How Web GDE Martine Dowden approaches web design from an accessibility perspective

MAY 18, 2023
Kevin Hernandez Developer Relations Community Manager

To celebrate Global Accessibility Awareness Day, we interviewed Martine Dowden, Web GDE.

Martine Dowden

Today’s websites follow certain principles for good web design. Some of these principles include simplicity, F-shaped patterned layouts (how we read content on a page), great content, loading times, color palettes, and more. One principle that might not be top of mind when looking at our favorite sites is accessibility and when applying it to web design, its purpose is to make sites available to everyone. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 16% of the population lives with some kind of disability. In web design, accessibility is about making sure you have enough color contrast, a lower resolution screen, different button sizes, alt text, navigation that can be accessed with your keyboard, descriptive text, and so on. For Web GDE, Martine Dowden, this is something she thinks about everyday. Martine is the CTO of Andromeda Galactic Solutions where she builds sites for her clients with an accessibility approach. Martine is also the co-author of Approachable Accessibility: Planning for Success, which landed her on Book Authority’s 20 Best Accessibility Books of All Time list, and has given numerous talks on the subject.

When asked about why accessibility is important to her, Martine shares, “It affects everybody. I want to make sure that when I'm creating something, it doesn't matter who you are, what device you're on, or what your needs are, you're gonna be able to access it. I don't want to exclude people.” To achieve accessibility, Martine urges designers and developers to think about accessibility principles as early as possible. She goes on to say that if your mockups are already inaccessible, you’re setting yourself up for failure. She compares accessibility to security and explains, “I like to parallel it to security because you can't accidentally do security correctly. Accessibility is the same way. You have to actually think about it and test for it.” For testing accessibility early on, Martine recommends using automated tools such as Lighthouse, which has an accessibility checker. However, while automated tools are helpful, it only catches a small subset of what is accessible on your site. Martine explains that automated tools don’t really understand context. “The automated tooling will tell me if I have alt text or not but it won't tell me if that alt text is relevant or helpful. If I'm showing a picture of cats and my alt text says it's a picture of dogs, the automated tooling will say it’s good to go,” she points out. While it’s helpful to have this automation, Martine recommends coupling these tools with a manual review in order to be thorough while testing for accessibility.

Martine also recommends Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which is the international standard. This resource provides specs and a lot of supporting documentation that explains why the specs exist, but it is an exhaustive resource that Martine doesn’t recommend reading from beginning to end. Instead, Martine suggests using it when you have a certain question and looking up the specific specs. Another technology that assists her in her work is Angular since the UI library includes the accessibility notes.

The importance of accessibility is clear when it comes to giving everyone access to web sites and with 71% of users with disabilities clicking away from sites due to inaccessibility, an accessibility approach is vital. Accessibility might be something new to you as a designer or developer but as with everything else, Martine suggests, “It's just like learning any other skill, take it bit by bit and you'll eventually get there. Everybody has to start somewhere.”

You can find Martine online on her personal site.

The Google Developer Experts (GDE) program is a global network of highly experienced technology experts, influencers, and thought leaders who actively support developers, companies, and tech communities by speaking at events and publishing content.