Accessible Digital Products Benefit Us All

March 16, 2017 | Jen Cyr

Jen Cyr

The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates accessible design in physical spaces. With a complicated patchwork of federal and state regulation governing digital accessibility, including Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, digital design lags behind.

While physical spaces more obviously inhibit or enable access, internet spaces that restrict access (through design ignorance) will often bottleneck basic human activities for people with disabilities. Banking, communicating, shopping, training, conducting business, and today, obsessing about politics, all happen online.

In the digital design world, accessibility refers to making a digital product as usable for as many people as possible, regardless of physical impairment. This could mean increasing color contrast for people with limited vision or creating visual cues for easier use by deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals.

Digital accessibility laws, or lack thereof

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) has volumes of documentation on accessible design for physical spaces—down to the inches of clearance required for pass-through kitchens in public facilities (it’s 40 inches, in case you’re curious).

While some countries (like Canada) have enforced laws governing web accessibility, the US has a wide ranging mix of state-by-state laws which can provide rough guidelines for digital design.

For example: California Civil Code 54.9. It requires any personal information disclosed by an someone checking into a hotel on a touch device (yes, it gets pretty specific) to have the same level of privacy—visually impaired or not.

While there’s no official governing body in the US to legislate accessibility, the Web Accessibility Initiative has developed widely accepted Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), currently in iteration 2.0. These standards help designers, producers, and product owners create accessible experiences. However, the WAI doesn’t police websites or experiences like our Canadian friends do with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) that requires all websites to be fully accessible by 2025.

What’s at stake when we leave users behind

Accessibility is just good business. Accessibility expert Jonathan Hassell has estimated that 20% of web users have a disability, and if designers fail to make digital experiences accessible, that’s lost business. According to the World Health Organization, 285 million people are estimated to be visually impaired worldwide: 39 million are blind and 246 have low vision. That’s an astonishing number of people to sideline when creating digital products.

At Citizen we use the WAIG 2.0 standards to guide accessibility decisions (also see our take on the website “fold” and accessibility in the blog Many Folds Given).

Doing better for the visually impaired

Creating accessible experiences hasn’t been traditionally top-of-mind for organizations. Even companies we know and love have gotten this wrong and have only recently started to course correct.

For now, let’s look at some examples of how four major players in the digital product space are tackling accessible design.

Apple’s mission for being accessible for all can be seen through all of their major accessibility updates. VoiceOver, the MacOS screen reader, was released over ten years ago—in 2005 on Mac OS X Tiger. Since then, they’ve made continuous improvements to VoiceOver including adding a more “human voice,” Alex. Audio descriptions, dictation, Siri, and Braille support are all included in Apple’s most recent products.

In 2015, Blizzard Entertainment upgraded colorblind support in patch 6.1 for World of Warcraft—a game played by over ten million people worldwide. Although colorblind support was introduced back in patch 4.0 (or 2010 for the uninitiated), the enhanced UI comes only after the game had been live for over eight years.

Screenshot from World of Warcraft Forums.

In their 18th year of operation, Netflix expanded their audio descriptions that aid in describing the action and scenery in scenes with no dialog. These changes were a result of a settlement with the American Council of the Blind and the Bay State Council of the Blind.

Doing better for the hearing impaired

With digital product design, our focus is generally on the visual and cognitive elements. But we must consider how to remain inclusive when information is delivered in other formats—like audio and video.

Closed captioning has become more available than ever on streaming services: Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, and Apple TV just to name a few. According to The World Health Organization over 5% of the world’s population – 360 million people – has disabling hearing loss (328 million adults and 32 million children).

On YouTube, content owners can opt-in for automatic captioning. This tool uses speech recognition technology, which doesn’t always produce a faithful transcript. Should the captions not be accurate, however, content owners can go in and edit them.

Not only are captions great for users, they will also help improve your search rankings should you choose to include them. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) changes regularly, but one of the guiding principles continues to be putting users first—captions definitely check this tickbox.

It is up to us to remain vigilant and create experiences that work for everyone. This might mean foregoing a color treatment. Or putting an ax to one of your favorite design features. But trust us—building a digital experience that anyone can use is well worth it, and that’s who we’re rallying for.

What are some of your accessible design challenges? We want to know! Connect with us on Twitter @pluscitizen.

Jen Cyr