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Why accessibility should be your core digital strategy in 2020

Dec 2019

The rise of inclusive design is putting accessibility at the heart of new laws and legal precedents – and the most successful digital products and services.  

Accessibility still seems to be one of the biggest buzzwords in the industry. Every industry conference and awards event I’ve been to over the past few months is littered with the word. However, industry accessibility hype isn’t necessarily translating into practice.

There are 13.9 million people with a disability in the UK, 80% of which are hidden impairments. Globally, 15% of the population has a disability. Yet, only 1% of the top one million homepages on the web meets essential accessibility standards.

Considering the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) were first created in 1999, little advancement has been made across the internet to ensure websites and digital tools are accessible. 

For an idea of how frustrating it is, watch this video of someone navigating The New York Times’s homepage using a screen reader. Although, it’s important to remember that accessibility isn’t just about reading and screen-reader compatibility. Accessibility is about designing for visual impairments, motor challenges, cognitive disabilities and even technological challenges. 

The biggest shift towards accessibility is coming, though. Designing for accessibility is no longer just desirable and optional; it’s law. 

In the US, the number of lawsuits has rapidly increased. Wired magazine says the number of lawsuits around digital accessibility has spiked in recent years. In 2015, there were 57 digital accessibility lawsuits. In 2018, there were almost 3,000. 

The law and accessibility

I went to the UX Live conference in London a few weeks ago where accessibility was a recurring theme among the speakers. Grant Broome, web accessibility expert at Dig Inclusion, talked about the legal requirement for accessibility. 

Grant_Broome_discussing_accessibility_at_the_UX_Live_Conference
Grant Broome, presenting about accessibility at the UX Live Conference in London.

He cited the UK Equalities Act 2010, which states: “A person … concerned with the provision of a service to the public or a section of the public (for payment or not) must not discriminate against a person requiring the service by not providing the person with the service.”

To date, the public sector is leading the way in the UK. Grant discussed the public sector bodies’ accessibility regulations 2018, which now requires every new public sector website and app to meet certain accessibility standards and publish a statement saying they have been met. Existing websites will have until 2020 to comply. This is one of the first significant shifts in acknowledging the importance of accessibility in the UK – by making it absolutely compulsory for public services. 

Forrester Research hosted a really interesting podcast last month about human-centric UX design featuring principal analyst, Gina Bhawalker. She talked a lot around a shift happening in terms of accessibility, driven by web accessibility lawsuits. 

Gina says that there’s nothing currently in the US law that says websites have to be accessible. However, when cases go to court, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is consistently applied to internet technology. 

As more precedents are set in law, in the UK and worldwide, ensuring your digital products and services are accessible will fast become a legal requirement. The private sector has a lot of catching up to do before the law catches up with them. Considering the historic lack of progress, it’s likely businesses will endure a steep learning curve to avoid legal fines.

Accessibility is profitable 

However, making your digital products and services accessible is also about improving your reputation and remaining competitive. Organisations that make products and services more usable now will reap the rewards in the long run. 

Gina from Forrester Research, emphasises that creating accessible and inclusive products and services is more than a good thing to do or another legal requirement; it’s highly profitable, too. Most family and friends of people with disabilities prefer to shop with companies and organisations who don’t exclude users – which equates to about a trillion dollars of disposable income a year. 

What Gina says is reflected by campaigners at Purple. Purple aims to highlight the spending power of disabled people. Its latest campaign launched last month, Purple Tuesday, says an estimated £11.8bn was lost every year in resulting “click-away” costs. A “click-away” cost is a lost sale due to the inability for a disabled user to complete a purchase. These costs amount to £420m a week lost to businesses that fail to pay attention to the needs of disabled users. 

Before the law forces accessibility standards, potential business profitability could provide a strong motivator to get ahead with improving customer experience for all users. 

More than disabilities

While our design choices have a significant effect on disabled users, the industry is starting to acknowledge varied user needs beyond recognised disabilities, too. 

Adults’ ability to focus at close distances starts to change, typically, in the mid-40s. And will continue to deteriorate. That means designing to consider text sizes and contrast ratios – or you risk making your website or digital product difficult to use with a large proportion of the population. 

Microsofts_Inclusive_Design_toolkit_illustration_of_people_with_accessibility_needs
An illustration from Microsoft’s Inclusive Design toolkit.

Accessible design does not stop with mature people either. Every single one of us experiences temporary impairments more often than we realise –  for example, physical ones when we have minor injury, cognitive ones when we are sleep-deprived, ill, under lots of stress or simply tired, or even being able to concentrate when in a noisy place. Our environmental and life circumstances have a big impact on how we use websites and other digital products.

Addressing sensitivities 

Having worked with central government and charities where accessibility is a central requirement, accessibility has always been important to Bit Zesty. We know how important it is to run usability testing with users with varied needs and requirements. 

The best way to approach accessibility is to consider it throughout the design process. And have lots of conversations. We recently ran some in-house accessibility testing for a mobile application we’re currently working on with Bridges Self-Management to test with people living with neuro-muscular conditions who have motor impairments, as well as users who experienced stroke and have visual impairments and on-going or temporary cognitive impairments. 

A_screenshot_of_Bridges_website_page_featuring_Eileens_story_with_image_and_audio

It can be daunting to handle user sensitivities. It was really interesting to hear Nanako Era, experience researcher at Airbnb, speak at UX Live London. She gave some useful, practical tips for conducting user research, including how to handle sensitive topics of conversation. Nanako advises to not be afraid of addressing sensitivities, but to just do so tactfully. 

There’s lots of information out there about accessible design and technical considerations. Here are some of my favourite resources – and recent reads:

When you fully consider all the benefits of recognising and acknowledging different user needs, and the potential societal – and financial – impact of doing so, accessibility is no longer an industry buzzword or vanity project. Accessibility should be a core digital strategy for all organisations in the coming months and years, starting in 2020.