HarvardKey: Designed with Accessibility in Mind

September 14, 2015
HarvardKey: Designed with Accessibility in Mind

As IT products and services at Harvard continue to grow and evolve, one key element of any new offering is always at the top of the developer and project leader mindset: Accessibility for all users, regardless of disabilities or different abilities, is critical to ensure that everyone has access to Harvard IT resources without any impediments.

So when it came time to ensure that the new HarvardKey authentication and user self-service applications met the mark for accessibility, the Identity & Access Management (IAM) program at Harvard University Information Technology (HUIT) turned to a resource close to home — the world-renowned Perkins organization in Watertown, Mass, which comprises five lines of work improving the lives of people with blindness and deafblindness at a global scale. In addition to the Perkins School for the Blind and the Perkins braille, audio, large print, and electronic library, the organization includes Perkins Solutions, a respected provider of assistive technology products and consulting services.

Because HarvardKey is poised to become Harvard's primary login credential for users across the University — including more than 35,000 Alumni — it was especially important to ensure that the system adhered to accessibility best practices.

"Accessibility is not simply the law," explains Cristopher Broyles, director of digital accessibility at Perkins Solutions. "It’s good practice because accessibility benefits everyone — just think about [widely-implemented standards such as] curb cutouts and captioning."

The IAM program team worked closely with Perkins' accessibility team on commissioning and implementing an extensive usability analysis of the new HarvardKey login and self-service systems, centering around the applications' compliance with the recommendations set out in the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. Keeping in mind a holistic lifecycle approach to the HarvardKey application, which includes iterative improvements to IAM products under Agile methodology, IAM worked to achieve Level A compliance for the initial HarvardKey release September 22, 2015, with additional revisions toward Level AA compliance — as well as other best-practice suggestions not directly aligned with WCAG 2.0 — in subsequent releases.

The Perkins review of HarvardKey included a number of approaches to ensure a thorough analysis, including general page-level checks as well as functional and task-based assessments by a team of five specialists. "Good accessibility testing is a mixed-methods approach: it uses specialized testing tools, manual inspection of the code, and, most importantly, testing with users of assistive technology," says Broyles.

And while initial development activities for HarvardKey included accessibility as a priority, the team acknowledges the importance in this case of bringing in high-level outside expertise to create the best possible product.

"You can have the best efforts of the best team of developers and project/product managers, but it's still critical to seek additional review in order to ensure that you haven't overlooked anything," says Jason Snyder, managing director of architecture and engineering for HUIT. "Partnering with Perkins on optimizing the accessibility of HarvardKey not only improved the application, but also furthered the IAM team's accessibility-related knowledge and skill set — something that we can take with us into future development activities. It's a win-win."

Broyles agrees: "The project was productive and mutually beneficial to both Harvard and Perkins," he says. "Both institutions continue to work together to become thought leaders and implementation leaders in accessibility in the education space."

The IAM team would like to extend a special thanks to Mildene Bradley, senior project manager in HUIT’s Accessibility and Security Processes group, who facilitated IAM's connection to Perkins Solutions and worked with the team through the entire testing process.

Want further information about accessibility efforts for HarvardKey — or more info on HarvardKey in general? Contact Gretchen Grozier, IAM community program manager, to learn more.

>> Learn more about accessibility at Harvard
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