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How to improve e-commerce accessibility & ensure inclusivity

Ferry den Dopper
Ferry den Dopper
Principal UX Designer
22 min read
26 June 2023

1.3 billion

people around the world experience disability


of the internet is accessible to people with disabilities


of all retail sales will be e-commerce purchases by 2026

Digital accessibility ensures that digital platforms and products are inclusive. That content, services, experiences, and functionality is available to everyone, regardless of their means or ability. 

Many groups of people can benefit from digital accessibility, including people with hardware restrictions or limited connectivity, but by far the most significant are people with disabilities.

Collectively, there are more than 1.3 billion people around the world who experience a significant disability. And, still, only 3% of the internet is accessible to them.

Disability can be permanent, temporary, or situational, but it restricts people’s digital accessibility directly. And it’s important to remember that, as we age, disability is likely something that we will all experience in one form or another.

  • Physical disability, including hearing loss, visual impairments, and mobility issues, can restrict both the type of content and platforms accessible to people with these disabilities online as well as their ability to navigate them. 
  • Neurodiversity conditions, including autism, ADHD, IDD, and dyslexia, change the way people process information online. As a result, the way that digital content or platforms are presented or laid out can restrict usability for people with these conditions.

As new legislation like the European Accessibility Act (EAA) makes digital accessibility the legal standard, one of the most important areas of digital that will need to be made accessible is e-commerce. 

According to Morgan & Stanley, the e-commerce market is expected to nearly double by 2026. By that measure, 27% of all retail sales would be e-commerce purchases.

The rate of e-commerce growth is proof that the way that people shop has fundamentally changed. Without increased accessibility, however, people with disabilities will be restricted from taking advantage of e-commerce. 

Not only are they among those who stand to reap the biggest benefits of e-commerce, on a much more crucial level people with disabilities would be prevented from adjusting to a shift in everyday life.


The need for e-commerce accessibility & inclusion

Collectively, the disability community is the single largest minority group, with 1 in every 4 individuals experiencing a significant disability. The odds are that, even if we don’t all personally know or love someone with a significant disability, we almost certainly know someone who does. 

The EAA comes into effect on June 28, 2025 and will affect all e-commerce brands based in the European Union and sites whose audience is primarily based there. 

While the EAA won’t impact every e-commerce site—archived content, businesses with fewer than 10 employees, and businesses with an annual turnover of less than €2 million are exempt—it is the result of a growing trend that is putting more and more pressure on brands around the world to make digital accessibility a must. 

In the US, for example, e-commerce accessibility isn’t explicitly required but failure to meet WCAG criteria is grounds for lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Between 2017 and 2018, the number of web accessibility lawsuits filed in federal court under the ADA more than doubled. That number has been steadily increasing since 2020 and, in 2021, 97.4% of analyzed web pages failed to meet one or more of the criteria from WCAG 2.0 level AA, which establishes just a baseline for accessibility. 

Even for businesses outside of the jurisdiction of the EAA, the increased accountability around e-commerce accessibility indicates that putting in the work to achieve WCAG compliance now will help them stay ahead in the future.

Outside of obligation, accessibility offers real financial benefit to e-commerce businesses as well. People with disabilities represent a market worth $8 trillion alone and a $15 trillion market once family, friends, and supporters are factored in.

Prioritizing e-commerce accessibility isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.

Purchasing someone online

Understanding accessibility in e-commerce 

A report from the Baymard Institute that analyzed 33 top-grossing e-commerce websites found that 94% of them were inaccessible

The Baymard Institute’s measurements used the criteria specified in WCAG 2.11 AA, which provides hundreds of individual benchmarks across four key areas: images, links, form fields, and keyboard navigation. 

More e-commerce sites were successful in some areas compared to others:

  • 82% of sites had accessibility-compliance issues with images
  • 73% of sites had accessibility-compliance issues with links
  • 58% of sites had accessibility-compliance issues with form field markup
  • 64% of sites had accessibility-compliance issues with keyboard navigation

Despite these challenges, the National Retail Federation reports that 72% of people with disabilities still prefer online shopping to in-store alternatives.  But that doesn’t make every e-commerce site preferable to an in-store alternative. Instead, people with disabilities rely on a few e-commerce sites that they’ve already had an easy and pleasant shopping experience with.

“I’m going to shop online no matter what…. And, having a significant disability, I just end up going back to the same places that have accessibility built in,” said Josh Basile, a Community Relations Manager at a tech accessibility company who also has quadriplegia. 

“So if they’ve welcomed me and opened the doors, I come back as a repeat customer. And that’s what we found with people with disabilities. The most brand-loyal customers. When they’re taken care of, they come back again and again and again.”

A user who is quadriplegic, like Basile, relies on voice dictation software to navigate sites. Form fields that are noncompliant with voice dictation would prevent them from using search bars, signing up to receive newsletter offers, and adding payment information to complete their purchase.

Other disabilities rely on accessibility within other areas. Folks with vision loss depend on screen readers for images, which rely on descriptions and captions to function correctly. People with disabilities like Parkinson’s disease, which affects fine motor skills, prefer keyboard navigation over trackpads. And, for anyone with colorblindness or low vision, the color contrast of hyperlinks needs to be emphasized with an underline.

woman phone purple a hair
e-commerce concept

The performance in the Baymard Institute study offers insight into how other e-commerce sites will have to adapt to the EAA, which also defines digital accessibility based on WCAG 2.11 AA.

To ensure that they meet those standards, e-commerce businesses should prioritize the following:

  • Accessible design. Designing e-commerce sites with accessibility in mind means ensuring that people with disabilities can easily access and navigate the site.
  • Assistive technology compatibility. Many people with disabilities rely on assistive technology such as screen readers, voice recognition software, or alternative input devices. E-commerce sites should be compatible with these technologies to ensure that everyone can access and interact with the site.
  • Clear and concise content. People with cognitive disabilities may struggle with complex language or lengthy paragraphs. E-commerce sites should provide clear and concise content that is easy to understand.
  • Alternative formats. Providing alternative formats such as audio or visual content can help people with disabilities access information that may be difficult to read or comprehend.

Key areas for accessibility and inclusion

Accessibility considerations don’t only vary according to individual needs and restrictions, they also vary with each stage of the customer experience.

The e-commerce customer experience is constantly changing but, at its core, remains the same. 

Step 1. Awareness

This is the initial stage where a customer becomes aware of a product or brand through various channels such as online advertisements, social media, search engine results, or word-of-mouth.

The bulk of these channels reach customers through visual content, which is inaccessible to folks with disabilities that impact their sight. And, with video content dominating social media platforms from Instagram to TikTok to even LinkedIn, it’s important to remember that audio is inaccessible to people with hearing impairments.

For brands looking for basic improvements to improve accessibility at this stage, these are musts:

  • Don’t leave alt text and caption fields blank. Adding these ensures screen readers convey the full message brands are sending to their audiences.
  • Turn on subtitles for video content. Thanks to the surge of advancements in AI, this is now as easy as flicking a switch for many platforms. Be sure to turn on automatically generated captions or subtitles for socials and make subtitles the default on YouTube uploads.
  • Similarly, release podcast episodes with a transcription. We highly recommend using software like Descript to not just transcribe podcasts and videos word-for-word, but to also remove pesky um’s, er’s, and incomplete sentences or irrelevant anecdotes.

On a more fundamental level, brands can also boost accessibility by thinking a bit more creatively about how they approach this stage of the customer experience.

  • Diversify social channels. A brand that relies on Instagram for brand awareness, for example, should consider branching out to Spotify or YouTube with a podcast or other form of content that’s less visual-forward and more audio-friendly.  

Although expanding to a new channel or platform will require a new strategy and a new set of skills from a brand’s social media team, they’ll be able to reach a new audience. Moreover, a new type of content opens a new avenue for brands to expand their identities.

Two men

Step 2. Research and discovery

Once the customer becomes aware of a product or brand, they might visit the company’s website, read product reviews, compare prices and features, or seek recommendations from friends or online communities.

The bottom line for this stage is simple: for any and every potential customer to learn more about a brand through their brand’s website, that website needs to be accessible.

For many brands, this is such a tall order they might not know where to begin. Although there are no easy solutions, there are good places to begin a journey to an accessibility-forward website.

  • Run an accessibility check. There are numerous free online tools that can check your website for WCAG compatibility. Our go-tos are Accessibility Checker and WebAIM’s Wave, which are good for establishing an initial sense of how much work is at hand. If needed, there are also specialized agencies that can help compile a more in-depth assessment.
  • Go to the source and consult W3C itself. The organization behind WCAG offers a ton of information, both in terms of guidance and also to build an understanding of accessibility on a deeper level. Their set of handpicked Evaluation Tools can provide a more in-depth check on specific accessibility metrics.
e-commerce concept

Step 3. Consideration

At this stage, the customer narrows down their options and evaluates different alternatives. They may compare products based on features, pricing, customer reviews, shipping options, return policies, and overall reputation.

In the context of accessibility, at this stage brands need to do what they can to ensure that they stand out for their accessibility standards and for good reason. Achieving a reputation for accessibility will foster customer feedback and reviews that say as much and, in turn, foster a loyal following of brand advocates.

To begin establishing that reputation, brands should focus on product pages and create a set of standards that ensures it’s easy for people with disabilities to learn more about each product or service. 

  • Keep it simple. With product pages, customers know what they’re looking for: descriptions, specifications, pricing, and reviews. Present this information clearly and in a logical order, using a legible font in an appropriate size and sufficient color contrast.
  • Navigation is key. Maxmimize page navigability by ensuring that that simple design is consistent across all products. Run a check to confirm that all interactive elements–from links to the “Add to cart” button–are navigable both via trackpad and keyboard. And be sure that data tables for comparing products side-by-side are fully navigable as well. 
Two women

Step 4. Purchase

The customer makes the decision to buy the product and completes their purchase. There’s more than meets the eye to this process: the customer adds the product to their shopping cart, chooses a payment method, and enters payment & shipping information to complete the transaction. 

The purchasing process is the most important part of the customer experience. It’s also the most technically complex. From multiple form fields to payment processors, there’s much that customers need to navigate through.

From an accessibility perspective, all those fields and elements are potential obstacles. Here’s some vital areas to pay attention to:

  • Labels, instructions, and other identifiers. For neurodivergent customers or those who have attention disorders, it’s less important for the copy in this messaging to reflect brand persona and more important that it’s clear and concise. 
  • Error messages. Make it easy to identify and correct errors. For example, just adding a red border makes it inaccessible for people with color blindness or other visual disabilities. In this example, adding text to indicate the error in addition to the red display corrects the issue and also allows screen readers to dictate the problem.
  • Payment methods. Make it as easy as possible to complete the checkout process by requiring as little input as possible. Allowing customers to save their information or to use alternative payment methods–such as PayPal, Apple Pay, or digital wallets–helps facilitate an easier checkout process for people with disabilities.

It’s also worth mentioning that the accessibility suggestions we’ve made for product pages in the Consideration section apply here as well. Simplicity remains the best policy for page design and all interactive elements should be checked to confirm they’re navigable by alternative methods, like assistive devices.


Step 5. Post-purchase experience

The post-purchase stage offers the opportunity for businesses to engage with the customer and boost trust & loyalty. On a basic level, brands provide order confirmation, shipping updates, offer customer support, and request feedback. 

Once the customer completes their purchase, their interaction with the brand consists of follow-ups that typically occur via email. 

To ensure that the important information within these follow-ups is made accessible, here’s what to keep in mind.

  • Subject lines. These are important for any piece of email communication but especially important for people with disabilities who use assistive devices. Simplicity and clarity are once again vital: identifiers like “Order confirmation” and “Order status” are key to ensuring customers with disabilities don’t miss the most important follow-ups.
  • Structure. Organizing the content of email updates with headings and bullet points helps brands keep things short, sweet, and to the point. Breaking information down with headlines like “We’ve received your order” and “What’s next” makes an email easier to navigate using assistive devices. 
  • Buttons. Confirm that interactive elements are still accessible over email and add descriptive text to buttons. To be safe, it’s also a good idea to have information like tracking numbers available in the body of the email as well as embedded into “Track my order” links.
online shopping concept

Step 6. Customer support & retention

Customer support is important for retaining customers and fostering long-term relationships. It involves addressing inquiries, handling returns or exchanges, resolving issues, and ensuring customer satisfaction.

If customer support is important for retaining customers, it’s vital for retaining customers with disabilities. People with disabilities rely on support services, especially if one area of the customer experience is less accessible than others.

For many customers with disabilities, customer support acts as a safety net. If all else fails, they can reach out directly to the brand for assistance. An inaccessible customer support service leaves them without options. To keep that from happening, do this: 

  • Offer support through multiple channels. Providing support services through different channels helps meet people with different needs. Using live chat, email, and phone support opens the door to different types of communication.
  • Support support teams with disability training. It sounds obvious, but brands need to train their customer support teams on the best ways to provide assistance to customers with different disabilities. Doing so not only helps support specialists do their jobs better, it also raises awareness about accessibility issues and helps customers with disabilities know that they’re being provided for.
Two young women

Step 7. Repeat purchases & advocacy

Ideally, a positive customer experience leads to repeat purchases and brand advocacy. By maintaining a strong relationship with customers and building a reputation for excellence, brands can leverage the loyalty of their customer base to drive further growth.

On a basic level, brands need to remember that the same accessibility standards for socials we discussed in the Consideration section apply at this stage of the customer journey as well. 

Additionally, there are other areas unique to this stage of the customer experience to take into account.

  • Loyalty programs. Brands with loyalty or other rewards programs should confirm that the signup process for these is accessible. Moreover, they also need to consider how relevant associated content is to people with different disabilities. Thinking creatively about how to provide rewards or exclusive content that are meaningful and desirable to different types of customers will help boost loyalty and add to brand reputation.

Currently, people with disabilities are loyal to the brands that support them out of necessity. But as accessibility becomes more and more of a requirement, brands will have to do more to compete for customer loyalty.

Making accessibility a priority across the full customer experience is a must—for many e-commerce brands there’s even a deadline to accomplish it. Looking ahead at the long-term future, however, brands will need to continuously innovate to maintain accessibility standards as technology and the customer experience continue to evolve.

Nothing about us, without us, is for us.

Sheri Byrne-Haber, Author & disability activist

Boosting accessibility requires involving people with disabilities

Across the board—for brands in e-commerce and, indeed, anyone else striving to make accessibility a priority—a key component of the decision-making process for accessibility is pulling in people with disabilities.

In Giving a Damn About Accessibility, author and disability activist Sheri Byrne-Haber quotes a phrase that helped usher in the Americans with Disabilities Act:

“Nothing about us, without us, is for us.”

According to Byrne-Haber, good accessibility is defined by compliance. Great accessibility, on the other hand, is defined by empathy. 

This is why it’s so important to involve people with disabilities in decision-making: to empathize with disability, it’s crucial to involve people who experience it firsthand.

Crayola concept

The importance of the Crayola 64

To understand how to design a better e-commerce experience for folks with visual impairments, our team of designers at BASIC/DEPT® interviewed Paula Katz, who abruptly lost 98% of her sight overnight at the age of twelve as the result of a brain tumor. 

Now in her sixties, Katz has been legally blind for nearly fifty years and understands all too well how inaccessible much of the internet and technology as a whole is. 

“The more phenomenal the internet has become for people who can see, the more that people who can’t see end up losing out,” Katz told BASIC/DEPT®. “We need to bridge the gap.”

Katz offered our team valuable insight that we wouldn’t have realized on our own, like keeping color descriptions to the “Crayola 64.” As she pointed out, it’s best to keep alt text descriptions pretty plain for the most part. Details that describe colors as “desert rose” or “wild watermelon” might sound nice but they’re not relevant to people with limited sight; “pink” works just as well if not better. 

Testing for accessibility, accessibly

For our team of designers at DEPT®, user testing was fundamental to their decision-making process when designing the site for My Cerebral Palsy Guide, which compiles credible information and helpful resources about CP and the experience of living with it.

By pulling in people with different degrees of CP–from mild to complex–as test users, our team quickly learned what made their designs accessible and what didn’t.

They also learned that accessibility was just as important to the testing process as it was to the design process as a whole.

For example, our designers used A/B testing because it struck an important balance. Limiting design choices to two options, A or B, helped keep users from feeling overwhelmed. 

At the same time, the approach offered plenty of flexibility when it came to how to decide between the two options. For My CP Guide, our designers included both a moderated and an unmoderated testing phase, offering more or less guidance with each one.

To facilitate accessibility testing that is accessible in and of itself, it’s important to take these considerations into account.

  • If possible, use an accessibility consultant or expert. These folks can provide training to designers that provide them with helpful insights and skills to ensure that nobody feels awkward or self-conscious during the testing process.
  • Get to know users’ needs up front. Find out what forms of communication work best for them. Ask about assistive technologies and whether or not they would like to have an aid present to help facilitate the test.
  • Time. Users with disabilities may need additional time to complete a testing phase. To make sure no one’s feeling pressured or rushed to complete a test in time, designers should set aside extra time to conduct user testing. Time of day is important as well. For users with CP, for example, mornings were much more preferable to afternoons, when they had less energy.
  • Provide prototypes in advance. If possible, give users the chance to use the product on their own without the pressure of a testing environment. Ask them to come prepared with initial feedback.
  • Pull in other designers for feedback. Folks without disabilities have their own experiences that shape their own individual sets of needs. Even if no one on your team can directly empathize with the experience of someone with CP, for instance, they might have other experiences that help them relate. 

Above all, understand neither the testing process (nor the final product) will be 100% perfect from the get-go. 

For one, there are so many different sets of needs when it comes to accessibility that it can be difficult to cover them all. At times, because some accessibility practices are meant for a specific set of needs, they will even be exclusionary to others. A toilet designed for someone in a wheelchair, for instance, will be made taller and might exclude someone with dwarfism. 

Learning how to be aware of many different sets of needs and how to be aware and intentional about implementing accessibility takes time. And while building an understanding of accessibility and a sense of empathy will help, those will also take time to learn as well. 

Fortunately, practice helps. As Kat Holmes, an accessibility expert and UX Design Director at Google, says, “inclusive design is a daily practice – like brushing your teeth. You have to do it consistently to receive the full benefits.”

User testing for My CP Guide changed the way that our team approached design. Pulling in people living with CP to the design decision-making process opened our designers’ eyes to a new perspective, allowing them to walk a mile in another person’s set of shoes, and rethink what they knew.

“My experience with user testing was a fantastic way for me to empathize and design with accessibility front of mind,” said Cloe Jakel, who worked on the site, “I believe it has fundamentally made me a better designer.

The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.

Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web

An exciting new standard that’s long overdue

The European Accessibility Act comes into force in two years. With that deadline fast approaching, it’s vital for e-commerce brands to prioritize digital accessibility by beginning to assess their sites and implement changes now.

Although the deadline might seem tight, the reality is that digital accessibility is long overdue.
The first iteration of WCAG was published in 1995, just four years after the World Wide Web was released to the public, meaning that digital accessibility has been around nearly as long as the modern internet has. 

And yet, nearly thirty years later, 97% of the internet—and 94% of e-commerce sites—are inaccessible. 

While we hope that we’ve been able to provide some helpful guidance and resources here in this report, there’s no beating around the bush: making digital accessibility a priority will take effort. 

That said, as a market of over a billion people and $8 trillion in spending power, people with disabilities make up a powerful new market that’s been historically underlooked. By making accessibility the standard in e-commerce, brands have the potential to not only extend their reach and business in a massive way, but also to remove longstanding barriers and foster life-changing inclusivity.

Need help designing or developing your next accessible e-commerce platform? We’d love to work with your brand on innovation and accessibility.

Questions making your e-commerce platform accessible?

Principal UX Designer

Ferry den Dopper