Improve ecommerce site accessibility and improve conversions

Accessibility is something that isn’t given an awful lot of thought when it comes to web design, with the general consensus being that if somebody can access the internet then they can successfully navigate a web page / site. This is true for the most part, except in those cases where the website is just poorly designed. That being said, it isn’t always the case. There are plenty of people that may have difficulty getting around a website, and various reasons due to disabilities or age.

There are around 13 million disabled people living in the UK, and almost 57 million in the US. These are the two largest markets in the English speaking world, and their disabled constituents are being largely ignored by online stores.

Roughly 15% percent of the global population has a disability of some kind or other, and that is a lot of people that you could potentially be barring access to your ecommerce store. Is your business so successful that it can safely ignore roughly 1 billion people? No, thought not.

With this in mind we had a chat with team at SM Design Studio who are specialists in eCommerce website design, here is what they had to say.

Should you embrace accessibility?

The two largest organisations in the world, dedicated to setting and disseminating web standards, already actively advocate website accessibility and have been doing so since the 1990s. Who do we mean? The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and WebAIM, from Utah State University.

For over two decades, the two largest and most influential web standards organisations have been telling the digital community that this needs to be happening, and yet most companies don’t give it a second thought.

We live in a world of increasing inclusivity, as we should, and it’s high time this extended to websites. Altruism aside however, there are other reasons to allow as many people as possible access to your ecommerce store. The bigger of these reasons, and one that no company can ignore, is that increased traffic ultimately leads to increased sales.

To make things easier, both organisations have resources that can help web designers build web designers build websites that are accessible by everybody. The W3C provides extensive WCAG 2.0 documentation that describes Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 requirements and how to meet them.

WebAIM on the other hand, have a ‘section 508’ checklist that designers and developers will also find helpful.

Improving accessibility to boost profits may seem a little hard faced and cynical, but profits are not the only motivators. Actual good can come of moves like this and can make life a lot easier for many people around the world.

As an example, let us consider a blind person that lives alone. This person may need to make a purchase, and life would be so much simpler if they could do it online from the very literal safety of their own home. If the site they wish to make the purchase from is not accessible for this person, they will either have to try and find a site that can help them or they will simply have to go to a physical store.

If the item they wanted to purchase is a specialist item only available online, or is not available locally, then what? Is it right or fair that a section of society is effectively cut off from goods and services simply because of an accessibility issue? Of course not.

Naturally, as a business, the first consideration will be the loss of custom and if making accessibility improvements boosts profits and helps the end user then so much the better, don’t you think?

Providing for the blind and visually impaired

If you read the above and thought, “well, there isn’t much that can be done to make a site more accessible for a blind or visually impaired person”, you may be surprised to learn that there is a surprising amount that can be done.

Here are a selection of common problems that a blind person can encounter when trying to make use of the services offered by a particular website.

Screen readers don’t work as they should

Screen reader software relies on the website being visited to be fully compatible with the browser being used. This software allows the blind and visually impaired to either have text read allowed via a speech synthesizer or, alternatively, a braille enabled display.

The solution to this problem, for the site designer, is fairly straightforward and simply requires that site is designed to be fully compatible with as many mainstream browsers as possible.

Specially built browsers are outdated compared with ‘regular’ browsers

This becomes a problem because the majority of websites make use of many features of modern browsers to best display their wares. Trouble is, browsers that are specially made with the visually impaired in mind are quite a way behind the technological abilities of more mainstream browsers. The upshot of this is that content is not displayed properly, if at all.

A fix for this problem is quite simple, but require a little work. Most websites are responsive these days, and if they aren’t they should be, so adding support for these specially built browsers is an added ‘feature’ that should be considered. When the site script detects the use of one of these browsers, certain features could be toned down or replaced with something a little more user friendly for the visually impaired.

Neither of these challenges pose a particular problem for developers, so if a designer wanted to implement these steps then they could do so quite easily.

When you consider that the vast majority of sites don’t consider even the simplest of implementations, as outlined above, any designer that does is going to be flavour of the month as far as the site owner is concerned when those traffic stats start to ramp up.

Accessibility improvements could even form a part of an ecommerce site’s marketing strategy, to really gain an edge on the competition. Not only will the site designer benefit, but the store owner will too and the end user, the one that will really feel the benefit, goes away feeling satisfied and valued – as they should be.

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