”

Focus indicators are the boxes that appear around buttons, links and other elements when you use a keyboard to navigate a webpage. “The number of people that I've spoken to who ask, can we remove those? Because they don't match the brand or they just look ugly. But that’s something you can change. All the requirement says is that it’s got to be there, and it's got to pass colour-contrast. It doesn’t have to be really thick, or black, or anything else. You just have to have a visually obvious focus indicator. You can use your brand colours, and incorporate it into the actual design of the website.”

Keeping it positive

By thinking about accessibility while you design and build, you make websites that are more usable. And when things are more usable they are more appealing, especially to the millions of Australians with disabilities. When you see accessibility as a way to broaden your audience and improve the work that you do, you start to understand what animates Adem Cifcioglu.

In the second part of this interview, we asked Adem about accessibility in Australia - what’s changed in Intopia’s seven years, the current situation, and how the future might look. Read part two now.

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