Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Accessibility in the design process

On 2007.02.07, I gave a presentation at Web Directions North on accessibility in the design process. (See podcast and other resources.)

I dedicated my presentation to my old friend Heidi Overhill in Toronto. She isn’t dead or anything, and she doesn’t even have a Web site. She’s one of the few female industrial designers in Ontario. Ask me about her research papers on chopping an onion and why soft things are never “industrial design” but hard things are. Heidi has actually taught design process and she’s the one who introduced me to it.

You can look at design process as having four or five stages. Today, I’m going with the five-stage option:

  1. Observation
  2. Ideation
  3. Evaluation
  4. Refinement
  5. Presentation

Real-world case study

We will use as a test case the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), the public-transit utility in Toronto that runs a 69-station subway system, plus hundreds of buses and streetcars. It’s a 1950s organization with an online fan base it ignored completely – until very recently. In my own catchphrase, “They run it but we love it.” (See blog post for links and background.)

There is, however, some hope in the form of the TTC’s new chief commissioner, Adam Giambrone, a 29-year-old who owns a Mac.

TTC Web site

Now let me tell you a few things about community development of the TTC Web site.

About a month and a half ago, four Toronto blogs took up a call to action about the Web site. None of the blog editors is a developer. They got a wide range of suggestions in blog comments, which tended to cluster around a few themes. I kept saying that we needed Web standards and accessibility before we started talking about new features. I also said we shouldn’t be doing this much work for free for a billion-dollar corporation.

Even though everything is online and the TTC could just read the comments, the blog editors gathered all the comments together in one place. And where did they put these comments on redesigning the TTC Web site?

In an Excel spreadsheet, using codewords. Never send a blogger to do a developer’s job.

Then, on 2007.02.04, we had an all-day event called the Toronto Transit Camp, something along the lines of a BarCamp just for the TTC.


In the first stage of the design process, we observe the problem. So let’s observe the existing site:

Here is the current TTC Web site. In theory it’s at TTC.CA, but it redirects to a set of hidden pages inside the City of Toronto site. This site was thrown together by an animation student in 1998 and has really not been touched since.


In the ideation phase, we come up with ideas to fix what we observed.


This is where accessibility really comes in. You’ve spotted all these problems and brainstormed all these solutions, but if you’re a typical designer or developer you’ll just forge right ahead and implement them. You won’t think for a second about accessibility. Even if you do, you almost certainly will not cancel a feature because you didn’t think about how to make it accessible or you can’t figure out how. Accessibility is never a dealbreaker in development.

But it should be, and I’m gonna show you it’s possible to include accessibility in everything. The surprising thing is how many times you have to cross over from Web accessibility to real-world accessibility.

You’re gonna have to take all these questions, come up with answers, and produce some kind of prototype, which I’m not gonna show you here.


This is where testing comes in.

Then you have to test everything all over again once you fix these problems.

Breaking the cycle of PDFs

Another important feature is to wean the TTC off the use of PDFs, and from using Microsoft Word to export “HTML.”

I think the bigger problem will be weaning the TTC off PowerPoint, which has a lot of accessibility problems that practically no one ever talks about. The TTC is a prisoner of PowerPoint. They’re Eddie Tufte’s worst nightmare.


Updated 2007.02.15, 2007.04.29 14:29

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