Ryan Wieland

How to Shift Left in Digital Accessibility: A Guide to Building and Designing Inclusively from the Start

One of the most common questions we receive from design and development teams or digital agencies is, “When is the best time to implement digital accessibility?”

This is the right question for any team looking for success and efficiency in managing a digitally accessibility roadmap. 

However, I find this a loaded question for a few reasons.

First, most things do not fit into a perfect box or ideal scenario – we can likely all relate to that in business and life! That said, in ideal situations, digital accessibility should be implemented in the design phase of a project. 

This is the historical shift left mentality we dive into in this blog.

Moving accessibility up or left in the product build cycle ensures the efficient management of accessibility in the product life cycle. 

However, I always like to reiterate that this isn’t always possible, and many teams ultimately implement accessibility on a live or built product – this is just a reality.

Second, accessibility is not a one-time project or task. Even in the ideal scenarios where the shift left mentality is perfectly executed, your digital property will continue to evolve on an ongoing basis. Web or mobile application accessibility doesn’t stop with an initial design review for accessibility or an audit of a new/existing digital property.

To maintain a highly usable and compliant website or application, you must build accessibility testing into future releases, feature enhancements, or ongoing updates to templates, components, and user journeys.

Sometimes, this is purely built by development teams or digital agencies. There is no design phase beyond the initial build, so shifting left, in that case, could mean performing live-user accessibility QA testing on the pre-production release.

There is no one-size-fits-all regarding digital accessibility best practices. Managing a compliant project is an ongoing effort.

For the sake of argument, however, let’s assume you are looking to build a new digital property or re-design your existing website or mobile application. As your team starts to map out wireframes and identifies what design system (Figma, Sketch, InVision, Adobe XD, to name a few) you will use to design your new digital property – this is the best time to start building out an accessibility roadmap to ensure best practices are bake-in from the design phase through development. You will be Shifting Left in the most literal fashion!

What does Shift Left mean for Digital Accessibility?

In digital accessibility, “shifting left” focuses on starting with accessibility in mind from the very beginning of a project to lay the groundwork for an inclusive digital experience.

Instead of waiting until the product is built and released and then focusing on accessibility, the goal is to integrate best practices and compliance into the framework of your projects in the early stages of design and development. 

It is akin to planning where you build ramps or elevators for accessibility inclusion in a physical location rather than trying to retrofit them after you’ve finished framing the building – at which point it is much more complicated and certainly more expensive.

Why does Shifting Left matter?

Reducing Costs

For any business or organization, the bottom line matters. This concept applies to the shift left mentality when integrated into digital accessibility roadmaps and projects. 

WebAIM study reported that addressing accessibility issues during the design phase could be up to 30 times cheaper than fixing them after product development is completed. That is a somewhat shocking number when considering the cost of digital accessibility. Still, many factors add up that make this number seem realistic. 

Addressing accessibility issues earlier in the process is more cost-effective than fixing them later. It will save you time and resources across multiple team members and reduce potential legal complications, which can quickly add unbudgeted costs to any project.

Preventing Potential Issues

This builds on the foundation of reducing cost, but this is likely the most notable reason teams look to shift left in digital accessibility roadmaps. It is pretty simple: finding accessibility issues at the design phase before your development team implements known accessibility issues creates significantly more WCAG violations than building from an accessible design base. In talking with leading design and development agencies we have worked with closely for years, most teams believe fixing accessibility issues during the design phase takes, on average, 25% less time than fixing them post-production. Additionally, we generally find roughly 25 to 30% fewer issues during the live-user testing phase of projects that have gone through an Accessibility Design Review compared to building a new product and having an Accessibility Audit post-production.

Culture and Ongoing Maintenance

We commonly see that incorporating accessibility from the beginning stages can help promote an inclusive mindset and a design/development culture of prioritizing accessibility across all teams. This builds on preventing potential issues but also drives an internal scenario where it is much easier for teams to manage a robust digital accessibility roadmap through ongoing maintenance.

As outlined above, accessibility is an ongoing process. When important individuals and supporters within a company prioritize accessibility as a fundamental value for all teams managing digital properties and design/development, it becomes simpler to ensure that everyone is committed to continuously ensuring that digital properties are inclusive and compliant.

How can your team Shift Left?

Accessibility Design Reviews

One of the best ways to bring accessibility issues forward in the new build or re-design process, to shift left, is through conducting Digital Accessibility Design Reviews. This is quite similar to an accessibility audit in practice. Still, instead of doing live-user testing on a live website, your team would engage accessibility professionals trained in WCAG conformance and accessible design best practices to review your design files. We do this often for clients once they have style guides and critical website or application templates built-in tools such as Figma or InVision. Our team of accessibility professionals guides on making the designs more inclusive, ensuring the design team can provide updates surrounding accessibility before the designs move into development and known accessibility issues are built into the product.

Training for Design Teams

Accessibility training for design teams (and development teams) is one of the most overlooked elements of building a solid accessibility culture. Providing your design team with a baseline understanding of best practices and common pitfalls in building accessible designs can help ensure they have the training, mindset, and experience to build highly inclusive designs in the future. Our team here at Allyant provides live training explicitly tailored to either designers or developers to help ensure this mindset and the shift left mentality is supported organizationally for your employees!

Access to Best Practices

Beyond going through manual reviews of new designs and providing designer-specific feedback, it is often beneficial, or even required, to arm your development team with best practices and reference guides to ensure they can successfully implement accessible designs into living, breathing code through the development cycles. For this reason, Allyant has built an extensive Knowledge Base that provides detailed overviews of building accessible components, which include extensive code samples. This not only allows your design team to infuse accessibility into your key design files but ensures your development team is armed with the resources necessary to implement those designs at the code level.

Begin the shift!

In conclusion, remember, shifting left in digital accessibility isn’t just a strategy; it’s a mindset that empowers your team to build and manage highly inclusive products. By embracing this approach, we all play a part in improving user experiences while providing the framework for a more inclusive online environment.

At Allyant, we’re on a mission to reshape the digital landscape through accessibility. Our team of dedicated design accessibility professionals is well-versed in the art of shifting left and helping to ensure that our clients’ designs and future development are built with accessibility in mind.

Whether you’re a designer aiming to bake inclusivity into your designs and style guides or a web development agency seeking to revolutionize your approach, we’re here to help provide guidance and the necessary resources to drive success. Reach out to our team anytime to learn more about our Design Review process, support in building accessibility roadmaps, or training resources for design and development team members in pushing this mindset!