Baking universal accessibility into modern application development can bridge the digital divide and boost inclusivity, according to this writer.

For the past year-and-a-half, it had suddenly become necessary for everyone to know how to navigate a digital-first environment, just to access the most basic of services.

Digital accessibility hence becomes critical in ensuring equitable access to basic services. In developer terms, this means that organizations need to design products that can be used by all strata of society.

This means not just age-related limitations. The spectrum spans people with disabilities including those with health conditions or temporary impairments that prevent them from using a keyboard or mouse. 

Moreover, situational limitations warrant accessible solutions, like a slow network connection or none at all. As Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web once said: “The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”

Usability vs Accessibility

Very often, people confuse the term “accessibility” with “usability”. However, they are very different.

  • Accessibility refers to products that are universally available, and aims to provide an equivalent user experience for everyone regardless of their chronic or temporary limitations.
  • Usability considerations, on the other hand, refer to making products more effective, efficient, easier and more satisfying to use. However, it does not address the very specific needs required for different groups of people.

Thankfully, there is a single shared standard for digital accessibility to look into for counsel. Put in place more than 20 years ago by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are extensively adopted for accessibility laws and regulations as they outline in detail how web content can be made accessible for individuals around the world.

Such joint efforts are essential to affirm that the needs of differently-abled users are represented in accordance with best practices.

Pushing for digital accessibility

The importance of digital accessibility was already receiving greater attention in recent years, with heightened conversations around diversity and inclusion. With the onset of the pandemic, this issue has been thrust forward and into the center of the public eye.

More than ever, digital touch points are replacing traditional in-person or telephone interactions with customers and employees. With greater efficiency and agility at their fingertips, companies are able to deliver new products and services that give users the flexibility and convenience to address their needs in their own time.

It is pivotal for companies to design digital spaces for consumers that are easy to reach and interact with, in order to maximize the impact of every single application designed.

While implementation costs are involved, the positive returns-on-investment from having a strategy that centers on digital accessibility far surpasses these costs and will boost the business in the long run. Some benefits include:

  • increased website traffic from a wider user base (think of an e-commerce website or an enterprise application)
  • increased online sales due to greater ease of use (you may be surprised to know that all this is valid even for applications designed for employees)
  • reduced costs in traditional communication channels, such as customer service or traditional government bureaucracy, due the increased accessibility built into websites or applications that are developed to optimize omnichannel engagement
  • marketing amplification: having accessible apps also optimizes Search Engine Optimization, thereby assisting marketers and promoting corporate social responsibility agendas

Accessibility as part of corporate DNA

Designing for accessibility should not be an afterthought, but should form part of the foundation of every application.

With user experience becoming a global buzzword and UX designers finally getting a seat at the table, customer-centricity has to be married with user needs and demands, capabilities and abilities, preferences and situations.

From assistive technology like screen readers to technical support like keyboard navigation, the goal is for seamless and intuitive digital interactions between people, services, products, information and entertainment.

Accessibility has to be considered in the early stages of any application development, and the modern application development platform has to be equipped with all the tools needed to ensure that applications are universal, accessible and WCAG 2.1-compliant.