September 24, 2020

1047 words 5 mins read

Lessons learned building an accessible web application framework

Since 2017, we at Cerner have been building Terra, a single page web application framework, and accessibility has always been a primary goal. Over the years we’ve learned a lot about how to build and test accessible websites, as well as the diverse group of people we’re serving. With this blog post, we’d like to take a moment to share what we’ve learned so far.

Why accessibility matters

At Cerner, we build software for many different users in many different roles. Doctors and nurses may first come to mind as the primary users for our EHR, but hospitals aren’t made up of providers alone and neither are our users. We also provide applications for administrative users and with our patient portal application (HealtheLife), our users are the general patient population. Naturally, with such a broad user base a percentage will require assistive technologies to be able to use our applications. To be as inclusive as possible, Cerner applications must be as accessible as possible, and the Terra Application Framework is one way we are working towards that goal.

What does it mean for a site to be accessible

I’ll be honest, when we started in 2017, I thought creating an accessible website simply meant appropriately applying ARIA labels to DOM elements. In the last few years, we’ve learned, with the help of our accessibility researchers, that creating an accessible site is so much more than that. So, let’s hop in our time machine and discuss how we should have approached accessibility with appropriate hindsight (foresight? Time travel is confusing).

Identify how users interact with our site with accessible technologies

As we discussed above, our broad user base includes a diverse array of people and an equally diverse array of accessibility needs. When discussing web accessibility, it’s common to assume that means ensuring a screen reader appropriately can navigate and read your site. Screen reader compatibility is an important aspect of accessibility, it assists users with impaired vision. However, a screen reader won’t help users with impaired mobility. To help us cover a wider array of expected interactions and needs, we’ve compiled the following use cases.

  • Impaired vision
  • Impaired mobility
  • Impaired cognition

These categories may also be experienced temporarily, where individuals may need improved accessibility due to an injury, limited device capability, or location.

Create areas of focus for each use case

For each of the above use cases, we’ve identified the appropriate assistive technologies to apply.

Impaired vision

Focus on helping the user access the site content by ensuring appropriate contrast ratios, font sizing, spacing, color usage, and screen reader support. A good way to get a feel for this user’s experience is to enable a screen reader (all Macs have VoiceOver), close your eyes, and navigate your site. Does it make sense?

Impaired mobility

Focus on helping the user navigate the site using devices other than a cursor by enabling keyboard navigation and supplying redundant information access. For example, providing alternative methods to take actions that require gestures on mobile devices.

Impaired cognition

Focus on applying layout simplicity to our workflows and components as well as improving keyword comprehension by emphasizing common design patterns and expected behaviors. For example, buttons should not navigate a user to a new page, that is the role of links.

All impairments

Provide a consistent semantic layout and access to information regardless of form factor (desktop, mobile). Tooltips are a good example of this. On the desktop, tooltips are accessed when hovering over the element; where as on a mobile devices touch screen you cannot hover. The information contained in the tooltip has to be offered in a way that can be accessed on both devices.

Design for accessibility

Accessibility cannot simply be layered on any component as an afterthought. This was a mistake we made early on. We’d work through designing and building a complex component, only to test the screen reader compatibility at the end. Unsurprisingly, the component would fail, and we’d have to repeat the process again to correct the issues, sometimes with a complete redesign. Just as engineering constraints inform a design, so to do accessibility constraints. Designing for them up front will reduce expensive re-work late in a project.

As you can see, there is far more about accessibility to consider than ARIA labels. We understand that implementing accessibility on the web is a complex and difficult task and we’ve built the Terra application framework to help.

What does Terra offer for accessibility

Terra provides a stable base on which to build accessible applications. The Terra application framework and each Terra component are designed and built to meet our accessibility standards. To help ensure that our components meet these standards, we perform manual testing, as well as, automated testing using axe-core.

While using Terra gives you a good head start on building an accessible application, you cannot assume your application is fully accessible. The way Terra components are assembled and labeled in an application have a large impact on its accessibility. Any custom components need to be vetted with the same care as Terra components to ensure accessibility. Application owners should make sure to test their apps using a screen reader.

Developing applications for the web is inherently complex. Adding accessibility does not simplify development. By ensuring accessibility is applied to the Terra application framework and components, we are making the right thing, the easy thing to do for applications utilizing Terra. Furthermore, this has made our products more predictable in how users access their functionality since it is being consistently applied. It has been our experience that implementing a consistent semantic layout and a sensible keyboard navigation order lead directly to a logically organized information architecture.

If you would like to learn more about Terra, check out its documentation. It’s all open source and we’d love to hear what you think.

In closing, I’d like to provide a quote from my friend, Neil Pfeiffer, UX Designer, that I think sums up our mission nicely.

Our job is to help all users better understand their surroundings, providing them not only with clear and direct informational context, but also what choices and actions they can make based on that information, and always put them in control.

Thanks for reading, and remember, we’re all in this together :)