- A lack of inclusivity restricts access to digital public services and can increase social isolation.
- Government and industry sectors are showing increasing awareness of the need to provide full digital accessibility.
- Compliance is often the major driver, though sometimes at the expense of a user-first approach.
The internet might have the potential to be history’s greatest equaliser but when it comes to inclusivity it still has a long way to go.
In the past, government and businesses have failed to design online offerings that consider the needs and preferences of all users, such as those with vision or hearing impairments as well as those with cognitive or learning difficulties. When services aren’t inclusive and don’t consider these needs, it restricts access to essential public services, drives home existing disadvantages and can make social isolation worse.
The Australian government has been making a major move towards improving digital accessibility for the self-service citizen. This started in June 2010 with the release of the Web Accessibility National Transition Strategy to improve the accessibility of government’s digital experiences by December 2014. This is now being replaced by the draft Digital Service Standard, a set of benchmarks to ensure that online channels are designed with the user in mind. This is supported by the Digital Service Design Guide, which incorporates important guidelines for putting digital inclusivity into practice, including tips for identifying users that require online assistance, strategies for making content more accessible and a framework for maintaining these principles down the track.
Whether you’re a government agency or a business, it’s difficult to put your accessibility ambitions into practice without a clear understanding of the best steps to take. Here are three strategies for creating an online experience that addresses a diverse range of user requirements:
Consider the needs of every user
The last few years have seen certain industry sectors within Australia increasingly address digital accessibility, aiming to improve access for the one in five Australians with some form of disability. Yet many businesses have approached accessibility from a compliance point of view rather than a user-centred one, which can lead to their efforts falling short for some users – despite best intentions.
Compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0) is a great place to start but organisations need to acknowledge that user needs can’t all fit neatly into a set of guidelines. For instance, WCAG 2.0 is known for its shortcomings for users with low vision or cognitive impairment.
Although well-structured and semantically meaningful content can make it easier for people who are blind and use screen readers to access content, these features are irrelevant if you’re one of the 246 million users with low vision around the world.
According to a September 2015 article by Creative Bloq, designing websites to ensure related elements are grouped in close proximity (a practice addressing the fact that low vision viewers can only see about 12.5% of the screen) and incorporating functions such as word wrapping, which allows content to naturally flow in a single column when users increase fonts to a readable size, can ensure that your website is accessible to a wider percentage of the population.
By the same token, people with cognitive impairments and learning difficulties such as dyslexia are often left out of a WCAG-centric equation. But small steps such as adding text descriptions alongside images and writing content in Plain English can make a big difference when it comes to making your offering accessible.
By acknowledging that everyone is different and taking a user-first approach that is supported by guidelines such as WCAG, it is possible to create more inclusive and delightful experiences.
Integrate accessibility into a service or product lifecycle
It’s essential to remember that digital accessibility shouldn’t be something that’s bolted on after you’ve conceived your service or product but instead should play a starring role from inception and research to launch.
In 2010, the British Standards Institute conceived the Web Accessibility Code of Practice to make accessibility ‘business as usual’ and define a process for embedding requirements into all stages of production and development.
In November 2014, Coles witnessed the consequences of failing to make accessibility central to its online strategy. The supermarket giant attracted a lawsuit when legally blind customer Gisele Mesnage found herself locked out of Coles’ online shopping services after a new website upgrade didn’t address her requirements.
What’s interesting is that 2008 and 2012, Mesnage had worked with Coles to improve the accessibility of its online shopping experience for screen reader users. The upgrade in 2013 which served to decrease it again highlights the importance of governance, policy and process in ensuring that accessibility is included for all digital products, existing and new.
That landmark case should serve as a call to action for corporations to put accessibility front and centre of their online evolution.
Enable an accessible user journey
Making the beginning of your user journey accessible is pointless if your customers are restricted at any stage of their interactions with your brand. That’s why taking a holistic approach to accessibility and anticipating the problems that users may face as they move between online and offline touchpoints can help you identify potential issues before they unfold.
With the ageing population, older users may also require assistance with their digital interactions as ‘digital first’ becomes the priority for many organisations. The concept of assisted digital is a core design principle within the Digital Service Design Guide. It shows how businesses can identify customers that require assisted digital services, and understand the best way to provide assistance using online and offline touchpoints.
Finally, part of making your digital offering more accessible to customers means incorporating an effective feedback process that allows problems to be resolved quickly and with sensitivity – proving that it’s never too late for businesses to play their part in creating a more inclusive future.
With thanks to Sarah Pulis, Head of Accessibility Services, and Ruth Ellison, Principal UX Designer, The Experience Centre, PwC Digital Services.