What is Accessibility?

Accessibility is concerned with a user's level of access to products or services; whether that be physical locations like a clothes store, or virtual services like a website, app or phone. The ultimate aim is to make it as easy as possible for people to access and use a product and/or service, so things 'just work' no matter who you are; whether that's able bodied or a person with disability (motor, cognitive, hearing and vision).

For me, this sentiment definitely rings true and heavily connects to the principles of human-centred design; creating solutions to problems by integrating human perspectives and emotion into all steps of the problem-solving process.

The thing is, when the topic of accessibility comes into the conversation, we often hear: "We'd like to look at accessibility, but it's not an urgent priority. We can tackle it later."

Why is Accessibility important?

Here are 4 reasons why this delayed response might cost your business:

  1. People with disabilities form a much larger group than you realise: People with Disabilities (PWD) make up a global population of 1.85bn, an emerging market larger than China. Plus, this disabled community (including friends and family) has an annual global disposable income of $13T. In the UK alone, there are ~12.9m people living with a permanent disability. If you're not thinking about accessibility, you're missing out on a huge prospective customer group.

  2. You're limiting your ability to deliver customer empathy and delight, which are both key retention drivers: As of 2022, only 3% of the internet is accessible to PWD, meaning there's a large expectation gap to close with PWD being underserved. It's worth saying, disability can also be temporary (e.g. a broken arm; 5.7m are living with a temporary disability in the UK, 70% of those people invisible) and situational (e.g. difficulty hearing in a loud environment) as well as permanent. So, a focus on accessibility leads to better experiences that work for all customers, regardless of their ability, situation or context.

  3. Google is visually impaired: And 'reads' every website as a visually impaired person would. Its bots don't have eyes, so they need a series of accessibility prompts to make sense of what they're crawling. If your website isn't accessible, then your overall SEO will suffer.

  4. You're limiting your innovation potential: Solving for uncomfortable causes innovation and by adopting an 'extreme user' design approach, companies are more likely to drive innovation. According to PwC, the most innovative companies are predicting 62% growth over the next 5 years, amounting to a ~$250bn boost in revenue.

Accessibility becomes harder to tackle the less it is acknowledged by organisations, perceived as something that required lots of investment and time to deliver. On top of this, it's viewed as an addition to current work rather than a critical integration. More reluctance means higher perception of cost over value, and this limits business potential.

Accessibility is, essentially, just really great usability, which can be broken down into manageable chunks, addressed and improved over a period of time. And, when taken seriously, this benefits people universally, not just those with permanent disability.

Microsoft puts it perfectly in its Inclusive Design guidance...

Solve for one, extend to many. Everyone has abilities, and limits to those abilities. Designing for people with permanent disabilities actually results in designs that benefit people universally. Constraints are a beautiful thing.

So, where to start?

Here are 5 simple steps to help you get started...

  1. Promote accessibility champions:

    Find a network of internal advocates and give them a platform to grow awareness around common accessibility issues, principles and benefits, building a culture of inclusion. Think workshops, lunch & learns, training.

    If you can, make sure your champion network is well represented across different functions (brand, design, engineering, product etc.). This will not only help you to challenge cross-functional assumptions, but also land the point that everyone is responsible for accessibility so it can be implemented on a daily basis, making it natural and intuitive. The ideal is that, over time, there's someone who knows accessibility best practice in every area of development.

    Should you not be able to find internal champions, there are also external agencies who can be brought in to run talks and training. When choosing an agency, opt for one that has cross-functional expertise (e.g. UX, UI, Content, Research, Development) so they can communicate in a relevant way to different teams.

  2. Build empathy through research:

    Accessibility can seem intimidating in its theoretical form. Use and promote research to show your users' reality. Depending on the maturity of your research functions you can:

    • Create accessibility personas or add nuance to existing personas or segments.
    • Ensure PWD sample representation in ongoing research and usability tests (This could include people with permanent, situational and temporary disability as well as older consumers).
    • Add accessibility as a tag to ongoing social listening.

    The aim here being to surface as many rich, human stories as possible to support understanding of accessibility issues to help prioritise their respective solutions. These may well integrate with some of your existing user stories!

    If you don't have a mature research function, then seek out an agency who has qualitative and quantitative research expertise.

  3. Integrate accessibility in Design Systems:

    A Design System is a combination of different styles and components that make up a visual brand. Watch this video for a summary of what a Design System is and its benefits.

    When building a Design System, accessibility is key to consider, ensuring that each component exceeds WCAG (Web Compliance Accessibility Guidelines). Given the strength and benefit of Design Systems to cascade components across the digital experience, this will help to efficiently address basic accessibility requirements long before designers put pen to paper.

    If you already have a Design System, have an accessibility specialist audit components to ensure all exceed WCAG. And, to effectively manage your Design System ongoing, add an accessibility approval step when creating any new components.

  4. Build designer and engineer relationships:

    Accessible designs can only go so far if they don't work in collaboration with technology. Ensure a clear process is set-up across both product design and testing. Designers need to consider alternative use case contexts at the design stage (e.g. when adding a new feature, will a visually impaired person be able to use it? Would a dyslexic person be able to read the new content hierarchy?), and make these expectations clear to help validate testing outcomes.

  5. Define accessibility and objectives:

    Above all, define what you mean by accessibility and set clear goals to unpack over a period of time. Start small and scale so it's not an overwhelming task, but also to allow you time to build up capability, process and internal expertise. You can approach this in one of two ways: hire an agency to run an audit of your digital experiences to identify WCAG discrepancies, or pick an area of concern and unpack that, for example, people shopping with visual impairments; identify where the issues are and form a resolution plan.

In summary

  • Accessibility means making it as easy as possible for all people to access and use a product or service
  • People with disabilities and the associated community are no 'fringe' group with $13T global annual spending power
  • Investment in accessibility doesn't just benefit those with permanent disability, but those with temporary and situational disability too
  • If you just build to 'pass' WCAG, then you're limiting your experience potential
  • Tackling accessibility isn't as expensive and time intensive as you think, there are things you can get started on tomorrow
  • Build understanding and advocacy through internal talks and training
  • Show incremental value of accessibility through data & insight
  • Use Design Systems to scale accessibility basics
  • Build process & integration to encourage cross-functional collaboration around accessibility practice
  • Set water-right accessibility objectives

How Wunderman Thompson Commerce can help

We have cross-functional teams across Research, Design, Technology & Operations who can help you address accessibility issues and ambitions within your business. Connect with the author, Harriet Lowe, or email wtc.cx@wundermanthompson.com for more details and to find out if you qualify for our complimentary Accessibility Audit.

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