Design For All feat. Elastic

Here is our chat with Craig Abbott, Senior Designer at Elastic. Elastic is a leading platform for search-powered solutions in Enterprise Search, Observability, and Security.

The purpose of the series ‘Design For All’ is to demonstrate the importance of inclusivity in design and share knowledge on how to create more inclusive and accessible design experiences.

Chris @ ADLIB: Can you please introduce yourself, what you do and tell us about your experience in accessibility and inclusion?

Craig: Hi, my name is Craig. I’m currently a Senior Designer at Elastic, and the former Head of Accessibility at the Department for Work and Pensions.

My career has largely been design focused. The roles I’ve held and the work I’ve done has always hinged around user experience design and service design. In my early days, I also did visual design, but I realised quite quickly I’m good at making things easy to use, not necessarily making them look pretty!

As my career progressed, there was a natural progression into more strategic work in the accessibility space. I was still doing design, but I was designing job roles, governance processes and training, rather than user interfaces.

I moved back into design when I joined Elastic, I think there was a fear I’d get rusty, so I wanted to be more hands on again. But, also, one of the frustrations I had in my previous role was how much accessibility got left until the end. It was always seen as a developer problem, rather than a design one.

I’m hoping by going back to design, I can have more of an impact at the root of the problem.

Chris @ ADLIB: How important is inclusion to your work?

Craig: I have ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and Autism, so I’m super passionate about accessibility on both a personal and professional level!

I think inclusion always needs to be the top priority, because all the best products are built collaboratively. You can’t design for the needs and viewpoints of everybody if you don’t include them in the process.

Aside from accessibility, there are many other people that get left in the margins. I’ve seen plenty of accessible services which have badly worded questions about gender. I think this is often apparent in organisations which treat accessibility as a technical exercise, rather than actually talking to users. They often think just because they’ve passed an accessibility audit that they’re done, when really that should just be the bare minimum.

I’d like to see more organisations doing user research and collaborative design. But, I think more importantly, I’d like to see more organisations specifically talking to people that have accessibility needs, and making sure they have a chance to contribute.

Chris @ ADLIB: How are you promoting inclusive design through your work and what are some of the challenges you’ve faced?

Craig: As a general strategy for accessibility, I’ve always taken a 3-pronged approach with a focus on compliance, culture, and education.

I think of it a bit like the fire triangle they teach you in Science class, where you have oxygen, heat and fuel as the 3 sides, and when you remove one the fire goes out.

In the accessibility triangle, If education is removed, people don’t know how to do accessibility. If culture is removed, people don’t think accessibility is important. And, if compliance is removed, there’s no way to measure whether or not accessibility is being done to the correct standard. Culture is always going to be the hardest to change. Compliance and education are much easier, and in the process you can start to change the culture.

I’ve only been at Elastic a short while, but I’ve already started pushing my “beyond the regulations” narrative. I teamed up with the awesome Kseniia Ignatovych and Gavin Wye and we ran a session on “Designing for Neurodiversity” at our annual Engineering All Hands meet-up.

I’ve also been doing talks at events like Northern UX and Accessibility Scotland, where I cover things like the W3C Cognitive Accessibility Guidance (CogA) and designing for Neurodivergent people. I’d like to get more designers thinking about accessibility. I saw a great talk by Anna E Cook, which stated that around 67% of WCAG failures originate in the design. But a common problem I see, is that designers often think of accessibility as a problem for developers to fix.

Even if we work using tools like Figma, we should be annotating our designs with accessibility considerations, like focus order, heading levels and aria-labels for icon-only buttons. A lot of designers don’t even write alt text for images, but they’ll drop them in all over their designs.

The A11y Annotation Kit is the one I use, but there are several floating about to choose from.

Anything we fail to articulate as a designer is something a developer has to guess at. This is unfair on the developer and will ultimately lead to bugs and design debt.

Chris @ ADLIB: What are 2-3 tips you’d share to other designers trying to design more inclusively

Craig: Ah, well, obviously the annotation kit I just mentioned! Download that and start having a go! I’d definitely recommend the W3C Cognitive Accessibility Guidance. It’s great! It’s a set of 8 design principles. They shouldn’t be groundbreaking to anybody that is well-versed in UX Design, they’re just what we would usually call “good design”. But, they are a great resource to use as a reference point to just re-align designers as standards can slip over time.

Finally, research. The best thing you can do is talk to users and have them test your designs. Most organisations strive for compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), but most users don’t actually care about compliance. They care that it works for them!

User research is often cheaper and more effective than an accessibility audit. And, whilst I’m not advocating for being non-compliant, you’re less likely to have blockers in your product or complaints in your inbox if you’re actually testing it with people who need accessibility features.

Chris @ ADLIB: What are some of the resources you’ve found helpful to develop your understanding of accessibility and inclusion when it comes to your design work?

Craig: The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are probably the best resource to get a solid understanding of accessibility. But they are very complex.

I really like Martin Underhill’s breakdown of WCAG into more simple language. The caveat is that they are his own interpretation, and they are simplified, so you get less options in the examples.

There weren’t a lot of resources out there when I first started trying to get into Accessibility. Which is why I created the DWP Accessibility Manual. So, I guess this is a shameless plug for that!


Other great resources I’d recommend are:

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Chris Nasrawi