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How to build accessibility into your digital DNA

Amazon sales rose by 40% year on year in Q2 2020. That statistic alone tells us enough about the digital explosion caused by COVID-19.



  • Joanna Falkowska

Now, more than ever, companies must engage and sell to customers via digital experiences. Consumers have drifted from their usual modus operandi to buying almost everything online. For those that were digitally savvy pre-lockdown, it was second nature. However, many have had to learn on-the-go in order to keep fridges stocked.

The brands that have reaped the benefits of this have, of course, been the ones that have managed to make their products accessible (surviving high traffic surges, keeping supply lines constant). But the brands that have really stood out are those that have managed to make their customer experience more accessible.

The new normal - not so new for some

Under normal circumstances, many digital accessibility issues pass unseen. Customers who are mildly disadvantaged side-step inaccessible paths. Older customers go directly to a physical shop when its online platform is difficult to use. But when these paths are closed, as with the Covid-19 lockdown, the accessibility issue becomes a game changer.

The harsh reality is that the so called “new normal” is simply “normal” to many potential customers, who are confined to their houses irrespective of the pandemic. Some are just unable to reach a physical shop (due to age, disability, mental health issues etc.); single parents can't leave their sleeping child in bed; carers can’t leave their loved ones at any time of day. The list could go on and the size of it should not be underestimated.

So accessibility is not a question of legal requirements and box ticking. It could well be part of your growth strategy. But if accessibility is not already built into your digital DNA, where do you start?

First thought, not afterthought

First, ask yourself when the accessibility discussion begins in your organisation. For many, it’s an afterthought at the end of the development process. A cherry on the cake. If this is how your company prioritises accessibility, then you're spending over the odds on the cherry.

The reason is simple. The cost of implementing anything is lower at the beginning of development process than at the end of it. Accessibility is not an exception. It is cheaper to approach your creative agency with clear requirements, than running an accessibility audit for a live site, paying for new designs and development to address defects.

And if cost were not an issue, aesthetically and from a UX perspective, considering accessibility retrospectively leads to one of two scenarios. Either your design is compromised or your UX is degraded so that target groups won't use it anyway. This doesn’t have to be the case if you start with accessibility in mind.

Know your audience

How early is early enough? And what processes should you go through to ensure that your accessibility strategy is right? “Make it accessible” as a mandatory on a brief is not a path for success. Accessibility should not be treated as a requirement, in its own right. It's the equivalent of asking an agency to make your site user-friendly, without anyone knowing who the user is. You need to understand your customer segments and narrow down your requirements if money spent on accessibility is to yield return on investment.

Start with customer personas. When drafting them, have accessibility in mind. And don’t limit your perception to visual disability. And, by the way, visual accessibility is not only about colour contrast and screen readers. What age are your customers? How well educated are they? Might they suffer from dyslexia or other neurodiverse conditions? Think of situational disability as well. For example, a parent of a new-born child will often use just one hand to navigate your platform. They may also multitask a lot, so short timeout sessions might be frustrating for them.

Defining clear acceptance criteria for your creative agency is one thing. Another is testing their work. Request design assurance services once designs are ready but before they are implemented. Finally, whenever possible, run UAT sessions for the designs with people who actually represent your target segments.

Informed decisions attract funding

Of course, no business decisions should be made without clear data. How do you know that the time and money spent on accessibility will convert to a return on investment?

If you happen to be among those companies implementing accessibility as the last step of the development process, there is at least one advantage. You can use analytics data to track the number of successful customer journeys (e.g. completed purchases, before implementing accessibility improvements and right after).

Analytics will tell you which stages of the journey saw customer drop off and what changed once the accessibility of that step had been improved. You can also use A/B testing tools to confirm what version of a specific journey is more successful.

Another argument that may convince your CFO to find the budget for accessibility implementation is the risk matrix. Depending on the sector that you are in, the likelihood of being sued for the lack of accessibility measures grows considerably and so do the settlement costs. High risk sectors are those that tend to attract considerable governance measures in other areas, such as finance and pharmaceuticals.

Now add the cost of court settlement, potential reputation loss for the brand, as well as increased engagement in design and development to fix the problem. It simply pays off to budget upfront and become an accessibility leader within your industry, rather than risk the painful process of rebuilding customer trust following costly litigation and embarrassing exposure.

Change your approach to boost your business

Meeting accessibility criteria does not come free of charge. Whether you build accessibility in from the start or towards the end of the process, adding new features to a site requires financial investment and so does the process of fixing defects.

What you can do, however, is try to time it right. Analyse when adding accessibility criteria will cost you less and use this knowledge to cut long-term costs. When the timing is right, do your audience analysis, so that accessibility requirements become tangible and easier to imagine and implement. Finally, start tracking analytics results with accessibility in mind, so that you understand how to set priorities in the development process.

When approached properly, implementing accessibility measures may transform from a burdensome cost into an important source of new customers and revenue. Email us to find out more about ensuring that your customer journeys are accessible.

Photo by Christian Bowen on Unsplash

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