The average consumer relies on a myriad of websites throughout their daily life, from reviewing bank account balances to replying to email. Now imagine if those same websites were inaccessible to a massive chunk of users. How would that affect their experience with a company – and with the world?
One in five Americans has a disability that changes the way they interact with technology, including a hearing impairment or blindness/low vision. While these 54 million people often are overlooked when a business is creating or updating its products, they still use the internet to make their busy lives possible. It’s important to approach all customers with an empathetic touch; if they see that a business isn’t focused on inclusive design or creating features that fit their specific needs, they will go elsewhere.
So what do businesses need to know to develop digital products that fit the needs of all users, no matter their ability? Empathy. Here are five common questions teams might ask when looking to make their offerings more inclusive. (For more on how technology can help those with disabilities, see 5 Technological Innovations that Seek to Enable the Disabled.)
1. Which differences in ability should be considered?
When developing a product or creating a road map for future updates, consider the full spectrum of users who will benefit from accessibility.
Disabilities can be broken down into three categories. Some are permanent, like deafness or the loss of a limb. Some are temporary, like loss of vision after cataract surgery or loss of mobility after breaking an arm. Some are situational – a user might wear glasses only some of the time, or wear protective gloves in the field that make using a touchscreen difficult.
Every user can benefit when your app or website is easier to perceive, operate and understand based on their specific situation. An accessible website works for elderly as well as young users, low-vision users as well as mobile phone users, assistive technologies as well as search engines. It is essential that your product is able to adapt based on context. One app that successfully accomplishes this challenge is DIY (Do It Yourself), an app designed to help people modify their homes to be functional for the elderly and those with special needs. DIY’s developers considered a whole host of modifications, from color inversion and font readability to contrast and icon organization, when creating their product.
2. How is “accessibility” defined in this instance?
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) outline 78 criteria that indicate an app or website’s adherence to accessibility best practices. Most companies target the WCAG’s A and AA-level guidelines for accessibility conformance. But staring down a long list of restrictions can feel daunting, especially for teams that are just getting started. Instead, break your empathetic thinking down in a different way, like the POUR principles of accessibility.
- Perceivable: Users must be able to see it, hear it, feel it as needed.
- Operable: Users must be able to use it.
- Understandable: Users must be able to comprehend it.
- Robust: Users must be able to access it as technology advances.
3. How can companies gain insight into accessibility?
Start by putting yourself in a different user’s shoes. Try navigating your company’s website using only a keyboard. Turn on your phone’s built-in screen reader and interact with an app. Or even attempt to read something as if you have dyslexia or color blindness. The results can be stunning, and will get your team talking about how to improve your product for users across a range of abilities.
Customer engagement can be another valuable source of information at this stage. If you haven’t interacted with blind or low-vision users before, invite some in to test an update and gather feedback – you’ll develop new relationships, engender trust and create a dialogue.
4. When should accessible features be added to a product?
This answer can be summed up in three words: from the start. By putting the time, thought and empathy into designing and developing accessible features, your brand will show it’s dedicated to users of all abilities. There also are cost savings to this mindset. For example, by considering best practices for color contrast, developers won’t need to go back to the drawing board if an approved color scheme is difficult to read when actually applied to the product or app.
As with any new product, this doesn’t mean your accessible features will be perfect from the start. But by committing to an empathetic, feedback-driven process of updates and improvements, you’ll create the best possible product for the largest group of users. (Some wearables are offering features to help those with disabilities. Learn more in How AI Is Enhancing Wearables.)
5. How can we educate our team about accessibility?
It’s likely that your team won’t be fully versed on the topic of accessibility from the start. But it’s something that needs to become part of your company culture. A few quick tips include:
- Using an accessibility cheat sheet
- Creating a working group to identify low-hanging fruit during design and development (automated browser tests can help) as well as areas that require significant work
- Investing in an introductory accessibility workshop for developers and other employees
- Training your quality assurance team in screen readers and the WCAG guidelines
- Identifying thought leaders on your team who are passionate about accessibility to lead the charge and inspire others with empathy
A foundation of empathy is the first step toward creating the best possible product, and it allows for opportunities to understand and interact with your users. The best product isn’t (just) faster or better looking: It’s a product that everyone can use and enjoy, regardless of their abilities.