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Making the Case for Accessibility

Why and when accessibility matters in digital products.

In New York City, where I live and work, Domino’s Pizza would be a scandalous choice for delivery over a local pizza joint. In the suburbs of Minneapolis, where I grew up, it was our steadfast destination for cheap takeout pies.

Regardless of your opinion on the quality of their pizza, you may have heard Domino’s mentioned in the news this year for a different reason. Currently, Domino’s is fighting a lawsuit filed by California resident Dominic Robles. Robles, who is blind, sued after he was unable to use the Domino’s website or mobile app to purchase a pizza: Neither offered support for his screen reader. 

In June, Domino’s appealed the Supreme Court to hear the case:

“Businesses and non-profits have no interest in discriminating against potential customers or other individuals who happen to have disabilities. But these suits put their targets in an impossible situation. Unless this Court steps in now, defendants must retool their websites to comply with Title III without any guidance on what accessibility in the online environment means for individuals with the variety of disabilities covered by the ADA.”

Last month, Domino’s received an answer: The US Supreme Court declined to hear the case. SCOTUS stated that the decision of the Ninth Circuit court, which agreed with the plaintiff’s suit, would stand. The decision drew the attention of companies nationwide.

As designer at Postlight, I often discuss accessibility with our clients. Despite Domino’s assertion, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) have offered clear standards for creating accessible products since their creation in 1999. These guidelines include recommendations at three levels of conformance, from the simple to the more robust. However, some companies reject the notion of WCAG conformance completely. 

There are a few common objections to considering accessibility in the product development process. 

“The legal precedent is fuzzy at best.”

Domino’s Pizza bringing their case to the Supreme Court is certainly evidence that this is an emerging area of law. Robles’ lawsuits focuses specifically on Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in places of public accommodation.

Federal circuit courts in New York and Florida have upheld the assertion that Title III applies to digital spaces as well as physical ones, and as a result there has been a groundswell of federally-filed web accessibility cases in the past few years. Between 2017 and 2018, the number of accessibility suits jumped from 815 to 2,285. In the first six months of 2019, the frequency of these cases went up 51.7% compared to the same period the year before.

While a formal standard for web accessibility hasn’t been solidified by lawmakers or the highest court in the land, that doesn’t mean a company will avoid legal action if it ignores the issue: Just ask any number of small businesses across the nation who are staring down lawsuits.

“This affects such a small number of our users. Let’s focus on our core demographic.”

The four key principles of web accessibility assert that products must be:

  • Perceivable
  • Adaptable
  • Understandable
  • Robust

That all sounds pretty good, right? Even as a non-disabled person, I would like to use digital tools that adhere to these standards.

Inclusive design (also called universal design) posits that creating products that consider all members of a diverse community, especially those in the minority, creates a better experience for all users. 

While many aspects of the WCAG provide for technical accommodations for users with physical or visual impairments (such as screen readers), others have to do with the logical structure and visual arrangement of information. 

From Microsoft’s Inclusive Design 101 Toolkit.

Depending on temporary or situational usage, considerations like color contrast and utility for users with limited mobility can also create better experiences for non-disabled people. Microsoft’s Inclusive Design team has done some fantastic work to document this phenomenon and share how they’ve integrated inclusive design into the product workflow.

Even then, let’s say inclusive design isn’t a priority: What happens as users age? Former Apple VP Don Norman, a titan of digital design, described what it’s like to be an elderly user of the products on the market today:

“Designers and companies of the world, you are badly serving an ever-growing segment of your customer base, a segment that you too will one day inhabit. Isn’t it time to reform: to make things that are functional and stylish, useable (sic) and accessible? […] Designs that make it easier for elderly people often are of equal value for younger people. In fact, for everyone. Help the elderly, and the results will help many more, including yourself, someday.”

Building for accessibility not only support an existing user base but ensures that as current users age, they can continue to enjoy a smooth experience.

“It’s just too expensive.” “We’ve got to get this product out there: We’ll work on accessibility in our second release.”

Ah, this chestnut. 

Building products is expensive, and the tech industry has a laser focus on exponential, rapid growth. It’s easy to punt on (or ignore) accessibility in the name of cash, speed, or creating a minimum viable product (MVP). To be frank, I’ve heard it here at Postlight.

Consider a minor change to this statement: “We’ll consider the usability of our product in v2.” It sounds crazy, right? That’s because the ability for humans to use our products is essential to their design. Accessibility should be considered in equal standing with usability. After all, it is usability, for everyone.

The most affordable moment to consider the accessibility of a product is early in its lifecycle. 

Truthfully, the margin of cost is negligible at the beginning. The horror stories only start to accumulate once there’s a litany of inaccessible features companies don’t have the time, money, or the desire to revisit. How often do rewrites of a product’s core functionality really happen, nevermind successfully?

By creating a firm foundation for accessibility in a product at the outset, you’re setting it up for long-term success as it sprawls outwards in the unique way digital products can.

“We’re already months (or years) along with a product that was designed and built without accessibility in mind. Now what?” 

It is never too late to begin integrating accessibility into your product workflow. The best advice I can give is to start small: Run an accessibility checker on your next big feature. Audit an older piece of functionality and make incremental improvements with your next planned release.

The effort to improve what’s there, however small, is what matters. Your users (disabled and non-disabled, young and old) will thank you.

Nora Vanni is a Product Designer at Postlight. Want to talk more about inclusive design? Drop us a note:

Story published on Nov 20, 2019.