Accessibility drives front end professionalization 3

Guest author George Gooding is a frontend developer at Epinova
The post is one of the winners of a Web Rebels ticket.

The beauty of web authoring is the simplicity of creating an HTML document, one of the many secrets to the web’s success as an all-encompassing platform. Literally anyone with the right inclination can look at the source of a web page and logically deduce how it works; no college degree required. Many front end developers got their start this way – trying and failing until they understood how web pages worked.

With the increasing legal requirements related to accessibility – most exemplified by Norway’s trailblazing Discrimination and Accessibility Law – most of those web amateurs will soon be closed off from getting paid work.

Only recently has the front end development field been recognised as its own profession worthy of higher education, with study programs and degrees tailored towards this vocation. The front end field has become exceedingly technical, broader in its spectrum of required knowledge, and now with accessibility requirements, the pseudo-element on top of it all:

Empathy.

HTML, CSS and Javascript, the three traditional legs of front end development, have been supplemented by an array of skills that only the most professional developers can add to their repertoire. Do you have an understanding of information architecture? Usability? Interaction design? User experience? Microdata and search engine optimisation? Network latency and client performance optimisation? Responsive design? Mobile and touch? Web applications? Accessibility???

Let’s be honest; many front end developers struggle with the original three, especially Javascript. Without a college degree in computer science, or being an autodidact, you’re not likely to stumble across learning how to program with one of the most ubiquitous programming languages of our current web generation. jQuery has been a crutch for many, but is becoming less necessary for each user who uninstalls an older version of Internet Explorer.

With technologies such as node.js, the front end developers are taking over the entire development stack; back end developers beware! However, these are the few among the many, the super nerds behind Javascript-heavy conferences such as Web Rebels, where a typical Event Apart attendee would head for the bar after 5 minutes.

The average front end developer still doesn’t quite grasp what the HTML 5 article element is for; lesser still understand that its name means “individual thing” rather than “literary composition”.

Forget all the more complicated facets of the trade; we as a group are still googling for answers to the most fundamental parts of a specification that’s been around for years. The very building blocks of the web language that we could so easily check and teach ourselves have become roadblocks.

Herein lies the quandary for the future of the amateur or semi-professional front-ender. Although many still struggle with fundamentals, they’re now expected to master more vexing concepts relating to accessibility. They’re expected to utilize something most humans struggle with on a daily basis:

Empathy.

Customers of web development services, beware the key account manager, the sales rep, who claims new accessibility requirements will not cost more. The simple truth is that understanding, breathing, living accessibility requires a cognitive load that simply has not been a requirement earlier: giving a damn. About other people, about not just making it work for people like yourself, but everyone else who has been shut out of participating in the glorious web revolution.

Making something “work” on the web is easy; hacking something together that has the appearance of working is what developers do all the time, especially if they’ve been fitted with a straightjacket by their project or sales manager.

Making something actually work, for all types of users, requires a developer to put themselves in a plethora of other people’s shoes, to understand their needs, their limits, their challenges – their ways of interacting with the site being made. It requires a developer to ensure that what they’re making is usable by everyone, according to the accessibility requirements they’ve been expected to fulfil.

Being empathetic to others’ needs takes time, energy, concentration – and the ability to solve it technically. No matter how skilled you are, putting all of this thought into your work will always take more time than the shortest, hackiest path to completion.

In Norway, by 2021, every web site owned by a company or organisation has to be in full compliance with most of WCAG 2.0. Since July 2014, every new web site – including any major design change or CMS upgrade to an existing site – falls under the same requirements. This has been demanded of public sector sites around the world for years, yet now these requirements are being applied to the private sector.

Many companies have specialised themselves towards the public sector for exactly this reason, providing highly professional services with accessibility on top of the requirements list. It’s not uncommon to hire consultants internationally to get the job done. Derek Featherstone isn’t being flown around the world for no reason. A niche market has, through the magic wand of legislation, been transformed into the entire market.

I ask my fellow industry colleagues to consider the possible implications of this.

Most of us strive to fulfil these requirements, to check off the ever-longer list of skills the front end developer is expected know. Yet, anyone familiar with the status of the industry today and over the past few years knows that there are few who can jump through all these hoops, with even the most optimistic outlook.

The professionalisation that these accessibility requirements entail will mean the end of many careers of those who have not and will not be able to keep up.

Employers producing solutions that fulfil all the legal accessibility requirements will need to rely on developers who combine empathy and technical accessibility skills. The rest will be useless, or permanently relegated to the B team, leading to inefficient processes of after-the-fact accessibility patching by the A team.

Employers will look to dismantle their B teams and build only A teams to be able to compete on the market. Yet, there aren’t and won’t be enough to fill the A teams necessary to fill the demand, a demand that will get larger with each month and year. Countries such as Norway already face a depletion of available qualified high tech workers, the accessibility race will exacerbate this within the web development industry.

The company webmaster will be a thing of the past, no longer qualified to do any further development of their employer’s site. Companies will have to rely more on highly qualified consultants.

Such a situation will inevitably lead to the industry prices heading skyward. Great news for those developers who are left, bad news for all the clients of web development services who have a legal dependency on their work.

Many organisations will be forced to terminate their web presence entirely, flee to accessible platforms such as Facebook or Twitter as their only presence, or provide only the simplest of web sites to escape exorbitant costs. (Or their managers will have to provide evidence for a hardship exemption, placing their hopes on the benevolence of a government bureaucrat – or corruption.)

The sky isn’t falling, but there’s a chance of a debilitating storm.

Perhaps it is time to professionalize this vocation. Perhaps we should expect more of those who develop web sites. Perhaps we should expect everyone who makes a web site to have a degree, certifications, years of schooling and training – and the senior level skill of empathy.

Perhaps web authoring needs to come back as its own profession, one who is particularly qualified to mark up web documents to ensure the demands of accessibility – one who understands more than a robotic algorithm or text editor. One who produces HTML content with empathy for the user that is going to use it. Web journalists, you better crack the HTML books!

But how many professions truly require empathy to produce legally sufficient work at this level? What has been the trajectory of their cost curve since their professionalisation took place? What have been the implications for their industry and those who require their services?

Coloring the entire web with accessibility is among the most noble goals our industry can have. A noble goal, though, can become handicapped by a strategy that does not take reality into consideration.

Believing that front end developers are a special breed of human whom, contrary to every other vocational group, will all be able to bring empathy to their work in due time, is not reality.

We are, contrary to our Superman attitude, no better than taxi drivers, nurses, doctors, carpenters or any other worker. In fact, our profession was founded on not having a professional class pulling the ladder up behind them and barricading the castle gate.

The beauty of the web, the easy participation of the amateur, is our industry’s greatest weakness, but also our greatest strength. If we destroy our greatest strength in attempting to attain a noble goal, what are we left with?

I don’t know. Maybe none of these problems will happen, maybe the industry will self-correct, maybe the legal requirements will bend to the inevitable pull of gravity. Maybe the government will provide tax breaks or other stimulus to allow more people and companies to get their skills up to speed, provide more guidance and help with achieving the goal.

The most unsettling thing is that none of this is being openly and honestly discussed. According to the industry gospel, there are no potential problems on the horizon, only sunshine in the forecast. Every industry needs its devil’s advocates, its heretics, because even if they’re wrong, it’s a sign of a healthy discussion. A healthy discussion leads to healthier solutions, solutions that can make our goals more feasible.

So, let’s have the discussion.

Come to think of it, I haven’t even mentioned web designers yet.

3 kommentarer

  1. Yes. This.

    In regards to web authoring; I completely agree. I’ve argued for years that to create good content for the web, you need to have knowledge of the underlying technology (such as HTML) and use it to your advantage. Anything else will be mediocre, at best. And with all these new requirements, this point stands stronger than ever.

    It’s funny how concepts I wrote about on a now-out-of-existence-website more than ten years ago is getting increasingly relevant these days…

    I think we’ll see increased support for accessibility-features in tooling. Content management systems, development environments, text editors, client side frameworks – all these building blocks will have to meet customer demand. A lot of Javascript frameworks are already doing a good job at this. But then again, as you say; the web is largely built on “the participation of the amatuer” – which probably is especially true for client side components.

    And having all these script kiddies include accessibility features in their frameworks is probably not going to happen soon, further increasing the need of proper training for all client side developers. And being highly critical to the tools that are used. We can’t continue with “I’ll just throw in this JS-library, and it sorts itself out!”

    And when it comes to designers – webmasters/IT managers/people responsible seriously need to end the entire “This guy made a poster for my gig, he’ll do the website too!” mentality out there. And understand that the web is fundamentally different to any other medium in existence.

  2. On the other hand, is it possible that any one person could possibly know the ins and outs of so many API’s present for todays Front End Developer? At some point doesn’t the industry splinter into specialists?

  3. Rob,

    In an optimal world with limitless resources, you would of course be quite correct. It would be better if there was more specialization going on in the industry, people should be doing what they’re best instead of trying to do it all.

    That can probably work out for bigger companies who have a large and diverse staff. However, for the average company, the average web project, you can usually only allot one front end resource (sometimes even one person doing the entire stack) to a specific project.

    For that reason a team of specialists isn’t feasible in many or most of the projects being done, paving way for the demand of the Unicorn Front-ender who knows it all and does it all well. Even the very hard stuff.

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