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What accessibility means for a high-end publishing platform like Chorus

It’s not a best practice if you don’t practice

Abstract illustration of multi-colored human arms and hands reaching for and touching the Chorus logo (another arm is bandaged, one hand is a digital hand) while another hand holds a mouse, and another touches a keyboard. Brittany Falussy

An accessible website is a website that anyone can use however they need to.

This is a simple premise. It is technically sound (core web technologies are designed to be accessible) and it is business sound (any website seeks to reach the broadest set of users possible in a given target audience).

It is also easy to get wrong.

Websites are the front-of-house of large complex systems—especially in publishing—and it takes real effort for the front-desk to look sharp and organized when most of your energy needs to be invested in maintaining and evolving the entire operation.

Still, if you intend to serve people through a website when they may choose to be on any other website on the entire Internet, that website needs to be hospitable—friendly and welcoming to strangers and guests alike, which requires effort, attention and an awareness of who you are serving and what their needs are.

The journey back to accessibility

Understanding we can always do better in this regard, the Vox Product team has decided to prioritize efforts to ensure that websites created on the Chorus platform are really the kind anyone can use however they need to.

Efforts like this usually focus on compliance to standards at the front-end code level. While this is a necessary part of the effort, it does not represent the broad range of activities we undertake to deliver on it and what it means to embrace that simple premise fully. There is a lot more.

Knowing where we stand today is as important as knowing where we are headed. This helps us assess the shape and length of the journey. To create that map, we are auditing the audience-facing UI that powers Chorus websites to determine what are specific problems versus common patterns throughout, what are direct barriers to access we must remove versus inelegant solutions we should improve. This is the level of depth and detail that allows a team to understand the severity of issues, to prioritize effectively, and to put “best practices” into actual practice.

Helping our team meet this challenge also requires exploring better tools and processes that support our design and engineering efforts across the board, from ways to assess how a new color system provides adequate contrast to users, to automated testing that helps validate code structure and syntax. Trying, critiquing, using, rejecting and adopting the right tools and processes is real work and an ongoing effort for the team.

This commitment also requires depth of knowledge about design and coding practices, assistive technologies, testing protocols, facilitation techniques, research approaches, awareness of the vast range of human abilities, and lots more. To help us establish a strong foundation for the future, we ran a day-long remote conference where accessibility experts and advocates and the Vox Product team shared meaningful philosophical discussions and extremely practical concerns of accessible digital experiences (more on this in a future post).

This is only the beginning. We have a vibrant product accessibility Slack channel and Vox Media’s Accessibility Guidelines have been a resource since 2016. While this broad topic is not new to Vox Product, everyone continues to thirst for more. The team has access to professional development opportunities and many resources for continued learning that we encourage folks use to dig deeper into this topic within their area of expertise.

Accessible websites are also not just their form, they are accessible content as well. While we work to ensure Chorus offers the right tools for editorial teams to make the best choices, we also want to ensure editorial teams are equipped to take advantage of these tools and equally embrace the sentiment of what an accessible website is when producing content, which we’ll accomplish through continued training and collaboration.

These are some highlights of what we are doing to ensure our websites become truly accessible websites. It’s fun to talk about new features and fulfilling unmet user needs with exciting new ideas, but it’s more fun to manage an established platform product that continues to thrive and grow with a strong operating model and work practices that make it sustainable.

It is especially great to be able to do so with the people who get to enjoy these websites so we are additionally excited we get to do this work with research and design efforts that include all and pursue this shared goal together.