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At Arcadia, our goal is to make clean energy accessible for all. For most of our six-year history, we’ve thought about accessibility through the lens of who is accessing our platform: Whether you own or rent your home, live in the city or the suburbs, have a perfect credit score or are still building it, we make sure we can offer you clean energy.

At Arcadia, our primary goal is to create a 100% renewable energy future. As part of that, 100% of people need access to renewable energy.

Over the last few months, we’ve started to think about how people access our platform. Are they using a screen-reader? Are they relying on keyboard-only or audio-free experiences? No matter how our members interact with our platform, we want them to have a delightful, intuitive experience that makes signing up for clean energy easy.

Enter web accessibility.

What is accessibility, and why does it matter?

According to the World Wide Web Consortium, “accessibility means that websites, tools, and technologies are designed and developed so that people with disabilities can use them.” This includes all types of disabilities that may affect how a user interacts with websites. For example:

  • Users with with a visual disability may rely on screen-readers being able to read critical information in an intuitive way
  • Users who are sensitive to flashing lights may be unable to use sites with flickering animations or graphics
  • Users who are deaf may not be able to interact with audio-only content

Aside from users with disabilities, accessibility benefits everyone – websites that are built to be accessible are often more intuitive and easier to use, and they provide better experiences for all users.

At Arcadia, our primary goal is to create a 100% renewable energy future. As part of that, 100% of people need access to renewable energy. Allowing all users, regardless of ability, to learn more about and sign up for our platform is one way we can contribute to that goal. With that goal in mind, we began to tackle the challenge of making all of Arcadia’s many user-facing apps as accessible as possible. What began as a grassroots initiative by one passionate engineer is now a formal working group of engineers, designers, product managers, and data analysts working to build accessibility into our product development and design processes.

Getting started

The universe of web developers is growing really fast, and neither coding boot camps nor computer science programs necessarily include education about web accessibility. The universe of front-end development tools is also growing quickly, and the creators of these tools aren’t always considering accessibility when they build them. As a result, it’s actually more straightforward to build in an accessible way using only HTML, CSS, and vanilla Javascript than it is using a front-end framework like React.

Software Engineer Alexandra Beautyman joined Arcadia after completing a coding bootcamp, and quickly became interested in accessibility. She says, “Six months into my first full time engineering job, I had heard the term ‘web accessibility,’ but I didn’t really know what it meant. I certainly didn’t know how to go about building accessible web applications. In fact, I didn’t even know what types of user experiences we as developers needed to care for – in other words, I didn’t know who we had to build for or why their experiences using a web application would be different from my own experience as an non-disabled user.”

Motivated by a fellow engineer’s initial research into web accessibility, Alexandra started watching Marcy Sutton’s web accessibility course on Frontend Masters, working her way through Rob Dodson’s Accessibility YouTube channel, and reading articles from WebAim and other accessibility-minded organizations. She drafted an internal resource to introduce the topic of accessibility to fellow engineers, product managers, and designers at Arcadia, and to collect implementation approaches and tools.

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Eventually, more engineers and designers became interested and started tackling accessibility issues in our customer dashboard. Some of the work was complicated, like building a modal focus trap for screen-reader and keyboard users, but it was surprising how much the team was able to improve accessibility with simple changes like using semantic html.

However, Alexandra and the few other engineers working on accessibility didn’t have capacity to tackle everything; they needed more buy-in. After they put together a proposal for a formal working group with some teammates, web accessibility became an official priority. We got approval to spin up a cross-team working group to address accessibility on an ongoing, regular basis. And so the Accessibility Chapter was born.

Setting a baseline

As our working group started diving into engineering fixes for existing accessibility issues, we quickly realized we needed a way to quantify the current state of accessibility in our web apps, identify gaps, and measure our progress. We began looking into ways that we could automate accessibility testing and generate reports to gather baseline data and track our progress over time.

After doing some research, we chose Lighthouse CI, a tool made by Google that automatically tests performance metrics of web applications. Lighthouse was appealing for a few reasons:

  • The accessibility report it generates includes a score that can be used as a baseline and is tracked over time
  • The report suggests fixes for known accessibility violations, which can be easily translated into tickets
  • It integrates with our continuous integration process to generate reports for all PRs, reducing the need for manual reviews and providing regression testing

Automated tools like Lighthouse also help our working group expand our scope; with tools and processes like these in place, the user-facing code that all engineers write is held to the same accessibility standards across our organization without group members needing to manually test or provide guidance.

Automated testing is just one piece of the puzzle; a “perfect” score is far from meaning our work is done. We make sure to take many other factors into account, including user feedback and manual testing with screen-readers and keyboards. However, it does allow us to embed accessibility into our development process and push us to hold ourselves accountable to continue improving the accessibility of Arcadia’s products.

Design-first mindset

One thing became very clear after close collaboration between our designers and engineers: Making products accessible after they’ve been built is very time-consuming. And despite engineers’ best efforts, oftentimes these products are still awkward to use.

That’s how accessibility became a core requirement in the design process. What the product design team learned is that considering things such as tab order, color contrast, and heading hierarchy earlier on inspires higher-quality products overall. Inclusive design leaders such as August de los Reyes rightly assert that accessible, inclusive designs end up benefiting all users.

However, a challenge for our designers is working within an energy market that is often out of date. Sometimes it’s just not possible to create an accessible design while adhering to existing state energy policies. That’s when our designers and product managers collaborate with legislators to modernize their policies for the digital age. We do this to help improve the energy market for everyone, whether they’re Arcadia customers or not.

Next steps

Our working group is still focused on improving the accessibility of Arcadia’s web apps. While we’ve made significant progress, we still have a lot of work to do. We encourage anyone and everyone to reach out to us about ways we can improve! No matter how you interact with our websites, we want to hear your suggestions for how we can continue making them more accessible and delightful. Check out our new public accessibility page or email us at accessibility@arcadia.com with feedback!

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Rachel Partridge

Rachel Partridge is an engineering manager at Arcadia.

Washington, DC