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Accessibility: why businesses can’t ignore the purple pound

Apple and Microsoft have embraced inclusive design by building technology from conception to production with all users in mind, (e.g. Microsoft’s Adaptive Controller), and others are now beginning to cater to the different physical needs of their customers – and realise the importance of accessibility.

However, when it comes to online accessibility, many enterprises still have a long way to go to make their products and services more inclusive for those with disabilities.

Across the UK, we’ve seen an increased recognition of the business importance of catering to consumer needs across the whole of society. However, the spending power of disabled consumers – known as the “purple pound” – has been largely disregarded by retailers. From a purely financial perspective, this is a mistake.

With nearly 14 million people living with disabilities in the UK, the importance of digital accessibility goes well beyond legal compliance and will impact the bottom line directly if not addressed.

The power of the purple pound

Research from the accessibility charity Purple found UK businesses that ignore the needs of disabled people (and their collective online spending power of over ÂŁ16 billion) lose an estimated ÂŁ2 billion a month.

With more and more transactions taking place online, UK businesses are failing to provide the adequate digital infrastructure to ensure that all shoppers can have a friction-free shopping experience.

According to the charity, more than 75% of disabled shoppers and their families have walked away from a purchase due to inaccessible websites, representing 43 million potential customers. In the current economic climate, this is a loss that struggling UK retailers cannot afford.

However, despite the clear business incentives, it can be easy for CEOs and C-Suite execs to feel as though accessibility goes well beyond their remit. We are far from achieving a fully accessible society, and with disabled citizens experiencing a range of obstacles across all aspects of life it can seem as though increasing accessibility is an impossible task.

However, with strong leadership, businesses can help to set standards which improve the lives of those living with disabilities across the world. By taking responsibility for improving something as simple as their website layout, companies can demonstrate a care and consideration for their customers whilst gaining a considerable financial advantage over their competitors. Catalysing meaningful change doesn’t have to involve overhauling the entire business model – sometimes it’s the smallest things which have the greatest effect.

Creating meaningful change begins with small adjustments

To demonstrate this, we can look at the example of purchasing concert tickets online. Many of us will have at one point woken up ridiculously early to purchase tickets, navigating through a complex online system of dates, venues, seating options, and payment security checks. It’s often the case that the checkout process is timed, resulting in a frenzied dash to secure the best seats. This process is stressful enough, without factoring in the myriad challenges that come with accessing the service as a disabled customer.

For visually impaired users messy formats, confusing links, and a reliance on imagery can create a highly challenging environment, whilst customers with reduced motor function may struggle to fill in personal details within the allotted time frame. A moment which should provoke excitement can cause considerable distress for disabled users, resulting in the loss of sales and more importantly, in a missed social experience for the user.

To prevent these kinds of situations, online design should always be approached with accessibility at the forefront. Not only does it improve the overall experience for all customers, but it’s vital for creating an inclusive model.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines should provide the basis for all web design decisions, and the guidelines outline four key principles which all websites should aim to adhere to. Websites should be: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust, or POUR compliant. This includes making sure that each image on the website has an accompanying description that can be read by a screen reader, ensuring that background colours and text can be read by those with visual impairments, as well as providing accessible options for checkouts.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines should provide the basis for all web design decisions, and the guidelines outline four key principles which all websites should aim to adhere to. Websites should be: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust, or POUR compliant. This includes making sure that each image on the website has an accompanying description that can be read by a screen reader, ensuring that background colours and text can be read by those with visual impairments, as well as providing accessible options for checkouts.

A human-centric approach to online accessibility

By following these simple guidelines, businesses can make a huge difference to how disabled customers experience their online offering. However, if you are truly committed to designing with accessibility in mind, it may be necessary to go beyond the Web Content guidelines.

Many of the problems that disabled users experience are not borne from anything malicious – it’s simply that designers have not stopped to consider how people with differing needs access their products. This problem can be largely mitigated by involving human testers from the very first moments of design conceptualisation, through to the deployment of the customer-facing end product.

Utilising crowd testers with different requirements, whether it’s visual impairment, motor function, or speech difficulties allows designers to hear first-hand how their decisions impact real customers, whilst gleaming valuable insights which might have otherwise remained elusive.

The importance of a human-centric approach to testing is also critical when it comes to developing the voice applications which are invaluable to disabled users. The pitfalls of voice are well known; struggles with regional accents, difficulty understanding non-native speakers, and comprehension issues can all be annoying. But when it’s a consumer’s only means of accessing a service, good design can be the difference between creating lasting customer loyalty and total abandonment.

Designers should make sure to involve human testers with a variety of needs throughout the development process, responding to feedback and integrating suggested changes into the core model. Beginning this process early not only saves money and time later down the line, but it’s also vital to creating a product with the capacity to reach as many customers as possible.

Creating a truly accessible online experience goes far beyond a virtue signalling exercise for businesses. It allows companies to attract a huge but largely uncatered to section of society with considerable spending power, while also refocusing the spotlight on the most important player for any company – the customer.

Ultimately, any businesses looking to secure a healthy, profitable future should make accessibility a priority now.

This is an excerpt from ‘Accessibility: why businesses can’t ignore the purple pound’

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