Creating experiences with inclusivity in mind
by Anne Norman
As marketers, we like to say, "a website should have no dead ends." As technologists, we promote future-ready, performant, feature-rich experiences. But even if you design and develop your site to perfection, your experience could still make someone with a disability feel unwelcome. If that gave you pause to consider how accessible your own experience is, the likely answer is “Not enough.”
As much as 15% of the world’s population has a disability that may prevent them from obtaining equal access to digital content. If you’re not designing and building experiences with accessibility in mind, you’re letting down a significant audience visiting your site. It’s not about targeting a marketing demographic — it’s about doing the right thing.
Let’s explore the digital barriers that exist for people with disabilities and review some tangible ways you can take a more comprehensive approach to supporting all users.
Why accessibility matters
The categorization of a disability includes a broader set of individuals than you may have originally considered. Do you have chronic pain? Do you struggle to pay attention? If yes, you likely meet the CDC’s definition of disability. Disabilities affect one in five U.S. adults and often include problems with sight, motor skills, hearing, or cognitive delays. Many of these individuals access the internet with the help of assistive devices. Welcome to the web accessibility movement.
The idea of making the world more accessible originally stems from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. It later extended to include disability discrimination via the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and now covers the internet and technology as a necessary point of accommodation.
Today, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are commonly recognized as the global standard when it comes to the digital landscape, but there simply isn’t a master list of requirements I can give you and send you on your way. Creating accessible experiences goes far beyond a one-size-fits-all checklist. (More on this later.)
Empathy is key
While I’m personally passionate about creating inclusivity in digital experiences, I want to point out that I’m not a certified Accessibility expert. Nor do I have a disability. However, I do have one key skill that’s important for everyone — empathy.
As you reflect on the accessibility of your own website, I highly recommend putting yourself in the shoes of someone with a disability to better understand their world. How? Use a screen reader or a voice recognition program for a day. Or simply unplug your mouse and try to navigate your favorite sites. These experiences will hopefully give you a more accurate picture of the difficulties facing someone with a disability.
You can’t afford to overlook accessibility
Still not convinced why it’s important to create inclusive experiences? Not only is prioritizing accessibility the right thing to do, it’s also a wise financial move:
- You risk losing potential customers if your website doesn’t accommodate users with disabilities. After all, your competition is only a click away.
- There are legal and financial penalties for non-compliance.
Now that we’ve explored several factors driving the accessibility movement, let’s break down how we can make it happen.
Keeping up with standards and requirements
Our customers often ask us to design a website that meets accessibility standards or includes compliance principles. In these situations, we guide our efforts following the WCAG’s four pillars:
- Perceivable: This supports users who have difficulty with the senses of sight, sound, and/or touch — making them reliant on assistive technology.
- Operable: Making a site operable for users with motor difficulties includes allowing alternative interactions (like a keyboard), eliminating time limits, and assisting with navigation.
- Understandable: To ensure understanding, sites must be consistent, functionally clear, and instructive or explanatory to account for complexity.
- Robust: Finally, the site experience must be reliable to support recognized standards (like semantic HTML and CSS) that third-party browsers and screen readers can access without issue.
Horizontal has extensive experience in highly regulated industries where compliance and regulatory guidelines can extend beyond accessibility. In fact, we recently designed and launched a new website for First Tech Federal Credit Union with a 97% ADA Compliance Score — 28% above the financial industry average.
Every organization is different — and customizing specifications to your business is an important part of the process. Your roadmap also needs to be mindful of the fact that standards are always evolving. To successfully maintain compliant sites, flexibility and governance are key. WCAG 3.0 has been released in a working draft as recently as January 2021.
Design and build with inclusivity in mind
Becoming aware of the standards and tailoring requirements to your organization is just the beginning. Keep in mind — a compliant solution is just the bare minimum to adhere to legal compliance. Those looking to go above and beyond incorporate accessibility guidelines into their core operations, changing how they work across teams and functional areas. At an organization-wide level, this ensures compliance considerations are always at the forefront every step of the way.
To take it even further, teams that pursue an inclusive design approach embrace human diversity as a focal point to learn from, account for, and include as a part of the process. This can be achieved by putting real users and their needs at the center of your strategies and execution.
For example, if you’re beginning a broader strategy or design effort, an inclusive approach may include focus groups, contextual interviews, and/or usability testing for real-time user feedback that includes representative participants from a diverse user set. To learn more, Microsoft has a great source highlighting inclusive design principles, activities, and toolkits.
Step by step: Improving your existing site
Looking to make incremental improvements to your existing site? Start by outlining your organizational objectives and requirements for creating accessible experiences. Then, assess the current-state solution against its ability to meet these goals. (You can use third-party products to help benchmark and audit your experiences such as Siteimprove.) Your results can help balance brand and technical requirements while prioritizing how to improve accessibility over time.
Like any digital effort, it’s never “done.” At Horizontal, we recommend developing your process to keep accessibility at the forefront of your ongoing site enhancements, test strategies, and governance.
The right platform is a game changer
Product and platform innovation continues to make it easier to create accessible and inclusive experiences. As a longstanding Sitecore Platinum partner and a member of the advisory council in both North America and MEA, we’ve watched their product roadmap develop to include more compliance capabilities out-of-the-box.
For instance, Sitecore SXA provides keyboard navigation capabilities, the ability to skip links, and a built-in validation engine to enforce accessibility standards for alternative engagement and usability. SXA also supports WAI/ARIA standards for creating content with a minimum WCAG rating. We anticipate Sitecore and other software companies will continue to invest in compliance-ready product advancements that meet the defined standards and support the growing public demand.
Final thoughts on inclusivity
At Horizontal, our Experience-Forward philosophy puts users and their needs at the center of how we design and build digital experiences. This approach sets a high bar and forever changes the way we perceive what digital should be and how it should feel.
Taking accessibility and inclusivity into consideration is no different. It’s not a single feature you can activate or an item in your backlog you can mark as complete. It’s not a problem for one team to solve. For companies that want to get it right, it requires a fundamental shift in approach. It’s the human-centered inclusiveness that results in experiences that truly meet the needs of all users.