Accessibility. Say the word and strike uncertainty into the hearts of developers and designers alike.
It’s unfortunate but accessibility has long been perceived as an add-on, a nice-to-have-but-not-necessary ‘feature’ of web projects. We believe it’s time to change this perception. Accessibility is an integral part of development and design, and it needs to be considered as we rocket forward to the Internet of Things.
Until recently, accessibility has been thought of as a niche area of development for a small subset of people. It isn’t. Web accessibility in its purest form means that all users have equal access to the information and functionality of the web. It’s about people, not (dis-)abilities. And with so many methods, devices, and situations in which we access the web, accessibility is moving beyond its niche definition and becoming a growing concern for everyone.
There are six components we believe you’ve got to consider when taking on a new project. We’ll cover them in this two-part series. Here they are in a nutshell:
- Redefining What Accessibility Means
- Shifting Focus on Value — For Both The Enterprise and Individuals
- Understanding The Profitability of Accessibility
- Integrating Accessibility Into Design
- Integrating Accessibility Into Development
- Looking Ahead — Keeping Up With the Changing Legal Landscape
The first three components are covered below,while the rest are covered in part two.
Moving towards a solution: Understanding & re-defining what accessibility means
Despite its excellent efforts in initiatives and specifications, the W3C does itself no favours with this definition:
“Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can use the web.” Unfortunately, this only serves to perpetuate the misconception that accessibility only applies to a subset of users. For example, imagine breaking a hand or a finger, and not being able to use your keyboard or mouse or smartphone— how would this affect your daily routine? Or think of a wheelchair ramp— how many times have you used one instead of the stairs? If you know someone who is colour-blind (1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women), do you refer to it as their ‘disability’? Accessibility isn’t about defining people based on categories. It’s about providing basic usability and integrating design principles that can make the web friendlier and more usable for everyone.
Recognizing that we all interact with technology differently is an important step in designing great web applications. Doing so means that we move away from categories and toward a more holistic definition.
As Anne Gibson’s ‘Alphabet of Accessibility Issues’ points out, our need for an accessible web need not be perpetual. It could be contextual; we could be busy, stressed, injured, or holding a child in one arm. In each case we simply may not be accessing the web seated, with a keyboard and mouse and our full attention on a screen. It’s easy to see how categorization can soon become a futile, time-consuming exercise.
Most importantly, though when implemented thoughtfully and correctly, the presence of web accessibility is not a hindrance to anyone, and a help to everyone. This is perhaps why it has been viewed as an optional extra for so long— we do not understand its importance until we feel its absence.
Accessibility matters for enterprises and individuals alike
Here at Myplanet, we are particularly interested in how people use software to connect in the workplace. Accessibility is an essential part of this. The challenge is that enterprise software doesn’t exactly have a reputation as a forward-thinking branch of technology. In his 2007 article, Khoi Vinh calls them “some of the least friendly, most difficult systems ever committed to code.”
Universal frustration shouldn’t be the status quo when it comes to enterprise software. Accessibility defines who can engage and interact with the company— leaving out a subset of users, employees or customers isn’t an option. Doing so can damage relationships internally and externally.
There’s an opportunity here, though. Enterprises have the resources to be leaders, to reject the status quo and become front-runners in the field of software development. It starts by baking the idea of “easy-to-use software for everyone” into their process and internal ethos.
But it’s not only up to the enterprise. Individuals who build the software also shoulder the responsibility to push accessibility forward. UX and interaction designers are hired to be empathetic advocates for users, and ensuring that everyone experiences the interface equally is part of the job description. Accessibility decisions should take place at the same time as the rest of the foundation— right in there with the colour, typeface, and content presentation.
On the ground, it’s individuals who are taking those first steps, implementing the changes, and who require the support of the team, enterprise and agency to make change happen.
Accessibility can be profitable
The accessibility-is-expensive myth is predicated on the fact that it should be done at the end of a project. Morten Rand-Hendriksen, staff writer for Lynda.com, astutely points out it is only expensive and difficult when it is an afterthought, and shouldn’t be one in the first place.
At the end of a project, any integration — accessibility or otherwise — would feel expensive.
If accessibility is a consideration from the very start of development then this myth no longer holds true. In fact, accessibility can be profitable— even if you’re correcting an outdated site.
Areas of Profitability
To correct an existing site and make it accessible can indeed be expensive, especially if the site itself is old and has a code base that makes change difficult to begin with. But even if it costs more in the immediate timeframe, an accessible site or enterprise application can be financially beneficial in many ways.
SEO: Web accessibility and SEO share many of the same guidelines, particularly from a design and semantic web perspective. Improving accessibility also improves a search engines’ ability to index and rank a site. Andy Hagans notes on A List Apart how simple improvements like clear file names and ALT text help search engines identify relevant content components. Google’s own guidelines also explicitly connect SEO optimization to accessibility, highlighting the need for clear and accurate content descriptions and specifically referencing <title> elements and ALT attributes as key factors in boosting SEO.
Site efficiency: This may be true from both a usability and technical standpoint. An accessible website is more organized and therefore loads faster, decreasing wait times for everyone. Studies show increased wait times lead to higher bounce rates and lower retention rates, which combine to reduce your profit. By improving site efficiency we make our sites more usable, meaning customers and users can perform tasks faster, which increases our profitability. In his discussion on this topic, Pratik Dholakiya notes that clear indexation—an essential component of accessibility— is a key element to improving site speed and SEO, especially in the case of enterprise or e-commerce sites with thousands of pages
Market share: If a website reaches more people, and becomes more accessible in a variety of circumstances (remember that we’ve already redefined accessibility, and should no longer think of it in terms of disabilities and categories), then market share stands to increase as well. Traditional desktop access isn’t the norm anymore and the only way to scale your site is to make as accessible as possible across all platforms.
Increased usability (and therefore increased use): Because a site is easier to find, more people will be able to use it, and use it well. Accessibility improves user experience by making core functionality available to all users, and better usability makes them more likely to return.
Profitability reaches beyond financials
The above are just the financial benefits — we haven’t even mentioned the social ones. When factoring social, employee development, retention and corporate branding factors, the profitability behind accessibility grows.
For those interested in the business case behind accessibility, there is a much more comprehensive discussion available on the W3C’s website here.
Movement in the right direction
Shifting our definition of what accessibility means, empowering individuals and designers, and recognizing that the change can be built on profitability (both financial and social) are solid, actionable steps that we can build on. Led by enterprise organizations, we can leverage existing resources and start creating web applications and software that empower every user, not just a subset.
Stay tuned for part two of the series, where we cover the final steps and give you the resources to accelerate this process.
Special thanks to co-author @IvanaMcConnell.