Written by Mark Magennis Tuesday, 30 June 2009 13:20
Working in digital accessibility often feels similar to technical writing, where you can spend months writing user manuals that nobody ever reads. Accessibility practitioners can feel similarly ignored. What we say seems self-evident to us – that all products should be made accessible to the widest audience. It's so obviously a good idea, it benefits everyone. But the world at large just doesn’t seem to get it. Why is it that so many new products are still inaccessible and why does there seem to be so little evidence of commitment to accessibility among manufacturers and service providers? A research report has just been published which sheds light on some of the main reasons. And the main one seems to be the lack of a convincing business case.
The report from Ofcom, the UK Government's communications regulator, is entitled "Exploring how manufacturers, suppliers and retailers address the needs of older and disabled people: what are the barriers and drivers?". It is a result of asking industry people how they address these requirements in their development processes. Findings are based on confidential in-depth interviews with senior figures from the consumer electronics and media industry, encompassing broadcasting, telecommunications and online products and services.
According to these industry insiders, two of the main barriers to considering accessibility are the lack of a convincing business case and the lack of information about the needs and user experiences of older and disabled people.
The business case for accessibility
The business case comes first. If you're developing a product or service, commercial pressures inevitably focus the attention on activities that can be shown to provide a positive return on investment. ICT companies in particular are often focussed on monetising technologies and products with a short shelf life, so they will need quite a bit of persuading to make time within the development lifecycle for attending to accessibility.
Many of us who work in accessibility are convinced of the general 'business case argument' which goes something like this:
"Increasing accessibility maximises the customer base, reduces customer service requirements, reduces development and maintenance costs, increases general usability and leads to greater overall product effectiveness and a positive return on investment".
We have a certain amount of anecdotal evidence to back up these claims, for example in a report from the Customer Respect Group. But that doesn’t contain much in the way of figures. To be convincing, these statements have to backed up by hard data that proves these assertions. You want hard data? We’ll give you hard data. We have the Legal & General web accessibility case study. This shows how one UK financial services company achieved a 100% return on investment in less than 12 months by making its website accessible. The details are all there too – 95% increase in visitors getting a life insurance quote, £200,000 annual savings on site maintenance, 30% increase in natural search-engine traffic, etc. That's good, but where are all the other similarly powerful case studies? It would be nice to have more than one to add weight to the argument. And more recent ones. The Legal & General case study is now four years old. Also, crucially, it doesn’t necessarily translate to other types of products and services, other industries or other sizes of business. Companies want comparable case studies from companies similar to themselves.
The truth is, for most products we do not have a compelling business case for accessibility. That's not to say there isn't one, but nobody's done the research. Not the accessibility advocates, not the companies themselves.
Insight into users' needs
The other major barrier to 'going accessible' is insufficient insight into the needs and user experiences of older and disabled people. If you don't know what they need, how can you give it to them? Again, in the Ofcom report companies say they have very little external user research to rely on. And they don't do much of their own research. They rely on customer service reports, industry trends, and gut feeling. These do not explicitly provide them with information about the specific needs of older and disabled consumers.
The way forward
Perhaps going forward means we have to take a step back and press the case for companies to research the business case and users' needs. Businesses need to be convinced that it is in their interests to investigate these areas. The soft logical and anecdotal arguments that we already have should be sufficient for this. But instead of presenting them as the business case itself, we should present them as strongly suggestive of the benefits of looking into the business case. In the same way that companies investigate a potential new market opportunity by carrying out a market analysis, they should investigate the potential opportunity of accessibility by researching the business case. Once they have a business case, we can seek to persuade them of the benefits of actively seeking to discover users' needs rather than simply relying on limited customer service feedback and supposition. This is maybe something that organisations within the disability sector need to be better able to support.
In order to be successful in this new campaign, it will help to take accessibility out of the realm of corporate social responsibility (CSR) where it usually sits, in larger companies at least. CSR is often simply a public relations exercise with a limited ability to influence design and production, outside of making a small part of the product range accessible in order to have something to show off. In the Ofcom research, companies themselves stressed the need for senior level leadership on accessibility, from individuals within the company who have influence over product development. Those are the people who need to be convinced.
The business case isn't the only driver for accessibility of course. Public procurement policy, legislation, regulation and grant assistance all have their place too. And there are also a number of other sticking points in addition to lack of insight into users' needs. For example, lack of in-house design expertise and barriers in other parts of the supply chain can also act as blockages. But these are not so fundamental. Unless we tackle the business case, accessibility is more-or-less a non-starter for most businesses and we will never achieve widespread adoption. Unless we convince the businesses themselves of the benefits of researching the business case, it may never happen.