19 January 2004
Design Practice

The Business Case for Web Accessibility

Until recently, few businesses had given much thought to the topic of Web Accessibility. However thanks to the tireless work of organisations like the RNIB, this is starting to change. In this article I hope to give a brief outline about exactly what web accessibility is, and then explain how building an accessible website can have a positive impact on your business, both in terms of PR and ROI.

Let's start by exploring what web accessibility is.

Simply put, web site accessibility is about making a site accessible to the largest range of people possible. For the majority of website owners, this is simply good business sense. After all, the more people you have using your site the better.

At It's core, making a website accessible involves removing potential barriers to access. Luckily the people in charge of setting standards on the web have provided designers with the basic tools to remove these barriers. However old habits are hard to break, and many designers are still building sites that can cause problems for a variety of individuals.

So who does this affect?

When most people talk about web accessibility, they usually start talking about people with physical disabilities. However web accessibility is a much wider issue and at a fundamental level affects all of us.

I've covered the issue of web standards and browser compatibility in more depth elsewhere. However to quickly recap, different web browsers were developed to understand different sets of rules. This meant a site would work on one browser and not another, causing huge accessibility issues. These days, browser manufactures have started settling on a standard set of rules (called web standards). One of the most basic steps of making a site accessible is to create a site using these rules. By using these web standards you can help ensure your site is accessible by the widest range of browsers available.

Here are some more groups of people that have problems accessing content on the web.

  • People surfing the web using mobile phones and PDA's. These people are possibly the most affluent and technically advanced group of people suffering from web accessibility issues.

  • People using old browsers or old computers. Many companies and organisations have standardised on older browser versions and don't use the latest computer equipment.

  • People using slow internet connections.

  • The "Silver Surfer" is one of the biggest growing markets on the web and has a large amount of disposable income. This sector has accessibility issues such as reduced mobility, reduced hand-eye co-ordination and poor vision.

  • Young Internet users can also have poor hand-eye co-ordination, coupled with a low reading age.

  • People who don't speak or understand English fluently.

  • Blind, partially sighted and the colour blind are probably the most obvious group of individuals affected by accessibility issues. This group also makes up a very large percentage of web surfers

  • People with physical disabilities, such as those with impaired mobility

So you can see, web accessibility is a wide-ranging issue that can affect a large proportion of web users. Each individual group may only account for a small percentage of your traffic, however all these percentages start to add up to meaningful numbers. On even a moderately busy site you could literally be turning busloads of people away every day.

So how does this affect me?

When trying to convince people of the importance of accessibility, most people (in the UK) focus on the Disability Discrimination Act . Under UK law it's illegal for a business to discriminate against people with disabilities. This relates to online and well as offline businesses. So if your site is inaccessible, you are potentially breaking the law.

However most people prefer carrots to sticks, so selling web accessibility on legal grounds tends to antagonise people. It makes much more sense to focus on the positive benefits web accessibility can bring.

The fact of the matter is, making your website accessible to as many people as possible is just sound business sense. Building in accessibility on a new site costs around 2% of the overall budget, but the rewards both in terms of PR and ROI can be great.

The positive aspects of having an accessible website are:

  • Ability to tap into affluent niche markets like the "Silver Surfer" or people using PDA's and phones to access the web.

  • The positive PR that comes from adopting a socially responsible attitude and complying with web best practices.

  • Accessible websites are inherently more search engine friendly. After all, Google is the largest "blind user" on the web.

  • Increased turnover due to more people using your site.

The negative aspects of an inaccessible website are:

  • You could be turning away large numbers of potential customers each day without even knowing it.

  • When people have a positive experience of a website they generally don't tell people. However if people have a negative experience they are likely to tell friends, relatives and colleagues about their experience. Excluding even a few people from your website can generate very negative PR

  • Websites are legally required to be accessible to people with disabilities.

So you can see, web accessibility is a wide ranging issue and one that effects a large number of people, both web users and website owners. Many people misunderstand web accessibility and see it as another resource drain. However making your website accessible should be a matter of common sense. Combined with the benefits of having an accessible website, there is a very strong case for web accessibility.

For more info on the subject of Accessibility, please feel free to download the accessibility presentation(128KB pdf) I gave at the first SkillSwap event.