For most of us, surfing the web is relatively easy; there aren’t a lot of barriers, save a good internet connection, to keep us from reading or using a website. But for the 15% of the global population living with a disability, the experience is often filled with obstacles. How is a visitor expected to navigate a website if they can’t use a mouse, listen to a video, or read text and graphics? Many companies don’t take this into consideration, resulting in missed revenue opportunities and costly legal penalties.
Why inclusive design is now a must
More than 60 million adult Americans live with a permanent disability, not to mention all of those who are temporarily disabled due to illness or injury. Wheelchairs and seeing eye dogs may be the first thing we think about when we think about disability, but these extreme cases are a small part of the total. The majority of disabled people have less visible (or even invisible) illnesses that may not be apparent at a glance. And since you can’t see their disabilities, you probably aren’t designing for them. This risks leaving a lot of people behind.
But forefronting inclusive design doesn’t just serve people with disabilities. It improves the experience of all users. You may not realize it, but you’re probably already benefiting from modifications originally designed with accessibility in mind. Curb cuts, created to help people with wheelchairs, come in handy for someone pushing a stroller, riding a bike, or rolling their luggage. Closed captions intended for the hard of hearing also help people who don’t speak the language, have audio processing issues, or need additional clarity.
So if you aren’t already taking accessibility into consideration, you should be. You’re missing out on more than 1 billion potential customers. In the US alone, people with assistive technology devices have purchasing power in excess of $350 billion.
Give your websites a longer lifespan
Outside of the financial (and ethical) imperative to create accessible content, websites built adhering to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) typically have a longer shelf life than those that don’t.
Think about Flash: it once dominated online video and multimedia content. Then, in 2007, the iPhone was released without supporting Flash. After that, the move to HTML5 started in earnest, further accelerated by YouTube’s decision to drop it in 2015. The security risks, lack of mobile compatibility, and the ready availability of replacement options for Flash sealed the deal. Adobe announced the product’s sunset in 2017, and discontinued it in 2020. If your websites were still running Flash in 2020, they had to be completely revamped.
But by using elements of Responsive Web Design (RWD), you can make your site both more accessible and longer-lasting, while also compatible with any device. Since the vast majority of search happens on mobile, it’s vital that your site look good on any sized screen. RWD elements, like grid-based layouts, allow users to resize tables and charts to fit screens sized from 4″ to 42″, while progressive enhancement and/or disclosure (respectively) benefits users with assistive technology or cognitive impairment.
Make your websites easier to maintain
When designers put inclusion first, the result is a more intuitive UI and UX, both of which lead to more conversions. Standard information hierarchies call for more intuitive navigational structures that bring visual order into alignment with reading order. When there are different websites for different devices, they must all be maintained. It’s far cheaper and easier to maintain one code base, and it’s far, far simpler to update in the future.
Google’s algorithm favors responsive websites, ranking them higher in search results. RWD also ensures there is no duplicate content and that redirects aren’t a result of device non-compatibility. The clarity of design that RWD requires can be amplified by smaller changes, too. This includes things like adding tags and metadata to UI elements, using alt-text for images, using descriptive language in hyperlinks, structuring pages to be navigable by cursor or keyboard, and not relying on color to convey meaning. These little choices can have big impacts.
The costs of ignoring accessibility
Inclusive design isn’t just ethically and financially sound. It can also save companies a significant amount in call center costs. An incoming support call can cost anywhere from $5 to $25, but providing an online self-service help center drops the cost of support tickets to a few cents.
Besides improving the bottom line (and making the world a more equitable place), inclusive design can save you from significant legal penalties and fines. For example, 2020 saw a 23% YOY increase in digitally-related ADA cases. A full 20% of those cases were lawsuits against companies that had been sued at least once in the previous two years. In Canada, a 2013 law imposes fines of anywhere from $100,000 to $250,000 per day for failure to adhere to WCAG.
Finally, building inclusive websites and experiences can be incredibly beneficial for brands. Millennials, the largest demographic in the US, want to buy from companies that align with their values. Building inclusive, accessible digital (and physical) spaces will grow your customer pool as well as your brand capital. The goodwill you’ll accrue is likely only to be outpaced by the new revenue you’ll generate.