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Website accessibility – why is it so important?

UX

Creating a functional and pleasing design for your website is no longer enough to attract more users. These days, you must take into account broadly understood usability, which improves the overall satisfaction of website users. However, even if the website is useful, but does not meet accessibility requirements, many people will not be able to use it at all. Thus, in order to extend the reach of your solution, you should increase its accessibility.

What is accessibility and who needs it?

Unfortunately, ensuring website accessibility is still not common practice, even though there are already legal regulations concerning the accessibility of the public sector. Accessibility is usually associated with adapting websites to the needs of people with disabilities. This assumption is only partly correct. It is true that accessibility will particularly benefit the visually impaired, blind, hard of hearing, deaf and people with physical disabilities, but people with color blindness, intellectual disabilities and dyslexia also expect a website to be adapted to accessibility requirements.
It might seem that this group is not large enough to require adjusting your product to their needs, but in Poland alone, there are 3 million people with a confirmed disability, while the true figure is estimated to be between 4 and 7 million people – and it doesn’t end there.

A less obvious group that will definitely benefit from website accessibility is the elderly. We must remember that Internet users are not only young people. It is also worth thinking about people who need only temporary adjustments for random reasons, e.g. someone with a broken arm will have limited motor skills, and a person using their phone in full sunlight will find it difficult to see the screen.

We should therefore assume that a fully accessible website is one that any user who has access to the Internet can navigate.

Why is accessibility so important?

First of all, an accessible product prevents digital exclusion of a large group of users. Although technology in and of itself is designed to remove certain barriers, allowing, among other things, remote contact or remote working, some solutions may be problematic for users if they do not meet accessibility standards.

Creating accessible products is not only about adapting them to the needs of people with disabilities. It also means designing them for generations that use technology every day who in the future will need support with old age. The Internet is no longer only the domain of young people, but also of middle-aged and retired people, who want to use digital solutions without limitations.

What can you gain by adapting your product to accessibility standards?

As I mentioned, many people will benefit from product accessibility. By creating your product to meet accessibility guidelines and standards, you also increase the group of potential customers. At a small cost, you can reach a much larger number of users. If your website does not support users who roam the net using only a keyboard or text readers, it will be simply inaccessible to them and they will be forced to use another one.

Accessibility is also one of the components of usability. This means that a product that complies with accessibility requirements is more useful as accessibility contributes to increasing the quality of the product and customer satisfaction. This applies not only to people who require facilities on a daily basis, but in fact all users.

What’s more, an accessible website must have an appropriate site and code structure, which makes it not only better quality but also easier to maintain later. It can therefore be argued that accessibility improves general product quality.

An additional advantage of adjusting your website to accessibility guidelines is the improvement of its positioning in search engines, which may contribute to a greater number of visits to the website or shop. When creating a website in accordance with accessibility standards, you pay attention to, among others, headers, page titles and alternative texts, which has a positive impact on positioning.

So why isn’t accessibility a common solution and an integral part of the software development process?

First of all, knowledge about accessibility is not yet widespread. To this day, many people have not even heard about practices for improving website accessibility. Not everyone is aware of how many benefits website accessibility brings for a small price. Frequently, the reluctance to make a product accessible is fueled by an expected increase in production costs. However, remember that implementing accessibility measures from the very beginning is much cheaper than subsequently adapting the website to these standards.

There is also a belief that implementing accessibility conflicts with modern and eye-catching design. For your website to be accessible, you must focus, among other things, on appropriate color contrast, which may influence which colors are used on the website. It is worth noting, however, that the quality of the product and the user’s general impressions when using the website do not depend only on its appearance.

Accessibility and legal requirements

For several years now, accessibility has no longer been just an additional or optional functionality; in some cases, it is a legal requirement. In 2019, a new law on ensuring accessibility for people with special needs was introduced in Poland. This law aims to improve living conditions and functionality for citizens with special needs and prevent their marginalization and discrimination. All public sector bodies are obliged to ensure accessibility (not only in the digital aspect, but also in architectural design, as well as in information and communication services). The sector is obliged to ensure at least a minimum level of accessibility through universal design or by improving existing solutions. Public sector bodies that fail to adapt their websites to accessibility standards can face financial penalties. According to the European Parliament and Council Directive of 2016, digital solutions of public entities must be accessible throughout the European Union.

What does accessibility mean in practice?

For a public sector website to be considered accessible, it must meet the requirements of WCAG 2.1 at an AA level. WCAG, or Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, is the most important document related to accessibility. It is a very comprehensive specification describing the guidelines for creating accessible digital products.

You will find tips on how to meet WCAG requirements in my article on tools and good practices in accessibility testing.

 

What typical errors indicate that a website has problems with accessibility?

Typical accessibility mistakes, which we all encounter quite often when using websites, include:

  • Automatic audio playback on the page. This is not only a nuisance for users with disabilities. It can increase the loading time of the website, interfere with the use of a screen reader, and simply be annoying for a user who doesn’t expect any sound when browsing the web. If you have several browser windows open, it’s also difficult to find the source of the sound;
  • Time limit to perform an action. Some users, for various reasons, need more time to perform basic activities. If a time limit is necessary for a particular website, the user should be able to turn the countdown off or extend the limit;
  • Flashing elements, such as advertisements. An element blinking more than 3 times per second may even trigger an epileptic attack. A similar mistake is not giving the user a possibility to pause the animation – animations can not only distract the user but can also be dangerous;
  • No alternative to video and audio material. Not only deaf people are unable to use such materials. They can also be a problem for hearing impaired people who are unable to play audio material in a given situation.
  • Too complicated language. In order to make your website accessible to a wide audience, it is also necessary to check the language in terms of complexity of content and messages. Of course, you adapt the language to the target audience, but when you publish industry-specific content, remember that people who are not familiar with industry-specific jargon will have difficulty understanding it. Another group that benefits from simple and clear language are foreigners learning particular language that the article is written in.
  • Buttons that are too small and hard to press/aim at are a problem not only for people with disabilities but also for the elderly.

What else should you pay attention to?

Nowadays, it is quite popular to equip websites with buttons to zoom in and out, and a color combination switcher (for high-contrast versions). However, remember that this does not solve every problem or mean that the website is accessible.

Summary

The Act on the Accessibility of Websites and Mobile Applications currently only applies to public sector bodies. However, adapting a website to the requirements of people with special needs also brings a lot of benefits to private entities by improving usability and quality, which has a positive impact on the site’s reception by all users. When creating a website, it’s worth considering universal design, which doesn’t significantly increase production costs, but can dramatically broaden the potential audience.

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