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Guest Comment: Web accessibility is an online opportunity

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In the wake of US retail giant Target's $6 million settlement with the National Foundation of the Blind (NFB), online retailers have frantically been trying to "tick the web accessibility box", before wiping their brow with a sigh of relief and perhaps giving the situation no further thought.

Disability legislation in the UK is very similar to that in the US, and while no cases have yet gone to court here, rumours abound of companies making out-of-court settlements to avoid negative publicity.

These companies have failed to realise, however, that web accessibility should not be seen as a threat to be avoided, but an opportunity to be seized.

You will probably have heard the kinds of business argument that focus on the importance of avoiding negative publicity: The old adage that the average consumer tells two people about a satisfying product and five about a dissatisfying one, for example. For people with disabilities, Anthony Tusler, a Penngrove consultant on disability and business issues, says "the corresponding numbers are four and nine."

These arguments — while valid — don't do enough to emphasise the underlying business potential of good web accessibility for online retail companies. They reinforce the misconception that accessibility means nothing but the threat of costly lawsuits and lost revenue, without highlighting the fact that simple changes can benefit both individual users and retailers.

The real truth is that companies which maintain accessible websites widen their customer base, win more repeat business and increase sales. Did you know, for example, that if your site closely follows the globally recognised Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) it will probably also rank higher in a Google search?

Many online retailers are — perhaps unknowingly, but nevertheless to their own disadvantage — denying themselves access to large numbers of potentially lucrative customers. There are an estimated 55m people with disabilities in the United States alone, with $220bn of discretionary income to spend. Add to this the many other groups for whom the internet experience is not easy (blind, dyslexic and illiterate users, foreign language speakers, and computer illiterate users such as many elderly people, for example), and it becomes more and more baffling that this huge global market opportunity is often being overlooked simply because of unnecessarily obstructive website design.

You wouldn't build an assault course outside the entrance to your brick and mortar store or apply incomprehensible labels to the products you are selling — why do the equivalent online?

On average, people with disabilities spend more time online than those without, perhaps because it grants them a freedom that they do not always enjoy elsewhere. As IBM's accessibility expert Lynne Brown has stated: "For adults with disabilities who spend a good portion of their day asking for assistance from others, anything that can be done independently is of tremendous value. Providing that value as a retailer can potentially translate into repeat business".

Increasing traffic and engagement has obvious financial benefits for retailers: The more people who visit your website and the longer they stay, the greater your likelihood of making a sale. Search engines like Google also determine a website's quality score based on the amount of time its visitors spend there after clicking through, and then rank it accordingly; longer visit times are made much more likely by a clear and functional site.

Companies should be looking to make their websites as accessible as possible to all users; this is often referred to as "universal design". Providing better access to one minority group almost always directly benefits many others — sloping kerbs on pavements were designed for wheelchair users, but directly help those with buggies or wheeled suitcases, for example. In France an alternative 'easy-to-read' metro map was produced specifically at the request of older travellers, but it quickly replaced the original as it clearly benefited everyone.

Online retailers often spend large amounts of time and money developing "usability" instead of accessibility, not realising that they are related but different issues. The number of steps required to make an online purchase is certainly important to consider, but it is nevertheless completely irrelevant to a user relying on a screen-reader if they cannot navigate the site at all.

Common mistakes that web designers make include forgetting to use Alt-text (the descriptive text that accompanies an image) or misusing it: In Target's case, the retailer overlooked the fact that in some cases their Alt-text was a long series of numbers and computer jargon, making the site unusable for those relying on screen-readers. Sitemaps and content pages are also regularly forgotten, while frames, which are also hard for those using screen-readers to navigate, are sometimes overused.

Internet technology advances rapidly, and the kind of accessibility offerings that online retailers could also consider providing for their customers include website translations, user-designated text size and font controls, or server-based text-to-speech technology, which speech-enables your site for visually-impaired or dyslexic users without requiring them to download or install any special software.

Online retailers need to check their sites for accessibility-specific design flaws, while also reconsidering their websites from the perspective of those who might have trouble using them. All too often, clear content and functionality is needlessly sacrificed for style, at the expense of a large number of users.

Once retailers begin to implement these simple changes, they will realise that the people they are assisting do not want lawsuits and compensation, but the freedom and support to carry out tasks independently. Those retailers who willingly offer assistance above and beyond mere legal compliance will reap the benefits of a wider audience, extra revenue and customer loyalty.

• Paul Ayres is the CEO of Textic, a privately owned computer software company that specialises in the development, marketing and selling of advanced, assistive and creative internet and mobile technologies.
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