In recent years, Target’s web team made a decision to build and maintain a design system which includes a library of reusable UI components. One of the aims of having this UI component library was to create a more efficient process that would result in consistent code across development teams, and across areas and sub-pages of the website. More specifically, the UI component library creates a shared language and a shared understanding that helps maintain consistent branding and a consistent user experience (UX). While accessibility efforts at Target preceded the implementation of the design system, the digital accessibility team viewed the endeavor as one in which accessibility could be permanently embedded in all stages of development.
After some initial teething problems, and much "reaching out, connections, relationship building, and networking," the current situation is one where design system UI components have all been vetted by the accessibility team using assistive technologies (AT) used by people with disabilities.
One of the hardest parts now is to employ the pattern library without stifling programmer creativity. The act of developing code is a naturally creative endeavor, and coders like to tinker, tweak, and "improve." As many accessibility professionals will attest, one programmer’s "code improvement" can mean AT compatibility problems that can take a long time to diagnose and fix. For the accessibility team, this means there must be a consistent message with the users of the pattern library to not "reinvent the wheel." Instead, coders are encouraged, if they have thoughts and suggestions to improve the pattern elements, to bring them to the attention of the wider teams (including accessibility) for considerations as updates to library elements. This has meant that developers (coders) are bringing up accessibility improvements much sooner than they would have previously in their system development cycles. Accessibility is now described as a "great collaboration vehicle," so much so that accessibility is also described as the de facto "epicenter of the design system."
While the design system is proprietary to Target, the evidence of the utility is online. The UI library guides Target website developments. The use of the component has sped up the development process and it has allowed developers to take on new and more interesting problems. One of the other interesting areas is in the creation of digital experiences that are outside of the main company website, but which are Target-branded, such as digital media advertising campaigns and online movie product tie-ins. Much of this work is contracted out, and many of the elements fall outside of the regular pattern library parameters. However, that isn’t to say that accessibility is left out.
Far from it.
A member of Target’s accessibility team is assigned to work on key projects, including partnerships with vendors, throughout every stage of development. The accessibility team is unique in this respect: for example, the UX team and the quality assurance team are engaged at specific stages as necessary, but not through the entire "soup-to-nuts" of design, development, and quality assurance. An early indication of the need for this approach was when certain would-be contractors would unwittingly reveal their lack of experience in this area ("What do you mean you want this to be accessible?"), or they would think they have it covered ("We already know what accessibility is!"), but their existing products didn’t come close to meeting Target’s standards. Target’s accessibility team does ad hoc training with contractors. This is less necessary with Target’s in house teams because over time the messages on accessibility have been spread and integrated into Target’s digital products.
Whenever a new development is made that is outside of the design system scope, accessibility is still checked rigorously before a digital experience is made public. New experiences can inform and further develop the pattern library as technologies evolve.
The key message, according to Target’s accessibility team leaders, is that fixing accessibility makes sites better for everyone by making everything clearer and easier to use. For developers, having a consistent library of UI components to draw from means that they can rest assured that accessibility needs are taken care of, while retaining their ability to be creative in continuing to evolve the website and develop new digital experiences for everyone.
Minneapolis-based Target Corporation (NYSE:TGT) serves guests at 1,807 stores and at target.com. Since 1946, Target has given 5 percent of its profit to communities, which today equals millions of dollars a week. For more information, visit target.com/pressroom. For a behind-the-scenes look at Target, visit target.com/abullseyeview or follow @TargetNews on Twitter.
This case study is based on interviews with Target accessibility team members Chris Hansen and Sudha Rajan.
By Chris M. Law, May 2017