What if 20% of your customers couldn’t access your website?

What would you say if you discovered that one in five potential customers wasn’t able to use your website? For many online businesses, this is the reality. At least 20% of the UK population use assistive technologies to access the world wide web. If your website doesn’t work with the technology these customers use, they won’t be able to use your site. And, if they can’t use your site, they can’t spend money with you. A poorly designed, inaccessible site isn’t just bad for your customers, it hurts your profits too.

What are assistive technologies, and why do they matter?

Assistive technologies fall into four main groups:

• Applications which transform visual information into spoken audio for the visually impaired.
• Applications which change the appearance of information on the screen. This could be by magnifying it, or by changing the colour scheme, layout, size, or font.
• Technology to aid interaction with the device on which the user is viewing information. This includes both speech recognition technology, allowing users to control devices with their voice, as well as a huge range of assistive devices such as custom keyboards, mice, trackpads and more.

Many people use the assistive technologies integrated into today’s operating systems (Windows, Android, etc), while others will use specialist software such as NVDA, or Jaws. However a potential customer accesses the world wide web, it is vital that your website design, and mobile apps, can be used by as many people as possible. Designing accessible sites and apps isn’t just an ethical responsibility that we all have; it’s also good business sense. More customers accessing your site or app means more business for your company.

Designing for accessibility

The key to designing for accessibility is to keep it simple, and stick with standards-compliant technology. This applies to both the front-end content on your website and the code which drives it.

As web developers ourselves, we know how tempting it can be to be creative with technology and find new ways to make your content jump around the screen, in a stunning array of colours and styles. For someone with dyslexia, an autistic person, a screen-reader or magnifier user, or someone using a colour overlay, what you see as creative design could easily render the website unusable.

So, here are a few simple things to remember:

• Use semantic HTML. That means properly structured, text-based content which makes good use of header tags.
• Only use pictures, graphics, or multimedia where there is no alternative and, if you do, make sure you provide a transcript.
• Avoid .pdf downloads. HTML-based pages work better with assistive technology – and are easier for everyone else to view on smartphones, anyway.
• Use tags. Screen readers (and search engines) can’t see images, so it’s important to use tags to explain the image in a meaningful way instead. This will also help your SEO, since it makes your content more accessible to Google.
• Stick with a simple colour scheme. Black text on a white background, with one or two highlighting colours, is the most accessible design.
• Be consistent. Make sure that all your links, buttons, headers, etc. are consistently formatted so they are easy to spot.

Finally, if you find that you are unsure about how to design your website or app so it is accessible, ask. Either find a web designer who can work on the project with you, or simply ask your users what works best for them.