First Principles First | Optimising for Digital Accessibility is Optimising for Profit

OMI Foundation
8 min readMay 16, 2024

By

and Lubhanshi Jain

According to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), digital accessibility means that websites, tools, and technologies are designed and developed in a way that they can easily be used by persons with disabilities. Many people with disabilities use assistive technologies, such as screen readers, screen magnification softwares, text readers, speech input softwares, and alternative input technologies. But, these technologies can be effective only if they are created to be compatible with assistive technology.

Digital accessibility is crucial for creating an inclusive environment where digital content and technologies are accessible to individuals with disabilities. The importance of digital accessibility cannot be overstated, as it ensures equal access to information and services for everyone, regardless of their abilities. Digital accessibility is not merely a beneficial feature to include; it’s essential for ensuring that all users, especially the 15% of the world’s population who experience some form of disability, can engage with digital content. This translates to about 1 billion people worldwide who could potentially be left behind if accessibility is not considered from the beginning of the development process.

By not embedding accessibility features from the outset, organisations not only risk alienating a significant portion of their audience but also face legal and reputational damages. For example, in 2019, WedAIM conducted an accessibility evaluation of the home pages for the top 1,000,000 web sites. It found that 70% websites contain accessibility issues, which could potentially exclude millions of users who rely on assistive technologies to navigate the web. Additionally, the cost to retrofit an existing digital product (an app or website) is assumed to be as much as ten times the cost to build accessibility from the beginning). Furthermore, research has found that companies that have led on key disability inclusion criteria from 2019 to 2023 have realised: 1.6x more revenue, 2.6x more net income, and 2x more economic profit compared to those who didn’t.

Accessibility standards are crucial for ensuring digital content accessibility, providing a framework for making websites, mobile apps, and digital resources usable for individuals with disabilities. The WCAG 2.2 Core Principles guide developers in creating accessible digital products by introducing the POUR framework elaborated below.

  • Perceivable: Content should be presented in a way that can be perceived by all users, regardless of their sensory abilities
  • Understandable: Language and functionality should be easy to comprehend, ensuring predictability and consistency across the digital resource.
  • Operable: Users should be able to navigate and interact with the digital product using various input methods.
  • Robust: The content should be compatible with different assistive technologies and future-proofed for evolving technologies.

Indian Standards for Accessibility, published by the Bureau of Indian Standards, consolidate global best practices to ensure accessibility for Persons with Disabilities and all end-users, while government initiatives like the Accessible India Campaign and the National Digital Communications Policy also set accessibility standards for digital products in India. These guidelines translate to actionable steps for developers. These steps include, but are not limited to, the following.

  • Alt Text for Images: Adding alternative text to images helps visually impaired users understand visual content. This simple step can make content accessible to nearly 253 million people worldwide who have visual impairments.
  • Keyboard Navigation: Keyboard-only navigation benefits users with motor disabilities. This feature is crucial as it addresses the needs of users who cannot use a mouse due to physical limitations.
  • Colour Contrast: Ensuring high colour contrast meets the needs of users with colour vision deficiencies, which affect approximately 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women globally.

Different Approaches to digital accessibility

Digital accessibility is essential for creating inclusive environments where all users, regardless of their abilities, can access information and services. However, the integration of accessibility into digital products is often delayed and fraught with challenges, both systemic and perceptual, within organisations. A study conducted by Vidhi Legal Research evaluated app accessibility, categorising them based on WCAG success criteria compliance levels, classifying them as “high accessibility,” “moderate accessibility,” or “low accessibility.” The audit revealed common violations across all apps, such as illogical tab order, lack of operability with gesture navigation, insufficient colour contrast, and missing accessible names for elements. Nevertheless, Indian businesses are making efforts towards accessibility by sensitising developers about digital accessibility.

A study in the UK found that ‘making the app usable for everyone’, is a bigger driver for them, compared to ‘legal compliance’. The report also found that more than a third of their respondents shared that merely meeting WCAG standards, doesn’t make an app accessible. There needs to be user testing. This lends a more human lens to accessibility — advocating for digital accessibility as a systemic change, rather than a one-off project. This entails integrating accessibility considerations early and consistently throughout the software development lifecycle. This integration is called Shift Left Approach; in it, accessibility is shifted to the left of the development process. It focuses on starting with accessibility in mind from the very beginning of a project, ensuring that accessibility principles, standards, and best practices are incorporated at every stage of development, from planning and design to development and deployment. This approach aims to prevent defects, reduce rework, improve feedback loops, and deliver faster and better software products by addressing accessibility issues proactively rather than as an afterthought. While a compliance-based approach helps reduce legal risks for a company, the human-lens has significant benefits too.

  1. The goal of a digital accessibility initiative is to provide the same essential experience to all of your website’s visitors. Digital Accessibility also benefits people without disabilities. For example, websites with strong colour contrast ratios might make the website more readable for those who browse websites on smaller screens. Simplifying the checkout process on e-commerce sites aids persons with memory ailments. A more streamlined checkout process may also increase conversion rates.
  2. Ensuring content accessibility is not only beneficial for users with disabilities but also plays a significant role in enhancing Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). Search engines utilise automated bots to crawl and index web pages. Key elements like descriptive page titles, structured headings, bullet points, descriptive hyperlinks, image alt text, and video captions/transcripts are crucial for both accessibility and SEO. Implementing concise page titles, structured headings, and well-marked lists not only aids users in navigating content but also enhances search engine visibility. Additionally, using descriptive hyperlinks and providing image alt text and video captions ensures that content is accessible to a wider audience, including those using assistive technologies. Ultimately, aligning website accessibility with SEO practices can lead to increased brand engagement, improved search engine visibility, and a more inclusive online experience for all users.
  3. Digital Accessibility also helps drive brand loyalty. Digital accessibility not only improves usability and inclusion but also positively impacts brand perception and loyalty. Brands that are perceived as making a positive impact on people’s lives and society tend to generate significantly higher key performance indicators (KPIs) related to purchase intent, repurchase intent, and brand advocacy. In fact, a majority of consumers (63%) prefer to purchase products and services from companies that stand for a purpose or align with their own values. By prioritising accessibility and demonstrating a commitment to inclusivity, businesses can enhance their brand reputation, foster stronger connections with customers, and ultimately drive long-term loyalty and advocacy. Investing in accessible design is not only the right thing to do but also a strategic move that can yield tangible benefits for a brand’s image and bottom line.

The following case examples provide some evidence to the merits of Digital Accessibility.

NHS Digital Overhaul: Transforming User Experience through Accessibility

The National Health Service (NHS) serves the entire population of England, Wales, and the Isle of Man. The NHS’s 2016 digital overhaul serves as a prime example of how prioritising accessibility and usability can transform digital platforms, leading to significant improvements in user engagement and traffic. The overhaul focused on making content clearer and interfaces simpler, which made information more accessible and easier to navigate for all users.

Accessibility improvements and their impacts:

  1. Simplified Content and Interfaces: Simpler digital content improves user satisfaction, the NHS’s efforts made crucial information more accessible.
  2. Reduction of PDFs: By decreasing reliance on less accessible PDF formats, the NHS enhanced direct accessibility for visually impaired users.
  3. Removal of Banner Ads: Streamlining the user interface by removing distracting elements like banner ads improved navigability, particularly benefiting users with cognitive and visual impairments.
  4. Increased AAA Accessibility Ratings: Achieving a 98% AAA accessibility rating underscored the NHS’s commitment to inclusivity, broadening its user base and enhancing user interactions.
  5. Impressive Results from the NHS’s Focus on Digital Accessibility:
    Increased Daily Users: Daily user numbers soared from 15,000 to 26,000, indicating the effectiveness of improved accessibility features in attracting a wider audience.
    Reduced Average Time Spent on Pages: A reduction in time spent on pages, despite more daily users, suggests enhanced efficiency in finding information due to improved usability.

Tesco’s Digital Accessibility Overhaul with Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB)

Tesco, the UK’s largest supermarket chain, recognized the importance of inclusivity and accessibility in its online grocery service. Partnering with the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), Tesco aimed to enhance the digital experience for customers with visual impairments. Tesco’s commitment to digital accessibility not only improved the experience for customers with visual impairments but also drove substantial business growth. The collaboration with RNIB showcased how inclusive design can benefit all users, emphasising the importance of accessibility in creating a more inclusive and successful online platform.

Accessibility improvements and their impacts

  1. Designing for Accessibility: Tesco prioritised accessibility from the outset, collaborating closely with RNIB to ensure the new website met the needs of blind and partially-sighted shoppers. User testing with over 70 individuals helped tailor the design for maximum accessibility.
  2. Improved Usability for All: The accessibility-focused redesign not only catered to customers with visual impairments but also enhanced the overall user experience. This approach led to significant business benefits, including a remarkable 352% year-on-year growth in online sales and a £13 million increase in annual revenue from online sales. Some of these features include intuitive navigation structure with a faster website that was compatible with screen readers, clear descriptive link text, straightforward language for enhanced comprehension, and optimised images to enhance webpage loading times and overall accessibility.
  3. Driving Inclusive Design: Tesco’s partnership with RNIB exemplified how a focus on digital accessibility can drive inclusive design that benefits all customers. By proactively addressing the needs of customers with disabilities, Tesco created a more inclusive and appealing online experience for a broader audience.

The success stories are testament to the fact that the tech industry needs to shift its perspective on digital accessibility from an optional add-on to a fundamental aspect of product design. This shift involves recognising the broader benefits of accessibility, such as enhanced user satisfaction, increased revenue, which contributes to long-term success and sustainability. Innovative practices, broader stakeholder engagement, and a commitment to continuous improvement in accessibility can transform these challenges into opportunities for growth and enhancement of user experience. By prioritising accessibility, companies can not only meet legal and ethical standards but also tap into a wider market of users, thereby driving innovation and inclusivity in the digital world. This shift not only mitigates the risks associated with ignoring accessibility but also capitalises on the opportunity to lead in a market that increasingly values inclusivity and corporate responsibility. In doing so, companies can achieve a competitive advantage while championing a cause that enhances the digital experience for all users.

ABOUT FIRST PRINCIPLES FIRST: First Principles First is a series by OMI Foundation that explores the underlying principles that shape our understanding of mobility and its impact on our lives. This is OMI Foundation’s endeavour to navigate the complexities of mobility through the clarity of first principles.

EDITORS: Apoorv Kulkarni, Head of Research; and Head of the Centre for Inclusive Mobility, OMI Foundation

SUGGESTED CITATION: Arora, J, Jain L (2024, May). Clicking with Everyone — the case for digital accessibility. OMI Foundation

DISCLAIMER: OMI Foundation nor any party associated with this article will be liable for any loss or damage incurred by the use of this study. © OMI Foundation.

Copyright © 2024 OMI Foundation Trust

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