Organisations must build accessibility into their digital products from the earliest stage of design to avoid the risk of reputational damage, costly retrofits or even regulatory sanction.
That was the key message from a round-table panel forum on accessibility in web and app design. The event in London, hosted by Inbound Realization, gathered speakers from the testing, technology and financial sectors to identify solutions to ensuring people with disabilities can enjoy the full benefits of digital life.
Without considering diverse users with accessibility requirements, the billion or so people living globally with a disability could be deprived of many opportunities that the internet offers. They could find themselves blocked from vital online services, such as healthcare and financial services, be excluded from social interaction and even feel their independence is being undermined.
Easy access for all is enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as a basic human right and many countries, including Australia, the US and the UK, have encoded accessibility provisions in law.
“Accessibility should not be an afterthought,” Adrian Redden, Digital Accessibility Consultant at global quality assurance specialist Planit, told the audience.
For almost two decades, Planit’s accessibility consultants have tested and ensured the accessibility features and compliance in the digital assets of some of the world’s most recognisable brands.
“Building assistive technology into a product from the earliest stage of its evolution is best practice, from a product management perspective. It will alleviate any issues that might be expensive or time-consuming to retract later,” Redden said.
Mark Hope, Digital Director of Access, a Manchester-based creative and digital agency, echoed Redden’s comments. He is concerned that companies are regarding accessibility in the same way they had the European Union’s GDPR data privacy act of last year, which many overlooked until the last minute. The regulatory and commercial risks of being similarly late to accessibility were too great to ignore, Hope said.
“If your organisation doesn't look at accessibility as a key consideration – now is the time,” he told the panel.
Tamoor Sajad, Executive Advisor for Testing at KPMG in the UK agreed that early-stage inclusion of accessible features was critical, but warned that many organisations – particularly in the financial sector – lacked awareness of that.
“Invest early to avoid all the reputational and regulatory issues that a firm or a bank may face later on,” he said.
Panellists agreed that inclusion of assistive features was not only the right thing to do, but also offered a golden business opportunity.
“Some reasonably sized organisations aren’t necessarily putting it at the heart of what they do – it's an afterthought and that’s a missed opportunity on a number of levels,” said Hope. “When you look at the size of the audience and the size of the commercial opportunities of providing a successful product, you’d have thought there was a stronger business case there.”
Redden reinforced that argument by explaining how accessibility was tied into usability and ensuring inclusion for varied disability personas, including assistive technology users, created better user experiences for all customers. Good user experiences produce happy – and returning – customers, he said.
Hope’s suggestion that companies take a holistic approach to the matter – by making it a core consideration within business operations and ensuring responsibility was spread across different business areas – was welcomed by the panel. Some speakers also strongly argued that any approach should include greater engagement with the very people for whom the features are designed – those with a disability.
Chris Smith, Quality Engineer and Accessibility Guild Chair at Lloyds Banking Group, said the lender had gained valuable insights about its products from the feedback of blind or visually impaired users. But he said that scaling such engagement across the lifecycle of all assets would be a challenge.
“We should go away and look at how to do more of that and not just get to the end of the delivery cycle and think ‘yes we got this covered’ but not know if what we did actually met the customers' needs,” Smith said.
Smith also sees platform and technology change as a challenge for accessibility when it impacts the UI and user experience. “We need to ensure such changes have accessibility at the forefront of our decision making and design choices,” he added.
Sajad similarly stressed that a product’s early interaction with target users was key to creating a fully accessible digital website or app.
“The human-touch user interaction is important because the product will be approached by accessibility users in a different way, according to their needs,” he said.