It’s harder to retrofit accessibility

June 27, 2022
Chris Perowne
Head of Design

It’s almost a decade since the London 2012 Paralympic Games heralded a generation of “superhuman” athletes. Since then, the visibility of disabled people in everything from advertising to TV programmes has increased considerably. Alongside this focus on visibility, accessibility issues are also increasingly under the spotlight. Which is why giving due consideration to accessibility in design is long overdue.

Looking at this from a digital design standpoint, a cursory glance at most brands’ websites reveals a glaring level of inequality in online accessibility. Accessibility in design refers to the extent to which a product or service can be used universally, specifically taking into account the needs of users living with disabilities. Traditionally the assumption has been this relates predominantly to making websites accessible to visually impaired users. In reality it’s about much more than that…

 

The commercial cost of overlooking accessibility in design

Ecommerce has made sales more competitive than ever before so it’s no surprise that many brands prioritise speed to market ahead of most other strategic considerations, not least accessibility in design. But in the rush to build sites to launch the latest product or service it’s easy to forget users who need more help to navigate the web – even though doing so could spell commercial disaster.

Consider this: according to Scope/Family Resources Survey there are 14.1 million disabled people in the UK, including almost a fifth (19%) of working-age adults. Moreover, plenty of disabilities that cause online accessibility problems aren’t obvious. Did you know, for instance, that one in every dozen men across the globe is colour blind? That’s just one example. There are a host of other issues, from motion sickness to Epilepsy, that can affect consumers ability to engage with poorly designed sites.

There is a huge part of the population we need to work harder for so that their purchase journeys are easier. If brands don’t make it easy for their entire consumer base to engage and buy then, over time, the consequence could be tangible financial loss.

Making the consumer journey more accessible for all

It’s harder to retrofit accessibility to a website than to build it in from the beginning. So, the trick is to treat it as a strategic imperative from the start, not just a box-ticking exercise. There will almost always be a section of a brand’s target market that need more support so it’s important to pose the question upfront.

Historically, and despite the 2010 Equalities Act writing the requirement into law, only third sector and government service providers seem to have made this a priority. It is time commercial organisations caught up. You wouldn’t have a shop wheelchair users can’t access, so why have a website that doesn’t work for large swathes of the population?

The World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) has guidelines that offer a good starting point. They split accessibility into three standards:

  • A – basic accessibility, but still serviceable
  • AA – ‘middle ground’ accessibility; most government service websites conform to this standard as a minimum
  • AAA – ‘hyper-accessible’ site design, but anything ‘flashy’ has to go

Choosing the standard suitable for a brand’s audience is challenging because there are often multiple different business objectives at play that require balancing out. Luckily technology and rigorous techniques now present solutions that mean you can avoid needing to decide between having an eye-catching site and an accessible one.

Good design and accessibility can go hand-in-hand, with a practical approach to UX that considers aspects such as:

  • Layout – balanced, logical, and straightforward to navigate
  • Motion – awareness that animation can be destabilising or disorienting for some users
  • Size and space – should be proportionate, particularly relevant to buttons and interactive elements
  • Typography – clear hierarchy of legible fonts at appropriate sizes
  • Language – simple, well written, without jargon or acronyms
  • Colour – harmonious use of colour with strong contrast for typography

Success relies on close collaboration between agencies, clients and the extended design team; a more holistic understanding between project partners to align solutions to the audience’s often diverse accessibility needs.

The process of understanding and implementing accessibility in design takes time. It’s important that everyone concerned doesn’t rush such vital requirements. Our own website is a case in point: it needs work from an accessibility point of view, which is something we’re reviewing currently as a priority.

Traditionally cost and complexity have been viewed as two key barriers to better accessibility in design. In reality, as long as the correct approach is taken, there is nothing to be scared of. Accessible design is good design, and the idea that creativity, visual aesthetics, or dynamic tech will inevitably be hindered is misguided and out of date. Technical rigor is required but it’s not rocket science, and the visual toolbox remains the same.

In an era when brands are throwing focus on the diversity of their own teams as well as their audiences, accessibility in design is the next step towards a truly inclusive experience for all. Brands need to be considering it, and agencies shouldn’t wait to be asked about it. We all need to be addressing these issues head on. There is an opportunity to get ahead of the curve here, solving a problem before consumer demand forces change, which it inevitably will.