Goodwill, smart business, and even vague governmental regulation should compel ecommerce businesses to make websites accessible to all potential customers, including those who are blind or deaf or have other problems interacting with a website or mobile application.
For many ecommerce business owners, it may not be clear what can or should be done to make an online store accessible to all shoppers. Thus, some small business owners or managers might not understand how to design or plan for accessibility.
Designing for Accessibility and Inclusion
Website accessibility is part of a larger movement called designing for inclusion or design for all. Designing for inclusion has been around for many years and embodies the idea that web content and really all technology should be “available to and usable by all people whatever their abilities, age, economic situation, education, geographic location, language, etc.,” according to the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C’s) Web Accessibility Initiative.
In this context, website or mobile application “accessibility focuses on people with disabilities — people with auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech, and visual impairments,” again according to the W3C. Thus, when an ecommerce business is making its site or mobile applications accessible, it is trying to provide content to people who may have trouble interacting with a website.
This video, by a blind web user, explains.
Web Accessibility Makes Sense
Online retail stores and other ecommerce business have many good reasons to make their sites and mobile applications accessible.
First, it is simply a good thing to do. Businesses should seek to do good — ensuring that all potential customers can find products, engage with content, and have a good user experience.
Second, providing a good and enjoyable shopping experience for customers and potential customers should lead to additional sales and, hopefully, additional profits. When shoppers have a good shopping experience, those shoppers may be more likely to make additional purchases.
Third, if goodwill and additional sales are not enough, there has been a flood of new lawsuits against companies small and large who have failed to make their websites accessible. It is worth mentioning that there are no clear U.S. government requirements or regulations for website accessibility. Thus, there is almost no way for a business to defend itself against claims that its site is not accessible. Nonetheless, following guidelines from the W3C or the U.S. government’s section 508, and following the strategies mentioned below should make a site actually accessible to shoppers with disabilities.
Plain text is flexible. It can be read with a screen reader, transformed into Braille, or otherwise modified with assistive technologies to communicate site content to anyone visiting. With this in mind, include a plain text equivalents or even a plain text summary.
- Offer text for images. The W3C recommends using an img tag’s alt attribute to communicate an image’s meaning. So, an image of an arrow that links to a PDF sales flyer download might have “Download the Sales Flyer” for its alt text. It is also important not to stuff alt attributes with keywords, as some search engine optimizers recommend.
- Complex graphics should have text descriptions. If an image or graphic cannot be easily described in about 100 characters, which is the most that should be put in an alt attribute, provide a text description or caption that communicates the graphic’s message in plain text.
- Include closed captioning for video content. Help all site visitors experience video.
- Offer an alternative to audio content. According to the W3C, “a text transcript is a text equivalent of audio information that includes spoken words and non-spoken sounds such as sound effects.”
- Offer a text transcript or feed. When possible, include a plain text transcript, if you will, of the entire page. When this is not possible, having an RSS feed available with complete page content can help. In these examples, assistive technologies may be able to read the entire page content to some site visitors.
Read Page Content for Visitors
An audio version of page and site content can also be helpful. Similar to the last point of the previous section, have a recorded audio file that reads page content to visitors and helps them understand the message, if you will, being conveyed.
Make the Site Easy to Navigate, Including Forms
For some site visitors, navigation can be a significant challenge. One of the best things that ecommerce site designers and developers can do is to ensure the site can be navigated with just a keyboard. Also, don’t put time constraints on navigation. Let users take as long as they need to navigate or complete forms. Finally, include clear and logical form labels.
Use Contrasting Colors
There should be a high level of contrast between foreground and background elements. Black text on a white background or white text on a black background is typically the best option. But any contrast ratio of 7:1 or greater will meet the enhanced or highest color contrast guidelines for normal sized text. Even a 4.5:1 color contrast ratio will make normal text generally accessible.
Links Could be Clear and Labeled
Web links should have logical labels and not be dependent on color. In general, link labels like “click here” or “read more” don’t provide enough information. Also, it should be clear that an element is a link even if someone cannot see colors.
Tables Should be HTML and for Data
Data tables should be HTML, never images. It is important that site visitors using assistive technologies can access table content. It can also be helpful to include proper column headers.
Never use tables for page layout or structure, as table layouts can make it more difficult to access some content.
Make Downloadable Documents Accessible, Too
When your site offers downloads, like product specification documents or material safety and data sheets or similar, ensure that those downloads are also accessible.
PDFs are a good choice for document downloads. PDFs can be made to be accessible, but it takes a bit of forethought. Comma-separated or tab-delimited files also work well for accessibility but never offer Microsoft Word, Excel, or PowerPoint documents or other proprietary file formats that may require someone to buy software to access content.
Have Policies in Place
Finally, develop a web accessibility policy. Have a checklist for folks to follow as new content is produced, and use tools or services to ensure that a site is accessible.
For example, consider checking site pages in WAVE — Website Accessibility Evaluation Tool.
Taking action to make certain an ecommerce site or mobile application is accessible could create additional sales and may help meet government regulations and requirements when they are established. Importantly, however, it is simply the right thing to do.
See follow-up article: “Absence of U.S. Regulation Leads to Web Accessibility Lawsuits.”