In their blog post dispensing web accessibility myths, Nomensa UX design experts estimate that 10% of the world’s population has a disability affecting their internet use.
This corresponds to a potential worldwide population of accessibility-compromised web users of somewhere in the region of 700 million. That’s a pretty strong argument for designing for inclusion: few retailers can afford to exclude such a sizeable chunk of their potential customers.
Some retailers may have an audience with more accessibility challenges than others. That may be the case if you’re catering to an older segment of the population, as these users may be more likely to have accessibility needs.
Japanese retail store Mitsukoshi implemented a web accessibility project that made improving the experience of older web users a key priority. This improvement in site accessibility for older users contributed to a 45% increase in online sales over the course of a year.
Accessibility isn’t just about catering to users with physical impairments. Building accessible websites is also important for catering to the wide range of internet-ready devices and connection speeds of your users.
Many internet users in emerging markets will be facing much slower connection speeds than are taken for granted elsewhere. Facebook recently launched an initiative in their offices to enable their staff to try browsing the internet using the average connection speed of the average emerging market. Those that try the different speed connection often report shock that their own product seems to be broken when accessed on this slower connection.
What web accessibility means
Web accessibility is usually understood to mean ensuring that web users with disabilities can understand, use and contribute to the web. This includes a wide range of potential physical limitations including visual, auditory, cognitive and neurological disabilities.
In addition, accessibility issues also relate to older users who have their own specific access needs, such as larger font sizes. Web accessibility principles can also benefit other web users such as those that have different needs or preferences, including slow connection speeds or unusual technology such as older or very obscure web browsers.
In countries including the UK, legislation relating to discrimination is applicable to web accessibility cases. This means there is a legal imperative to ensure your web services are accessible to all. Apart from the legal cost risk of being found in non-compliance, web accessibility supports profitability.
Accessible websites are open to a wider audience, and tend to be easier for everyone to use – not just those with impairments.
It certainly supports SEO, as search engines such as Google favour websites with accessible features.
Designing for accessibility
It’s important to dispel the myth that designing for accessibility means abandoning web aesthetics. Accessible sites certainly don’t have to be text-only. You can still use colour (just don’t make it the only navigation guide) and content needn’t be totally static. It’s also fine to have a lot of images – provided the user is always given a detailed description of each image in the alt text.
Colour can support usability and accessibility of a website but it’s important to bear in mind that some users have difficulty perceiving colour, or may be using a text-only browser.
This means that you need to ensure any information conveyed using colour is also expressed in another way. For example, if you have an accommodation booking website which features a calendar of availability then you need to use more than just colour to indicate which dates are available.
Designing for emerging markets
Developing countries tend to face issues such as using less sophisticated technology to access the internet and slower connection speeds. Chinese web users are notorious for using old browsers such as early versions of Internet Explorer. Web users across Africa face some of the slowest connection speeds in the world.
If you’re addressing the needs of users with slow connectivity, you’ll want to do things such as add alt text to images (which you should be doing anyway for SEO reasons) and other non-text objects such as video. This means visitors to your site who may have disabled images and multimedia can still understand it. Also cache any pages or sections of your site that don’t update very often. You can also make a lightweight version of your site suitable for those on low-bandwidth.
Language and web accessibility
Language is an additional issue to consider when it comes to web accessibility and participation. This blog has previously looked into the benefits of offering content in the user’s preferred language. When you’re offering a multi-lingual website, there are a few ways to build the site to cater to users with accessibility issues.
The website’s language needs to be identified in the code. This is because the so-called ‘assistive technologies’ that enable users to interact with your site (such as screen readers) need to be told what language your content is in. If your site is available in more than one language, there are ways to communicate this to assistive technology devices using the ‘hreflang‘ HTML attribute.
You’ll also need to indicate to the assistive technology which direction the language is written in. This is important if your site features languages that read in different directions to left-to-right. Left-to-right languages such as English are the default, so you need to specify if using a right-to-left one such as Arabic.
It’s also important to choose the right character encoding for your site, as this will render the essential characters of most languages effectively.
‘Unicode’ is usually a sensible choice as this character encoding caters to many world languages. Remember also that font size may need to change to accommodate different languages. Complex Chinese characters may also be illegible at small magnifications.
Your business cannot afford to overlook accessibility issues either at home or abroad. Some of the accessibility issues you face in new markets may be unfamiliar to you, however improving web accessibility generally delivers SEO benefits as well as making the site more usable for all its visitors.
The impact of rapidly ageing populations in many of the world’s advanced nations means that ensuring your website conforms to the W3C’s accessibility guidelines is likely to become even more important in the future.