Inclusive Design Is Central to Accessible Product Development

A pair of designers working on an inclusive design system on a giant computer screen.

Image Description: A pair of designers working on an inclusive design system on a giant computer screen.

Inclusive Design Is Central to Accessible Product Development

Salesforce’s vice president of product accessibility advocates for inclusive design and meaningful engagement of people with disabilities throughout the design process, rejecting the outdated practice of post-development usability studies.

May 16, 2024

An overview:

  • Salesforce leads the charge in accessibility with its "shift left" approach, prioritizing inclusive design principles from the outset of product development.

  • Derek Featherstone, Vice President of Product Accessibility & Inclusive Design at Salesforce, advocates for meaningful engagement of people with disabilities throughout the design process, rejecting the outdated practice of only conducting post-development usability studies.

  • The company's proactive inclusive design strategy involves extensive initial research to understand user experiences, continuously consulting people with disabilities, and integrating accessibility testing at every stage.

  • Despite progress, Featherstone warns against complacency, emphasizing the ongoing need to include diverse disability perspectives and challenge assumptions in design—in every phase.

While the websites and products of many Fortune 100 companies remain inaccessible, Salesforce continues its push for company-wide adoption of inclusive design principles.

Also known as its “shift left” approach to product development, the cloud-based software leader ensures accessibility is prioritized at the beginning of the design process. This reduces the barriers professionals with disabilities encounter when interfacing with a Salesforce product.

Derek Featherstone, Vice President of Product Accessibility & Inclusive design at Salesforce, recently spoke with InclusionHub about Salesforce's ongoing quest to develop accessibility-first products and services.

Designing With Disabilities in Mind From the Beginning

Historically, when a company develops its products, accessibility is addressed at the end of the design process. It’ll conduct a usability study with people with disabilities once a product has mostly already been built.

“They get the feedback, ‘This worked well’ or ‘It didn't work very well,’ and now they need to go and fix a bunch of things,” Featherstone says of this antiquated approach. “They almost look at it as ‘We got approval from people with disabilities. This is good to go.’”

This “afterthought” mentality is unacceptable in the minds of Salesforce developers and product designers.

“We need to find ways to engage and create with people with disabilities earlier and more meaningfully in the process,” he continues. “That requires you to no longer think of people with disabilities as approving or disapproving. It's not just about being earlier in the process. It's about giving them a bigger role than simply somebody who says at the end, ‘You did it right’ or ‘You did it wrong.’”

The Inclusive Design Approach at Salesforce

Inclusive design is a proactive approach.

You seek out people with disabilities before developing code or fully deploying a product, Featherstone explains. This introduces different perspectives to the design process, supercharging your team’s creativity.

“When we engage people with disabilities earlier in the process, we get new ideas,” the veteran accessibility designer says. “We go and interview people with disabilities to find out how they already perceive the space, how they already solve that problem. We identify which barriers already exist and work through them.”

Initial Research Phase

This inclusive investigation of user pain points keeps designers and developers on the right path from the start.

Salesforce uses several questions to guide initial research:

  • What is the problem space here?
  • What don't we understand about how people with disabilities experience the identified problem?
  • How do we engage people with disabilities and have them participate throughout the entire design process?
  • How might people with disabilities co-create the design with us?
  • What does that solution look like?

Consulting People With Disabilities Continuously

The sad reality is that even products allegedly designed with accessibility in mind fail to include people with disabilities sufficiently.

“We see stories all the time where someone creates a solution for what they think is a need for people with disabilities without actually consulting people with disabilities,” Featherstone observes. “Then they launch this thing. It's all over social media. They put a Kickstarter out there. They're like, ‘Look at this! Gloves that interpret ASL,’ and many people that communicate by ASL say, ‘You fundamentally missed significant pieces of ASL communication. ASL is much more than finger-spelling.'”

Naturally, bringing in people with disabilities early and throughout the design process helps avoid this. It’s a constant effort to become more inclusive.

“We're moving in that direction,” he continues. “We're not fully there yet. But we're on the path of doing that in a really meaningful way.”

Integrating Accessibility Testing Throughout the Design Process

If your organization is committed to fostering greater accessibility and inclusion, then you will also have employees with a diverse range of disabilities. One of the many advantages of having a workforce that reflects the general population is they can comment on the accessibility of your products, and lingering barriers.

Still, to ensure you’re integrating the user experience of people with disabilities, you ought to enlist accessibility testers from outside your organization.

“I hope that 99 percent of people we work with testing ideas and prototypes are from outside the walls of Salesforce,” Featherstone says. “We obviously engage with employees as well, because they’re stakeholders and they have a vested interest in Salesforce software because they use it every day. But overwhelmingly, I think we need people who aren't also employees. We need that external perspective.”

From people with mobility impairments and learning disabilities to those with hearing impairments and invisible disabilities, a myriad of user experiences must be accounted for.

“When we're surfacing new approaches to interfaces or new ways of thinking about engaging with software,” he continues, “we need to understand the full spectrum of experience in terms of people that are new to Salesforce, because we need to understand discoverability and learnability. We're building a practice around monthly engagements with people with a variety of disabilities from outside of Salesforce from the product accessibility perspective. So we’re moving in the right direction.”

Leaning Further Into the ‘Shift Left’ Mentality

Even with the “shift left” mentality in place, organizations must be continually vigilant against letting a mindset of complacency slip into their design team culture.

“It's very easy to say, ‘We did a great job by including people with disabilities,’” Featherstone cautions. “It's very easy to say, ‘We've learned those lessons. We don't need to keep doing that,’ or ‘Now that this is accessible, let's move on.'"

The moment you think you've got accessibility all figured out, that's when you need to revisit your design. Go deeper. Explore different disabilities you might not have meaningfully considered before.

“You need to ask, ‘Who else are we not including?’ he continues. “Maybe we haven't engaged with people that have low vision or those who have mobility or dexterity-related accessibility needs. Take your pick. There's always somebody who has been left out. It’s really easy to get excited about the people that you included and forget some are still being excluded.”

This is a challenge no matter how good you get at accessibility-first design.

It's not something you set up once and keep on autopilot, Featherstone emphasizes: “There are always new things to be learned.”

A founding partner of InclusionHub, Salesforce is helping bring greater accessibility and digital inclusion to the professional world. Visit its a11y website to learn more.

Written by Jeffrey Howard

Jeffrey Howard is a senior inbound content developer at Hypha HubSpot Development and regular contributor at InclusionHub.

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