Overcome obstacles with accessible software

Pro­fes­sional Arti­cle

Barrier-​free work­ing

The term “barrier-​free” is orig­i­nally derived from the build­ing indus­try and means that, for exam­ple, access to a build­ing or the use of an object should not be made more dif­fi­cult for any­one by obsta­cles of any kind. We find acces­si­bil­ity improve­ments in many pub­lic places. For exam­ple, ramps make it eas­ier for wheel­chair users to over­come height dif­fer­ences, while sound sig­nals at traf­fic lights “trans­late” the sig­nal for blind and visu­ally hand­i­capped peo­ple to cross the street.

Sim­i­larly, acces­si­ble soft­ware is intended to enable all employ­ees of a com­pany to do the same work. Typ­i­cal obsta­cles arise from phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties, such as reduced sense of sight or hear­ing or reduced motor skills.

But what require­ments needs soft­ware to meet to enable all employ­ees to do the same work? And how can soft­ware com­pen­sate these lim­i­ta­tions?

How can soft­ware become acces­si­ble?

Cri­te­ria for acces­si­ble soft­ware are defined by var­i­ous stan­dards, such as ISO 9241 for the “Ergonomie der Mensch-​System-​Interaktion”, the “Web Con­tent Acces­si­bil­ity Guide­lines (WCAG)” of the World Wide Web Con­sor­tium and the “Bar­ri­ere­freie Infor­ma­tion­stech­nik Verord­nung (BITV 2.0)”:

  • Sep­a­ra­tion of text and lay­out so that text can be read by screen read­ers and out­put on a Braille line.
  • Alter­na­tives must be offered for non-​textual con­tent. For exam­ple, so-​called Alt tags for images and graph­ics.
  • Con­tent must be pre­pared in such a way that it can be read with­out loss of infor­ma­tion.
  • Color should not be the only way to trans­mit infor­ma­tion or ini­ti­ate a reac­tion – such as the color red for but­tons and warn­ings.
  • All func­tions should be able to be car­ried out via key­board in order to make con­trol eas­ier for peo­ple with lim­ited mobil­ity.
  • Con­nec­tiv­ity to oper­at­ing sys­tems and devices to ensure con­nec­tiv­ity to screen read­ers, read­ing aids and other assis­tive tech­nolo­gies.
  • Scal­ing and dis­play con­nec­tiv­ity to enable zoom­ing, invert­ing or par­tic­u­larly high-​contrast dis­plays.

Open from scratch

These cri­te­ria seem log­i­cal, since they define mod­ern soft­ware archi­tec­tures with a “clean”, uni­ver­sal code. In good soft­ware appli­ca­tions, all func­tions should be usable by all users. How­ever, prac­tice looks dif­fer­ent. Often the code is not acces­si­ble. Screen read­ers do not get access to the infor­ma­tion or worse: Infor­ma­tion is read incor­rectly or incom­pletely. Exactly this should not hap­pen with acces­si­ble appli­ca­tion sce­nar­ios, after all, blind peo­ple must be able to rely on assis­tive tech­nolo­gies.

Bar­ri­ers are often cre­ated not only by the code, but also by the user inter­face. Like the trend in the net, mod­ern soft­ware is strongly visual. Appli­ca­tions work with images, graph­ics, col­ored or ani­mated ele­ments, float­ing menus, drag and drop or over­lays. Screen­read­ers and other assis­tive tech­nolo­gies have dif­fi­cul­ties deal­ing with such user inter­faces. For busi­ness soft­ware, less is more.

Clearly struc­tured user inter­faces that are easy to access, even if they may seem bor­ing, are very likely barrier-​free – and can usu­ally be used more effec­tively by users with­out restric­tions.

Good basis: A detailed cat­a­logue of require­ments

In numer­ous projects for acces­si­ble soft­ware appli­ca­tions, the require­ment cat­a­logs con­tain only very few spec­i­fi­ca­tions. On the one hand, because cus­tomers often do not have the rel­e­vant expe­ri­ence, on the other hand, because there is a lack of spe­cific knowl­edge. The ques­tions are as fol­lows: What must and what can be imple­mented? And in what way?

Take the exam­ple of a call cen­ter: The process Call – Answer – Process – Hang up – Post­process is to be designed to be acces­si­ble for blind employ­ees and col­leagues with phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions.

For blind users, the com­plete con­trol via mouse must be trans­ferred to the Braille key­board in short­cuts, tab­u­la­tor con­trol as well as input and out­put. An alter­na­tive to mouse con­trol also helps users with phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions, because tab­u­la­tors and short­cuts are often faster than mouse con­trol. For peo­ple with visual hand­i­caps, pos­si­bil­i­ties for extreme zoom and strong con­trast must also be cre­ated. It is also impor­tant to con­sider how the process and sub-​processes are mod­eled:

  • For exam­ple, how should blind employ­ees be noti­fied of an incom­ing call and how do they accept it?
  • How do phys­i­cally hand­i­capped users who can only type slowly or to a lim­ited extent doc­u­ment busi­ness trans­ac­tions?
  • How are addi­tional doc­u­ments – for exam­ple dis­cus­sion guides – made acces­si­ble?

Finally, the “trans­lated” func­tions must be put into skill sets and user pro­files that require cer­tain skills and exper­tise. For the suc­cess­ful imple­men­ta­tion of this highly com­plex process, good foun­da­tions should be laid right from the start. A clear and detailed cat­a­logue of require­ments saves many iter­a­tions and test cycles.

Expe­ri­enced part­ners

In the devel­op­ment of busi­ness appli­ca­tions, mixed teams of IT peo­ple, devel­op­ers, busi­ness man­agers and users are proven. Even in barrier-​free projects, it can make sense to involve actual users – dis­abled and not – in the devel­op­ment process. Hand­i­capped users in par­tic­u­lar can con­tribute impor­tant ideas based on their every­day expe­ri­ence.

If you do not have detailed tech­no­log­i­cal knowl­edge or expe­ri­ence with acces­si­ble soft­ware, you should not be afraid to call in experts. For exam­ple, a rep­utable part­ner can pro­vide you with con­tacts to those respon­si­ble for ref­er­ence projects. So you can talk to your col­leagues and ben­e­fit from their expe­ri­ence. Even with good pre-​conditions, it takes many tests and iter­a­tions to achieve barrier-​free oper­a­tion.

Please do not hes­i­tate to con­tact us if you have any ques­tions about barrier-​free soft­ware or if you are look­ing for an expe­ri­enced and reli­able part­ner who can help you with the real­iza­tion of such a project.