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Design & Technology September 01, 2019

Accessibility: often ignored but important AF

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Real-life is adapted pretty well to people with disabilities. All public buildings in the country have ramps, The National Railways gets you on and off the train when you travel with a wheelchair. But websites? That’s a different story.

During my high-school years, I used to work for a small student company where we earned some pocket money by building websites for local companies. I worked with a friend of mine named Florian. Both of us wrote code. However, you should know that Florian is blind, and always has been. Now, someone being blind but also writing code is difficult to imagine for most people. Well, Florian doesn’t care. He just needs a few extra tools: a cane, a dog and a screen reader.

We can do better

Florian isn’t alone; according to the Central Bureau for Statistics in the Netherlands, 12.9% of its population has one or more disabilities. There are several gradations of disabilities, from slight color blindness to full-on physical immobility. This might make interacting with the digital products we make today a little tricky. We call these disabilities functional disabilities as they inhibit a person’s basic ability to function.

The College for Human Rights commissioned an investigation that focused on the accessibility of websites of some of the biggest Dutch companies. This was following up on a UN resolution that went into effect on July 14th, 2016. Its aim was to improve, protect and warrant the rights of people with a disability in the Netherlands.

This means all digital products should provide the same level of access and functionality to anyone using them. They investigated ten of the largest webshops, five energy providers, five travel agencies and 1,833 various other websites in the Netherlands. The results? We can do better.

Half of the websites were not operable with a keyboard, which makes navigating them with special tools like screen readers nearly impossible. The average Dutch webshop contained around thirteen hurdles that prevent people with a disability to order something without assistance. Out of all large Dutch webshops, only the Dutch version of eBay passed the test because of their efforts to adhere to the stricter American laws around accessibility.

A chance to do better

This data shows that there’s an opportunity to be taken. That brands can do better and also improve conversion rates while they’re at it. Let’s dive a little deeper into the data.

Accessibility can be divided into three categories: hearing, sight, and mobility. In the Netherlands,10% of the working population has one or more sight or mobility disabilities. Traditional websites and applications usually don’t require interaction through sound, so let’s focus on sight and mobility for now.

Looking at one of the largest webshops in the Netherlands, bol.com. I will show you two simple examples that have the potential to be improved; The tabindex and focus indicator. People that are not able to use a pointer device like a mouse or a trackpad, will have to use different means of navigating a web page.

They would have to navigate through the website with the keyboard or any alternative input device. This can be quite challenging. For example, when trying to reach the daily deal (‘de dagdeal’) it takes around fifty tabs to get there.

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So, it took far too many tabs to access ‘de dagdeal’ and you could not see where the keyboards focus currently was, because of the lack of visual feedback when tabbing. Let me show you how Etos.nl, a project I worked on, which tackled such issues.

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At the top of the page, we offer quick links to sections of the website that will only appear when tabbing through the site, offering users a quick way to jump to certain sections of the site skipping over menus which would require a while to get through.

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We also added a very clear, contrasting, focus indicator under any element that has interaction to always show the user where they are on the website.

Your new USP

So improving accessibility will cost you time and money. Resources that could otherwise be spent on implementing new features that seem much more profitable. But what if we look at accessibility as a conversion tool, or as something that we could use for marketing purposes?

Bol.com saw this potential and grabbed it. They are well on their way to become the first large Dutch webshop that is fully accessible.

New functionalities that are built are made accessible and they are working on retroactively improving all existing features on the website and app. By doing this they increase their potential engagement limit and become an even bigger love brand than they already are. They are truly becoming, “De winkel van ons allemaal” (“the shop for everybody”).

How to adjust

Do you want to make a change in your organization, but don’t know where to start? You don’t have to solve the problems all at once, it’s perfectly fine to do this in increments. Here are a few tips on how to approach changing your mindset and your process.

  1. Find out what you can improve
    Make a list of the points you want to improve on. There are a lot of automated tools that will analyze your website on technical aspects. You could also hire some professionals to do it for you.
  2. Create a backlog
    Order your list in a backlog by priority and estimate them. The overview will make your workload more manageable
  3. Write small, concise stories
    By keeping your stories small, you can pick some up every iteration of your project. That way you improve your product bit by bit, feature by feature. Want to spend an entire sprint on accessibility alone? That’s great! With your backlog complete and priority in order, you can decide how many improvements you want to make.
  4. Get involved with testers
    Include a specialist in your quality assurance team or user test your product against a larger sample of users with a disability.
  5. Make accessibility part of your workflow
    The more you include accessibility in your designs and code, the less time you will have to spend on it afterward.
    If you are willing to make your products the best they can be, you will eventually want to make accessibility part of your skillset. Don’t see accessibility as something that takes time and money out of your project, see it as an opportunity to reach a wider audience. See it as a marketing tool. Most importantly see it as something you want to do as a human being for others around you that need it. Do it for Florian.
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