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GUEST COMMENT Accessibility will be the next battleground for brands looking to win online – but it won’t be easy

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Boots recently announced that it was partnering with Recite Me to provide a more inclusive online shopping experience, that includes installing an assistive toolbar that has screen reading functionality, multiple reading aids and customisable styling options to support customers who may need additional support when shopping online. This move highlights Boots as a retailer that is prioritising a more inclusive and customisable shopping experience for customers. It knows that there are significant audiences (including the older demographics) for whom accessibility is a real issue. It also knows that search engines reward accessibility features.

Consumers expect more personalised experiences when shopping online and this is nothing new. For years brands have invested in delivering relevant offers and experiences to its target demographics, as well as localising the online experience for global shoppers. To deliver all this, however, brands cannot forget that a solid digital infrastructure is the foundation for success. Retailers and brands aiming to win online need to focus on providing customers with a seamless and simple user experience that can be tailored to both individual needs, and to accessibility. Adopting this is not so simple and brands and retailers need to consider how to find the right balance between form and functionality.

The trade off between form and function

There are huge opportunities for retailers and brands to enhance their websites to cater to different accessibility needs, this can range from features that allows users to switch their account to dyslexic mode, which means the website displays dyslexic-friendly fonts, or the ability to “declutter” webpages, which can help those with impaired sight or anxiety.

Having an accessible and seamless online store is one of the most important factors in helping to create a positive online experience, which in turn has the potential to drive sales and revenues. But delivering to the needs of a specific audience can mean compromising the experience for a majority of users. To put it in stark terms, pages with inspirational and aspirational images help sell products well to the majority, but can exclude those audiences who need uncluttered and simple experiences.

Retailers and brands have had a similar issue over the past few years when dealing with the growth of mobile as an access device. Desktop experiences could afford to offer lush imagery and more complex navigational tools, but on a mobile device simpler visual cues and lighter pages were required. To deal with these conflicting requirements website development tended to follow one of two schools of thought – Adaptive Technology, which assessed what device was accessing content and delivered the relevant version to that device, and Responsive Design which required a website that could automatically adapt to the device properties (usually viewport width) that it was being displayed upon.

In following either of these schools of thought, most relevantly to achieve accessibility requirements, there are essential trade offs. For the responsive approach, there are limitations in designing a system that can adapt, and the requirement to add additional code and affect page weight (and hence page load speed). For the adaptive approach, this relies on the requirement to maintain a number of different versions, which makes it harder to satisfy the demands of mass conversion, accessibility and search engine visibility all at once.

Retailers and brands are still wrestling with how to prioritise form against function, because there is every argument to make your site aesthetically pleasing, and stand out from the competition through interactive or animated elements that can increase dwell time and engagement.

Knowing your audience and having flexibility are the keys to success

Boots knows that one of its key audience segments is older and therefore more likely to require a greater degree of accessibility tools, which makes its adoption of Recite Me technology a no-brainer. The Recite Me technology allows users to set up more accessible experiences for those that need it while having the minimum effect on the remainder.

To utilise these types of tools effectively it is imperative for retailers and brands to use technical stacks that are flexible enough to adapt, and this is often where they run into trouble with rigid and proprietary platform stacks.

Brands and retailers are always looking for ways to make the shopping process easier for the consumer and to deliver the best user experience to their core segments. With more demand for inclusivity within its core segments, Boots is pioneering the shift towards making its platforms more accessible, and more should be encouraged to make the same assessment as them, and where possible and relevant, do the same.

But this is not always a simple task, and brands and retailers will need to wrestle with the trade off between form and functionality. Real customer centricity requires an understanding of this trade off between form and functionality, and finding the right balance between the two.


Justin Biddle, UK Lead at Shopware

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