This week, Facebook announced the launch of the Accessibility Toolkit, which gives a behind-the-scenes look at the company's efforts in product usability for the blind and vision-impaired, and offers resources for helping other companies approach the subject.
"When Facebook formed its Accessibility Engineering team in 2011, we experienced the same daunting challenge that many companies face: How do you incorporate accessibility within the company's existing engineering environment? Having spent the past few years working toward this goal, we’ve learned a lot along the way, and continue to learn each day," writes Facebook's Jeffrey Wieland on the company's code blog.
The toolkit includes a guide through the component library, documentation, quality assurance, engineer training, communication/feedback and general culture around accessibility. It covers how Facebook itself monitors feedback and shares its work publicly, and how it integrates accessibility into QA processes and runs testing with people who have disabilities.
It also shares this touching video about how a blind mother uses Facebook to "break down stigma".
Communication and Feedback
The help center dives into accessibility basics, such as the best ways to access Facebook while using assistive technology, using screen readers, navigating with keyboard shortcuts, and how adding a mobile number to an account can make it more accessible. It also gets into accessibility for privacy and account settings, profile and timeline, News Feed, iOS apps, video, photos, and more.
"At the beginning of 2014 we started running usability studies with people who use assistive technology," Facebook says. "This is a fantastic way to get in-depth feedback and understand the entire experience of using Facebook. While many challenges for accessibility can be resolved at a detail level, we have to understand how people interact with our product from beginning to end to build a complete experience. Usability studies are also a great way to make accessibility less abstract and more tangible for engineers learning about it for the first time."
Within the company, Facebook has a group specifically for people who are interested in the company's accessibility efforts, and it's used to gather feedback from staff members who use Facebook all day long. This is really just an extension of the "accessible culture" the company says it's building.
"Building an accessible culture can only happen when accessibility is integrated into the initiatives and teams within your company," it says. "This isn't something that can be broken down into a series of steps. Instead, it's a gradual shift in the way people think about accessibility internally. By constantly reinforcing the importance of accessibility and having spokespeople within the company delivering the same message, people will start to think about accessibility as a way of doing things in the company rather than as an afterthought."
Facebook shares stories from staff about accessibility culture here.
The Quality Assurance portion of the toolkit explains how accessibility is part of the central QA process at Facebook, how accessibility improvements move from QA to Product Operations to Engineering, and how ownership is distributed across product and platform teams.
"Our main goal is to help Facebook's product teams working across platforms to build the most accessible experiences possible.," the company says in the training portion. "For them to do this, they need to understand how accessibility works on their platforms. Most engineers coming from both industry and academia have had little exposure to the field of accessibility (there are exceptions, of course, but they are few). We can't expect people who have never heard of accessibility to be equipped to build accessible software applications. So we train them."
It runs down its guiding principles for its approach to education as well as its three formal training programs within engineering. All new engineers, for example, must go through a general six-week bootcamp, with those who work on the front end stack being required to go through an in-depth intro to Facebook's web infrastructure, which includes accessibility best practices and additional related resources.
The component library section of the toolkit illustrates how Facebook makes things like dialogs, typeaheads, and menus more accessible.
Finally, the Documentation portion of the toolkit explains how the company incorporates accessibility into its vast amount of documentation. This includes using an FAQ format.
"We don't cover all accessibility topics, just those we expect a generalist engineer to own. We don't expect a generalist engineer to become a student of ARIA’s history, so we omit it," it says.
Examples of things it expects a generalist engineer to own include adding labels to buttons, adding alt text for static images, making sure UI elements get focus, and using modern components from the Component Library.
Facebook is calling on other companies to share their approach to accessibility on the Facebook Accessibility page, and is hiring engineers to work in this area, including for WhatsApp.
Images via Facebook