As basic services are moving online, the accessibility of digital services has become an important factor for assessing the quality, availability and usability of a service for everyone.
Often, the discussions around accessibility are related to legislation: when and by whom should the statutory requirements on accessibility be fulfilled. However, accessibility is not solely about legislation and is an integral part of web services development for those who want to produce services that are as high-quality and easy-to-use as possible for everyone.
Legal requirements are of course still important. The EU Web Accessibility Directive (valid since 2016 and applied in Finland as the Act on the Provision of Digital Services) already mandates that public authorities, other public operators, and some of the private sector meet the accessibility level WCAG 2.1 AA in their digital services.
The European Accessibility Act, which will enter into force in the end of June 2022, will expand the accessibility requirements even further, also applying to user interfaces, various payment terminals and phones. In terms of web services development, the accessibility of online shops and various mobility services is the most significant requirement. These products and services are seen as essential for navigating an increasingly digitalised society, and in terms of equality, it is extremely important that these are accessible to all.
Even outside laws and directives, there are many other excellent reasons to invest in accessibility:
- Accessibility brings new users and customers
- Focusing on accessibility supports the general usability of the services and improves the user experience
- Accessibility improves visibility in search engines.
Now let us look at each point in more detail.
More users and customers
In Finland alone, more than 1.2 million people require accessibility features from online services. On a European scale, this could equate to over 135 million people. This is an immense group of potential customers or service users who, at worst, might be completely unable to run errands, shop, or fulfill their other needs due to poor accessibility online.
The business impact of accessibility has been noted in many sectors. In 2021, the global turnover of digital games was about 180 billion dollars, and this number has grown year by year, a huge sector of the entertainment industry. In the past few years, accessibility features have been introduced to console and PC games in particular. Thanks to this, these games are now available to a broader gamer base.
A great example of accessibility in games is The Last of Us 2, released in 2020. The game has a variety of accessibility features that make it playable to a wide audience, including those with visual impairment. A significant achievement for the game’s developers, it is proof that by investing in high-quality accessibility functions, the game can reach a greater number of potential players.
Above: A screenshot from the game The Last of Us 2 with selected accessibility settings.
It is good to recognise that every one of us can be faced with situations where our physical or cognitive capability is reduced or hindered. Things such as a busy life, stress, sleep deprivation or other kinds of mental load affect our ability to process information substantially. A broken wrist inevitably means that we have to use a computer or phone differently. Accessibility applies to everyone and well-designed accessibility functions make using a service easier and more pleasant.
Better user experience and usability
Accessibility is at the core of usability. Comprehensible and plain-language content, carefully designed structures, and a visually clear layout are essential in terms of both accessibility and usability.
Accessibility and usability are key components in developing solutions through which the user and customer experience of a service can become as high-quality as possible. This is an element of design philosophy and developers must know how to invest in accessibility from the start of a project.
However, good accessibility does not automatically ensure good usability and it is possible to make a service that is technically accessible and compliant, but still difficult to use. This is why accessibility and usability should be thought of as central parts of the same whole. When you demand better accessibility, you are also demanding better usability and, in turn, a better user experience for everyone.
Search engines prefer accessibility
Key features for accessibility include page titles, clear page hierarchies, alternative text descriptions for images, and clearly written link texts. They are also essential in terms of search engine visibility, since Google’s search engine robots that index the search results, for example, prefer these features. The better the features are visible to the robots, the higher Google will prioritise the service in its results. For example, clear page titles and content design help raise the service up on the list of search results, as long as they match the searches by potential users.
Investment in accessibility is therefore an automatic investment in search engine optimisation, and vice versa: when seeking optimal search engine coverage, you must take actions that also have a positive impact on accessibility.
What can you do to improve accessibility?
If you are developing a web service or digital service, the easiest and most cost-efficient way is paying attention to accessibility right from the project’s start. Despite the project’s status or background, you should always do the following:
- Make accessibility an integral part of the service’s development. Prioritise accessibility requirements in the same way as things like usability or high-quality code.
- Make the content clear. Plain language is an essential element in accessibility, and editing the content does not require an extensive development project or technical changes.
- Check the page titles, alt texts, and other metadata. With these, you can improve accessibility and increase search engine coverage.
- Audit and test the service in terms of accessibility. There are several excellent browser add-ons and screen reader software available for quick independent testing that helps you get a basic idea of your service’s accessibility.
Even if the service has already been released, and it may have been operating actively for years, you still can and should make improvements to accessibility. Through accessibility auditing, for example, you can identify and prioritise the necessary actions which will help you improve the quality and increase the potential customer base of your service.
Head of Design
Matti has more than ten years of experience in UX design and service design in various industries in the public and private sectors. At the heart of Matti's design thinking are insights gained through in-depth user and customer understanding that can be used to create useful, functional, and easy-to-use digital services. In his free time, Matti can be met at the Crossfit Hall or on the mountain bike trail.