We used to think that web services are meant only for the digitally fluent, with access to the right hardware and an internet connection (hello, 1990s!). It quickly became apparent that everyone benefits from using it, even more so when mobile devices became affordable and cheap enough to be used by everyone.
Now we have different preconceptions about web usage, that people using it do mostly the same way: a mouse, or touch, a keyboard, a screen. It’s time to put these into the past as well. Because the way people use the web – and your services – is as varied as humans themselves. And some of them have special needs that we need to address. And the following are a few good reasons why.
1. What is essential for some is good for all
Imagine you are looking at your mobile screen in bright sunlight. Squinting, you try to make out the letters and really wish there was enough contrast to complete the task you set up to do. Or maybe you are in a crowded and noisy environment, like a commute during rush hours, and need to watch the video while you forgot your headphones. If only someone included subtitles and closed captions to let you read instead of listen.
Situations like this illustrate that accessibility is an approach that benefits everyone, because it challenges our assumptions about how people use our services and what situations they may encounter. It also makes us think about solutions that work beyond the idealised, quiet environment. At the same time, users with special needs have full access to our services and an experience not vastly different from the majority.
2. We are all temporarily able
Being accessible to everyone means we may use our own services in the future. A substantial part of the population of people above 15 years old – about 18% – has some kind of disability. It may be that more of these than you think are included in your target group. However, it gets even more difficult with age: more than 35% of people above the age of 65 are included in this demographic. As people age, we lose some essential abilities that we take for granted when being fully able.
We may be grateful some day for accessibility included in digital products, and we never know when this might happen. Because age is only one of the factors, with disease and accidents being another. Deteriorating eyesight, a broken arm or even carpal tunnel syndrome may force some of us to adapt to other devices and methods of interaction, even if only temporarily. Then there is situational disability, for example holding a baby makes you use only one hand when usually you use both for interacting with a device. In fact, being able is in itself temporary, and only a social construct, an assumption. Being accessible is thinking about your own future as much as the present of others.
3. Reputation is easily lost and hardly gained
We want to be able to complete our tasks quickly and efficiently, and maybe have a little fun doing so. Now imagine that there is a whole group of people who encounter barriers to this fluency every day. Maybe they can’t complete an order, or fill a request, or maybe just face a multitude of small obstacles every step of the way. They would feel excluded, and this can quickly be reflected in your brand’s image.
Consider the sustainability focus in the fashion industry. A decade ago a problem of fast fashion and morally adequate wages was known to a very narrow group. However, most customers don’t want to see themselves as exploitative and care about their self image by choosing the brands that align with their beliefs. As more and more problems surface, a lot of people turn to brands that have sustainability policies and focus on fairness, while many established brands find themselves in a difficult situation of forced change under public pressure.
It seems the same may be the case with accessibility in digital products. As legal requirements change, the focus turns to openness and inclusiveness. Now the EU, UK, and US law requires us to include accessibility in public and non-government organisation services, with the US being the first to extend it to the private sector. It may be a matter of time when it is a requirement for all. And in the meantime it would be beneficial to be ready for the future.
4. Accessibility to people means visibility to search engines
Here’s the thing: SEO loves accessible websites. This is a result of a well thought-out structure that is underpinning accessibility rules. If you are aiming for accessibility, you need to plan your documents in a logical way that is easily read by both search engines and assistive technologies.
Providing text alternatives to images, video and sound lets the search algorithms efficiently make sense of all types of content, boosting your position in results. It seems the web robots that do the heavy lifting for the search engines are just another group of users with special needs. But in this case, you can benefit in the most direct way.
Conclusion: be accessible now to be ready for the future
Accessibility can be thought of as similar to user experience, while complementing it: more a method of thinking, than a tool or solution. Changing existing products may be a challenge, but all the problems can be mapped on an effort vs. impact matrix: the priorities are relatively easy to change, while changing the experience profoundly, and for the better.
Including accessibility in new products is much easier and more seamless than working with existing ones. The reasons above sum up the most important advantages of building accessible services, but it really boils down to a crucial question: do we want to help our clients or inconvenience them? And, as the popularity of the user experience approach increases, it will be an obvious thing to do in the future. One you can start preparing for today.