A view from James Fox: Making the digital world work better for kids on Global Accessibility Awareness Day

Global Accessibility Awareness Day feels the right time to highlight just how integral accessible online experiences are for young people.

By James Fox

The CBeebies Playtime Island app has changed. It’s not the end of the world, but it feels that way.

My son, Finnley, has social communication disorder (SCD). It’s similar to autistic spectrum disorder, in that he can find change to routine distressing. The Playtime Island update came overnight, and while other kids would have loved it, it was a nightmare for my son. He could no longer use the thing he’d grown to love and understand.

There was no warning, no chance to transition from one user interface to another. It was distressing, and transformed a highly inclusive platform into an exclusive one. I know from experience that it doesn’t have to be this way – the NSPCC’s Nicknames campaign for Childline is the latest of many I’ve worked on where both accessibility and inclusivity were the goal, and the measures for the project’s success.

This Global Accessibility Awareness Day feels the right time to highlight just how integral accessible online experiences are for young people, and what we can do as marketers, designers, developers and advertisers to improve them.

Accessibility and inclusivity aren’t the same thing – it’s easy to conflate them

Understanding this difference was pivotal in our approach to the Nicknames campaign. In a nutshell, we created an automated nickname generator, which gives kids a unique username and password to access the online Childline service straight away. It massively reduces the workload on NSPCC staff when it comes to moderation, and crucially, it saves young people the time of thinking up something themselves – a key factor when accessing Childline, as they might only have a five-minute window to do so safely.

The nickname generator means they don’t have to navigate rules like minimum character length or including special characters, and the solution uses Title-case or UpperCamelCase to ensure it’s both human-readable and perceivable to assistive technology. That’s accessibility.

The nicknames generated were also empathetic to kids. We didn’t want to create a solution where we trigger an emotional response between colour and gender for an LGBT+ user, for instance. That’s inclusivity.

Compliance to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Level AA, which is what most organisations strive for, is fairly cut and dried. But making experiences as accessible as possible, considering all users and making things more inclusive is more granular, and requires you to think more about who’s using your product.

Both are equally important, but in terms of Childline’s goal, accessibility was the key focus, as a child’s safety could hinge on easy access. Our solution gives them a unique username, and away they go.

To be accessible is to remove barriers

We now build wheelchair-accessible offices. We’re more aware of and avoid phrases that offend people due to race, sex or culture. We’ve retrofitted these things and adapted the physical world based on what we’ve learned and how we’ve grown, but we don’t have to do that with digital. Accessibility and inclusivity can be built in from day one.

Beyond just adhering to WCAG AA, making your product accessible is surprisingly simple, but requires empathy and effort.

I don’t mean just running it past Tom on the design team, who has dyslexia; or giving it to Bethany’s daughter, because we know she has autism. Co-creation with users of all backgrounds is the key to accessibility, whether that be in terms of neurodiversity, age, sex, religion, ethnicity and so on. It informs where you take your work and brings inclusive audiences right into the design process: how do we ensure this experience is optimised so it doesn’t waste more data than needed, but by the same token, design it responsibly so it’s not accidentally addictive?

This is an example of inclusive design: a methodology that finds areas of potential exclusion, and makes them inclusive. To succeed, it needs to be a constant part of the team’s culture and design process. It’s not just upfront research, or testing at the end. It’s the involvement and consideration for diverse users at every stage of a product or experience lifecycle, because their input is often the difference between it succeeding and failing.

Digital is a new world that we define as we build it

I have dyslexia and dyspraxia, and the attitude towards differing abilities has improved massively since I was a kid. When I was younger, I’d be told I needed to learn to spell better, or be given extra time for things. That was it. Differing abilities just weren’t understood in the same way they are today, and I was told to spell “necassery” correctly if it killed me.

I know. “Necessary.” But in the bigger scheme of things, with spell check, it shouldn’t matter.

The point is that technology isn’t an opportunity for parity. It’s much more. It’s a tool with which a new world is constantly being built. We’re all at the coalface, whether we’re clients or creatives, makers or managers. It’s a chance to give people independence, in small or larger measure.

Finnley and I have moved on from the trauma of something as seemingly trivial as CBeebies Playtime Island. But it’ll always serve as a reminder that we have the means to improve lives through the work we do every single day – not just when a trending hashtag tells us we should shout about it.

James Fox is experience director at Kin & Carta