Accessibility and web performance are not features, they’re the baseline
This week I’ve been brooding about web performance and accessibility. It all began when Ethan Marcotte made a lot of great notes about the accessibility issues that are common with AMP:
In the recordings above, I’m trying to navigate through the AMP Story. And as I do, VoiceOver describes a page that’s impossible to understand: the arrows to go back or forward are simply announced as “button”; most images are missing text equivalents, which is why the screen reader spells out each and every character of their filenames; and when a story’s content is visible on screen, it’s almost impossible to access. I’d like to say that this one AMP Story was an outlier, but each of the nine demos listed on the AMP Stories website sound just as incomprehensible in VoiceOver.
Ethan continues to argue that these issues are so common in AMP that accessibility must not be a priority at all:
Since the beginning, Google has insisted AMP is the best solution for the web’s performance problem. And Google’s used its market dominance to force publishers to adopt the framework, going so far as to suggest that AMP’s the only format you need to publish pages on the web. But we’ve reached a point where AMP may “solve” the web’s performance issues by supercharging the web’s accessibility problem, excluding even more people from accessing the content they deserve.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately — about how accessibility work is often seen as an additional feature that can be tacked onto a project later — rather than accessibility work being a core principle or standard of working on the web.
And I’ve seen this sentiment expressed time and time again, in the frameworks, on Twitter, in the design process, in the development process, and so much so that arguing about the importance of accessibility can get pretty exhausting. Because at some point we’re not arguing about the importance of accessibility but the importance of front-end development itself as a series of worthy skills to have. Skills that can’t be replaced.
Similarly, this post by Craig Mod, on why software should be lightning fast, had me thinking along the same lines:
I love fast software. That is, software speedy both in function and interface. Software with minimal to no lag between wanting to activate or manipulate something and the thing happening. Lightness.
Later in the piece, Mod describes fast software as being the very definition of good software and argues that every action on a computer — whether that’s a website or an app — should feel as if you’re moving without any latency whatsoever. And I couldn’t agree more; every loading screen and wait time is in some degree a mark of failure.
The takeaway here is that you literally can’t afford desktop or iPhone levels of JS if you’re trying to make good web experiences for anyone but the world’s richest users, and that likely means re-evaluating your toolchain.
I’m sort of a jerk when it comes to this stuff. I don’t think a website can be good until it’s fast. The kind of fast that takes your breath away. As fast as human thought, or even faster. And so my point here is that web performance isn’t something we should aspire to, it should be the standard. The status quo. The baseline that our work is judged by. It ought to be un-shippable until the thing is fast.
The good news is that it’s easier than ever to ship a website with these base requirements of unparalleled speed and accessibility! We have Page Speed Insights, and Web Page Test, not to mention the ability to have Lighthouse perform audits with every commit in GitHub automatically as we work. Ire Aderinokun showed us how to do this not so long ago by setting up a performance budget and learning how to stick to it.
The tools to make our websites fast and accessible are here but we’re not using them. And that’s what makes me mad.
While I’m on this rant — and before I get off my particularly high horse — I think it’s important to make note of Deb Chachra’s argument that “any sufficiently advanced negligence is indistinguishable from malice.” With that in mind, it’s not just bad software design and development if a website is slow. Performance and accessibility aren’t features that can linger at the bottom of a Jira board to be considered later when it’s convenient.
Instead we must start to see inaccessible and slow websites for what they are: a form of cruelty. And if we want to build a web that is truly a World Wide Web, a place for all and everyone, a web that is accessible and fast for as many people as possible, and one that will outlive us all, then first we must make our websites something else altogether; we must make them kind.