Making Superdesk Accessible
Most software is not designed with accessibility in mind. That is also true of our digital newsroom system Superdesk. When we first started developing Superdesk back in 2011, we focused on two things: one, the headless CMS functionality, and two, a clean, uncluttered visual experience—emphasis on the visual. “It simply didn’t occur to us to think how a blind or visually impaired person would use it,” said Vladimir Stefanovic, Sourcefabric’s Head of Design.
From theme settings to screen-readers
That changed in 2013, when we first started working with Kobinet-Nachrichten, a German news site by and for people with disabilities. We learned that the partially sighted editors on Kobinet’s staff had to make a variety of adjustments on their Superdesk instance as well as on their own machines in order to use the CMS, including changing the theme colours and level of contrast. This led our design team to consider adding an accessibility theme to Superdesk, where such settings could be toggled on and off, instead of users having to make the adjustments individually.
But these settings would only be helpful to partially sighted users. Users who are completely blind use screen-readers instead.
A screen-reader is an application that turns the elements of a web page or any other kind of user interface into a spoken script, which it then reads out to the user.
“Navigating a website with a screen-reader is an entirely different process from what most users experience,” says Michelle McQuigge, Weekend News Editor at the Canadian Press. She explains that this can be disorienting: “All the usual frames of reference are gone. Everything is linear, for instance —there’s no such thing as the top or bottom, left or right of the screen. Little symbols like x’s, purple doors etc. simply don’t exist. And without certain shortcuts to ease navigation, everything appears as a giant block of text with links and buttons interspersed throughout.”
When we launched our partnership with the Canadian Press, we learned that Superdesk was not set up well for screen-readers. Important buttons were not labelled properly, while certain functions were not accessible to the keyboard commands that blind users type instead of making point-and-click gestures with a mouse. Also, there were no headings to help a user flip quickly between work stages.
McQuigge describes Superdesk as “virtually a non-starter” when she first logged in.
“I admit to feeling daunted and even a little disheartened after my first introduction to Superdesk,” McQuigge says, “but my fears began to dissipate as soon as I met the development team. They listened to my feedback carefully and made it clear that they were engaged with and committed to improving accessibility across the board. This was refreshing for me.”
Updating Superdesk from the inside out
Stefanovic and the design team made changes in Superdesk’s code base so that there are now headings for screen readers to identify functions such as preview, filtering and lists, as well as the actions that are possible to take when in the monitoring view. Equally important, the team added accessibility labels for all the buttons and icons that don’t have any text.
Fortunately, the main changes came together quickly. McQuigge relates, “The promotion to my new role came right as the newsroom was completing its migration to Superdesk. Without the right tools in place, I wouldn’t have been able to assume any of my new responsibilities.” In her job as Weekend News Editor, McQuigge uses Superdesk to keep track of what’s going out on the wire, to edit and schedule incoming copy from print and broadcast writers, and to write articles herself. She also uses Superdesk to prepare advisories that outline CP’s coverage plans for clients.
Work on accessibility remains ongoing. “I uncovered a few new issues as I got more familiar with the system, but the developers encouraged me to flag anything I came across. This I’ve done, and the difference now is immeasurable,” says McQuigge.
It’s helping McQuigge do her job—and more. Because the changes have been made to the Superdesk core code base, all clients will benefit from them going forward. Also, through the experience of working on this project, the developers and designers at Sourcefabric are now committed to making accessibility an integral part of the design and development process when creating new components.
"Knowing that our work made such a difference for Michelle was inspiring for the whole team and motivated us to dig deeper into the topic," says Stefanovic.
By making Superdesk more accessible, we hope to help newsrooms around the world to become more inclusive.