Web accessibility will become mandatory in the coming years
by Katja Laska (exclusively for EuroShop.mag)
Most people associate the term “accessibility” with wheelchair accessible roll-in showers, wheelchair ramps or wheelchair accessible elevators – in other words, objects with tangible characteristics. However, accessibility also plays a key role in the digital arena. The EU has adopted pan-European directives and guidelines to provide equal opportunity to all individuals and promote the basic rights of persons with disabilities in this setting. It is a development that retailers should pay close attention to since they otherwise risk excluding a group of potential customers and miss out on sales. What should online business operators know and take into consideration to ensure future success?
The European Union aims to increase digital accessibility with the European Accessibility Act (EAA), which was passed in the summer of 2019. The EU Directive states that, besides improving the functioning of the internal market for accessible products and services, e-commerce must ensure that all people with disabilities, hearing impairments, blind persons and the elderly can take a full and active part in the digital economy and society. EU Member States have until 2022 to provide the foundation for the Directive. The requirements of the EAA must then be implemented by the summer of 2025, at which point web accessibility will be mandatory for all online businesses.
What are the challenges?
The Federal Statistical Office reports that at the end of 2019, roughly 7.9 million people with severe or profound disability were living in Germany, which equates to 9.5 percent of the total German population. A large percentage of them frequent online retailers that still don’t deliver a great user experience to customers with disabilities. Fonts that are too small and content that is hard to read, complex navigation, and lack of color contrast are just some issues people with disabilities run into when they use websites. Meanwhile, Article 3 of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany (Grundgesetz) states, “[…] No person shall be disfavored because of disability.”
Many organizations have focused on website accessibility compliance for years. The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) is an effort to improve the accessibility of the World Wide Web for people with disabilities. This World Wide Web Consortium has created the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the de facto standard for digital accessibility with the goal of providing a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organizations, and governments internationally. The standards come in three levels: A, AA, and AAA. Level A provides the most basic level of web accessibility, while Level AAA is the highest (and most complex) level of web accessibility, which pertains to a fully accessible website that offers the same access to people with disabilities and non-disabled persons. Online retailers should strive to meet Level AA.
What do online retailers need to consider?
To meet AA conformance, online stores should meet four requirements:
- Perceivability and design
Websites, tools, and technologies should be designed in ways that people with hearing or visual impairments can perceive, providing access to information and products.
What ensures a high level of perceivability? Website operators must provide clear, easy, intuitive, and consistent navigation options through all areas of a website. It is essential that texts have proper spacing, including line spacing, letter and word spacing, and icon links and buttons that are easy to understand and read. Typography and images must be resizable and zoomable as needed. Sufficient color contrast should be provided, including a color scheme that has good contrast. A word of caution: Sudden effects and animations can be confusing. Pop-ups or autoplay content should thus be used sparingly and carefully.
- Operability and user experience
This point pertains specifically to the user interface and navigation.
Web content adaptation is a crucial aspect in this setting as it ensures a lower bounce rate of users. The goal for online store operators: all functionality – including buttons and links – should be made available from a keyboard and should not require a mouse. Intuitive, simple, consistent, and clear are keywords retailers and website operators should emphasize in their efforts. The registration and checkout process must integrate identification options, electronic signature products, payment methods and forms that are accessible. It is essential that buttons, links, and navigation elements have the visual focus. Controls should be activated manually by using the keyboard, allowing users to skip repeated elements.
- Understandability and SEO
The language and the website setup should be easy to read and understand.
Understandability and search engine optimization (SEO) complement each other in the guidelines. Like a screen reader – a software application that converts the text displayed on a computer screen into synthesized speech – the search engine algorithm provides the optimized result for the user if the read-out webpage is understandable. That means, users know and understand where they are, what options they have, and how they can navigate the website. Retailers should decide whether they want to use plain language or provide a corresponding substitute. They should also remember to include alternatives that describe images, links, and buttons and indicate required input fields. This can be structured with a high quality semantic HTML code and can be achieved with the alternative texts described above, HTML tags, buttons, link titles, content descriptions, and title tags.
- Robustness and code quality
The WCAG 2.1 guidelines on this point specifically refer to the structure, readability, and clarity of a website and its code. Does the website forego pop-ups that are distracting? Is the website programmed to load without disruptions and is it equally accessible on both desktop and mobile devices?
Online stores with these attributes are more easily accessible via platforms and different browsers. This is where the structural, semantic HTML code is the key starting point.
Is there still time to tackle the issue?
While these requirements won’t be mandatory for online retailers until 2025, they can already be relevant today since they mean an upgrade. Optimizing your website to meet accessibility standards improves your quality score and search engine rankings, allowing more (potential) customers to quickly find you. Thanks to easier and better access, clearer settings and structure, and adaptations to support people with visual and hearing impairments, users tend to stay on the website and subsequently return due to a good user experience that prompts them to buy from you again. In conclusion, online retailers should tackle this issue as soon as possible and improve their search engine rankings, increase site traffic while bringing down the bounce rate, expand their customer base and improve their company image in the process.