Reading yet another brilliant article by Jared Spool on mature design programs combined with an accessibility resource conversation I had at R&D orientation with my new employer earlier this week reminded me that I have seen no online discussions about embedded accessibility teams, what problems they resolve, and how to implement them.
What does Embedded mean in Tech?
Being “embedded” in tech is not that far off in principle from reporters being embedded with armed forces divisions, in a far less dangerous setting. It means that one or more specialty resources operates with and supports a particular organization silo (usually, but not always, development) in a cross-functional manner on a full-time basis. However, in the end, these specialty resources report back to someone in a centralized organization.
Another type of embedded accessibility resource is colloquially known as an “accessibility champion.” These typically home-grown individuals do not report back to the central accessibility organization. Rather, they are members of non-accessibility teams with a penchant for making things accessible. While Accessibility Champions are certainly important, the primary focus of this article is embedded FTE accessibility resources.
Timezones and Vendors
One of the biggest barriers facing all managers running any type of tech department in a large company is the problems caused by operating in very different time zones. Frequently the designers and developers that an accessibility manager needs to support are not in a timezone compatible where the accessibility resources are located. Some examples I’ve faced with are California and Bangalore (and Gothenburg, on the same project), California and Romania, Chicago and London (and Chennai).
Any time zone difference close to or over 8 hours is going to be super inconvenient to someone every time meetings are required, since no part of the work day between the two locations overlaps. It makes holding daily scrum calls a nightmare, which can impact being fully agile. It also can contribute to project delays since a problem or question arising in India at the beginning of one day will not be resolved by US resources until the beginning of the next business day in India. And that’s assuming that enough information was sent with the query in the first place, and the response isn’t “Can you send me a video of that, please?”
Many companies use vendors and subcontractors rather than employees for some or all of their development efforts. A perfectly acceptable initial reaction might be “why should I pay for embedding an accessibility resource with a vendor, it’s their responsibility to deliver something accessible” (which was hopefully addressed in the contract). However, in the end, your organization may be reducing the risk of cost and schedule overruns by identifying, paying, and embedding an accessibility SME with a vendor for a specific period of time (12–18 months) with the understanding that the vendor may hire or contract with that resource directly when this time period is over.
Benefits of embedding accessibility resources
By embedding accessibility resources in a remote team or location, the development team has someone to rely on for “the final word” on how something related to accessibility is to be accomplished.
It is important that everyone is reading from the same page when making accessibility pronouncements, since identification and navigation consistency are two of the 50 guidelines that must be met for WCAG 2.1 Level AA. Having a single source of truth that defines guidelines around minimum touch-target sizes and acceptable use of italics (just two small examples) in the form of a style guide or knowledge base is essential to successfully embed accessibility resources in a remote team. WCAG by itself is not sufficient because a) Some of WCAG is up for interpretion — what is “incidental text” for example, and b) most good accessibility managers have a list of best practices they want implemented in addition to the minimums required in WCAG.
The embedded accessibility SME will also help the team they are embedded with grow their accessibility knowledge with both informal information exchange and formal training. Finally, depending on where the accessibility team and the team being embedded with are located, it is possible that embedding accessibility team members will generate quite a financial savings. The cost of an accessibility SME in San Francisco is 500 % higher than the cost of an equally experienced SME in the Philippines, India, or Romania. Even experts in more expensive Australia and the UK are only about half the cost of major US cities.
Some of the downsides to embedding resources that can be mitigated with proper management planning are:
- Make sure the sure the embedded accessibility resource feels like they are a full member of the local team. Getting on the right email distributions and meeting with appropriate individuals who can assist in conveying the message “this person is here to help you” is important.
- Make sure the embedded accessibility resource feels like they are a full member of the central team. Include them on all relevant emails, and try to have one gathering per year that includes everyone on the team from all locations, perhaps organized around CSUN or m-enabling.
- Have the embedded accessibility resource report out PPPs (progress, problems, plans) that the central team manager can incorporate into the daily scrum calls.
- Have a list of “backup” activities for the embedded resource to undertake not directly related to their local project should the build break or test server crash at 3 am your time and the embedded resource can’t work on their planned activities for the day. This can include things like working on QA plans, training, reading accessibility articles or viewing past accessibility webinars, or adding to an organizational accessibility knowledge base.
- Make sure the embedded team member has a career growth plan. Very few people are interested in being an embedded team member forever.
When interviewing individuals for an embedded accessibility position, traits such as self-sufficiency, grit, and determination are even more important than for other roles. You do not want to hire someone for this type of role who cannot make their opinion be heard within a development team who may not really want them to be there. Embedded individuals need to be able to operate without immediate support in the face of ambiguity.
Maturity Model Analysis
The design maturity model outlined by Jared in his article looks very aligned with the Digital Accessibility Maturity Model I worked on about 4 years ago while I was working for Level Access. Both appear to be based on the SEI Capability Maturity Model from Carnegie Melon which came out in the late 80s (last update was in 2010) in an attempt for government agencies to boil down software development competency to a score between 1 and 5 for each “dimension” which are effectively subject matter areas. The Level Access Digital Accessibility Maturity Model defines the following levels:
Level 1: Initial
Level 2: Managed
Level 3: Defined
Level 4: Quantitatively Managed
Level 5: Optimized
Embedding accessibility teams puts your organization at either Level 3 or 4 using these guidelines. In order to embed a team, there must be an ACO (Accessibility Central Office) to report back to. This puts companies considering an embedded model squarely on track to reaching or exceeding Level 3. Being Optimized (i.e. Level 5) means EVERYONE in the company understands accessibility which means there is no need for embedded teams.
If your organization is attempting to grow into an entity with a fully optimized accessibility program that everyone wants to copy, embedded accessibility teams are effectively a way to leverage knowledge, especially in far flung groups. But if your goal is to eventually reach Level 5 — Optimized, when you start an embedded accessibility team, you need to do so with an obsolescence path in mind probably on a 2 to 3 year timeframe since you can’t reach Level 5 while still operating on an embedded team model.
Utilizing embedded accessibility team members can be a very successful and fiscally prudent strategy for an accessibility program that is currently ranging in maturity from “almost level 3” to “just hit level 4.” For many accessibility programs this will be where accessibility program growth stops, and that is fine. For companies on their way to the penultimate Level 5, embedding accessibility SMEs is a good method of transferring accessibility knowledge OUT of the accessibility program and having every team member thinking about accessibility on a frequent basis to reach the rarefied Level 5 goal.