Accessibility is Innovation

Jeremy Wagner wrote a piece about defining productivity and it triggered me to write my thoughts.

Abstract figures

Jeremy wrote a good article on his site titled Defining Productivity. In it he writes:

...we're not regarding "users" as human beings who have human limitations. We're reducing them to abstract figures which we can rationalize away when convenient.

...At worst, it causes us to knowingly trivialize them for our own gain.

He's right, but this isn't a new phenomenon. Several jobs ago, I was talking about accessibility and the importance of making sure our code afforded disabled people the ability to use our products. The question was asked, “How many users would that affect, though. Maybe 1%?”

This is trivialization, attempting to justify that such a small amount of people wouldn't be worth the development effort. In business-speak, there's no Return on Investment (ROI) for accessibility.

I didn't know the answer the for the actual percentage of our user base, but my standard response to a question like that is, “Percentage doesn't matter in this area. It only takes one litigious person to impact your business.”

Another counter argument that used to strike a business-nerve was to explain that Googlebots are “blind” users of your site, so if you don't make the site easy for them to crawl and parse, you may take a hit in the findability of your product.

While replies like those still don't focus on the end user, it can strike the right business-nerve, depending on your company's aversion to risk.

Jeremy also stated:

The web we own today is one that apparently can't be bothered to care about accessibility or performance unless those things are profitable—which is exactly why it's so poisonous.

Yep, greed is poisonous. Oddly enough, greed is a decent motivator in the business arena and the good news is, performance generates revenue. Profitability is dependent on how good the business is at managing their costs, but performance can at least provide more income. Google provides a tool to help determine the possibility of how much.

Accessibility is a tougher sell, because of some common misconceptions:

Myth: The disabled population is minuscule.

Fact: According to Disabled World statistics from 2018, 10% of the world's population live with a disability, which is approximately 650 million people. In 2017 it was reported that 19% of Americans live with physical or cognitive disability. That's nearly double the percentage of the entire world. That's a solid segment of potential customers.

Myth: This site or app isn't on the ADA's radar, so a lawsuit is unlikely.

Fact: Here's a list of lawsuits demonstrating a range of website types that got caught in the snare. There are plenty of businesses who are risk averse, so this can be a powerful motivator, too.

Myth: Accessibility affordances only impact the disabled—more specifically, people who use screen readers.

Fact: Voice recognition and screen magnification are other aids that assist people regularly. Voice assistants (such as Alexa & Google Home) sales grew 78% in 2018. The target market for those devices is not contained to people with disabilities. According to eMarketer in 2017, standalone devices like a smart speaker were used by 8% of the people who use voice assistants. According to the poll, the most widely used device is a smartphone at 42% of the people who use voice assistants. Let's break down those statistics a bit further into the reasons why people use voice:

Turns out more than 80% of those polled liked the fact they could use voice assistants without having to touch a device. Another 62% just thought they were fun to use, while 60% found using spoken language a more natural way to interact with services than physical typing.

Note that none of those answers are disability related. They use them because they like to, not because they have to.

How well does your site or app work with voice assistants? If they aren't already, expect senior leadership to ask that question because they are probably being pummeled with data about voice assistants every time they read eMarketer. While there isn't a lot of voice enabled purchasing taking place just yet, there is the almighty engagement statistic to consider. Senior leaders love reports about engagement.

My feelings on the matter

I wish that doing something just because it is the right thing to do was how the world works, but it isn't. It's far from ideal to come up with business cases for doing the right thing, but they can be made. Coincidentally, while we're making that business case, we are re-establishing the needs of people as a “value proposition,” which—in business-speak—refers to something that draws a potential customer. It turns out that disabled people's money spends just as good as abled people's money. The same thing holds true for people on shitty internet connections, or those who don't want to turn over significant elements of personal information just to engage with your brand.

In my opinion, there is a much bigger advantage to be gained here as a team that builds digital products. If you aren't paying attention to the needs of the disabled, you are actually way behind the curve in the arena of “innovation.” (Senior leaders love that term even more than engagement.) The link provided earlier, about voice recognition and screen magnification, was from 2008. Let that sink in a moment. 10 years ago, voice recognition was being used to help disabled people. If we were building our products for those accommodations way back then, we'd be way ahead of the curve. No more mad scrambles to retrofit those capabilities in when they hit the mainstream.

It's time to start convincing our bosses and coworkers that accessibility is about innovation. That's an easier sell and it generally fits very neatly in their list of initiatives.