To create an accessible website is to make it user-friendly for people with disabilities – or at least, that’s the common interpretation. The very purpose of the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is to
...explain how to make web content more accessible to people with disabilities.
But accessibility can be interpreted more broadly. According to designer and author of Accessibility For Everyone, Laura Kalbag
Accessibility is the degree to which our products are usable by as many people as possible.
Adopting an accessibility-first approach will lay the foundation for a successful digital experience that works for more people and in more contexts.
While the ethical motivation to create accessible experiences is clear, the benefits of investing time and money into doing so can be hard to prove. Before deprioritising accessibility, it should be considered that:
- Accessible websites rank higher
Google’s Lighthouse includes accessibility as part of its auditing tool alongside traditional factors, such as SEO and performance. Experiences with greater accessibility scores have seen improved organic page rankings.
- Accessibility removes sales barriers
Most businesses want to sell their products or services to as many people as possible. By making products that are accessible to a wider audience, businesses create the potential to do just that.
- Accessibility is a positive brand value
In a world where institutional distrust is rife, an ethical brand stands out from the crowd. Caring about the needs of users will establish a brand as one to trust.
- Accessibility is the law
In the UK, new regulations mean that public sector websites and apps are legally required to meet accessibility guidelines. And, although these laws may not apply to all businesses, the Government Digital Service (GDS) is so often admired for its design system that following its accessibility guidance makes a lot of sense too.
If you treat your audience well, they’ll stay loyal to your brand and your company.
If the service doesn’t meet WCAG 2.1 AA, you may be breaking the law.
Where to start?
Let’s consider an omnichannel finance experience in which users may apply for a loan or make purchases in-store and online. An experience like this covers a lot of touchpoints and building accessibility into the product won’t be easy. To steer design and development decisions these four general goals should be kept in mind. The experience should be:
- Easy to see
Some users wear glasses because they’re nearsighted or farsighted. Some have astigmatism, sight loss, are blind or colourblind. Some users don’t have any eyesight conditions, but might be using their device in direct sunlight.
- Easy to hear
Audio is problematic for users that are deaf or have hearing loss. Transcribing audio and providing captions for videos goes a long to helping those users, but also creates a better experience for users in noisy environments such as a busy shop floor.
- Easy to operate
Users with motor-related needs may struggle with UI components that are small. Checking multiple boxes on a form and other such repetitive tasks might cause pain to some users, so including a ‘select all’ mechanism would improve their experience. Assistive technologies, such as screen readers and speech recognition software should also be supported.
- Easy to understand
Regardless of the target audience, content should always be clearly written. Some users may have cognitive needs relating to memory, attention, problem-solving, visual processing, maths processing, text processing and learning disabilities. Clarity of information is crucial to a user that is applying for a loan, in order for them to understand the legal and financial commitments they might be making.
It’s important to talk to users – whether that’s a customer or the sales assistant helping them make a purchase. Understanding their needs and the environments in which they’ll use the product will result in a better experience that works for a wider audience.
Accessibility isn’t an afterthought. It should be considered throughout design, development and testing rather than as a lengthy accessibility audit at the end of the delivery cycle.
For example, Infinity Works delivery squads spend time elaborating project requirements before starting any design or development work in order to understand how best to solve users’ problems. We use personas, based on data from real-world customers, to guide our decisions and ensure we end up with accessible solutions.
Designers love to get creative with their interfaces in order to make their UIs stand out from the crowd, but it’s important to resist the urge to reinvent the wheel. The visual affordance of established UI components is a shorthand that tells users how something works, making the whole experience easier to understand.
Making a checkbox round is like labelling the Push side of a door Pull.
Remember to adhere to the standards laid out in the WCAG, along with other guidelines such as the US Government’s Section 508 and Accessible Rich Internet Applications (WAI-ARIA). Defining the standard a project will conform to before starting design is crucial and will save time re-working designs later down the line.
Accessibility and development best practices are intrinsically linked. For example, by focusing on performance to reduce page load times, the experience is improved for all users but particularly for those with low bandwidth connections. That could be a customer that lives in a rural location applying for finance on their phone or an in-store sales assistant with a tablet that is far away from the nearest Wi-Fi access point.
It’s important to combine manual with automated testing. Carrying out one type over the other will lead to missed issues.
At Infinity Works our methods for testing vary from project to project. To avoid confusion, our squads define their approach together instead of placing the burden on the test department. This understanding helps us meet accessibility requirements much sooner in the test cycle.
By meeting requirements sooner, we’re able to release earlier and start getting feedback from real users to inform our next iteration.
These questions should be addressed:
- How do the users access the product?
Identify the browsers, devices and assistive technologies you want to support, based on your users’ needs.
- Have the goals been reached?
When testing, refer to the four goals outlined earlier; the product should be easy to see, hear, operate and understand.
- Does it satisfy the users?
Test from the perspective of user personas as a minimum, testing with real users is even better.
- Can the product team use it?
Regardless of discipline or ability, each member of the squad should have the opportunity to test your product in different environments and with different devices. The range of feedback might be unexpected.
The business case
The benefit of investing time and effort into accessibility can be hard to measure. Simply looking for return on investment (ROI) may not yield a tangible result, so to create a convincing business case, it may be necessary to look further.
ROI is important of course, but not by any means the only way to measure how an accessibility commitment benefits organizations of all kinds. A useful business case also presents the cost and risk of inaction. It is most likely your business will respond to a mix of motivating factors as you consider implementing an integrated accessibility program.
We stated earlier that accessibility removes sales barriers by increasing market reach. According to the W3C, the UK’s large disability market (known as the Purple Pound) spends £249 billion every year and the global disability market spends nearly $7 trillion.
This market is growing as the population ages. Around 15% of the global population already lives with a recognised disability, yet many more people will acquire age-related disabilities over time whilst not identifying as having a disability. By ignoring this market, businesses may miss out on significant revenue.
The web is a young medium, but it’s growing up fast. It is deeply integrated with our lives and it needs to work for everyone, so taking the step to build accessible products shouldn’t be up for debate.
Businesses that integrate accessibility are more likely to be innovative, inclusive enterprises that reach more people with positive brand messaging that meets emerging global legal requirements.
Smart businesses integrate accessible design into their development practices, understand the need for equal access and how it will benefit them. By taking the time to build digital products the right way, the benefits will be crystalised.
- Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). W3C.
- Accessibility For Everyone. Laura Kalbag, A Book Apart, 2017.
- Tools for Web Developers. Google.
- The Ethical Design Handbook. Trine Falbe, Kim Andersen & Martin Michael Frederiksen, Smashing Magazine, 2019.
- The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018. GOV.UK.
- Making online public services accessible. GOV.UK.
- About the Government Digital Service. GOV.UK.
- Create a better user experience by changing the way you write. GOV.UK.
- Form Design Patterns. Adam Silver, Smashing Magazine, 2018.
- Checkboxes are never round. Daniel De Laney.
- Developing Accessible Web Content. Section 508.
- WAI-ARIA Overview. W3C.
- Understanding conformance. W3C.
- The Business Case for Digital Accessibility. W3C.
- Disability as diversity in Fortune 100 companies. Wiley Online Library.