Businesses can no longer ignore the importance of web accessibility in a digitalised world

Due to the “baby boom” period in the 1960’s, the average age of Britain’s population is rising, with a particular spike in those aged 50 and over. As a result of this aging population, we’re naturally seeing a rise in those who are living with impairments, as well as those who may struggle to use the Internet as effectively as their younger, more tech-savvy counterparts.   

With this in mind, businesses need to ensure that their online services are easily accessible by all – one mistake seen far too often is businesses assuming that all their customers have the same level of knowledge when it comes to technology. By not making their websites easily accessible to those who are a little older or are perhaps living with an impairment of some description, companies could be missing out on a huge swathe of their potential customer base.   

What is web accessibility and why is it important?   

To create better web accessibility, it’s important to first understand what this term actually means. Simply put, web accessibility is about ensuring that everybody, regardless of age, ability, or impairment, can access and benefit from a company’s online services. It’s essentially an assurance from a business to its customers that no matter what their ability or impairment (whether that’s cognitive, auditory or visual), they will not be discriminated against or prevented from accessing the internet in any way.   

Sounds simple, right? That’s because it is. So, why isn’t every website easily accessible to all? It’s certainly not by choice – why wouldn’t you want to reach as many customers as possible? It usually comes down to common misconceptions about what web accessibility actually means, as well as how difficult it is to implement. Below we take a look at the common misjudgments that businesses often make. 

They only prioritise the minority” 

A common argument that comes up more often than any other is that accessible sites only cater to a small minority. Actually, the complete opposite is true. The whole point of website accessibility is making sure that your online services cater to everybody, giving equal consideration to everyone’s unique needs.    

We have a certain way of handling this here at Sigma, which we find works best for everybody – we adopt the mantra to “design for the 5%”. We do this because this way the websites we design will not only be accessible to those living with impairments, but also for the other 95% of the population. This is especially important given that there are more than 10 million people in the UK who are currently living with impairments according to the Office for National Statistics - a figure which is expected to rise over the next few years. 

They’re Ugly” 

Again, this is simply not true. Honestly, if I had a penny for every time a business tells me “but I thought accessible websites had to look plain and simple?” I could have retired years ago! Those who promote this viewpoint might have had a case 15-20 years ago, when web design tools were a little more limited. But, with modern technology, every good web editor has all the tools and techniques needed to make an accessible website. Good design just takes a little more thoughtfulness. Some great examples of websites which are aesthetically pleasing, as well as being inclusive, include the Papworth Trust and Apple websites. 

They’re expensive and difficult to make” 

While the thought of completely overhauling your company website can be a daunting one, with the right help and assistance, the transition to web accessibility can be a virtually painless one. Admittedly, there will likely be a small upfront cost involved, but I advise looking at this as an investment that will actually save your company money in the long run. Not only are accessible websites cheaper and easier to run, but they will also allow your business to tap into a far larger customer base, increasing both your market share and your long-term profits.   

So how can you make a website more accessible? 

When you’ve never considered it before, it can be difficult to know where to start. However there are simple tips that I always recommend to clients, which can be implemented immediately to start making a website more accessible. It’s important to consider the type of person that may be visiting the website. If your users are … 

Hard of hearing: Ensure that your content is written in plain English, in a logical, readable format. Any audio/video content on your website should be transcribed or subtitled, and always make sure that you’re contactable via email, as these users may prefer not to use the phone.   

Visually impaired: Never rely solely on images or video to get your message across – always include a plain text version which your users can read at their own pace. On this note, it’s also important to not rely solely on colours. If a user has made a mistake when entering data, don’t just mark the field in red as I see a lot of websites do - instead use clear error messages to direct your users on how exactly to correct their error. 

Include all the information on your HTML web page – never hide information behind a separate download. Finally (this is fairly obvious), make sure all your text is in a clearly readable font, with strong contrasts (e.g. black text on a white background) to ensure the text stands out.   

Physically impaired: Where possible, never demand precision from your users. Avoid grouping together small clickable items – opt instead for larger, spaced out interactive areas to ensure your users can navigate around your site without undue difficulty. Websites should also be designed for keyboard or speech only use – never make your users mix the two.   

Autistic – Simplicity is the key here. Stick to simple colour schemes that won’t overstimulate your users. Ensure layouts are consistent, uncluttered and uncomplicated, make use of descriptive buttons wherever possible and keep your language simple and easy to understand. Finally, don’t bombard your users with walls of text - consider breaking down more text-heavy parts of your website into bullet point lists, or into sections separated by headings. 

In the year 2017, web accessibility should be a right, instead of being a privilege for those lucky enough to be in perfect health. As more and more of our everyday products and services become digitalised, ensuring that everybody can access your website has become more important than ever before. Aside from the CSR and equality implications of web accessibility, it even makes perfect sense from a commercial standpoint – if there’s a simple, economically viable way to reach a whole new subsection of potential customers, why wouldn’t you take advantage? We don’t live in the world of Benjamin Button – our population is only going to continue aging, making web accessibility even more of a necessity as time goes on. If there was ever a time to take the plunge and create a more accessible web offering, it’s now.   

Hilary Stephenson, Managing Director of Digital User Experience (UX) agency, Sigma 

Image Credit: Kaspri / Shutterstock