Accessibility is no longer optional for your customer experience

Hero image of female using ASL during virtual meeting on laptop

A not-so-average first day

Brad is completely blind — he doesn’t even have light or dark perception. Recently, he started teaching in a new building as the fall semester started at the university where he’s completing his PhD. What would have been a regular morning for most — maybe just leaving a little earlier to make sure you find the right classroom — has evolved into a three-day endeavor to learn and feel comfortable with the route.

Monday — His whole family practices with his guide dog. It's new for all of them, including his six-month-old daughter. His wife leads the charge and gets them a little lost, but eventually they find their way. His wife sends him a pin to his phone with the exact location for reference, thinking he can potentially use a standard navigation app, but he reminds her they provide visual indicators.

Tuesday — It's clear the route is tricky for Brad and his dog, so his wife and daughter join them on Tuesday for another practice round. His guide dog has amazing recall, but the rain hampers them a bit.

Thursday — His wife volunteers to join one last time and everyone nails it. Brad decides to try adding the building destination to a spatial audio app he has become comfortable with over the past year for future use. His family says goodbye to him in the classroom and wife heads back to her car to go home and start her workday.

If you’re reading this and don’t have a disability, you wouldn’t go through this process to show up at the right place at the right time. You wouldn’t necessarily need to calculate the learning time — the buffer time required for someone like Brad. This is just one example of the accessibility opportunity the entire world has, a world where 15% of the population lives with some form of disability according to the United Nations.

Let’s review some of the facts.

A deeper look at the population

Infographic depicting that 1 billion people or 1 in 7 of us experience some sort of disability
Infographic depicting that only 2% of disabled people are in wheelchairs
Infographic depicting that 80% of disabilities are invisible
Infographic depicting that 71% of users with disabilities will leave a site that is not accessible

Over one billion people around the world have some type of disability that restricts them from interacting with a digital experience, according to the World Bank’s Disability Inclusion article. Inclusive City Maker reminds us of the reality that disabilities may not be apparent right away and can be invisible, ranging from blindness, mental health, and deafness to neurological disabilities such as autism, ADHD or dyslexia, among others. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean that it's not there.

The proliferation of surface-based devices with various form factors and competing operating systems add to this complexity, especially for people with motor and physical disabilities. There is a need to keep up with evolving interactive patterns which should consider ethical design, input modalities, obtrusive marketing practices, and emerging technologies.

All individuals should be able to participate, access, and interact with digital experiences. At Adobe, we are committed to authoring, designing, and engineering digital experiences that are available to everyone. As part of our responsibility, we are making strides through a wide spectrum of digital accessibility endeavors including accessible CMS and JavaScript component libraries, Adobe Acrobat PDF enhancements, captioned data visualization improvements, blueline annotations systems, and much more.

Image of accessible website

For years, we have partnered with various state and local government agencies such as the State of Illinois, with the goal to design, implement, and launch inclusive digital experiences that serve constituents across all walks of life. As part of our modernization strategy, we have crafted a fully scalable design framework that adheres to accessibility and governmental compliance guidelines. As a result, state and local agencies are seeing staggering improvements through more intuitive usability, conversion uplift, operational efficiencies, as well as higher performing websites.

Let’s dive into why your organization should be focusing on creating a more accessible digital world.

Why you should pay attention

1. Financial incentives and brand recognition

Beyond the moral obligation to make digital experiences accessible to all, it has tremendous financial implications as the market to serve those with disabilities is more populous than some large countries. Deploying experiences that are not crafted with inclusivity in mind don’t uphold digital accessibility and don’t score positively within the Corporate Equality Index. This is not only bad for business but can also tarnish brand affinity with users flocking to more inclusive competitors.

Prioritizing digital accessibility can favorably impact SEO, improve search engine ranking and organic traffic, and encourage repeat visitors with $1.2 trillion in annual disposable income according to Forrester.

Digitally accessible experiences need to factor in foundational usability, design and screen reader implementation best practices, and should be table stakes to provide access to not only individuals with disabilities, but for all. A great steward should consider an intuitive navigation system and a robust content strategy and hierarchy that encourages memorability and consistency with no friction. This will have a positive impact on loyalty, sentiment, and end consumers’ perception of the brand with added word-of-mouth recommendations, especially within tightly knit communities.

Infographic depicting that in 2017, disabled population in the UK spent approximately 249 billion pounds per year

Infographic depicting that in 2020, 24% of organizations have had legal complications relating to digital accessibility

While there are many regulations in place for public sector digital entities, private sectors are still scrutinized and need to adhere to various world-wide rules which mandate evolving levels of compliance. Companies that don’t comply with regulations can suffer severe penalties. In fact, data from UsableNet and Deque shows that US companies contending with accessibility-related lawsuits could be spending over $1 billion in legal fees. Lawsuits filed for companies with revenue less than $50 million increased by 43% according to UsableNet’s 2021 midyear report, and settlement costs in these cases can be very high even for educational institutions.

3. Moral obligation and necessity

Everyone shares the right to access the digital world. There is no diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) without access.

According to IMAIOS, 70% of digital content is inaccessible to people with cognitive, visual, or physical disabilities, and a 2021 study by WebAIM shows that approximately 42% of people with disabilities think that web content accessibility has not changed over the previous year. Conversations about how to create an equitable world across race, gender, ethnicity, and more are at the forefront of the business and political landscape — and access needs to be addressed with equal importance.

Let’s check out how this could translate into the digital world across organizations like yours.

Where to start

Organizations can self-diagnose their path to accessibility and inclusion. Does your organization struggle with any of these symptoms of an inaccessible workplace? We recommend taking these quick actions as your first step in the path toward forming a more accessible and inclusive workplace:

Symptoms of inaccessible workplace
How to take action
Customer and user experience
  1. Lack of understanding of various types of disabilities and design priorities that don’t accommodate all abilities.
Consult with an expert and hire from within the community. Internal surveys can help determine your organization’s preparedness and new teammates’ onboarding maturity level.
  1. Lack of experience designing, coding, and testing for accessible digital experiences.
Invest in experienced research, UX, development, and QA roles to execute appropriately from a process and quality gate perspective. Invest in the right accessibility and compliance tools and include disabled representatives to aid in the usability and QA testing process. Also, provide a clear feedback mechanism for users to easily submit issues, improvements, and experience enhancements.
  1. Accessible design is considered an “add-on” on a case-by-case basis or a compliance-related issue instead of part of the holistic design approach.

Dedicate time in project schedules, functional requirements, and contractual agreements to accommodate:

  • Clear accessibility guidelines definition (i.e., WCAG 2 level conformance), success criteria, and project plan.
  • Design iterations and contingencies with ongoing validation (i.e., contrast and color blindness tests). Ensure form and function are considered in both digital and industrial design approach.
  • Sound content strategy approach to text length, brevity, and supporting imagery, especially to aid users with cognitive disabilities.
  • Proper navigation and supporting methods including scroll, gestural control, and speech recognition.
  • Prototyping and usability testing to adhere to accessibility guidelines.
  • Proper development practices for screen readers and QA testing cycles.
  1. Personalization strategy and personas do not always factor in language, age, gender identity, culture, and other impacting factors that shape successful and engaging experiences on and offline.

Reimagine what omnichannel means at a deeper level by acknowledging appropriate consumption channels and methods of consumption that are truly accessible to all.

Plan personas more broadly to include a range of individuals with different needs.

  1. Data capturing accessibility or lack thereof may be available but is not acted upon.
Make data ethics accessible to those who will design around it as well as customers. Rely on forthcoming and fully responsive design patterns that make it easy to access important information. Clear visibility builds trust towards an organization and increases affinity and brand loyalty.
Symptoms of inaccessible workplace
How to take action
Organization, team, and culture
  1. Organizational and operational governance of accessibility and inclusion are typically an afterthought or considered additive, rather than being built into the processes. ​
Ask all new employees if they have any disabilities that need to be accommodated and their preference. If they disclose that they have a disability, ask if it is comfortable for you to check in on how they are navigating this each month. Addressing challenging topics with transparency and compassion leads to higher trust and more inclusive teams.
  1. An employee who is neurodivergent is often lost with visual content in the way it is presented and doesn’t know who to tell or if they even should say anything.
Use confidential polling to gain input from your team around accessibility and other potentially challenging topics. After polling, share the results with your team and build an action plan to address opportunities together.
  1. A team suffers high attrition, but leadership cannot clearly articulate the why, or leadership does not notice the trend.
Check in on employee sentiment (easily done through surveying) at least quarterly to capture where the team needs more support. The simple act of asking builds trust and credibility, and if paired with an action plan, it’s more likely to keep people engaged and invested in the team.
  1. Process changes to enhance your content supply chain are only focused on business personas and modality.
Layer in accessibility to each business persona to understand the needs of those with disabilities across a variety of roles for both internal and end consumer audiences. Before committing to further diversifying content types (documentation, courses, eLearning) consider how you might update your existing content to meet the content needs of all (alt text, capital letter formatting, transcripts, closed captioning, left text justification for text over three lines).

Now that you understand some symptoms and proposed actions, here's another real-world example of how you can bring these recommendations to life in an impactful way.

Case study — know and anticipate your audience

In 1968, the Summer Olympics took place in Mexico City, Mexico, and it was the first time that the Games were hosted in a Latin American country. This was an opportunity for the host country to unveil Mexico City as a thriving and worthy metropolis capable of hosting such an international affair. The graphic design system and campaign that was created for the Games by Lance Wyman and his team are still talked about to this day given their unique aesthetic, foresight, pragmatism, and cultural sensitivity.

Image of Mexico 1968 Summer Olympics inclusive graphic system

Wyman cited illiteracy as one of the driving forces behind the approach for a pictographic means of communication at the Mexico 1968 Olympics. Given the inclusivity requirements and the need to translate all text into various languages, the designers used modular iconography to minimize wordiness. This pictographic language was cleverly and consistently used across every design element including Mexico City’s metro system, which still uses this icon system to date with over four million people riding the metro every day.

Consider Wyman’s approach to serve the local and international audience — a solution that was focused on a non-disabled population’s challenge — and apply that lens to those with accessibility needs. The goal was to not ostracize a part of the population but to include them in this monumental event, and this thoughtfulness needs to be applied to people with disabilities as well.

When tackling this work, you must keep in mind that success — moving toward a more accessible digital world internally and with customers — isn’t just about the technology. It will require people to think and behave differently, and to effectively move people through change requires thoughtfulness, planning, and accountability.

At Adobe, our mission is, “Changing the world through digital experiences.” It seems that we marketers gravitate toward this mission from a non-disabled point of view as we react to the vast opportunity to improve our customer experience at all — it’s table stakes and we miss the strategic prioritization around inclusion and access over the race to be first to market. But table stakes aren’t enough. It’s time we all develop a more expansive, all-encompassing meaning around digital experiences, and deepen our definition of the customer.

How will you move the world forward?

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Author — Jaime Vasquez is an award-winning principal digital strategist and user experience architect focusing on CX strategy, UX leadership, and creative cross-cloud workflow solutions for both the commercial and the public sector. An emphasis on brand scalability and business strategy has provided Jaime with a multitude of opportunities to foster innovation and achieve value realization for customers across a variety of industries. Jaime is also an Adobe Inventor, recognized for two predictive analytics patents.

Author — Elizabeth Woodhull is a digital strategist at Adobe who is passionate about demystifying the world of digital transformation and creating approachable transformation tactics for her customers through change management over the last seven years. She has worked with Fortune 50 companies to transform their organizations, and she defines success by her team’s ability to enable customers across all experience levels, abilities, cultures, languages, and geographies.

Author — Sara Snyder is senior digital strategist at Adobe who is dedicated to achieving customer business objectives through sensible execution tactics with a creative and entrepreneurial spirit while developing genuine, long-term connections with customers. She brings about 15 years of marketing expertise in a variety of roles spanning demand generation, marketing operations, organizational growth and change management with Fortune 100s and startups alike. In and outside of work, Sara is a fierce advocate for inclusion, especially for those with physical disabilities, as her family tackles this each day.