An illustration by what3words’ Niki Forecast representing 20 or so diverse characters, from a delivery driver checking a what3words address on his phone to a visually-impaired person using the app on a wearable device.

10 things I learnt from bringing accessibility to what3words

by Gigi Etienne, Accessibility Partnerships at what3words

Bringing accessibility to what3words has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my career. It has been and continues to be a huge team effort. I’ve been working on accessibility for a year and here are some of the things I’ve learnt along the way:

1. Accessibility is a journey, not a goal. Accessibility is not something you ‘reach’. Just like any digital product, there will always be more improvements to make, especially because you continue to release new features.

2. Building a culture that prioritises accessibility is the key to success. The most successful companies in terms of accessibility are those that have built a culture in which all employees feel personally responsible for bringing accessibility to their day-to-day jobs. The BBC is a great example of a company that has ‘done accessibility right’ for decades. One of their secret weapons lies in the army of accessibility advocates they employ across the business.

3. People have good intentions. I often found that people want to do the right thing, they just don’t know how. Everyone is very busy and getting accessibility right means going out of your way to learn what you need to do differently in your job. But once presented with clear objectives and guidelines, most people are more than happy to implement these.

An illustration shows 3 people and a range of graphs and business looking assets
An illustration shows 3 people and a range of graphs and business looking assets
Credit: AI media

4. It’s an all-or-nothing case. Accessibility will only be successful when the whole ecosystem is accessible. For example, a what3words user wanting to navigate to a what3words address relies on the accessibility of the navigation app as well as on the accessibility of the what3words app.

5. Accessibility user testing is super important. Empathy and automated tools are good but they’re not good enough. With user testing, you will find issues you never imagined you had. I have a great example for this. The format of a what3words address is always 3 words separated by dots. During a user research call with a blind user, we realised that he was typing the three words without the dots in between, which sometimes invalidates the what3words address. He had never seen the dots and we had also never told him there should be dots in between the words. This mistake would have never been spotted by accessibility tools. We had to interact with our users with disabilities to understand failures such as this one.

A two-part cartoon. Person 1 says ‘OMG it’s impossible to use this site without reading it’. Person 2 replies ‘I know!’. Person 1 says ‘Whose site is it?’. Person 2 replies ‘Yours…’ with a smirk on their face
A two-part cartoon. Person 1 says ‘OMG it’s impossible to use this site without reading it’. Person 2 replies ‘I know!’. Person 1 says ‘Whose site is it?’. Person 2 replies ‘Yours…’ with a smirk on their face
Credit: Satu Kyröläinen UX cartoons

6. Testing platforms don’t always include people with disabilities. We use a tool for testing which, we realised, doesn’t have an option for testing by people with disabilities. This meant we had to go out and find testers with disabilities. It also meant a different budget altogether. It would be so easy to add filters for different types of disabilities just like they have filters for gender, geography, etc.

7. Automated accessibility tools only detect 30% of the accessibility issues. Even if your accessibility scores on different tools such as LightHouse or Accessibility Insights are perfect, your product might still not be accessible. Which brings us back to lesson number 5.

8. Building accessible products benefits everyone. Building with accessibility in mind leads to better products. Period. And this benefits not just people with disabilities, but everyone. My aunt has a poor geographical orientation and cannot use Google Maps, she gets lost constantly. She doesn’t have a disability but working to improve Google Maps for people with disabilities would mean my aunt would find the app easier to use.

A person using a mobility scooter waits outside the accessible entrance of a colourful building in Bristol

9. Considering accessibility from the beginning makes things easier and more cost-effective. Retrospectively building an accessible product means going back and reviewing thousands of lines of code and revisiting company-wide practices. It will take longer. It will also be more expensive.

10. Perfect doesn’t exist. Or at least I haven’t seen it! No one has ‘nailed it’, we’re all learning. Some companies have made it more of a priority than others and those are leading the way, but there’s always more that can be done.

There is still a lot to accomplish but I’m proud of the journey so far. In the last year only, 35+ medium to big venues like The O2 or ExCel London have started using what3words for accessibility. Apps like GoodMaps Explore or Eye-D display the user’s current what3words address. And more exciting news are coming.

A portrait of Gigi Etienne wearing a scarf, standing outside.
A portrait of Gigi Etienne wearing a scarf, standing outside.

Let’s chat! I love talking about accessibility! If you’re interested in or work in accessibility, connect on LinkedIn — we can have a chat and learn from each other.

what3words is the simplest way to talk about location. It has divided the world into 3m x 3m squares, each with a unique 3 word address.

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