Digital accessibility is the practice of designing a product to be used by all kinds of people.
And “all kinds of people” doesn’t just mean people with disabilities, whether they are visual, auditive, speech, physical, cognitive, or neurological. It also means age-related limitations (your users do get old), health conditions, or temporary impairments (the healthiest person may get a gym injury and be obliged to use the mouse with their non-dominant hand). Even tired eyes after a full day at the office or situational limitations like a slow network connection, which is still common in some countries, require accessible solutions.
As Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web once said:
“The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”
Usability and Accessibility
A lot of people confuse accessibility with usability and although they're both under the user experience umbrella they are not the same thing.
As I explained above, accessibility is about designing universal products and giving an equivalent user experience for people with disabilities. The main focus is to provide products that can be used by everyone, regardless of their chronic or temporary limitations.
Usability, on the other hand, is about designing products to be effective, efficient, and satisfying for the user. It focuses on making a product easier to use but it doesn’t address the needs of people with disabilities in particular.
What Digital Accessibility Looks Like: Standards and Guidelines
In order to provide a single shared standard for digital accessibility that meets the needs of individuals across the globe, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has promoted the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
Born over 20 years ago, the WCAG outlines in detail how to make web content accessible to people with disabilities, and has been developed in cooperation with individuals and organizations around the world. It is also widely used as a standard for accessibility laws and regulations.
An ISO norm (ISO/IEC 40500:2012) was also established as a guiding principle and a way to spread best practices across the web. When it comes to accessibility, joint efforts like these are critical to ensure that the interaction for differently-abled users is done according to best-practices everywhere and that designers and developers can learn how to implement them properly.
Some governments (the U.S. have ADA or sections 504/508 of the Rehabilitation Act) are also taking this seriously and getting more effective at creating regulations and guidelines that ensure the digital space provides equal opportunities for everyone.
WCAG Evolution: The State of Digital Accessibility in 2021
Back in 2008, the WCAG 2.0 was released containing guidelines to adapt to the fast growing world of technology. Ten years later, WCAG 2.1 came out with new guidelines focused more on mobile devices.
The version 2.2 should be out by the end of 2021, and will include things like accessible authentication and dragging.
A fun fact was that, when WCAG 2.1 was released, the World Wide Web consortium also released Project Silver, known as the WCAG 3.0, that includes standards for emerging technologies like the Internet of Things. This document is being developed to ensure that everyone has access to everything, including the latest technology.
Why Should You Care About Digital Accessibility?
The importance of digital accessibility has been getting increased attention in recent years, with more and more countries adopting laws and regulations to ensure applications cater to the needs of those with disabilities. But the recent COVID-19 pandemic has brought it even further to the center of the public discussion.
Today, more than ever, digital touch points are replacing traditional brick and mortar store and telephone interactions with your customers, employees, and partners. They are making companies more efficient, more agile in delivering new products and services, and giving users the ability to meet their needs at their own pace, where it’s most convenient to them.
As you’re investing in creating applications, you’re making digital spaces available to customers, creating new ways of receiving and conveying information. However, if you make those spaces difficult to reach or interact with, you’re limiting your impact.
The positive return on investment that comes with a strategy that makes a digital product accessible far surpasses the cost of implementing it and ultimately benefits the business itself.
These benefits may be, among other things, increased website traffic because you are reaching a broader set of users (think of an e-commerce website or an enterprise application) or increased online sales due to greater ease-of-use. The truth is that making apps accessible makes them easier to use and more user friendly for all users. And all of this is valid even if you’re just making an app for your employees.
If websites or applications are developed in an attempt to reduce costs with traditional communication channels, like customer service or traditional government bureaucracy, the accessibility aspect also plays an important part. Making apps accessible further reduces the need for customer service personnel and paper interactions.
Is that all there is when it comes to accessibility benefits? No, it isn’t. Having accessible apps also gives you increased findability with Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and creates a positive brand image of your company as corporate social responsibility has never been more important.
When to Care About Accessibility?
You should design for accessibility from the very start.
Making the web accessible benefits different types of users. With user experience becoming a global buzzword and UX designers finally getting a seat at the table, if you think that an important topic in today's digital world is to put users first, you need to keep track of all users’ needs and demands, capabilities and abilities, preferences and situations.
Knowing that, provide them with all types of guidance, like screen readers (or any other assistive technology), and help, like keyboard navigation. The goal is for digital interactions between people and services, products, information, and entertainment without limitations, without barriers, and without constraints. And this is something you should do in an early stage of a project, so you can reduce the costs of fixing it later on.
If you want to learn more about how to ensure you’re building accessible, universal apps that comply with the highest standards and guidelines, I invite you to watch my recent Tech Talk, How to Speed Up Development of Accessible Apps.
For additional resources, take a look at the following articles: