Column As you slide into the driver's seat of your century-old Cadillac Type 53 automobile you'll almost certainly miss something hugely significant: that model's major innovation.
It is one that's with us still, which has made the lives of every post-war driver easier and safer, and it's a concept that modern software needs. Make it happen in our IT lives, and you can be a global developer superhero for countless millions. Including me.
It's simple, it needs almost no extra work; in fact it will save you a bundle. It's waiting to happen. The only drawback? You'll have to talk to other developers. Sorry about that.
The Cadillac Type 53's big thing was its foot controls. It's the first car in history to have clutch, brake, and throttle on the floor in a row in that order. There was wild variation at the time, and it took a good 20 years from the Cadillac's 1916 introduction for that layout to become standard, but when it did you could get in an unfamiliar car and move off safely in moments. For controls that can kill you but you can't see, that's huge.
There's a set of controls that every piece of software needs that make the whole thing work, but that for millions are invisible – and, like early cars, all over the place. Your job, Superhero Developer, is to turn them into clutch, brake, throttle – simple settings in the same place on every bit of software. You'll already know the name of these settings: accessibility.
It has to be you. Only developers can make it happen. C-suite leaders can't. International standards bodies can't, they can only follow. Marketing? Hah! Only developers. People who build.
You see, nobody much cares about accessibility. It's something that has to be there because there are actually laws about equal access, but more than that? Most people think they don't need it – we'll come back to that – so as long as the controls are there somewhere, that's job done. I need it, like millions around the world, because I went blind a few years back and boy – it stinks. Bad tech accessibility stinks double because it can be made so much better so easily – if you can solve one paradox.
We who need accessibility controls need them because we can't use the damn software as it comes out of the box. But we need to use it as it comes out of the box to set the accessibility controls. Some are system-wide, sure, but many if not most apps ignore a lot of system settings. We know the controls are in there somewhere, but where? And oh goodie, there's a new version and they've moved. Damn them.
Yes, there are swears. You get the picture. So put on your cape and pull up your silk overcrackers: here is the threefold path to heroism and saving the world.
Easy as 1-2-3
One: Agree with other damn developers where you're putting your damn accessibility settings. I suggest they're always the first top-level item in Settings, but frankly if you want to make them three levels down on menu item four, I'll learn it and be happy.
Two: Agree to put your main damn accessibility settings in the same damn order. Colour mode. Text settings. Cursor. Sticky keys. Whatever. If you have unique accessibility features, stick 'em at the end – but keep them consistent. If someone else has done it, use theirs. If not, use yours and publish. We have a damn internet. I'll set up a damn git repo. This way, people can learn the muscle memory to find the one setting they need to make everything else available. You don't need to see the clutch, but if it's the accelerator…
Three: Agree a common schema for accessibility settings, goddammit, and have a common config file in a common place. Damn.
Guess what? If I want white text on black background, 16 point sans in one app, I want it in all. If I want generic dark mode in one, then in all. Your app may not be able to comply, but it can do the best it can and that's probably good enough. If not, then I can't use your app but I'll know that straight away rather than after half an hour of sweary poking.
Want it in six words? Same place, same sequence, same data.
Clutch, brake, throttle.
That's it. You're a hero. My life and the life of millions like me – and, quite possibly, your life too, one day – has had so much pain taken away. Your life is easier anyway – design decisions made in advance, test scripts suddenly more portable, user support lessened. And here's a dirty little secret – even fully able people love customising their stuff, if they know how. The cordless kettle? First designed for disabled people. Damn!
That's all it takes to be a hero. There's a hell of a lot more to accessibility than that, but this will be a complete game-changer and a damn fine start.
Oh, and talk to your fellow devs. This won't work unless you do. Talk to me about it if you want, you know where to find me, because boy, is there more to say. ®