When ORCID published our founding principles in 2012, web accessibility did not have quite the widespread awareness it enjoys today. Still, we believe the principles of openness that ORCID was founded on dovetail neatly into these larger concepts of access. After all, if material in the ORCID Registry is open but not accessible to all, then it will not be serving the global community nearly as effectively, and we will not move as closely to our vision of a world where all who participate in research, scholarship, and innovation are uniquely identified and connected to their contributions across disciplines, borders, and time.
According to the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), for an online technology to be accessible, it must be, “designed and developed so that people with disabilities can use them.” What this means specifically is that people with any disability—auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech, or visual—can perceive, understand, navigate, interact with, and contribute to content they find throughout the web.
While the recently updated ORCID record interface is more accessible now than ever, we know that many of the 8.5 million users that are actively engaged with their ORCID records continue to face barriers to building and maintaining those records.
Figuring out exactly how accessible a digital product is can be difficult. Automated tests and browser plugins are plentiful with a quick Google search and can quickly uncover many of the more common, mechanical accessibility issues with a site or application. But they can’t provide the deeper understanding and analysis we wanted for ORCID. To genuinely gain an understanding of the barriers and issues facing our users, we knew we needed help from a specialist accessibility consultancy.
After an exhaustive search of companies far and wide, we settled on The Digital Accessibility Centre (DAC) in Neath, Wales as our accessibility partner. DAC has an excellent reputation, a friendly, open attitude, and considerable testing experience across multiple sectors. They are also a responsible, ethical employer with a team built with people who have firsthand experience of using assistive tools and technologies on a day-to-day basis. These are not your average accessibility consultants checking boxes off a list.
In April 2022, we commissioned DAC to run a full accessibility audit on the ORCID Registry. The resulting report was delivered in May 2022, and the findings made it clear that addressing accessibility would be a top priority task for the Product and Tech teams in 2022 and beyond.
Assessing ORCID’s accessibility
What was clear from the outset was that the ORCID interface did not meet the criteria for the Web Accessibility Initiative’s Web Content Accountability Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 AA standards. This is not an uncommon situation and was not a surprise as we knew we would fall short in a number of critical areas. However, it was encouraging to hear from DAC that the vast majority of issues found were not as severe as we feared.
A lot of the issues detailed in the report centered on the use of alternative input methods such as direct keyboard entry or voice-assisted navigation. There were also a number of areas where we needed to improve how we communicate the often complex information contained in an ORCID record to users with visual impairments. Screen reader users in particular found that the tightly-structured layout of a full ORCID record quickly became a blizzard of information that lacked context when read aloud.
As part of the audit report debrief, and in preparation for our own backlog planning, we sat down with a DAC consultant who has been blind from birth while they walked us through the key journeys in an ORCID record. Working with this consultant gave us profound clarity on the issues described in the report—it’s one thing to read that something is hard to use because of this reason or that, but to witness it happening in real time is another thing altogether! Through this experience we could finally appreciate how difficult it can be to navigate and use complex systems such as ORCID when the visual information we take for granted is not available. The sheer volume of information present in an academic record can be overwhelming, especially when read out at “x5” speed. Coupled with the repetition of actions like “Edit” or “Delete” without context in a non-visual environment and across hundreds of individual items the record soon became a wall of noise.
Experiencing the DAC consultant navigating their record in such an unfamiliar way really brought home that our focus needed to be on functional accessibility and not solely the pursuit of WCAG compliance.
Leveling up accessibility for all researchers
To begin addressing these accessibility issues, we took the findings in the report and built an accessibility-focused work plan to carry us through the latter half of 2022 and into 2023.
The work plan prioritized issues directly affecting our compliance with the WCAG 2.1 A and AA standards. Fixing these would improve the ORCID experience for the largest number of users. The plan also gave high priority to resolving the problems marked as “Usability” issues in the DAC report. These issues, while not directly related to specific WCAG criteria, pointed to the parts of an ORCID record that were simply not as easy to use as they could be. Filtering these issues through an accessibility lens provided impetus to get them fixed once and for all.
In Q3 2022 we got to work.
Over the last year we have made great strides in improving the accessibility of ORCID records. Two thirds of the A or AA issues identified in the report have been resolved, and the updated features and functionality have gone live in ORCID records.
The remaining tasks in progress are mostly issues that involve considerable upfront design input or were discovered to be far more complex than originally thought.
The bulk of the work completed has been centered around a total rethink of the underpinning structure of the ORCID record. We’ve worked hard to make sure that records have a logical layout and flow, regardless of how they are navigated. We’ve added assistive text throughout, meaning that abstract values are given additional context when accessed by screen readers or other assistive technologies. ORCID is powered by a number of forms and these too have been re-built from the ground up to be more easily navigable.
Alongside this more visible design and development work, we’ve also made great strides in embedding accessibility thinking across ORCID. From running simple but effective color contrast checks during the design phase, to accessible code linting during development, and automated regression testing during QA, we continue to work towards incorporating accessibility into our end-to-end processes.
Accessibility is an ongoing journey
We’ve done a huge amount of work over the last year, but we still have a long way to go. Now that we’re reaching the end of the first phase of work indicated by our initial accessibility report, it’s time to find out how far we’ve come.
We have commissioned DAC to do a full re-audit of the ORCID Registry so we can accurately measure our progress towards WCAG AA compliance. This time around we’ll be looking to see how close we are to 2.2 compliance—the latest version of the WCAG standard.
In order to be as transparent as possible with regards to our accessibility efforts, we will be drafting a full, revised accessibility statement for publication in the latter half of 2023. The new statement will expand on the current version and detail exactly what we have achieved and what we have left to do. DAC will be helping us to draft the new statement.
Meanwhile we will continue to push on with the remaining accessibility items in the backlog. Our aim is to release at least one accessibility-focused card per sprint, or approximately every three weeks. We’ll also be taking a close look at how we can improve the accessibility and UX of our 3rd party tools such as HelpHero, which provides in-record guidance, and Zendesk, our help ticketing system.
Community-driven accessibility improvements
We’re committed to the continual improvement of ORCID accessibility and plan to be as transparent and upfront with the work we are doing as possible. ORCID is a community-driven, community-built organization, and we value what our researchers and members have to say. We invite you to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you feel inspired to share anything with us about your experience using your ORCID record. We also encourage you to take a few moments to check your visibility preferences in your record. While we continue working toward making the user interface more accessible, we also want to remind record holders that they control the visibility of their record—and open, visible records contribute to accessibility for all.