Sector News

Bridging another digital divide: Accessibility for blind and low-vision consumers

May 12, 2023
Diversity & Inclusion

Companies have an opportunity to build lasting relationships with consumers who are blind or low vision. Doing so requires a proactive, inclusive approach to digital.

Undoubtedly, digital channels have made everyday tasks, from depositing checks to buying tonight’s dinner ingredients, easier and more convenient for many people. But digitization has not always led to an optimal customer experience for everyone. The more than two billion people worldwide who are blind or low vision are often left behind.

Our 2022 Global Digital Sentiment Survey found that consumers are interacting digitally with twice as many industries as they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. In collaboration with accessibility consultancy Tilting the Lens, we conducted qualitative user research in Germany, Italy, and the United States to understand the specific digital behaviors and experiences of those who are blind or have low vision (For more information about the terms used in this article, see sidebar “The language of vision disabilities,” and for details about our qualitative research, see sidebar “About the research” at the end of this article). Individuals we spoke with highlighted some helpful technological advances in recent years that have aided their digital experiences. For example, screen-reading software—the primary way most of our research participants engage with digital technologies—is available on most devices.2 They also pointed to accessibility improvements that some companies have made to their websites and digital content. Still, they often found digital content and services to be inaccessible.

The social case for improving the digital experiences of those with blindness or low vision is clear: improvements can provide them equal access to digital products and services and reinforce their independence. The business case also is compelling: companies can build loyal, valuable relationships with these consumers. It’s estimated that consumer companies with inaccessible websites and digital strategies lose $6.9 billion annually as frustrated disabled consumers take their business to competitors.3 We expect the cost to companies to increase by 2030 as demand for accessible products and services rises due to a rapidly aging global population.

In this article, we’ll share the digital experiences and feedback of our research participants to help organizations understand the unintended effects of traditional product design on trust and buying decisions. We’ll also provide some principles organizations can adopt to improve the customer experience for everyone.

Defining digital accessibility

Online consumer experiences—from ordering food to accessing a bank account to clothes shopping—are often heavily driven by two elements: visuals and the use of a mouse or a finger on a touch screen. Photos, videos, and subtle user experience cues (for instance, font sizes, color palettes, text boxes, and icons) not only enrich and enliven the experiences but also steer consumers through digital content and enable them to take action, such as requesting additional information or placing an order.

As a result, individuals with low vision may, for example, experience challenges interacting with web content when companies use low-contrast color combinations. Individuals who are blind must rely on assistive technologies, such as screen readers, to access this content. However, these technologies are only effective if companies include the elements on their websites and the underlying code that enables them to function properly. For example, if a website’s underlying code doesn’t explain that a button or hyperlink is clickable, consumers may miss important information or be unable to advance in a digital experience. As one participant in Germany explained, “It often happens that you try to look at a product for 30 minutes, working through the ordering process, and then you suddenly realize on the last button, you can’t do it. It’s a frustrating user experience.”

So what is digital accessibility? When we asked our research participants to share their definitions, they expressed the desire for a seamless experience when interfacing with online content. They said they’d like it to be delivered without barriers—meaning, for instance, that they can view and interact with it using whatever screen-reading technology or accessibility device they prefer. They said they shouldn’t have to implement work-arounds, such as asking friends or family members for help. Moreover, they would like the level of the experience to be comparable to that of those without disabilities. Their comments also suggest that separate accessible sites or accessibility site overlays often don’t suffice, because they can be inconsistent or simply ineffective.

What does it mean to create a fully accessible digital experience from a technical perspective? While there’s no universal definition of digital accessibility, there are plenty of reference sources. One notable resource: the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative, which is part of the World Wide Web Consortium that works with members of disabled communities to set accessibility standards. It sets four main aspects of accessibility:4

  • All information is perceivable.
  • Interfaces are operable.
  • Content is understandable.
  • Capabilities are robust.

Most participants said they would like to see some level of governance for improving the accessibility of digital sites, whether globally or locally determined. But our discussions with those with lived experiences make clear that delivering digital accessibility requires more than that. Designers will need to find creative solutions and adopt new mindsets focused on providing everyone with equal access to applications and content.

How accessibility impacts digital trust and buying decisions
Blind internet users abandon approximately two-thirds of their e-commerce interactions because of inaccessibility, forcing them to seek out more accessible options elsewhere.5 Ultimately, disabled consumers turn to companies they trust to deliver hassle-free digital interactions. This is in line with the result of our recent survey on digital trust. In general, consumers rank digital-trust tenets as nearly as important as cost and delivery time in buying decisions and indicate that they take their business elsewhere when trust is violated.

Yet our research suggests that the impact on brands is likely far higher. Blind internet users are not just abandoning transactions. Inaccessibility drives them to avoid market segments and companies altogether. Many research participants ranked their digital engagement low in industries where consumers more broadly have ranked it high, such as in telecom, utilities, and insurance.

Moreover, participants’ responses when asked about 12 industries6 suggest that all can, and must, do better if they are to build digital trust with disabled communities. Consider the banking industry, which ranked highest in digital engagement among research participants in all three geographies. Ninety percent of participants in Germany and the United States and all participants in Italy said they had engaged with digital banking within the past six months. Many of the participants praised mobile-banking apps for being simple and easy to navigate by, for example, offering assistive technology that accurately reads content on the screen aloud to the user or by enabling the user to enlarge content. Still, about half ranked the overall digital experiences in the industry as either “usable but difficult” or “accessible with many problems.”

So how can leaders improve the accessibility of their digital products and services in a way that creates better customer experiences and, in turn, builds digital trust? Feedback from our research participants suggests that the answer lies in not focusing on accessibility per se but on improving customer experience for those with disabilities. READ  MORE

By Anne Kronschnabl and Benjamim Vieira


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