Derek FeatherstoneEverything is a work in progress

The ongoing evolution of 'Shift left'

Derek Featherstone / Published:

Every area of practice — technical or not — evolves over time. That’s no different for accessibility. We move through stages of maturity in our knowledge, our skills, our understanding, and the ways in which that manifests in our work and process.

We’ve seen lots of different approaches over time to accessibility, and almost all of them lead to a call to “shift left.”

In the beginning

In the beginning, accessibility was mostly seen by a majority of the population as a new thing that we needed to account for in our testing. I think one of my very first talks in 2005 was all about testing techniques, and that was at the request of the conference organizer. It needed to be something practical and immediately applicable. Testing it is then! Accessibility very easily fit as an overall measure of quality. It still is. Therefore we need the ability to test for accessibility! Therefore it should be part of Quality Assurance… i.e., we need a bunch of testers!

Hmmm… That’s not working.

Catching accessibility issues as part of QA isn’t wrong. It just isn’t efficient, and not at all reflective of the reality of accessibility: Accessibility is everyone’s job.

It didn’t take long until people started taking up the mantle for accessibility to “shift left” — rather than testing for accessibility after things are built, can we get our developers to build testing into their process? That way we’d get a more accessible output, resulting in fewer accessibility issues to remediate after testing. That’s a shift left.

Hmmm… That’s still not working.

That wasn’t good enough either — we started seeing excellent technical implementations of designs that weren’t accessible. The focus of accessibility was becoming developer- and engineering-centric rather than sitting solely in testing. So at this point, shifting left meant a shift for accessibility further left to designers. Right? How can we get designers to test their designs?

Note that shifting left isn’t exclusive to the accessibility world, but it is being used often in this space. Most often, people are using it to refer to “shift testing left” — in other words, “start testing earlier!” I think it needs to be more than about testing earlier.

Is it working yet?

Accessibility specialists and advocates have been working with devs on accessibility AND designers AND testers for a long time. I know most of my conference talks for the last 15 or so years have focused on the design side of things. And the WebAIM million tells us there’s still so much work to do.

Shift left 2021

What does shift left mean now? Is there anyone in the process further left than designers? Yes, there are.

Product managers and product owners.

When we talk about shifting left, and we advocate for shifting left, we cannot be solely focused on testing.

What I want us to shift left is thinking about accessibility. Contemplating what it means to be accessible. Last year I wrote a thing on getting started on accessibility before you even have a product. You can start earlier than you think.

In 2021 the “shift left” when it comes to accessibility needs to be more about responsibility and accountability, not just about testing.