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Common Software Accessibility Failures and Why This Hurts You

Tuesday 05 of February, 2019.
Reading Time: 4 minutes.
By Juan Carlos Porras Quirós

When you’re in charge of an application, a web page, or a software product of some sort, one of the most pressing concerns you have is how to get as much attention to that product as possible. The more people who use your product, the bigger your revenue and financial growth will be.

How can you achieve this? As product designers, we try to make our creations as appealing as possible for people. We try to make them stand above the competition. Above everything else, we are constantly trying to improve the quality of our products.

Where accessibility comes into play

However, in our search to make sure a product can reach as many people as possible, there’s a very common detail that many designers miss. How often do you consider how accessible your product is to people with disabilities or impairments? Different people have different needs. Depending on their specific condition, some people might be unable to interact with your product in the way you anticipated.

Fortunately, it is not difficult to make sure we create accessible software products. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0) are a series of guidelines published by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that dictate how to make content accessible for people with disabilities.

Here is a list of some examples of typical accessibility issues that one might find in an average software product. All of these situations would make your product, in one way or another, stop complying with WCAG 2.0.

Missing text alternatives

A person with a visual disability is probably going to interact with the internet using a screen enhancing program of some sort, such as a screen narrator program. Screen narrators are designed to turn what’s displayed on the screen into audio form. This allows people with visual impairments to access and navigate that content.

Even with the best algorithms and protocols available, screen narrators often struggle when interpreting images that have no description or footnote, clickable objects that are just icons and don’t have any text description, or even web elements that have no code description and are misnamed on the web page. If it can’t be read by the program, then the user cannot understand the content. This can make your product unusable for them. 

And with almost 8 million Americans suffering from visual disability, that is a significant number to count out.

Regarding time-based media

People with hearing impairments often need to depend on hearing aids and/or closed captioning when trying to access media content like videos or live streams. While it’s fairly simple to create subtitles for pre-recorded media, it is, unfortunately, not implemented as often as it should be. It’s also more complicated to do so for live feeds.

It might seem far fetched at first, but when dealing with news broadcasts, informational videos, or user guides, this could be the defining factor when a user is deciding whether to use your product or not. If no alternative is provided, people with hearing impairments will not be able to access this type of content.

This group cannot be ignored either, since it makes up 5% of the world population.

Regarding time conditions

Depending on the nature of your business, you may or may not deal with session times or time-sensitive actions. You’ve probably used a website to buy a movie ticket, check your bank account balance, get tickets for a concert, or something else that is time-dependent. There are people that need additional time to process what’s been displayed on screen, or have physical disabilities that limit how fast they’re able to type or navigate with a mouse. These folks will struggle and often time out during the above mentioned actions.

If your product doesn’t provide a time alert, a re-authentication action, or a general way to extend your interactions, you could be leaving out a significant amount of people from your target demographic.

Regarding visual aspects

When it comes down to deciding a visual aspect, design is often decided based on what’s liked the most or what’s the most appealing. This can prove to be very subjective. In these sorts of tasks, it’s important to make sure your product is not only preferred, but also accessible to as many people as possible.

Using a font size that’s too small, choosing a color palette that is not visually perceived by people with colorblindness, or utilizing blinking colors that could cause a seizure to people with some sort of epileptic diagnosis are just some examples of scenarios where the visual elements of your product could make a real difference.

The above cases are just a few tiny details in the full extent of accessibility. While there’s a chance none of the described examples apply to your product or your specific situation, WCAG 2.0 has four main areas, twelve objective guidelines, and over sixty criteria that define accessibility over three levels of compliance.

Aside from the quality assurance testing services that you might have received during your project, there are specific accessibility testing services. This would allow you to increase your use demographic, the overall quality of your product, and revenue through more user interactions and consumption. If your QA team were to take an accessibility-oriented look at your product, there’s a high chance you’ll find opportunities for improvement.

Even if you’re not aware of any of the accessibility guidelines, and even if you’re sceptical about what different characteristics could be evaluated for accessibility standard compliance, it is worth it to check with your QA service provider to see if you can get an accessibility audit or related service.

On one hand, people with disabilities might be an untapped demographic for your product. On the other, guaranteeing accessible content to all people is an ethic, moral, and functional dilemma that deserves a closer look. 

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