Inclusive design: 8 tips for addressing software accessibility

With more users accessing digital services, it behooves brands to boost the accessibility of their websites and applications for people with disabilities. Here experts offer tips for how to craft inclusive design.

Companies have harnessed human-centered design and design thinking to craft more engaging digital experiences, the better to remain competitive in an era dominated by snazzy websites and slick mobile applications.

But as enterprises embark on this journey many fail to make their products accessible for users with disabilities, thus opening themselves up to risks, including litigation by disabled persons and opportunistic law firms alike, as well as losing out on top tech talent, experts say.

The stakes are high at a time when the coronavirus pandemic sees more people going online and downloading mobile software to transact with brands. Fortunately, companies have a path forward in inclusive design, which incorporates diversity and inclusion (D&I) principles to ensure digital accessibility.

“Inclusive design’s time has come,” says Jonathan Hassell, founder and CEO of Hassell Inclusion, a consultancy that consults brands on inclusive design and digital accessibility. “If you’re a CIO there’s a huge amount to be thinking about.”

What is inclusive design and why does it matter?

Inclusive design strives to take every user of a digital service into account, including those with impaired vision, impaired hearing, and dyslexia, among other disabilities. A more precise way of thinking about inclusive design is that it incorporates the human-centered design approach to building solutions. This starts with cultivating empathy for people for whom the technology is intended, followed by testing those solutions with the intended end users and refining them regularly, according to design firm Ideo.

Most enterprises today claim to practice human-centered design and its first cousin, design-thinking, which integrates the needs of people, technology, and business requirements into the process for building digital solutions. But few organizations include accessibility into their HCD or design-thinking tenets, potentially shutting out a significant number of users, Hassell says.

According to Hassell, in most countries, 20% of the population has some form of disability. Factor in another 20% of people who are over 65 and struggle to access websites and other software because they suffer from a visual, auditory, or cognitive impairment. “If you lose 40 percent of your audience, it doesn’t make business sense,” Hassell says.

The risks of ignoring inclusive design

Apart from being the right thing to do for the people who may interact with your services, inclusive design is critical for mitigating risks. Corporations that don’t account for the accessibility of their digital services court legal liabilities from both disabled users and opportunistic law firms, many of whom can reap up to millions of dollars in fees, says Brent Stewart, a Gartner analyst who researches application design and development.

In the U.S., regulations such as the 1990 U.S. American Disabilities Act (ADA) order businesses to create accessibility accommodations for people with physical disabilities, but these rules don’t technically extend to governing access to digital services, such as websites and mobile software.

“Legally, there is no obligation for companies to make their site accessible,” Stewart says. He notes that the Justice Department in 2017 walked back an earlier promise to institute regulations for website accessibility.

Still, compelling arguments submitting that ecommerce and other digital tools are permanent and necessary parts of society’s infrastructure can sway courts. In one such landmark case, a blind man sued Domino’s Pizza in 2016 after he was unable to order food on the company’s website and mobile app despite using screen-reading software. In 2019, a federal court agreed and the Supreme Court declined to review the case at Domino’s behest, ostensibly opening up the floodgates for similar accessibility suits. Usability testing vendor UsableNet reported more than 2,000 such lawsuits in 2019 and the number is likely to be substantially higher through 2020.

Failing to provide comprehensive digital accessibility courts another risk: Turning off customers who prefer to align themselves with, let alone do business with, brands they perceive as not supporting diversity and inclusion.

"Marketers and brand managers want to be inclusive," says Joel Horwitz, chief product officer of AudioEye, which scans websites and applications for compliance with accessibility. "If brands don't have an accessibility option, people start to question that."

Here is where it gets additionally risky for CIOs in particular: IT leaders could also lose out on top tech talent who shy away from corporations who fail to support the digital accessibility needs of employees and consumers.

The inclusive design playbook

Fortunately, IT leaders have a path to embrace inclusive design and ensure accessibility, according to experts, who offer the following tips.

Create accountability. As CIOs are more focused on high-level strategy, they should appoint a trusted leader to establish corporate accessibility guidelines, Hassell says. Ideally, this person drafts design principles that incorporate accessibility and an accessibility statement to be published on the flagship website that describes the accessibility policy, goals, and accomplishments, Stewart says.

Familiarize yourself with accessibility guidelines. The inclusive design leader should familiarize themselves with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which outlines technical accessibility requirements advising developers on auditory, visual, and cognitive capabilities they should consider as they build websites and other software, Stewart says. These guidelines will help the organization choose an accessibility toolbar that helps websites improve navigation, reading, listening, and general compatibility with assistive technologies, as well as color palettes for users with low vision or color blindness.

Eradicate siloed thinking early and often. As your accessibility team embarks on its journey, it should huddle with the D&I team to strategize on how to build experiences that are inclusive and accessible, Hassell says.

Do your research. Organizations who embrace human-centered design conduct research on target end users. Inclusive design practitioners should be no different, Hassell says. Who will, or is, using a solution and how?

Institute governance. CIOs can create policies to ensure solutions comply with WCAG rules, ideally before solutions go live, but also as they’re updated, Stewart says.

Build products that can adapt and change. Be ready to refine your solutions as new considerations arise, says Horwitz. "There is a lot of room to give the power back to the end user for that digital service," Horwitz says.

Monitor accessibility. Automated software can help identify accessibility issues, but they aren’t 100 percent accurate. Horwitz recommends a hybrid approach that includes manual testing and bug fixes, using screen readers and other assistive technology tools. “This takes education and training, as well as affordable platform tools,” Stewart says. “It’s not an undue burden for a large enterprise.”

Measure performance regularly. Create KPIs for measuring accessibility of digital services, Hassell says. Gauge: “How many people who are using my website now and how are they using it? How is it working for them?”

“The whole premise is: If you do something to appeal to customers and staff and give them a better experience, the more customers you’ll have and the more productive your staff will be,” Hassell says.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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