Swallowing camels

by Ida Franceen published on

I don't like how the screen reader pronounces these numbers and I've been experimenting with different kinds of markup to get it to read better, like injecting spans to force it to make proper pauses…

Reflecting on my tendency to obsess over small, but maybe not so important details has led me to write this article. I want to share my experiences and the lessons learned from past projects where I may have lost sight of what is actually important.

The biggest problem

When I'm actively trying to improve the accessibility of a website it's easy to start with the first issue I come across. Maybe the color contrast of the icons in the footer is not good enough, making it hard for people to see them. Let's fix this!
But contrast might not be the biggest and most critical issue. To identify the biggest problem we need to pinpoint the core functionality. Are there any issues there? If yes, I need to fix them first. But what is the core functionality?

Well, if I'm selling things then the core functionality is probably people being able to buy things. However, if I'm focused on getting a screen reader to read prices in a preferred way, and my checkout is broken due to missing form labels, it's a problem. This situation makes it hard for some people to enter their addresses and in the end unable to make a purchase. In this case, I'm definitely focusing on the wrong thing. In other words, I'm straining mosquitoes from my drink while swallowing camels.

100% accessible

I've always wanted to make the websites I'm working on perfect. But there is no such thing. Especially when it comes to accessibility. Websites are either more accessible or less accessible. They are never 100% accessible because we live in an evolving world where there will always be new barriers. This means that while striving for 100% accessibility is a good thing, it will remain an ongoing process of improvement rather than a fixed endpoint.

If my core functionality has big issues then my website is less accessible. Trying to fix it all and I will probably end up just fixing a few of the not-so-important things. If I want to move fast towards being more accessible I need to focus on fixing the core issues. There needs to be priorities.

It's not about me

As a developer, it's straightforward to have a so-called “definition-of-done” where things work properly when I test it on my computer. I know there are other devices and other ways of using the web but I constantly need to remind myself of this. It is really easy to get caught up in details like how a screen reader pronounces things. But it's probably not the most important thing for me to care about.

Yes, of course really bad pronunciation may be an indicator that something is missing. Maybe a proper language attribute? Or maybe my screen reader is not set up properly?

The point is that I need to move away from my priorities and what I find annoying or interesting and consider what might be the biggest obstacle for other people.

Take a step back

So, if I find myself arguing whether an extra div makes it too tricky for people to apply custom CSS it's time to take a pause. Or if I'm spending too much time thinking about whether a description list might be better off as an unordered list then I should take a step back. I need to check the core functionality and make sure that I didn't just swallow another camel.

About Ida Franceen

Ida Franceen is a freelance developer. She is also the founder of t12t, a Swedish network focused on digital accessibility. You can find Ida online as Kolombiken.

Website: t12t.se
Ida on Mastodon: @kolombiken