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QA Financial’s Leadership Insight: Preety Kumar, CEO and Founder of Deque, on website accessibility

25 January 2018
Nine out of ten web pages are inaccessible, and last year the US DoJ quashed any near-future clarity regarding website accessibility regulations. In this interview, Preety Kumar, CEO and Founder of Deque, discusses the company's work with some of the world’s largest banks and its mission to shift accessibility development left

Digital banking services have become an essential part of everyday life and are critical for modern banks to compete. Removing friction from the banking experience for everyone has a direct impact on their bottom line. But what happens if a the text on the bank’s website is too small and cannot be enlarged? Or the site cannot be successfully navigated using only a keyboard? Or video features lack text captions? Here, a bank’s digital services become inaccessible to those customers with certain disabilities and, in some cases, to the aging demographic.

Last year, the US Department of Justice quashed any near-future clarity regarding website accessibility regulations, as it was announced that it was withdrawing two related Advanced Notices of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM). The two highly anticipated ANPRM related to website accessibility and were expected to provide clarity on online compliance requirements in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Preety Kumar, CEO and Founder of Deque, provider of web and mobile accessibility testing tools, told QA Financial that although the US may seem to be taking a step back when it comes to enforcing digital accessibility standards, “advocacy groups are not going to stand by. It’s too important. Having access to financial services is a civil right, and digital services should be no exception”.

Today, six out of the top ten US banks are using Deque’s solutions to ensure their digital services are accessible, but accessibility issues are still often brought to their attention following a complaint or even a lawsuit. In this interview, Kumar outlines the importance of building web accessibility early on in the development lifecycle, and discusses Deque’s continued contribution to global accessibility standards to enforce digital equality.

Q. How is financial services sector using Deque’s solutions?

Financial services are essential and should be accessible to everybody – and digital financial services should be no exception. For a visually impaired customer, getting to and from their nearest bank branch can be difficult. And so the digital world of financial services becomes an extremely important service for people with disabilities.

The financial services market is a big market for Deque. Six of the top ten US banks use our solutions to test the accessibility of their digital services and many have been customers for several years.

Some financial services approach us in response to a legal threat or complaint, but some of the most successful customers do not. Customers working with us in partnership to adopt accessibility into their culture make the biggest impact. They achieve accessibility at scale more efficiently, and build better, more inclusive customer experiences faster. The financial services sector is paying a lot of attention to the issue of digital accessibility and presents a great growth opportunity for us.

Deque’s Amaze product, a patented technology, helps with rapid resolution of issues that is sometimes necessary. The product adds “Accessibility Overlays” to correct issues without interfering with the source code of a website or application. However, we want our customers employ long-term solutions to eventually become self-sufficient in developing accessible websites and applications. We encourage our customers to shift the whole accessibility initiative left in the development process. Waiting until a site is in production before applying accessibility fixes is an old-fashioned and expensive way of doing things.

Q. Are there any signs that accessibility standards are going to get tougher?

The regulatory environment is changing very rapidly in the US under the new administration and so it is hard to tell – if only we could use a crystal ball. In the very recent past, the US Department of Justice withdrew the Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking which was going to make digital accessibility a permanent part of the ADA. Although at first glance it may seem that the US has taken a step back in enforcing accessibility standards, I believe it is legal precedence and cases that are going to decide how these standards are enforced across businesses. I can tell you that advocacy groups are not going to stand by as these standards are cast aside – it’s too important.

In terms of regulatory standards across the globe, Asia used to be behind in terms of digital accessibility rules, but it’s possible that the balance could tip the other way. Asia is a big continent and there are pockets of Asia that take digital accessibility very seriously. India has recently released regulations, whether they will be enforced or not, who knows. But traditionally, Korea has very strong, and Japan too.

Europe is catching up. The European Commission certainly has a focus on digital accessibility.

Q. Is accessibility an area that automation, machine learning and AI can touch?

This is a question I have been asking myself for 20 years. I believe automation is critical to testing. Without automation, it will not be possible to complete all testing processes efficiently. The balancing act here is that you don’t want to give a developer false positives. If an automated test tells a developer something is wrong, but it isn’t really wrong, they won’t trust the software. One of the manifestos of Deque’s open-source aXe-core rule manager is that it will bring up zero false positives. We want to automate what can be automated, without generating these false defects.

Machine learning and AI can really help us in this area and this is an area of focus for Deque’s R&D team right now. For example, image recognition software that is available could be used to verify a description of an image and assess whether it is a valid description or not. This is something that is a very manual process.

I do believe that today manual testing in needed – no question about it – but we do want to increase automation.

Q. Who are Deque’s competitors? What is Deque’s edge?

There are a number of accessibility services companies out there who specialise in manual testing and training. You might also encounter a handful of open-source apps or extensions out there that provide testing value. There isn’t really any one competitor that offers a complete suite of automated testing tools combined with best in class accessibility services and training.

I believe our biggest edge is our people. We have an extremely passionate team of accessibility experts and developers dead-set on building tools and services that help folks achieve accessibility at scale. A number of Deque’s employees contribute to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), and we take a lot of value and appreciation from the fact that our experts live and breathe accessibility.

An example of our commitment to building a tool that scales to meet various accessibility needs is our open-source accessibility testing library aXe-core. We feel we’ve really made a difference in this space, in fact, we recently exceeded one million downloads – which is fantastic. It promotes our mission of digital equality and shows that people are paying attention. We originally released an open-source product when we noticed there were varying interpretations of rules, and companies were telling us that they weren’t going to do accessibility because the tests weren’t fully testable. It became critical to our mission to stop this excuse and so we went about creating a rule set that was universally accepted as the de facto standard. And the best way to create a de facto standard was to open the product up and let anybody contribute to it. Right now we have around 50 contributors to the initiative, and we know that Google and Microsoft have adopted it as its testing standard.

Q. What does the future hold for Deque?

Our long-term goal is to see every developer using Deque’s software while building accessible websites – that’s a broad goal. We certainly realize the scale of this achievement and are seeking partners willing to help. In the short term, Deque is focused on making our customers self-sufficient. We are doing this by offering our suite of products which support the entire DevOps timeline, as well as governance. We also have the Deque University, which provides a comprehensive set of courses on digital accessibility and free to people with disabilities.

Nine out of ten web pages are inaccessible. We’re doing our best to lead the charge and get that number down to zero.

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