WebExpo 2024: 5+1 Questions for Geri Reid, Design Systems and Accessibility Consultant

The WebExpo 2024 conference is focused on accessibility and offers several opportunities for those interested in this topic to get to know it better. One of them is Geri Reid’s talk, named Don’t worry – the design system takes care of accessibility!

In this talk, Geri will walk you through a roadmap for organisational accessibility—from compliance to education to assembling a community of allies. She’ll also give us a practical guide to building design system components with accessibility at the forefront.

Geri Reid

Firstly, let me briefly introduce Geri.

Geri is a design systems consultant from London. As design and accessibility lead on design systems at News UK and Lloyds Banking Group, she has helped some of the UK’s largest media and banking brands to design at scale. She is currently Lead Accessibility Specialist at Just Eat Takeaway. Geri is a keen accessibility advocate, amateur writer, and documentation nerd.

Radek: Geri, what inspired you to focus on accessibility within design systems, and why do you think this is a crucial topic for today’s digital landscape?

Geri: If we don’t design and code our products to meet industry standards, people get left out. This might be our customers or our colleagues with disabilities but also our consumers with situational or temporary impairments. The web is an incredible connector and enabler of people and being left out sucks! In tech, we’re privileged people and with that comes a huge responsibility to care about the products we’re putting out into the world and the legacy we’re leaving behind.

In most of my design systems roles, accessibility has not officially been part of my job but I’ve just made it part of my job. Researching UX best practices and using this knowledge to build a core of WCAG-compliant components provides a solid base for a product orgs design and development. A design systems team is also perfectly placed to support consumers with the education, training and the support they need to build accessible end products.

Radek: In your view, what are the most common misconceptions about building accessible digital products, and how does your talk aim to address these?

Geri: Early on in my design systems journey, I naively assumed that building a set of „accessible“ components would automatically result in accessible end products. In my WebExpo talk, I run through the numerous ways teams can use the design system’s building blocks to make unusable products.

The problem with design system components is that they’re small chunks created independent of the overall semantic structure. You’re relying on consuming teams to put these Lego pieces together the right way. The bigger problem is that in Product, engineers might be using your WCAG-compliant building blocks, but they are building from designs. So, it’s really your designers who need to understand semantic HTML and which component to use.

I also talk about how teams consuming our design system components struggled with ARIA attributes and overlooked words in the code like link text, alt text and labels.

Radek: You mention the importance of a culture that champions accessibility. What are the first steps organizations should take to cultivate such a culture?

Geri: If you want your company to design and build inclusive products, you first need to set a standard. If your organisation doesn’t have accessibility standards, it can operate in a perpetual cycle of exclusion. No one deliberately designs products that exclude people, but in the absence of standards, we use our own abilities as a baseline for how everyone uses the web. In my talk, I discuss putting together a company accessibility policy or guidelines as a first step to defining a company-wide standard.

The most successful accessibility initiatives come from the top down. Getting a leader to champion your policy will supercharge your mission – especially if they have the clout to get accessibility fixes onto Product roadmaps or to block releases that don’t meet the company standard.

Accessibility is often far down an organisation’s priority list. I always try to align my accessibility initiatives with Product and Tech’s higher-level goals and quarterly objectives to give them more weight. Business leaders love quant metrics, and if you can show measurable progress, you’re more likely to get senior stakeholder buy-in, funding, and most importantly, the space to continue.

Once you have standards in place and buy-in from leadership, then you can start building your community from the bottom up.

Radek: Building a community of allies sounds intriguing. How can organizations identify and assemble these allies to foster a more inclusive digital environment?

Geri: Wherever I’ve worked, I’ve got together an accessibility guild or working group. A design system can be a perfect hub for this as it serves the wider community. I’ve found there are little pockets of accessibility experts and advocates across organisations. Folks from Marketing, UX Writing, Research and Diversity and Inclusion are often keen to join and can add a lot of value by bringing different perspectives.

There is rarely any accessibility support, even in large organisations. A forum to get together, ask questions and help each other solve problems can be useful. Accessibility is complex, and I don’t always have all the answers. In the past I’ve gone away and researched how to do things and presented this back to the group. If you record these sessions, you slowly build up a knowledge bank.

It’s little things like this that can slowly add up to a gradual shift in culture.

Radek: Do you have any success stories or case studies where implementing an accessible design system transformed the user experience or organizational approach to product development?

Geri: Something that always springs to mind is the positive effects of workshops I have run with design teams. I’ve workshopped things like instigating an accessible design process and marking up your designs for engineering. It’s been heartwarming to see the transformation. Hearing junior designers call out colour contrast issues or flag if something is not keyboard accessible in a design review after attending my workshop makes me so happy!

Radek: Why should WebExpo participants join your talk?

Geri: My talk is about how I failed, what I’ve learned and how I would do things differently. I hope people can take something away from this and hopefully not fail as spectacularly as I have! Failure + time equals comedy, so I try to keep things lighthearted. Accessibility can can be a bit dry but if you come to my session, I’ll make sure we turn up the colour contrast and have some fun with policy and guidelines 🤘

Geri, thank you very much for the interview, and I look forward to your talk at WebExpo 2024!

For those who would like to join Geri and other excellent speakers at WebExpo 2024, there is a coupon code “poslepu“ for 20 % off the ticket price.

Buy the Ticket & Enjoy WebExpo 2024

DesignOps Island Discs S03E01 – Geri Reid, News UK

Radek Pavlíček

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