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Tips on Getting Digital Inclusion Right

There are lots of good reasons to jump headlong into digital inclusion projects throughout your company. But the bottom line is that making it easy for anyone to do business with you makes it more appealing for everyone to do business with you.

People with special requirements want to work, and employers, especially now in a tight labor market, need them to bring their skills to work. All customers want easier ways to do business with you, and companies that meet the demand rake in bigger profits.

Everybody wins when your business is designed for everybody. The big question, of course, is how to do digital inclusion right? The effort requires more forethought and a greater understanding of special requirements than many realize. It starts with fully comprehending what the terms mean.

For example, an accessible website is not the same as a user-friendly site.

“Digital accessibility ensures all visitors can perceive, understand, and operate a website or tool. Usability aims to design experiences and services that are intuitive, efficient, and easy to use regardless of who the visitor is and what abilities they have,” says Amanda Bergknut, UX Design Lead at Avensia, an e-commerce platform and services provider.

Here are 10 tips the experts have to offer for becoming more digitally inclusive:

1. Spread the work -- this isn’t ‘just a developer’s problem’

“To create inclusive digital experiences, accessibility must move beyond developers,” says Karen Hawkins, head of Accessible UX Design at eSSENTIAL Accessibility, a digital accessibility platform provider. “We have to shift our approach and incorporate accessibility considerations at the earliest possible stage -- well before coding begins,” she adds. “A designer’s default thinking should be, ‘How can we design this experience to accommodate the unique needs of every user?’”

Early planning is crucial but so is strong follow-through.

“Additionally, we must incorporate accessibility checkpoints throughout the process, including testing by representative users. User research, conducted with people with disabilities, is an important step to understand varying needs, and test and validate that our experiences are accessible, or identify any barriers that still exist,” Hawkins says.

2. Make a special effort but not for a special occasion

Don’t think of improving your website and tools’ accessibility as a charity event or effort. Nor should it be a panicked effort to save a sinking business.

“It’s important to note that working with accessibility and offering an inclusive website or e-commerce site should not be a response to the economic situation or the upcoming holiday season,” says Avensia’s Bergknut.

The key is to remember that you aren’t fixing a problem that other people have. You are improving your business so more people will work with your company. The proper mindset is everything.

“In fact, accessibility needs to be a core focus at all times to ensure websites can welcome all visitors. Depending on where in the world the business operates there are regulations and legal requirements to adhere to as well as consumer expectations that businesses need to understand and meet in order to serve the entire customer base,” Bergknut adds.

3. Power up the backend, not just the user experience

“Accessibility is much more than a question of design; it also includes technical aspects related to the back-end code. To achieve good accessibility, businesses should not solely rely on a UX design team but involve developers and project teams to make sure everyone understands what is needed and why it is important,” explains Bergknut.

Be sure to test the accessibility features to ensure they work properly. But also rely on user groups comprised of users with disabilities to ensure that everything works well for them. Listen carefully to the feedback and incorporate changes as necessary.

4. Use more than one adaptive technology to improve customer and employee experience

“There are many adaptive technologies and tools which help people to better access the internet and email -- but marketers also have a responsibility to address accessibility, which is central to user experience and design,” says Aimee Blakemore, Marketing Manager at Flourish Direct Marketing. “Improved accessibility can be achieved through adapting and implementing best practice in design and development -- especially in the realm of email marketing, website development and when considering the overall customer engagement journey.”

Her advice for accessible email and marketing campaigns:

  • Font type and size for improved readability, especially on mobile devices
  • Screen reader compatibility to ensure your design is compatible with screen readers and avoids using text within images
  • Make your copy easy to read and digest; use white space liberally
  • Avoid flashing content
  • Make links easily clickable and use prominent calls to action to help guide the user -- but avoid using ‘click here.’ Use a clear button instead at least 72 pixels in height and width
  • Be considerate of colors and contrast. Use an online color checker to test compatibility for all types of users
  • Your email design should translate to ensure that if dark mode is switched on, that your design will still look slick, professional and beautiful as you intended
  • Always test your emails on multiple devices and email clients before you send them so you can correct any issues and avoid ruining your sender and brand reputation.

5. Don’t guess, use the guidelines

Assume that making your website, tools, and communications accessible is going to be more challenging than you think.

“It’s not intentional that organizations don't pay attention to accessibility. WCAG [for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines] has been around a long time and implementing those is an ongoing challenge,” says Jeff Wissel, chief accessibility officer at Disability:IN, a global nonprofit driving and assisting with disability inclusion and equality in business.

Wissel points to Procure Access, Disability:IN’s latest initiative and supported by tech giants such as EY, Google, Merck, Microsoft, Salesforce and Twitter, as a good way for businesses to “start or advance their accessibility journey.”

“One of the best ways is to incorporate inclusive design into the core design principles. This involves ensuring the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 AA, or WCAG, are incorporated from the idea phase through design and implementation phase and into the testing phase of all new content and platforms. This includes ongoing testing using automated HTML programs as well as usability and accessibility testing by individuals with disabilities who use assistive technologies,” Wissel adds.

6. Not all content is adaptable, rebuild as needed

A common mistake is to assume that website and communication content can remain the same even as the form or format changes to assist people with any of a variety of disabilities.

“Creating an accessible, digital experience means understanding how different types of content work or don’t work for people with disabilities,” says Glenda Sims, chief information accessibility officer at Deque Systems, a digital accessibility company based in the USA with additional offices in India and The Netherlands.

The best course may be to restructure some content and forms rather than trying to shoehorn existing content into a cruder adaptation that may not work well for those who most need it.

“Organizations ultimately need a firm commitment to accessibility initiatives to ensure they make an impact and scale alongside other aspects of a business’ growth. The good news is that digital accessibility is good business. People with disabilities make up a market share of $490 billion and 65% of the public believes digital accessibility is a civil right and not just a privilege. This means that digital accessibility is more than just a law, it’s a market and branding opportunity in addition to the right and ethical thing to do,” Sims adds.

In short, it’s worth the effort to rebuild content where needed to ensure true accessibility and inclusion.

7. Leverage accessible design to point to broader innovations

Motional is an example of a company that is making driverless vehicles accessible to people with a variety of disabilities, which in turn leads to new innovations and conveniences for all users.

“Some recent examples of the team’s thinking include a “Wait for Me” feature, designed to help vision-impaired riders have a more seamless ride-hail experience; and a wearable, AI-powered navigation assistance system project created in collaboration with Boston University to help visually impaired individuals get around more independently,” said a company spokesperson.

Driverless cars suitable for the user’s immediate needs in transport capacities and capabilities may soon be summoned with near effortless efficiency by any user. So, too, can other services and products become seamless and user-matched in execution.

8. Look for the invisible

Research that seeks to discover habits and preferences as well as the logistics of physical limitations will reveal more comprehensive ways to approach accessibility and inclusion efforts.

For example, older people are limited by far more than mobility issues.

“Older adults are often left out of the technology design and testing process because they are perceived as technologically illiterate or technology non-users,” says Allegra W. Smith, Assistant Professor of English at Jacksonville State University. “This in turn leads to technology design that is inaccessible to older adults, or that fails to take into account their unique user habits. For example, designing an experience that is only accessible via smartphone app excludes the nearly 40% of adults aged 65+ who don't own a smartphone.”

Everything goes downhill from there for the aging populations in many countries.

“While the AARP and similar organizations provide some helpful information, they are less useful for, say, an 80-something who needs to create her first internet account in order to access her benefits from states like Illinois, which have moved to online-only forms. This basic digital literacy instruction is paramount for navigating many digital tasks that are now impossible to opt out of,” Smith adds.

9. Don’t stop at online content

“Accessibility does not stop at online content. Any piece of user interface that interacts with technology must be accessible,” says Meenakshi Das, a software engineer focused on accessibility.

For example, she says these are places to look for accessibility issues:

  • Are your kiosks accessible?
  • Do your videos have captions?
  • Do you have speech-to-text available for those who cannot operate a device by hand?

“Remember accessibility is a necessity to some, but beneficial to all of us. Think about captions, curb cuts, etc. Captions are preferred by so many while streaming and curb cuts help baby strollers. Accessibility ensures a great user experience for all,” Das adds.

10. Remember why digital inclusion is a smart business move

“There's an unfortunate misconception that the disability ecosystem is a niche market. But the truth is that accessibility is for everyone, and everyone is a huge market,” says Idan Meir, CEO and co-founder, RightHear, the producer of an app that makes public signage speak for the user.

While increased and smoother accessibility is appealing to everyone, it’s important to specifically aim at resolving issues for those who need extra assistance to connect with your company. To do that successfully often means doing more than simply integrating existing adaptive technologies.

“Technology can be used to help people with disabilities access opportunities and services that would otherwise be out of reach, but this is far from guaranteed," says Christina Xu, Product Manager, Accessibility at Slack. “While assistive technologies like screen readers, automated captioning technology, and text-to-speech tools have made tremendous strides in the last few decades, there are also just as many tools, platforms, and websites that continue to exclude and frustrate people with disabilities every day,” she adds.

“For technology to work for people with disabilities, it has to be designed, implemented, and maintained with them in mind or, even better, with them in the room. Organizations should not use accessibility as a marketing tool without having done the hard work to back it up first. And the only way to maintain the trust of customers with disabilities once it’s been earned is with an ongoing commitment to building tools and experiences that work for everyone.”

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