Why accessibility is a vital ingredient to your digital success

How does accessibility impact your customer experience?

Accessibility is frequently ignored in the development of digital products. Often this is because there is a poor understanding of the return on investment (ROI) gained by building accessibility into the development process.

ROI aside, the accessibility of your digital products impacts your reputation and your visibility.

There are more than one billion people around the world with disabilities. They represent at least 15% of the world’s population. And they have a combined spending power of more than $6 trillion.

The reality of digital for the disabled

For millions of people with visual, motor, auditory, speech, and cognitive disabilities, 95% of websites and apps are only partially accessible or completely off-limits. Meanwhile, the rest of the population experiences all the speed, convenience, and human connectivity of social media, online banking, and shopping. And as COVID-19 forced many aspects of everyday life online, the issue of digital inaccessibility became even more stark.

The paradox of inaction

It seems counter-intuitive that many companies are fighting over a slim percentage of the potential market in their sector or trying to improve their NPS (Net Promoter Score) while failing to address the needs of more than 15% of the world’s population.

Different types of “digital disability”

Accessibility is not only an issue for the disabled population. Different situations and life circumstances have an impact on people’s capacity to use digital products and services.

Accessible thinking at the development stage can make a dramatic difference to:

  • Older users that have limitations common to their age, such as visual impairment or slight hand tremors
  • People who are not fluent in a particular language or have lower literacy
  • People with a temporary limitation, such as a broken arm
  • Those who have a situational limitation, such as being in a noisy environment

Accessible, inclusive thinking is good for business

Thinking ahead about accessibility as you build digital products and services fuels opportunity and growth, opening the way for innovation, brand building, and market expansion. Conversely, a reactive approach is fraught with risk.

Business opportunity: two approaches to accessibility

1. Reactive response

Failing to think forward about accessibility ramps up the risk of litigation – and raises the danger of damaging brand reputation.

Often, designers, content makers, product owners, user researchers, and developers lack the skills and awareness to develop digital products that work as well for disabled people as they do for the rest of the population.

For this reason, companies need to understand and respond to this paradigm:

  • By anticipating accessibility needs as early as possible, you drive down costs associated with refactoring, redesigning, and eradicating bugs
  • The later in the process accessibility is factored in, the more expensive it becomes in the development process

Accessibility debt

Companies that either willfully or accidentally fail to develop digital products with accessibility baked in, accrue an accessibility debt. This is a debt they must repay over time or see their product fail.

The imminent legal risk of reactive thinking

Soon, directives such as the European Accessibility Act, will force the issue of accessibility compliance. In fact, by 2025, banking services, e-commerce, and a host of other digital products and services must comply with strict accessibility guidelines. Failure to comply will open the door to legal challenges. 

Developing a culture and awareness of accessibility in your organization will help avoid such legal and financial drawbacks. And by “shifting left” in the early phases of a project, accessibility and design can be built seamlessly into your development process.

Area chart showing the relationship between attention to quality and project stages in the Shift Left Model versus the Traditional Quality Model

Waiting for complaints is bad for your reputation

The typical recourse for a company that has failed to bake accessibility into a product is a third-party application. This is software that overlays the existing code of the host website. But this also alters the user experience and removes users from the “brand world” that the business will have worked so hard to create.

Here’s a good example of a well-known brand.

Screenshot of a well-known retail website displaying a third-party accessibility overlay opened over the content of the website.
Screenshot of a well-known retail website displaying a third-party accessibility overlay opened over the content of the website.

Overlays like this do not address the underlying causes that create barriers to accessibility.  Implementing accessibility as an afterthought is like pouring a missing egg over an already baked cake. To put this in more serious terms, there has already been a marked increase in lawsuits against websites using third-party overlays.

Do not turn users into detractors

By “waiting for complaints”, companies risk turning users into unhappy customers who can damage the brand and impede growth through negative word-of-mouth.

The risk of lawsuits

Blocking equal access to customers and employees and discriminating against people with disabilities or impairments is unethical and violates their civil rights.

Around the world, there is a raft of different legislation in place to protect people with disabilities. For example, the European Accessibility Act, the Equality Act 2010 in the UK, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). One notorious legal case involved a Domino’s Pizza lawsuit. The fast-food giant was accused of violating the ADA by having a website that was inaccessible to blind users.

Such lawsuits concerning website accessibility have been increasing in the US. The 2021 Lawsuit recap report presented by accessibility.com shows that in the US:

  • 2,352 website accessibility lawsuits were filed in 2021
  • Consumer Goods, Services & Retail companies were targeted the most
  • 300 targeted websites were using third-party overlays

It is also important to understand that if your company has underlying data stored in the US and sells to US customers, your organization may be at risk of a lawsuit even if it is based outside the US. This is especially true if your customers are from California and New York, since more than 56% of all website accessibility lawsuits in 2021 were filed in those states.

2. Proactive preparation

Thinking ahead about accessibility issues mitigates many of the legal, financial, and reputational risks covered above.  While accessibility guidelines are sometimes understood as hindering creativity in the design process, the truth is that by embracing constraints, you can drive innovation. And build products that are of more use to more people.

How do constraints drive innovation?

Throughout history, many great innovations have been sparked by inventors meeting the needs of disabled users. Pellegrino Turri and the typewriter. Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone. Vint Cerf and the email. All of these were developed with disability in mind and became world-changing innovations for everyone.

The power of accessible thinking to drive innovation lies in the new frame of reference it creates. Google auto-complete (love it or loathe it), voice control, auto-captioning, and many other AI (Artificial Intelligence) advances were born of designers and developers thinking in a different frame of reference – that of the impaired user.

Microsoft’s work with the blind yielded a captioning tool for PowerPoint presentations. An innovation that culminated in the real-time language translation now available on Skype and other products.

These are examples of the curb-cut effect, a phenomenon where accessibility features are used and appreciated by a larger group than those for whom they were designed.

The curb-cut effect

The curb-cut was intended to be used by people in wheelchairs. But it also benefits people pushing baby strollers, people on bicycles and skateboards, along with many other groups. By searching for the digital equivalent of the curb-cut, companies often seize on ways of helping a much bigger group of people.

Sidewalk granite curb-cut for a wheelchair ramp – image by Nick-philly

Retrieving lost opportunities and increasing market reach

Ignoring people with accessibility needs has profound ethical and financial consequences.

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) estimates that more than 26% of adults in the United States, about 60M people, live with some kind of disability. Currently, the total after-tax disposable income for working-aged people with disabilities is about $490Bn.

This represents a similar value as market segments like African Americans ($501Bn) or Hispanics ($582Bn). In the UK, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) estimates that the number of disabled adults who were active Internet users rose from 8.6M in 2016 to 10.07M in 2019.

Viciously bad thinking

A circular reasoning fallacy of organizations is justifying not making a product accessible because disabled people are not part of their customer group. But how can disabled people become customers if accessibility issues are blocking their access? Prevent an impaired person from accessing your site and they will soon seek out your competitors.

Search engines like Google value accessibility and user experience increasingly highly. Functions like Page Experience Signals prioritize search results in favor of websites that are easy for everybody to use. To achieve this, they measure some factors like those contained in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. And as search engines also rely on the information made available to assistive technology, accessible content will be easier to index by search robots.

By taking advantage of the common ground between accessibility and SEO (Search Engine Optimization), your content will rank higher in search engine results and your products or services will be exposed to more customers.

Lead your industry

The WebAIM 2021 accessibility evaluation of the home pages of one million websites showed that 97.4% of them had WCAG failures that can be detected automatically.

The opportunity is clear – by taking accessibility issues seriously from the outset you become a leader, and an accessibility champion, in your industry,

You will also demonstrate that by thinking about accessibility first, you are committed to good Corporate Social Responsibility. Good for your customers, good for your brand, good for your reputation, and, ultimately, good for your bottom line.

What to do next?

At Emergn every solution and experience we create is driven by four design principles: Inventive, Confident, Simple, Inclusive.

Inclusive means that we are committed to making digital experiences usable by all people, whatever their abilities or disabilities. We want everyone to have the same opportunities when visiting a website. It must feel straightforward and easy to use. It must be a rewarding experience. Not a frustrating one.

If you do not know how or where to start, have a look at our partnership with an employee engagement and wellbeing business. It shows the value we brought to their customers’ final experience.

We always start by identifying the current problems through an accessibility assessment. We run a thorough audit, with manual and automated tests performed on your digital solution to check whether it conforms or fails to the WCAG 2.1 guidelines.

Then, if you struggle to account for accessibility at an organizational level, we can run team training sessions to align your people around accessibility issues, ensure informed decision making – and avoid costly gaps in your design thinking.