Digital accessibility is about designing and developing digital products for all kinds of people, taking into consideration the differences and limitations of the various users.
Do you remember a few years ago, during the NFL's Color Rush campaign, when Nike introduced new color-on-color uniforms to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the league's first TV game shown in color? Ironically enough, the red-on-green combination used in the Jets versus Bills game was particularly bad for colorblind people, who weren’t able to distinguish between the two teams. As a result, Nike was forced to change uniforms the following season.
What does this have to do with accessibility? Well, everything. Digital accessibility means creating applications that cater to the needs of, not only people with visual, auditive, speech, physical, cognitive, or neurological disabilities—such as color blindness—but also those with age-related limitations, health conditions, or temporary impairments. The healthiest people often get injured in day-to-day activities. Say, you may break your wrist and be forced to use the mouse with your non-dominant hand. Even tired eyes after a full day at the office or situational limitations like a slow network connection are temporary impairments that can benefit from accessible solutions.
“The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”
—Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web
Universality needs to be taken seriously. The main focus of providing accessibility in digital products is that everyone, regardless of their chronic or temporary limitations, can perceive, navigate, and interact with your product.
Digital Accessibility in 2020: Why Is It Important?
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.
With various forms of lockdown being put in place in countries all over the globe, people now rely on digital services for almost everything. Everyday activities, from shopping and remote work to education and healthcare are now carried out using mobile or web apps. And with these digital platforms becoming our primary method of working, communicating and purchasing essential goods and services, it’s now more important than ever to ensure they are accessible to everyone, including those with disabilities.
What Does Digital Accessibility Look Like: Standards and Guidelines
Digital accessibility is about bringing down barriers. Audio, print, and visual media can be much more accessible and effective with the help of modern technologies and take an important step forward in providing options for those who want to be involved. By going digital, in a way, we’re levelling the playing field and providing equal opportunities for doing apparently simple things, like searching and applying for jobs.
For instance, nowadays, the education system is getting more accessible through digital channels. Whether you are applying for a course, submitting your application, or requesting a form, online tools provide access to all types of users.
In order to provide a single shared standard for web accessibility that meets the needs of individuals across the globe, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has promoted the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). WCAG, being a technical standard, 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, such as the ones mentioned earlier.
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. has 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.
Digital Accessibility Is Good For Business
Digital touchpoints 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
This is an easy one: from the 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.
You start with designing the application—the accessible way. If you want the short version, that means:
- Providing a certain amount of contrast between foreground and background colors;
- Not relying on color to convey specific information;
- Ensuring that interactive elements are self-explanatory and easily identified;
- Providing a clear, consistent, and labeled navigation for perfect understanding;
- Ensuring that forms have clear labels for what the input will be and mandatory fields are self-explanatory about the intention;
- Optimizing the experience for desktop, laptop, and mobile devices;
- Providing keyboard controls for content navigation and a clear markup for screen readers.
This is what you do. And you take it from the design phase to development—no excuses—and have your developers know by heart which automated tools to use when testing accessibility. Include those tests as part of their delivery cycles.
By taking care of these details, you get a piece of technology that is available to and usable by all people, whatever their abilities, education, age, language, location, network connection, devices, and so on, are. And if you’re expanding your audience, you’re growing your impact. How much better can it get?
If you want to learn more about designing for digital accessibility, be sure to check out the webinar How to Build Accessible Apps Fast Using Low-Code. I also invite you to take a look at some of our blog posts on the topic: