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Culture and Engagement

Accessibility: What it is and why it’s a priority at ThoughtFarmer

An accessible intranet ensures the functionality and content of your intranet is accessible regardless of physical barriers, and creates an overall positive user experience.

8 minute read
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The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies 4% of the global population as being visually impaired, 4% as having low vision, and 0.6% as being blind. 

That’s a large demographic who won’t be able to use your intranet if it isn’t appropriately accessible.  

But it isn’t just the visually impaired who benefit from accessibility. 

Good design is good design. And if you want to ensure every employee uses, and benefits from your intranet, it needs to be accessible by every single user. 

What is accessibility?

To make something accessible means to improve its usability so any person can use the product/tool/service comfortably, and without any major complications. It’s about providing the same user experience for all users and ensuring no one is excluded. 

An accessible intranet ensures the functionality and content of your intranet is accessible regardless of physical barriers, and creates an overall positive user experience. Any employee, regardless of disability (permanent, temporary, situational, or conditional), age, cultural, linguistic background or situation should easily navigate and benefit from the intranet.

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How do you determine if an intranet page or design is accessible?

To determine if an intranet page is accessible, you need to consider all barriers that can hinder the ability to access, navigate, or understand intranet content. 

Factors to consider include users with low vision, blindness, hearing, cognitive or motor impairments, those with situational disabilities, and low or zero tech-savviness. 

While the focus of accessibility has been accommodating disability, the definition offered by others is a bit broader: to create an experience open to all. 

International standards exist for web accessibility and can also be applied to intranets. These standards are known as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0). 

The WCAG was created to help define how to make web content more accessible with the goal of providing a single shared standard. Their four guiding ‘POUR’ principles are:

  • Perceivable: Users can identify content and interface elements by means of the senses. For many users, this means perceiving a system primarily visually, while for others, perceivability may be a matter of sound or touch.
  • Operable: Users can successfully use controls, buttons, navigation, and other interactive elements. For many users this means using assistive technology like voice recognition, keyboards, screen readers etc.
  • Understandable: Users can comprehend the content, and learn and remember how to use their intranet site. It should be consistent in its presentation and format, predictable in its design and usage patterns, and appropriate to the audience in its voice and tone.
  • Robust: Content must be robust enough to be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of users, allowing them to choose the technology they use to interact with websites, online documents, multimedia, and other information formats.

Within the WCAG standard, there are additional guidelines. Each guideline has testable success criteria referenced under three levels of conformance:  A (basic), AA (medium), AAA (highest).

Compliance with the WCAG standards defines how to make web content more accessible to people with a wide range of disabilities including visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, learning, and neurological disabilities.

Who benefits from intranet accessibility?

Everyone benefits from an accessible intranet as it provides a better user experience for all users on all devices. Making your intranet more accessible will also improve its overall design and usability, and will make your intranet easy to use

While many organizations focus on the legal compliance requirements, the beneficiaries of an accessible intranet can also serve those with non-disability issues. 

This includes employees located in regional offices with slow internet connections, team members not fluent in the primary languages, and workers on the road who need to access vital company information via other non-primary devices (such as a desktop or laptop).

How do we define inclusive and universal design?

Inclusive design asks users if they want to use something. 

Accessibility asks if users can use something. 

Inclusive design differs from accessibility in that it doesn’t address a particular user need or problem. Instead, it provides a spectrum of tools and features an end user can choose to fit their requirements. 

Inclusive design is closer to a design ideology rather than a checklist of features. It’s more emotional and subjective, prompting you to put yourself into the audience’s shoes when considering whether the experience is something they will actually enjoy or benefit from. It considers identities, culture, and diverse perspectives in a design process of research and co-design.

Accessibility focuses on adapting content to support different modes of interaction and engagement. It requires pragmatism and logic, and is based upon objective, measurable facts such as contrast ratios, font sizes, browser versions, and alternative text.

Universal design is a broader concept defined by The Center for Universal Design as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” The goal of universal design isn’t to ensure a design is accessible, but that it can accommodate preferences and needs. 

How has our approach to accessibility changed over time?

Accessibility has become an increasing focus for us at ThoughtFarmer. Not because it’s become trendy, but because from a product perspective, we wanted to incorporate accessibility in all product feature enhancements or redesigns. 

If the design looks great, but doesn’t pass accessibility standards, we scrap it and keep iterating until we achieve a balance of design aesthetics and intranet accessibility requirements.

However, just because our product meets accessibility requirements, doesn’t necessarily mean our client’s intranet is accessible. This is because our product is ‘theme-able’. The client can change the color contrast of their base text font and links/buttons thereby rendering some parts of their site less accessible. 

To ensure all our client’s intranets do achieve accessibility standards, our customer success team provides guidance and suggestions on elements like color contrast.


How does responsive/mobile first design affect intranet accessibility? 

Responsive design and accessibility are two related concepts. Responsive design principles aim to provide the best possible viewing and navigation experience across a large variety of devices, while accessibility makes content easier for people with certain disabilities to use and navigate.

While responsive design creates a uniform standard that satisfies the needs of its users,  accessibility goes deeper.

It ensures a layer of functionality for users using assistive technology on responsive devices (such as a smartphone or tablet).

Responsive accessibility, in particular for mobile devices, also has different requirements relating to WCAG conformance. For example, standard text on a mobile device typically requires a higher level of contrast.

Touch support is also crucial for responsive accessibility. All elements that are  normally interactive, should be interactive by touch or swipe on a mobile device. Keyboard accessibility is just as crucial as touch support, although they target different audiences. 

But there’s another critical aspect that must be considered in this design process: how is information and the hierarchy of relationships between that information presented to users employing assistive technology on different platforms? On touchscreen devices for instance, one cannot navigate down a column in a data table like one does on a desktop.

What tools are available to test accessibility? 

We use Figma as our primary tool in UI (and UX) design. Figma has many plugins that check the accessibility of our designs before we pass the final UI design to the development team. 

These plugins check for WCAG AA and AAA compliance in the designs. For example, a Color Contrast Checker to ensure our product text is readable for users by adhering to WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) standards. 

Our QA team also uses the tools from Web AIM, like their contrast checker. 

What role does color contrast play?

Colors help users distinguish different sets of information. Color contrast between text and background is important on intranets as it affects the ability to perceive information. 

Color accessibility enables people with visual impairments or color vision deficiencies to interact with digital experiences in the same way as their non-visually-impaired counterparts. 

As per Web AIM, the visual presentation of text and images has a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1, except for the following:

  • Large Text:  Large-scale text and images of large-scale text have a contrast ratio of at least 3:1.
  • Incidental: Text or images of text that are part of an inactive user interface component, that are pure decoration, not visible to anyone, or are part of a picture that contains significant other visual content, have no contrast requirement.
  • Logotypes: Text that is part of a logo or brand name has no contrast requirement.

Final thoughts on intranet accessibility

Accessibility is an evolving concept. It is also something that should be shared across the entire company—not just from the design team. It should involve the development team (accessibility in code), QA, Support, Customer Success, and Marketing. 

Accessibility is not an afterthought, but should be treated as a product (not just a feature) and marketed with full case studies, campaigns, our process, product roadmap, etc. 

While we are proud of the work we have done, we acknowledge we still have a long way to go. 

This article was written with the assistance of Susana Lo, ThoughtFarmer Product Designer.