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Why accessibility matters to your startup (Part 1): Who is a disabled user?

Alex Williams

Front-end Developer @ Forward Partners

The idea of implementing ‘accessibility’ into the design of a product or website is often seen as the last thing on a list of “nice to have” features. Somewhere behind translate your website into a second language, and test it on Internet Explorer 6 (you know, just in case). It is shuffled back into this position because many product owners and founders believe that designing an accessible product is time-consuming, only benefits a small number of people and is, above all, expensive. Therefore the return on investment is miniscule.

However this doesn’t have to be the case. In this series I’d like to investigate how designing your product to be accessible does not have to be time-consuming or expensive, and that including disabled people within your remit of potential customers can only help increase conversion rates and help product growth. ​

Key takeaways

  1. Over 19% of the working population in the UK are registered as having a disability or impairment;
  2. Increasing the number of people who can understand and use your product maximises the pool of potential customers for your product; and
  3. More potential customers for your product will lead to increased product growth.

But before we dive into whether it’s time-consuming and expensive let’s start by investigating the idea that accessibility only affects a small number of people, and that these might not be your customers.

Who is your disabled user?

Startups often discount disabled people from their initial target user-base because they think that the number of people with a disability is so small. This is a common misconception. Disability is not black and white, and while a common example of digital accessibility is a blind user listening to a screen reader, disability varies quite dramatically.

Disability can be split into four main areas: visual, auditory, cognitive and motor. These terms describe impairments like loss of vision, deafness, learning difficulties, and conditions which restrict movement, such as Parkinson’s disease, respectively. (If you’d like to dive into the definitions then visit WebAIM.)

These disabilities can also be thought of temporarily. Your user’s can be permanently disabled (for example, a complete loss of vision), or temporarily disabled (such as being rendered immobile for some time after an accident).

Furthermore impairments may not be directly related to the user. They can sit between the user and the product. We can call these environmental impairments and they can take the form of low bandwidth, the need for legacy browser support (some common assistive devices only work on much older versions of Internet Explorer).

Far from affecting only a small number of people, disabilities are wide ranging, and can affect people from a multitude of different backgrounds. The Disabled Living Foundation estimates that 19%, or 6.9 million working age people in the UK (2008) are registered as disabled. As a startup you cannot guarantee that none of your customers are going to be impaired - far from it - many will and you should consider them as potential paying customers.

So what does this look like in the context of your product, building your MVP and supporting the largest number of potential customers you can. Let’s investigate.

Looking at disabled users in context

As we outlined above disability is not that simple and affects more people, and consequently more of your potential customers, than you think. I’d like to give you two lesser-known examples of how disabled users may struggle with your product. First, motor disabilities, and second, cognitive disabilities. Let’s dive in.

You’ve had an accident and broken your dominant arm. This can be considered a temporary motor disability. While you fully expect to recover full use of your arm you will be stuck in a cast for several months while the bone repairs itself. During this time you may struggle to complete some tasks that were quite straightforward before your accident. Depending on how badly you were injured your hand movement may be reduced or you may not be able to use your dominant hand at all.

However, during this time you still want to explore new products, and use the internet. The most common way to interact with a digital interface is through using a mouse or trackpad. Without fine motor control, using a mouse becomes very difficult. You may not have the range of motion to move the mouse across the surface of the table physically or get the cursor to hit small on-screen targets like a ‘buy button’ or other call to action.

Now, similarly, consider a user who has Parkinson’s disease. This is also a motor disability, and while it can be managed it is a permanent condition that can dramatically affect a user’s ability to complete fine motor tasks. Tremors make using a mouse and hitting a small on-screen target very difficult. Just like you with a broken arm, a user with Parkinson’s disease still wants to explore new products, and interact with the internet - they are a potential customer.

Both users are in very different situations. They would, however, both benefit from a product that has been designed with large on-screen targets, surrounded by plenty of white space so that the button’s function isn’t conflicting with another. Considering their needs upfront can result in a product user interface suitable for both users who may very well like to become customers now that they can operate the product.

Now consider you’re dyslexic. You are one of the 6.3 million people in the UK who have difficulty reading. Dyslexia is a cognitive impairment that can cause products to be difficult to understand. As a dyslexic user you may struggle to understand a copy-heavy launch page. The italics and underlined text may run together, and big blocks of centre-aligned copy can be difficult to comprehend.

Similarly the quality of the copy will play a part in how you interpret the page. If the copy is complex, uses jargon and uses long sentences then you may struggle to grasp the core proposition or miss the main call to action. If you can’t read, or don’t understand, what is being explained then it will be difficult to convert you into a customer. Even some small difficulties using your site can make a person upset or agitated, and therefore speculative of your brand experience.

The solution to these problems lies in good design. Some quick-win examples are using large, on-screen targets; concise copy; removing or explaining complex jargon; generous font sizing and use of bold rather than italic text. Not only will this help make your product accessible to those with cognitive disabilities, but it will make your design better for everyone.

As a concrete example of how this affects products, let me tell you about an experience I had. My team and I were building an interactive timeline which tracked the preparations a user would have to make leading up to having a baby. Part of our consideration when building the timeline was a thorough accessibility review by DAC, a fabulous accessibility consultants based in Neath, Wales. After our first iteration had been built we asked DAC to review the timeline and they came back with a few very interesting comments.

One of the analysts at DAC who reviewed our timeline had learning difficulties. He struggled with the controls to move the timeline left and right. The text was light grey, on a light background. There wasn’t enough contrast and it was difficult to read and understand. Furthermore the spacing between different types of text were too tight and this resulted in confusion. On top of that the controls were not generously sized and he had difficulty moving the timeline left and right.

We took this on board, and along with DAC’s advice, adjusted the design to employ a stronger contrast between the text and the background, larger font sizes and a simpler control layout. The result was that he found this second iteration much easier to use. However, we also found that users without an impairment also found the timeline easier to use. The changes we made improved the design of the whole product.

Accessibility matters to your startup because disability affects such a large number of people in such a diversity of ways. You can not expect all your users to be free from disability, and in employing good, accessible design you can make your product better for both disabled users and non-disabled users. If your product is clearer and simpler to operate, or it’s explained in concise and straightforward language then you have a much better chance of converting both disabled and non-disabled users into customers.

Conclusion

Accessibility matters for you, and your startup. Building your product to be accessible to users who are disabled or temporarily impaired improves the general usability of your product. It also helps in simplifying your design down to the core proposition and eliminating distractions both visual (part of the design), and cognitive (part of the function). However, the bottom line is even simpler than that. Building your product to be accessible increases the number of potential users you can target, and can consequently convert into paying customers. Not only is building your product for everyone the right thing to do, but it also makes the most business sense.

For more on accessibility and how it works for businesses, consider the resources below.

  1. W3C Developing a Web Accessibility Business Case for Your Organisation
  2. Digital Accessibility Centre
  3. Dyslexia Action Statistics
  4. WebAIM

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