Today is Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD). The purpose of the day is to get as many people as possible to talk, think and learn about creating better access for people with different disabilities. Providing everyone with access to digital and real-world services, information and content we take for granted. It’s easy to assume that the responsibility of making something accessible is only in the hands of developers, but it is also a consideration for designers, project managers, and, in the case of eCommerce — store owners.
The word “accessibility”, or “a11y”, especially when it comes to the web is often met with annoyance and dismissal. This is usually because stakeholders don’t see the value in it, and the work and testing of it are seen as too time-consuming for something which was needed yesterday. It’s really sad that people fail to see the benefit it can also have, as it’s about giving all of your customers a good experience, despite their individual circumstances.
TL;DR: Be a decent human being! Every day should be accessibility awareness day.
Brick and mortar
Before I go on, let’s imagine you have a physical store where you’re selling all of your amazing wares. Now, what considerations would you have to make for your store?
You’d make sure that the products are displayed in such a manner that your customers can see them. And work out if your items are meant to be within reach, what kind of lighting to use, and ensure there’s enough room for your customers to move around without bumping into things. Also, decisions may need to be made with regards to ambient music and its volume.
As this is a brick and mortar store it’s also likely that you have several laws you’ll need to abide by. Chances are you’d be required to make sure your shop is wheelchair accessible. There are also fire safety laws, which are good to abide by as you don’t want your shop to be a fire trap. And commonsensical laws such as no smoking inside the store, as it could cause damage your products or the store itself.
Shifting focus to online stores, a few of the laws go away, but there are still similar decisions to make. Some of these issues are solved without much thinking; are your product images clear, and is there enough contrast between the text and background for your users to read the content? You’d probably also want to make sure that the design looks the same in different browsers. There you go; you’re already addressing some accessibility issues.
Sadly, this is sometimes where the considerations end, often because * insert excuse about accessibility being time-consuming and not profitable * here. The belief that making your site accessible means spending more money adding it than money you make from your goods is false, especially for online stores. Remember that an online store has the ability to be available for anyone, regardless of their location, time zone, what kind of shifts they work, all without the need for travel to a specific location. Surely if you can reach more people, you need to ensure that your new-found audience can access the content, right?
According to The World Bank, 15% of the worlds population has experienced some form of disability. That amounts to about one billion people, some of which could be potential customers. From a business point of view, the concern what profits can be made from making a site accessible, however, getting a clear number is difficult, as businesses rarely know which opportunities they are losing out on especially when it comes to not making their products available to everyone. On top of this, ensuring your site is accessible to people with disabilities isn’t just a request from the people it concerns, but it’s also governed by laws in many countries.
For a long time, accessibility has been synonymous with blindness and making your site accessible to screen readers, such as NVDA for Windows or VoiceOver for Mac and iOS. However, it is important to understand that accessibility doesn’t just assist your disabled users; it can really help all of your users. Sometimes people use screen readers despite being sighted, be it because of dyslexia or simply being able to take information in better when it’s spoken rather than written. In fact, having your content read back to you before you publish it can also help you find issues with spelling, grammar or even focus the meaning of what you’re trying to say.
Of course, screen readers aren’t the only requirements for accessible content. Not all legally blind people use a screen reader, instead, they might rely on technology such as screen magnifiers or braille display. People with vision loss might use a regular screen, but increase the default text size on their devices. Therefore, font sizes, line heights, and text containers should take relative heights into account instead of forcing fixed sizes, which could render the text illegible. It’s also safe to say that images should not be used to convey text, unless, of course, you have added proficient alt-text or image descriptions.
Another important issue is keyboard accessibility, such as allowing your users to jump between different form elements and still display which item currently has focus. Believe it or not, there are a lot of users out there who don’t use a mouse or a touchpad, which could be due to anything from RSI, a mouse without a battery or a broken arm.
In the past decade or so, we’ve seen a massive influx of new devices which people use to access the internet, be it on the go or in the comfort of their own home. Some sites and online stores only ensure that the content is viewable on these devices without the user needing to zoom in or out. However, another consideration is to ensure the content loads quickly despite the quality of your user’s internet connection. This doesn’t just entail making sure the speed of the page or app loading is fast, but also that content doesn’t jump around too much as styles are loading in. We’ve all been there; wanted to show someone something really cool, only to be staring at a white screen for what seems like forever because of a slow 3G connection.
If you have videos on your site it could also be worth adding subtitles to them. This would not only make the content available to your deaf or hard-of-hearing users, but be a benefit for everyone. Sometimes your users might be in a situation where they’d require subtitles for other reasons. Maybe to help them focus, to fully understand the video due to language barriers, or simply because they can’t view the video with sound as they forgot their headphones and don’t want to disturb anyone.
The point of accessibility is to attempt to give all users the best experience of your site/store as possible regardless of their circumstances. This means you also need to keep in mind that their current situation can change: injuries, illnesses and slow internet connections can come and go. However, if your users have a bad experience they might not come back.
In any project, the earlier you start considering accessibility, the more cost-effective it will be. Having a clear idea of what should be taken into account, even before the design stage, can help prevent a lot of hiccups. For instance, you should first and foremost focus on your content, and ensure that it is readable and understandable. Your content should be good enough to shine on its own without any of the fancy imagery, styling or web-wizardry magic. Getting a dialogue between the customer (such as a store owner or project manager), designer and developer could speed up the process of creating an accessible site. If either part finds issues with the design or implementation, compromises can be made which all parties agree can help make a site usable.
Note that while you can make a completely WCAG compliant website, there can still be usability issues. One way you can see if your site or store works is to put yourself or a quality assurance tester in your customers’ shoes. To do this you can create personas, or user profiles, which aren’t able-bodied, to help you see things from other perspectives. Therefore you’d be more likely to use keyboard navigation, have the site content read out to you, or use little browser apps to the color settings in your browser to see if the content is still legible.
Also be aware that if you have to use third-party content/applications, ensure they’re as accessible as you’d like your site to be. Your users might not know the difference between an add-on and your site. Luckily, Elastic Path gives you the flexibility to build your store in whatever way you’d like, allowing you to make your site as inclusive as possible. To get started on your accessible eCommerce experience, whether that’s for desktop, mobile or any other internet connected device, sign up for a Elastic Path account.
I touched upon a few conditions above, but there are many more that I’ve been unable to mention in this blog post. Instead, I suggest you read An Alphabet of Accessibility Issues, which can give a better understanding of the conditions out there. Please have a read, and maybe you’ll realize that someone you know might require a little bit more consideration to enjoy your store, site or current, or future, project.
There are also a lot of interesting talks on the subject. I can highly recommend The Velvet Rope by Henny Swan, which focusses on the human element, not the code of it all. The Viking and the Lumberjack have made a video describing how online accessibility would look in the real-world, and also highlights useless real-world accessibility. For those of you who are interested in the more techy things; check out Heydon Pickering’s blog Inclusive Components.
There’s also some good links for seeing things from the perspective of someone with a disability, including this video by Molly Burke which gives you a better understanding of how blind people use technology. Tommy Edison, also known as the Blind Movie Critic, shares how he experiences films. Rikki Poynter explains the importance of close captioning/subtitles and how to add them to YouTube videos. While I have linked specific videos, please have a look at their channels, as they have many other interesting and useful videos.
As it is indeed GAAD today, I’d also like to recommend watching a video about how a blind developer works. I also have a few blog posts worth a read. Such as how Apple have made their technology more accessible, and this post about how one of the most hated fonts can really help people with dyslexia.