Three UK details its accessibility journey

  • Author: Tim Lohman
  • Date: 23 Oct 2014

Media Access Australia spoke to Three UK’s Digital Development Manager Vince Butcher about the telecommunication company’s adoption of digital accessibility.

Media Access Australia: When and how did Three begin its accessibility journey?

Vince Butcher: As a company, we’ve always been aware of the importance of ensuring that all customers—regardless of any accessibility issues they may have—have been able to access our products and services, and have developed a number of policies and practices over the years to ensure this is the case. For example, in 2010 we established a specialist customer support team focused on customers with accessibility needs.

About three years ago the Online department (the department I work in as a Development Manager) at Three was approached by our Legal and Regulatory teams to look at how our sites adhere to Accessibility requirements in order to ensure we complied with our legal and regulatory obligations to end-users with disabilities and WCAG 2.0.

It became very clear early on in my review that we as an online team knew very little about accessibility, so in order to do the job properly I sought and ultimately got buy in from the Online Management team to take a different approach and to investigate engaging with an accessibility partner. We ended up choosing the Digital Accessibility Centre (DAC) as our partner and in March 2013 we started working with them on a regular basis.  

How did the company approach creating a business case for the online team? What were the key factors that won approval for the accessibility project? 

Based on my review and subsequent work with DAC, I was able to produce a business case for the Online team. We are now expanding our approach to other areas of the business, such as the brand and design team. The key factors came about from some demonstrations we had with real users showing us access issues they had navigating our sites. We have a major focus on customer journeys and making sure that we put our customer first. Once it was understood that we weren’t providing the best service for our customers with accessibility issues, combined with the potential number of additional customers with accessibility requirements out there, it was very easy to support our business case, the key benefits we looked at were based on improving our positive word of mouth.

Three UK LogoWhat was the accessibility implementation/project itself for? What were the intended goals or outcomes?

We are very much on a journey with our implementation of accessibility accreditation requirements, with our aim to achieve an ‘AA’ compliance level. Our main goal is to provide a customer experience that is in no way affected by a lack of required accessibility features. This approach has now cascaded from the Online team into other areas of the business, particularly within Retail where DAC were involved in reviewing our new Store refits and also training our trainers in the latest accessibility features of devices. Our long term goal is to reach an ‘AA’ compliance level across our sites, to educate the wider business beyond the Online team and to ensure our standard approach is to consider accessibility throughout each stage of a project rather than at the end of the project when issues are more difficult to resolve.

What was the implementation process like? Did any challenges or surprises emerge?

We now work in small agile teams delivering projects within the Online team, which has meant that the implementation process was actually pretty smooth as we could incorporate it steadily, so it was much easier to implement than expected, and was embraced by all. We had numerous training courses for user experience, product owners, QA [quality assurance], and development teams and I have since presented to other areas of the business in order to educate them and any third parties that we engage with.

We have varying requirements for different areas of the business, for example content production has a detailed set of requirements including copy, video production, social media, imagery and design. We have been able to successfully adapt this area of the business and continue to work across the different areas of the business assessing and fulfilling their specific needs to further improve compliance. In particular, the areas of the business that focus on our customers have been excellent in taking our recommendations of new accessibility requirements on board. I think the hardest challenges have been updating our existing business processes to ensure Accessibility requirements are fully considered at an early stage and providing training for relevant areas outside of the Online team.

What has the company learned from the implementation? What would it do differently if it had its time over? What advice for other organisations can you offer?

I can only speak for the Online team, but I think we have learnt a huge amount from our ongoing implementation. Educating teams is vitally important, but also the need to recognise that it is not an overnight change and trying to retro fit requirements into existing pages is very difficult. If we could do anything differently it would have been to engage with an accessibility partner sooner, and adding the AccessIn software onto the site would have probably aided with our learnings.

A major learning for me was with DAC who employs testers who face the accessibility issues we are seeking to address. I found this far more beneficial than working with a company that just runs a set of scripts and tells you what is wrong. DAC were able to let us know how we were creating a negative experience for our customers with accessibility requirements, explaining what problems these customers were facing when using our website and why, as well as offering solutions.

I would recommend finding and engaging with an accessibility partner as they are the experts and you can learn so much from them. I would also encourage others to recruit an accessibility champion within their organisation—someone who is passionate about customer needs and making a difference, but also prepared to break down some of the established processes and barriers within an organisation. Also don’t put off what you can start today! Accessibility improvements can be both simple and complicated, take it one stage at a time. Set an overall goal, for example attaining AA compliancy, but agree to do so in stages reaching ‘A’ compliancy first and making sure key teams are bought in to the User Experience, Development and QA.

What’s your view on web accessibility and whether it will ever become mainstream? What will, or is driving wider adoption of web accessibility?

I would say in the UK that the government and companies like DAC and Royal National Institute for the Blind are helping to drive wider adoption and we are beginning to see sites with clear accessibility features on them AccessIn and Alternate Stylesheets.  

Is UX the primary driver? If so, how?

UX is one of the primary drivers, that is where things should start, but also development and QA need to be primary drivers as well. For us we have trained our UX team on accessibility and what they need to consider and implement when working on user journeys and wireframes, some of those requirements feed into the development and page build, but they also have a major input into the process as do QA because otherwise we cannot know if we have delivered a suitable experience that complies to the relevant accreditation requirements.

For web accessibility, is self-governance, government regulation or a mix of both required to make services more accessible? Why?

I believe it has to be a combination of both, because without government regulation self-governance can be neglected and companies could resort to quick wins using an 80/20 mentality which could potentially lead to accessibility standards being ignored. I have worked very closely with our Legal team and we constantly meet to discuss our progress and any burning issues. Our Legal team helps explain and interpret the regulations that we must follow and then DAC help us to implement the necessary changes to our business that are required, as well as suggest additional changes we could make to further support our customers with accessibility requirements.

What’s your view on the role of accessibility standards such as BS 8878 and WCAG? Are they a help or hindrance? Do they need to change?

I think they are of the utmost importance, but not always very easy to follow, which is why engaging with a partner that fully understands them is so important. DAC have assisted us immensely in providing clear requirements and guidance on both. BS 8878 has been extremely useful in providing guidance on implementing accessibility policies and procedures.

BS 8878 seems to have been reasonably successful in the UK. What could Australia learn, or how might it benefit from its adoption?

It’s a very useful document and one I feel I should obtained earlier on in our journey. It’s very good for guidance and instruction and provides some excellent examples and templates to work from such as company policies.    

Final thoughts?

Embrace accessibility, find a champion within the business and a partner and make sure you work closely with your SEO teams as the two areas have very close connections and benefit each other.

As a leading resource, Vincent recommends the Digital Accessibility Centre.