Digital accessibility at the Natural History Museum

Why digital accessibility is important to the Museum

Digital accessibility is crucial to help support the Museum’s new core values and deliver its strategy.

We champion diversity. We embrace the challenge of creating a diverse and inclusive organisation and recognise the benefits it brings. We are approachable and welcoming, engaging with different needs and perspectives. We seek out information and share ideas widely and in a variety of ways.

NHM Strategy to 2031

It’s vital that we are a diverse and inclusive organisation. It’s equally important that everyone can experience the Museum and what we offer. This is part of our strategic goal to engage and involve the widest possible audience.

To meet this goal, we need to ensure our digital experiences are accessible to everyone.

Making sure we’re digitally accessible isn’t only important to the Museum. In fact, it’s now considered so important that there are regulations requiring websites and apps from public sector bodies to meet international accessibility standards. This will ensure that everyone can access public sector services, from applying for a Blue Badge to housing benefits. (Read more on Gov.uk)

Where we were in April 2020

In April last year, the pandemic changed everything, and digital experiences became more important than ever. At the same time, the Digital team were keeping an eye on an upcoming September deadline. On 23 September 2020, as a public sector organisation, we were required to ensure our websites and apps met an international standard for accessibility – or explain why we couldn’t.

What we achieved

From May to September 2020, Covid product team* released 25 separate changes to the main nhm.ac.uk website, each one helping us get a step closer to meeting the accessibility standards.

Five highlights include:

  • adding an icon and accessible label to links that open in a new window, so that all users know what to expect when they click
  • making sure all the buttons in our navigation menu are labelled so that screen reader users can easily navigate it
  • ensuring alternative text is present for images that need description, and removed for decorative images that don’t need to be described
  • adding a ‘Skip to content’ button across the main site that appears when a user presses the ‘Tab’ key, helping screen reader and keyboard users get to the page content faster
  • making sure our font choices are consistent and readable across the site, regardless of device

We collaborated with the other product teams and business areas across the Museum to assess and prioritise accessibility changes in other areas, such as the online shop, our scientific databases, and the Data Portal.

And, we created and added a website accessibility statement to nhm.ac.uk, which outlines how accessible our sites are and where we’re planning to make improvements.

What we’ve learned

Making things accessible makes them better for everyone

Digital accessibility doesn’t just make it possible for users of assistive technologies to access our content and experiences. Following accessibility standards makes the experience better for everyone.

For example, people on the autistic spectrum and those who are dyslexic prefer digital experiences that are simple and uncluttered. This means digital content should be designed with images and simple sentences, rather than walls of text.

But even for people who aren’t on the autistic spectrum and aren’t dyslexic, images and simple sentences are easier and more enjoyable to read. Everyone wins when we design our content this way.

Greater focus means faster delivery

For three months, the Covid product team focused most of our time on accessibility. That meant we could dedicate time to learning about it, and had the right knowledge needed as soon as we needed to answer a question. Change wouldn’t have happened without that focus.

Breaking things down makes it possible to achieve more

As I’ve mentioned, implementing accessibility changes across a large digital portfolio can seem like a daunting task.

Once we knew enough about a task, we broke it down into small, standalone pieces of work we could deliver in a few days. Doing this meant we were always making progress in small steps and delivered incremental benefit to our users.

It’s not perfect – and that’s okay

There are still some ways in which our digital experiences at the NHM aren’t completely accessible, and we’ve listed those in our website accessibility statement.

But that’s okay. It’s okay because the most important standard to measure ourselves against is how things were for us before, and we’ve improved. It’s okay because we’ve learned a great deal and can apply those learnings to our future work. And it’s okay because we have brilliant digital product teams who can keep making improvements, beyond this single focused period.

What happens next

Whenever we improve our existing digital products or create new ones, we’ll do everything we can to ensure they’re accessible to the widest possible audience.

For example, our work in accessibility lead to an investigation of semantic heading structures and best practice.

And you can help. If you spot something across any NHM digital products and websites that you think could be improved from an accessibility perspective, please get in touch with us.

*What is the ‘Covid team’?

The Digital team usually works in four product teams, each with a specific set of products and audiences to manage. With lockdown, we reorganised into two product teams to begin with, to allow for some team members to go on furlough.

We had one commercial-focused team responsible for delivering the old and new ticketing systems to allow for booked slots and donations on reopening, and one quickly-named ‘Covid’ team focusing on work to ‘keep the lights on’ across our digital portfolio.

While we did eventually bring back another product team after a month to help with digital needs for reopening, we kept the Covid team going until October 2020.

In some ways our remit was restrictive, because it meant we couldn’t build anything new. But it also freed us from trying to do too much at once, allowing us to focus on what really mattered – including accessibility.

Featured photo by Daniel Ali on Unsplash.

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