Tackling the Website Accessibility Challenge
“Website accessibility” is a term that’s rapidly gaining buzz and sparking a lot of uncertainty and concern in the e-commerce space. Though the term simply means ensuring equal access to all content, transactions and merchandise on a website, regardless of a user’s ability, retailers are often left wondering specifically how it affects them.
When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1991, Congress didn't anticipate the crucial role the internet would play in peoples’ lives in the 21st century. Although Title III of the ADA does provide standards for the physical locations of businesses to properly accommodate people with disabilities, it does not provide guidance for the internet (or web-based and mobile applications).
This lack of clarity hasn’t stopped a slew of plaintiffs in citing Title III as the rationale for legal action. In fact, since 2017, federal website accessibility lawsuits are up 30 percent, according to Seyfarth Shaw, and many retailers are feeling the heat of increased scrutiny. However, courts have come to different conclusions regarding whether Title III’s coverage is limited to physical spaces and whether a company’s website qualifies as an extension of a public space and is deserving of Title III protections.
Regardless of the “public accommodation” argument, retailers may stand to have the most to gain from a commitment to making their websites accessible to everyone. A recent survey found that 71 percent of consumers will leave a website when they realize it's difficult to use. Furthermore, nine out of 10 of these lost leads won't take the time to let you know about the problem; they will simply abandon a site and never return. Many companies that have started their journey toward accessibility have found that in trying to head off accessibility compliance lawsuits, they’ve built up substantial and salient brand loyalty with these users along the way.
However, the accessibility challenge can present a rather daunting undertaking for many web administrators and chief marketing officers who are attempting their first foray into website design. Accessibility is akin to cyber security — it needs to be thought of as a continuous process, not a destination, because websites are living, breathing entities that are always changing. For instance, the sheer volume of content on an e-commerce site from new products and promotions — the average clothing retailer has more than 500 SKUs — means continuous upkeep is a significant, never-ending effort. This is why accessibility must be an integral part of each and every development cycle to ensure that all the moving parts of a website are manageable for both companies and people with disabilities.
The most urgent need for adopting accessibility practices may be the interactive nature of retail sites. Customer service add-ons like chat tools and ticketing systems are commonplace on just about every retail site, but are frequently the most overlooked items in testing for accessibility errors. Use of add-on tools begins to present even more of a problem when these tools are provided by third-party vendors, which limits the retailer's access to the back end and thus the ability to control accessibility features.
A good rule is the more transactional in nature a website is, the more of a challenge it will be to ensure accessibility to all potential users. Unlike static web pages that present simple content for consumption, if a single accessibility error is present anywhere in the user path for transactional web properties, it completely blocks any sequential steps in that use path. This is similar to a bridge that’s missing a link; even if a bridge is 90 percent intact, you can’t complete the first few steps if there’s an impassable chasm in the way.
Ultimately, while the retail industry faces a unique challenge in implementing accessibility, the unique nature of their sites demands meeting the challenge in order to function properly for a significant portion of the population. With one in five Americans having a disability of some kind, it’s time that marketers ask themselves if they’re willing to forgo a market segment that includes 20 percent of the population. When the answer is no, and work begins toward implementing accessibility practices, retailers will find that a smooth customer experience for customers of all abilities will not only mitigate their legal risk, but cause loyalty to their brand to skyrocket.
Shawn Pike is vice president of User1st, a provider of software solutions to businesses, educational institutions, and non-profit and government organizations that ensure their websites and mobile apps are accessible to people with disabilities.
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