Digital Accessibility - What is it and What is its Return on Investment

Accessibility is the practice of making digital products, websites and applications, usable by people with disabilities. They are not the only ones who enjoy the return on investment...

It’s an absolute necessity for people with disabilities to be part of, and to contribute to society. They aren’t disabled. They are being disabled. 95% of websites can not be used problem-free by these people.

Accessibility is the practice of making digital products, such as websites, applications, and documents, usable by people with disabilities. But what is accessibility? When should we consider it? How do we integrate it? And how can accessibility be commercially attractive to clients? Let’s break it down.

Types of disabilities

There’s a range of disabilities to take into consideration when building digital products. At a high level, they include the following.

Permanent disabilities

  • Visually impaired and (color) blindness.
  • Hearing impairments and being deaf.
  • Limited cognitive ability – Asperger’s, dementia, ADD, ADHD, dyslexia.
  • Limited mobility – Strokes, amputation, paralysis, Parkinson’s, ALS, MS.

Temporary disabilities

  • Injury, (bone) fractures, rehabilitation.
  • Physical and mental illness – Depression, fatigue, flu, burn out.

“Visual Bias”

People who do not experience disabilities may still suffer from something else, which makes it easy to lose sight of the importance of accessibility: “Visual Bias”.

In my design career, I’ve worked with stakeholders who find it challenging to ‘decrease’ visual design aesthetics in order make their products more accessible. This is an ethically and commercially wrong mindset. But…

What does accessibility have to do with the tech and creative industry?

To elaborate on this question we have to take a few steps back and look at the definitions of usability and user experience, and accessibility.

Usability and user experience are about designing and interacting with products that enable humans to accomplish their goals and solve their problems in an effective, efficient and fun way, within a specific context of use.

Together we create experiences that people love.

Accessibility addresses discriminatory aspects of these products, to give people with (time related) disabilities an equally pleasant, useful and effective experience.

Together we create experiences that all people love.

But how can we create experiences that all people love?

There is an organization that set up a repository of guidelines, to assist people in creating accessible products. Known as WCAG - Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. They have a gradation in the complexity of integrating the guidelines. Labeled with A, AA and AAA. A being low effort to integrate, and AAA being the most complex to integrate accessibility.

The irony here is that these guidelines aren’t accessible really. They can be interpreted broadly, are written at a high level and use complicated, with sometimes even vague terminology. The guidelines are evolving over time, so this gets more accessible with every update.

Organizations who have a high maturity in integrating accessibility in their products, try to dissect these guidelines in a variety of articles and resources. One of my favorites is the repository IBM created, IBM Accessibility. They’ve broken the WCAG guidelines down to better understandable guidelines, tips and tricks, with examples you can use in your own organization to integrate accessibility effectively.

A typical color contrast check to see if these are accessible enough, by assessing their readability in relation to the background they are used on.

Accessibility guidelines at a high level

  • Sufficient (color) contrast. Especially between text and background.
  • Alternative navigation possibilities - keyboard, assisting technologies (AT).
  • Sufficient focus on navigation and interactive elements.
  • Having full control over specific content - play, pause, fast forward videos, carousels and similar elements.
  • Offer content in multiple ways - image or video/audio fragments also in the form of captions, subtitles, transcriptions.
  • Organize format and structure in such a way that AT can guide the person through the product in the right order.
  • Implement correct semantics and structure within code, so that AT can independently detect the
  • content in the right way and not skip any information.
  • Accessibility panel - customizing size, contrast, AT integration and similar controls.

People are visually biased

When you take all these guidelines into account, it seems like a lot of additional work. Which results in quotes like: “People with disabilities aren’t part of our target audience.”

People with this mindset forget an important thing. Remember the visual bias we spoke about earlier? People are visually biased. First we percept our environment from a visual viewpoint, then we look further (pun intended). This explains why the accessibility of a product comes to light only much later in the creative and development process.

How is this related to the importance of accessibility?

The eyesight of the majority of the world population decreases considerably. Focusing on text on screen becomes harder, perception of contrast significantly decreases, and similar disabilities or limitations start acting up. How unfortunate that some of the interested people can’t find that pretty, pale green CTA. There goes your conversion.

The majority of disabilities are related to the visual perception of the human eye. Nearly all of the world's population will have to deal with some form of disability in their lives. Temporary disabilities, if not disabilities that come with age.

It’s almost certain that both you and I will have to deal with a disability in our lives. This makes accessibility crucial for an aging population, and therefore, aging target audience.

Making the scope of accessibility manageable

“It still seems like a lot of effort.” continues the conversation with the stakeholder, manager or team lead. And it definitely is. However, accessibility is created togethers. It’s a team effort.

The effort, created together

To break the topic down even further, the team effort can look like the following. This is based on the perspective of, but not limited to, creative agency environments.

  • Account Management - Informs the client that this brings legal obligations (starting early 2025). They will include these obligations in contracts and educate clients/prospects on the topic.
  • Project Management - Accounts for the planning, to ensure good integration of accessibility within the projects, from the start of a project.
  • Marketing - Maintains SEO and secures correct application of semantics.
  • Content - Delivers accessible content. E.g. simplified NL/ENG, descriptive ALT tags, transcripts, content grouping, (UX) copy and so on.
  • Design - Considers the structure, content grouping, navigation, contrast values, classification of the product, semantic structure within typographic systems.
  • Development - Integrates correct semantics, ARIA-labeling, makes assisting technologies compatible with the product.
  • QA, Testing & Support - Maintains good integration, and automatic tests, for accessibility.
  • Executives - Include accessibility in business plans and in provision of services.

Return on investment

What do we get in return when we make our digital products accessible? This might just be the most important question to answer, in order to get people moving. Accessibility contributes to:

  • Good for SEO.
  • The product grows along with the aging population and/or target audience.
  • Less legal prosecution.
  • The marketability of a product increases (towards education and government institutions).
  • HTML efficiency.
  • Less (accessibility-) bug fixing and no longer an ‘after-thought’.
  • Product usability increases and becomes more flexible.
  • Accessibility of a brand positively contributes to the image of that brand.
  • Higher conversion.

Short and sweet: The quality of our services and products gets even better!

“The one argument for accessibility that doesn’t get made nearly often enough is how extraordinarily better it makes some people’s lives.” - Steve Krug, author of Don’t Make Me Think

The comic about digital accessibility starts. Frame 1: Henry, the stakeholder, and Davon the designer, have a conversation about the color used in their insurance app. Davon says: “We need to change this color to make our app accessible.” Henry responds: “We’re not going to, as this is a beautiful color.” An iMac in the back showing the designs of the insurance app. Frame 2: Henry’s mom, a senior lady with a walking stick, curly hair and large glasses, walks in. She says: “Henry, how are you dear? I was wondering, did you bring your lunch to work today?” Henry responds: “Oh, hi mom. Yes, I did!” Frame 3: Henry’s mom: “Ah, that’s great…” She spots the designs of the app on the screen. “Oh, what are you guys working on?” Henry explains: “This is our new insurance app. It eases filing declarations.” Frame 4: Henry’s mom repositions her glasses, and says: “That’s amazing, but… How do I file one?” Henry responds: “Well, you have to upload and push the button.” Frame 5: Davon, Henry and Mom are staring at the screen. Henry’s mom is still struggling. “What button dear?” Henry responds: “The green one mom.” Mom: “I’m not sure where it is.” Henry: “Over there, at the bottom…” Frame 6: Henry turns his head back to Davon and says: “Well Davon, I guess your advice is for the better. We should change the color for extra contrast.” Davon responds happily: “Right on it Henry. Now more people will likely convert.” While their conversation is going, Henry’s mom has a hard time in the back. The comic finishes with her saying: “Jeez, where is it?...”
A comic about digital accessibility - by me!

Summary & Conclusions

Despite the fact integrating accessibility being the ethical to do, the world is oriënted around money, commerce. When your clients or organization don’t see the immediate return on investment, accessibility can be neglected.

Therefore it’s crucial to connect accessibility to the business aspect of product development. Make it measurable.

When accessibility becomes an integral part of the process, nearly no additional costs will come with it. If you have to reverse engineer it into your products, it becomes time-consuming and costly.

What’s the current maturity of accessibility in your organization and its products and services? How can you connect accessibility to your organization's business goals? How are you going to make it measurable?

What’s next?

We’ve covered the topic at a high level. Are there any subjects we’ve touched that you like me to elaborate on further? Or do you want to have a conversation about accessibility? Hit me up, I’m always down for a good, deep conversation with knowledge exchange. Thank you kindly for reading.

Keep aiming for growth.

Much love, Liam.

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