In light of Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) (21 May 2020) and, at a time where digital products are very much in the spotlight, we’re digging deep into digital accessibility to better understand how we, as product managers, can improve our digital products.
- Digital accessibility is about making sure a product can be used by as many people as possible
- Despite there being helpful guidelines to follow, accessibility is often confused with usability and inclusion
- Good accessibility includes things like clean and simple page layouts, straightforward use of language, options for audio description and closed captions on video, but that’s only the start
- To reach WCAG 2.0 AA (a set of accessibility recommendations), you need to pass 38 individual checkpoints (not including anything mobile)
- Building for accessibility is important, it enhances your brand, drives innovation, and reduces legal and financial risk
- Aside from best practice, better business, and a better society, the other reason to keep accessibility top of mind is the law
Time to up your accessibility game?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability. And while much of our physical world has been improved to support their needs, now, more than ever, there’s still plenty of work to be done to provide that same level of focus in the digital world.
Jonathan Hassell, Founder and CEO of Hassell Inclusion, is a highly experienced digital usability and accessibility practitioner. In recent weeks, his team has received lots of inquiries from organisations that are feeling pressured to improve their digital products quickly while, at the same time, adhering to accessibility standards.
He comments: “Right now, everyone thinks that digital is going to come out of the COVID pandemic very well, and so many of our clients are saying their digital product roadmaps have been accelerated. At the same time, they want to be sure that accessibility doesn’t get forgotten.”
So, if like many of these people, you’re feeling the pressure to up your accessibility game. Or, if you simply want to ensure you’re getting it right, this guide will explore:
- What is Digital Accessibility?
- Accessibility and Your Product
- Why Build for Accessibility
- Complying With the Law
- Accessibility Guidelines
- Further Reading and Resources
What is Digital Accessibility?
When accessibility is applied to the physical world, we recognise it in features such as wheelchair ramps, disabled parking spaces, Braille, and public restrooms designed to accommodate different mobility needs.
In the digital world, accessibility is about making sure a product can be used by as much of the population as possible, including those with physical, sensory, and cognitive impairments. So, as the ability to use digital products becomes a necessity in our modern-day lives, it’s imperative we ensure that a diverse set of customers can use our products.
This may sound straightforward enough, however, accessibility can be interpreted differently and is sometimes confused with usability and inclusion.
As explained on W3C, the Web Accessibility Initiative website, these three things are different and closely overlap.
In terms of digital products:
- Accessibility: means that users with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with a product, without restriction
- Usability: means that products are designed to be effective, efficient, and satisfying. This includes UX design
- Inclusion: is about diversity and ensures the involvement of everyone to the greatest extent possible (this can also be referred to as ‘universal design’ or ‘design for all’)
Accessibility or Usability?
Although the W3C’s WCAG guidelines, and other accessibility guidelines, provide definitions for accessibility, usability and inclusion, it seems some businesses are confused about their interpretation. In the course of researching this guide, we found that some think digital accessibility means simply making multiple digital channels available to customers while others described usability instead of accessibility.
But accessibility is more about inclusiveness and including vision, hearing, mobility and cognition impairments when building a product.
Aly Blenkin, co-founder and director of Pivotal Act, an initiative focused on helping non-profits design and build technology to address pressing social and environmental challenges, comments: “Usability purely falls into the category of ‘are they able to complete a task from A to B’ but accessibility is a broader look at how and where people use these products.”
What Good Accessibility Looks Like
At a glance, many accessibility features can be seen on websites or apps. For example, clean and simple page layouts, straightforward use of language, options for audio description and closed captions on video, good colour contrast, the ability to increase font size, or change the colours on the page.
Take Facebook’s accessibility features, for example. They include an automatic photo description tool to describe objects in photos and facial recognition to help people with vision loss to learn more about who’s in their photos, while closed captioning is in place to help those with hearing impairments.
Voice AI services also have to ensure that people with accessibility needs can control their devices. For Google Home, this means voice control to enable general use, to make calls to friends and family, and to access entertainment such as music, podcasts and films. For Alexa, there is a range of features to support accessibility needs related to vision, hearing, mobility, and speech.
Language, culture and technology constraints should be considered too. Even time can play a part as it may be that users can only access a service at a specific time of day or night, or require customer support at a time outside of normal business hours.
Banks like NatWest and Capital One tackle the issue of time accessibility by incorporating self-service options, chatbots, and automation into their products so that they are available day and night. Natwest uses a combination of all three to help their customers; it has self-service FAQ sections, and questions that require further assistance can go to Natwest’s chatbot, Cora for more, automated responses. The customer can also speak to a bank employee in the same web chat portal. Capital One customers can text the bank’s contextual chatbot, Eno 24/7 via website, mobile app or SMS to check their balance and transactions, or to report card trouble.
But there’s even more going on beneath the surface of the most accessible products, such as compatibility with assistive technologies and functionality allowing users to navigate through websites using only a keyboard.
What this all means is that, when it comes to accessibility, there’s no quick fix.
Accessibility and Your Product
Fire up a Google search on your mission to accessibility greatness and you’ll find no shortage of articles that have tried to simplify the W3C WCAG guidelines into the ‘top 10 ways…’ or ‘5 simple steps to improve accessibility’. Some tackle design, others cater for developers but, as a product manager, where do you begin? What should you tackle first?
Jonathan explains, there’s no clear-cut answer to this question.
“Really, this depends on what answer you’re looking for,” he says. “To reach WCAG 2.0 AA you need to pass 38 individual checkpoints and that’s not even including anything mobile. So, if you’re asking on behalf of a developer or a designer, ‘if I should do one thing first, which thing should I do?’ you’re asking the wrong question because, unfortunately, if you don’t get all 38 right, and you get sued, you’ll probably lose.”
Sadly, Jonathan’s not wrong. Accessibility lawsuits are increasing year on year. In fact, UseableNet’s 2019 midyear update on ADA Website and Mobile App Accessibility indicates that in 2019, there was a web-related lawsuit every working hour.
So, instead of asking which parts of the checklist to tick off first, he recommends that product managers would do better to ask two killer questions:
- Is my team any good at accessibility?
- What’s right for my product?
“First you need to be asking the questions that will tell you if your team understands accessibility, or if they don’t have the foggiest idea.” he says, “because, as a product manager you won’t be the person doing any of the coding or content creation where these things will need to be applied.”
This is pretty good advice if you’re in the process of hiring too. Is the person you might potentially add to your team armed with an understanding of accessibility? If you don’t know the answer, it’s certainly worth asking the question.
Jonathan says it’s a good idea to also check their knowledge with a capability survey: “We’ve found many people have done a bit of accessibility training online or on the job. But it often hasn’t given them enough skills to really get things right, so we’ve developed quick ways of helping product managers make sure.”
The second question is about understanding accessibility and your product, how the two work together, and what’s most important for your users.
Jonathan provides an example:
“About 22% of the UK population have a disability,” he says, “that’s around 14 million people, and of those people, around about 360,000 are blind. So, if your product is a blog site, sure, things such as readability and alt-text may be the most important for you to consider. Get that right, and you’ve just helped 360,000 people. If, on the other hand, your product is a site made up predominantly of video content, getting captions in place for 11 million people with a hearing difficulty might be the best thing to invest in, before considering audio description for blind people.”
He suggests you set aside 10 minutes later to take a look at the straight-up advice of product professional, Asomi Ithia, in his blog post: Accessibility and inclusion – guiding points for product people. It won’t give you the definitive guide, or even “how to” steps on everything you need to know, but it will give you further ideas on approaching accessibility as a product manager.
In fact, Asomi strips it back to the three things you can do to better manage accessibility on your product:
- Audit your product
- Develop the benefits case for accessibility
- Create an accessibility strategy
Why Build for Accessibility?
As Mind the Product’s own Chief of Staff, Emily Tate once said, “building accessible products is the right thing to do, just do it!” and, like Jonathan above, she’s also not wrong. As product managers, we have a responsibility to make our products usable for as diverse a set of customers as possible and we should want to do that. But, there are many other reasons to make accessibility a priority.
Inevitably, accessibility makes your product more inclusive and intuitive for all users, something all products need to be. If not, your customers will likely flock to a competitor that has it covered. For many organisations, this could provide a key differential for millions of loyal customers.
What’s more, building for accessibility:
- Enhances your brand
- Drives innovation
- Reduces legal and financial risk
Then there are adoption rates to consider.
As previously mentioned, 15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability – that’s about a billion people. The UK government website suggests that one in five people in the UK have a long-term illness or some form of impairment, which is a considerable size of the population. In the US, the percentage is very similar.
People with disabilities represent $1.2 trillion in annual disposable income, according to a study from the ILO Global Business and Disability Network, and 69% of disabled customers with access needs will click away from a website that they find difficult to use, according to 2019’s Click-Away Pound survey, which looks at the online shopping experience of customers with disabilities, and the cost to business of ignoring them. As societies age, this market for accessible goods and services will undoubtedly increase.
In addition, as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown, more older customers – who previously wouldn’t have chosen to go online – are now looking to access digital products and services.
In fact, most of the people currently seeking Jonathan’s advice are not primarily seeking it to improve accessibility for disabled users but rather for people who are older.
As explained on the W3C site, many older people find it harder to use digital products as a result of age-related impairments including declining:
- Vision (reduced contrast sensitivity, colour perception, and near-focus)
- Physical ability (reduced dexterity and fine motor control)
- Hearing (difficulty hearing higher-pitched sounds and separating sounds – especially when there’s background music)
- Cognitive ability (reduced short-term memory, difficulty concentrating, and being easily distracted)
Right now, he says, there are potentially millions of older people who need to use digital products. Users who, previously, wouldn’t have given your product the time of day and this, he says, presents an enormous opportunity.
“Previously, older people often preferred not to do their shopping or communication digitally. But now they may have to, to protect their health. And actually, those are probably the people who will get out of lockdown slightly slower than everybody else.”
Complying With the Law
Aside from best practice, better business and a better society, the other reason to keep accessibility top of mind is the law.
While every country has its own legislation which differs, in the UK, the relevant legislation is the Equality Act 2010. This requires reasonable adjustment to be made to ensure all individuals can access education, housing, employment, and goods and services like shops, banks, cinemas and hospitals. In the US there is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which prohibits discrimination against disabled persons in the “full and equal enjoyment of public accommodations”.
Much of this legislation was written before the digital era, and so is aimed at physical access, but in the US, lawsuits against digital products have been filed under the ADA.
For instance, the US Supreme Court handed a victory to a blind man who sued Domino’s Pizza over its website’s lack of accessibility. Guillermo Robles sued the pizza chain after he was unable to order food on the website or mobile app, despite using screen-reading software.
Before the 2010 Equality Act came into force, there were a couple of well-publicised prospective legal actions in the UK against companies arising from a website’s lack of accessibility. And while a case like Domino’s Pizza in the US hasn’t yet been reported in the UK in recent years, the law is pretty similar, according to David von Hagen, an employment lawyer at central London law firm Teacher Stern. He says: “The Equality Act 2010 and its precursor, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, impose obligations in relation to the provision of services which are broadly similar to the ADA.”
UK service providers then have a duty to make “reasonable adjustments” to enable disabled persons to access their services. Michael Hatchwell, a partner at Child & Child, comments: “When a business introduces an app to deliver a product, does it also need to ensure the app is fully accessible so everyone is able to use the same service.”
Of course, at the pace we’re often required to work, adhering to standards and guidelines of any kind can be scary. We don’t want to miss something important, or to do anything wrong. Thankfully, there is information available to help meet best-practice accessibility standards. The problem is knowing where to find it, and what information is going to be right for you and your team.
Ask most product managers where to go for accessibility guidelines and, more often than not, like us, they’ll first suggest the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. These are comprehensive, free to access, and are developed in cooperation with individuals and organisations around the world.
Within them, you’ll find separate resources for various groups, including:
All of these can certainly be useful for the relevant members of your team. For example, while working to improve the accessibility of their ride-hailing app in 2018, the team at iTaxi studied the WCAG 2.1 guidelines and were able to find specific information and examples for implementation that helped them through their process (read iTaxi’s case study in full).
If, like the iTaxi team, you can find what you need, you can start putting those guidelines into action. The fact, however remains, that these guidelines contain no resources specifically for product managers.
“These guidelines are very good, but they were written mostly for developers, designers, and content authors,” says Jonathan.
If you’re a designer and need to understand colour contrast, great. If you’re a developer, creating a widget, you’ll most likely find what you need. But, as Jonathan explains, there’s nothing there about the actual management of that process.
As a result, Jonathan led the creation of the ISO 30071-1 Code of practice for creating accessible ICT products and services which was released in May 2019.
ISO 30071-1 replaced the preceding British Standard BS 8878, which provided guidance to non-technical site owners. It was published by the British Standards Institution in 2010.
This code of practice, he says, is not designed as a replacement for standards like WCAG, which do a very good job on the technical, design and testing side of accessibility. Instead, it offers a different angle, helping you, as a product manager, to guide your team and to find the right research on accessibility requirements for a broad range of digital products.
“As someone who owns a website or a mobile app you need to be able to deliver accessibility in a way that fits with your product, your organisation, your software development lifecycle process and your backlog.”
In addition to these and W3C, there are other resources and frameworks built for web accessibility that many product managers have found helpful and are, therefore, not to be discounted. Frameworks like Google Material Design which has accessibility built-in and an easy-to-comprehend guide to accessibility from eBay and WebAIM for anyone who’s just getting started.
What this all means is that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. “The barrier for doing it is quite low,” says Ellie Ereira, co-director of Pivotal Act. “It can be baked in at a story level when you’re developing certain features and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t because all of the information is there, there’s a lot written on it, there’s code for developers, there are material components for designers – it’s just about using it,” she says.
From a purely philanthropic point of view, it behoves all of us to make digital products as accessible to as broad a range of customers as possible. Over a billion people worldwide have additional needs, so it also makes good business sense. And as the world’s population ages (or, as COVID-19 has shown, simply needs to become more digitally savvy!) the accessibility of digital products will only increase in importance.
At Mind the Product, we don’t profess to be perfect. We’re always looking for ways to improve our craft and for our team, this deep-dive has been much more than just content creation. It’s prompted us to look at the accessibility we offer on our site and to make it better. Over the coming weeks and months, and years we’ll continue to assess our product and, if you come across anything you find difficult to use, please let us know by emailing our team at email@example.com.
Further Reading and Resources
- Creating an accessible website for Europe’s oldest eye hospital charity: a Case Study
- Building Accessible Products – Jonathan Hassell on The Product Experience podcast
- Useful Web Accessibility Checks and Tools
- Inclusive Design for Products by Jonathan Hassell
- Building Accessibility into Your Products: Just Do It! By Emily Tate
- Improving the Accessibility of the iTaxi Mobile App: a Case Study