What do Beyonce, Domino’s Pizza, Match.com and the Bank of America all have in common?
Answer: They have all fallen foul of the ADA (American Disability Act) over their standards of website accessibility.
ADA and the “Standards for Accessible Design”
The ADA act is an American civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life. ADA’s “Standards for Accessible Design” requires that all electronic and information technology must be accessible to people with disabilities.
Legislation like this in the US and around the world is increasingly enshrining the internationally developed Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) into law, meaning that fines and other penalties are a pressing reality for every digital brand.
ADA in action
The lawsuit filed against Beyonce’s company stated that the inaccessibility of their website prevented visually-impaired people from:
‘learning about the artist and her music, learning about tours, buying tickets, buying merchandise, and joining the website to take advantage of other features. And all this was an infringement of their fundamental rights under the law.’
This, and other lawsuits in the US, underlines one thing very clearly, there is a real need here for inclusive website design that serves a diverse and sizable audience who are economically active, enthusiastic consumers and inspiring legislative change that reflects their needs and rights.
Indeed, current estimates say that 21% of all adults currently require some form of accessibility feature when they are on a website or app, while 73% of disabled customers regularly experience conversion barriers as part of their every day digital experiences. And all this allegedly loses companies £2 billion a month.
A legal requirement and a commercial opportunity
Improving web and app accessibility, then, through implementing best practice is becoming a legal, commercial and reputational necessity.
So how can you avoid the mistakes of so many digital brands and embrace the commercial opportunity presented by improved digital accessibility?
WCAG encourages brands to consider four principles of accessibility in their web and app design, represented by the acronym POUR. In other words web applications should be designed to be:
Perceivable - all users should be able to perceive all elements of a website or app
Operable - a site or app should be fully functional regardless of a users’ impairment
Understandable - sites or apps should be intuitive and predictable in their navigation
Robust - standards-compliant, and designed to function on all appropriate technologies.
So, where did Beyonce (and others) go wrong?
- Alt text is one of the most critical and commonly over-looked elements of accessibility. And it’s one of the ways in which Beyonce’s site came unstuck. Assistive tech requires an accurate text alternative to work out what an image is depicting and communicate that information for users to interpret it. Without the right alt text, those who are visually impaired cannot properly perceive or understand the composition of a site and would not be able to benefit from all of its contents. The SEO opportunities from proper alt text are also considerable, so sorting this out could have been a commercial win for the singer in other ways.
- Drop down menus are a good way of offering multiple options in a space efficient way, but if they can’t be reached using only a keyboard, those customers without a mouse (or who can’t see the text) won’t be able to use them effectively. This was another reason Beyonce’s site failed the accessibility test. It was said visually impaired people could not select different versions of products or use the shopping cart properly on the site, and were effectively prevented from enjoying all its benefits.
- A key principle of accessibility is that navigation is consistent and predictable. Consistency and repeatability in navigation makes it quick and easy for a user to learn how to browse around to get what they want from a site. If links aren’t adequately labeled or don’t function in an intuitive way, it can be difficult or impossible for a customer to use a site as intended and it will fail against WACG guidelines. This wasn’t happening on the Beyonce site. Links are the main navigational features of most web applications, enabling people to move freely around and access all of its promised services. For links to be accessible, they should be clear, readable, visually distinct, color contrast compliant, and keyboard accessible.
- Websites like Beyonce’s which lack clear instructions and labels associated with forms and interactive elements make it difficult or impossible for people with impairments to buy or subscribe to products and services. Being able to use a site as intended without restriction is central to getting accessibility right and clearly is an area where revenue can be impacted. Get this wrong and you could well fall foul of ADA.
Go beyond Beyonce
Designing for visual impairment is just one element of good accessibility and the WACG guidelines share and require best practice for a truly inclusive digital design landscape.
But designing and refining your site to be accessible to everyone regardless of impairments, physical disability or neurodiversity is an ongoing process.
As your site grows and changes over time, regular accessibility testing should be able to show up where your weaknesses lie and give you actionable feedback to implement corrections and improvements.
These structured tests should cover accessibility in the following areas and be conducted by experienced professionals using the full gamut of device and browser types:
- Structure & Layout
- Design & Usability
- Controls & Forms
Sites and apps need to be tested against and be compliant with WCAG 2.0 guidelines, in order to avoid costly and potentially damaging lawsuits. But developing digital solutions that prioritise accessibility, and are able to improve experiences for everyone could make a huge difference to a brand’s impact and influence in the world.
In the current great demographic shift towards an ageing population and a continued migration online for a population empowered by advances in digital, websites and apps have the potential to solve more problems and serve more people than ever before. Accessibility testing can help businesses focus on this potential and profit from it in all kinds of ways.
And that's why everyone building websites and apps, from Beyonce to international banking groups, need to pay attention to the diversity of their audience when it comes to design and testing. As the Head of Digital Accessibility at Barclays' has recently pointed out:
“When we shift our thinking away from the minimum legal compliance to focus instead on the commercial opportunity and the creative challenge of building better experiences for everyone, we create a more sustainable, customer orientated approach to digital information and services.”