Inclusion is now at the top of most company’s agendas and businesses are well versed in playing tribute to the concept. Accessibility is one part of this and means that people with a disability can navigate technology in a similar amount of time and effort as an able bodied person. It means that all web users are empowered, can be independent, and will not be frustrated by something that is poorly designed or implemented. However in practice many companies struggle to translate values such as inclusivity and accessibility and then apply these concepts into visible measures and features.
Despite the idea’s popularity, accessibility ratings across many businesses are poor. According to the annual accessibility analysis (opens in new tab) of the top 1,000,000 homepages, over 97% of all web homepages have detectable issues. This is a global rating and some countries rank higher than others. The United Kingdom, USA, and European Union lead the way: e-commerce giants, governmental resources, and top mobile apps are usually good examples — whether the reasons are striving for social good or the consequences of costly court cases.
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There is a good deal of room for improvement in understanding and implementing accessibility which is an even broader area than inclusivity. There are strong links between accessibility, usability, and a company’s bottom line, and testing digital products with people who have a form of disability is now seen as emerging best practice in 2021.
Measuring and understanding accessibility
Accessibility evangelists claim that it is beneficial for businesses, but it is difficult to prove. Modern browsers or mobile apps cannot detect whether a site visitor uses assistive technology, so web analytics will not reflect the number of users with disabilities or their online behaviour and satisfaction levels. We can only guess the monetary benefits for a particular firm.
The total spending power of people with disabilities and the members of their households in the UK is calculated at £274 billion and yet we estimate that businesses lose up to £24 billion per year because their accessibility falls short.
It is important to note that when discussing accessibility, we need to understand that disability is not just a medical condition. According to the World Health Organization, it is a much broader term that comprises permanent (e.g., severe visual impairment, amputated leg, or cerebral palsy), temporary (broken arm, blurred vision after laser eye surgery), and situational disabilities (noise, sun glare on the screen, or even too much alcohol after a party).
Anyone at some point of time can experience disability, whereas some people live with disability for their whole life or a substantial part of it. 14.1 million people live with a permanent disability in the UK (according to the Family Resources Survey) and there are 2 million people with sight loss in the UK, including 360,000 blind or partially sighted people (due to the Royal National Institute of Blind People).
As for temporary and especially situational disabilities, they are so common that no one has ever calculated them all. Something as seemingly minor as traffic distraction or carrying heavy bags are all factors that will alter how we perceive the web and how well we can interact with digital services and products.
Who really needs web accessibility?
Web accessibility benefits everyone. There are many ways to present the same information to different audiences in the digital world and the main goal of accessibility boils down to ensuring that there will be at least one method that will suit the user.
Able bodied users have the whole spectrum of ways to interact with software, whereas people with disabilities (whether permanent, temporary or situational) will prefer one or a few features or methods depending on their ability. In some situations these features are also beneficial to all users.
Imagine you open an article on your smartphone. One can read it or listen to an audio version if it’s available, or turn on an embedded text-to-speech feature to avoid eye fatigue, while commuting. These are all features that have been added to enhance accessibility and will benefit able bodied and disabled users.
Another example is to look at complex table-based interfaces like enterprise resource planning (ERP) or customer relationship management (CRM) systems. Able bodied people have a choice — they can either click on table cells with a computer mouse to edit them, or use keyboard shortcuts, especially if they are proficient with Microsoft Excel. If developers had not implemented keyboard accessibility these keyboard shortcuts would not be available benefiting both visually impaired employees who rely on screen readers and cannot move a table cell with a cursor but also able bodied users.
Website testing advantages
It is normal practice to challenge software solutions before their public launch. A designer will test the prototype of a new app or site with several unprejudiced people to check whether they find the design clear, useful, and comfortable. This method is called usability testing or sometimes user testing and allows you to identify major issues before launching.
Usually, participants of usability testing sessions don’t have disabilities and are recruited according to the target audience’s demographic characteristics. Simply put, selection criteria include job title, country of residence, experience in some topic or with certain software, gender, age, etc.
Accessibility testing, is testing a live product with users who have a range of disabilities and utilize certain assistive technology. Apart from its distinct accessibility focus, this kind of testing also reveals broader usability issues. Participants are selected due to the primary senses involved in using your product (for example, vision and touch — for a mobile weather app; eyesight and hearing — for a computer game).
There are multiple ways of evaluating the accessibility of a site or app and it is important to clarify the key differences between testing and audit.
Accessibility audit is organized without end users and has two main forms:
Automated or semi-automated audit is checking web accessibility by means of online tools, browser extensions, or plugins. The report is either generated automatically or requires an expert to look through all detected issues and interpret them.
Manual audit is the evaluation of web accessibility by legal experts who understand the regulations (like the UK’s Equality Act 2010) and accessibility standards (the most famous is WCAG — Web Accessibility Content Guidelines). So, experts trial typical user scenarios themselves and compare the site or app against checklists and document mismatches.
Accessibility testing, unlike audit, involves end users with disabilities and comprises a set of facilitated one-on-one sessions where users try to work through typical scenarios within a site or app.
Involving users with disabilities gives you a more realistic insight into common scenarios. Accessibility standards aren’t perfect, and formal compliance might not take into account behavioural patterns or inexperienced users. Human nature is unpredictable and people do not always take their “designed” path to their goal but one that seems safer or more intuitive —testing will identify that. Audit is still, in many cases, a good method; however, its combination with human testing will show much more accurate results.
Additionally, testing accessibility with humans inevitably shows many usability issues. For example, if a colour-blind user cannot notice a call-to-action button, there is a chance colour-sighted users might not notice it either.
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