Web Development for Everyone:

The State of Accessibility in eCommerce



Written by Alison Walden
Adapted by Katherine Pendrill
Original Article from Medium.com

Did you know that there are no truly accessible ecommerce storefronts online today? In other words, online retailers are effectively “closed” for audiences who require an accessible experience.

So why isn’t this happening? And, how can developers help move the needle on this problem?

Let’s start by defining what accessibility actually means. I like the definition presented by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind:

Accessibility means access. It refers to the ability for everyone, regardless of disability or special needs, to access, use and benefit from everything within their environment.

But what about web accessibility; who benefits from that? Spoiler alert — it’s everyone.

With the advent of smartphones we all face new challenges when trying to navigate websites. However, let’s specifically talk about the population of people with disabilities, including cognitive issues, hearing loss, and vision loss.

I refer to these as “web impacting” disabilities, because these disabilities affect peoples’ ability to navigate the web. Approximately 35 million people to be more specific.

So how has this population been experiencing online retail throughout the years?

From the late 1990s onward, the Internet gradually became part of our lives, until in 2016 it was estimated that 3.4 billion people regularly used “the Web”.

With more and more people using the Internet, physical modes of content were steadily replaced by electronic modes of content. A big part of the shift was that commerce at physical locations has been replaced or augmented by e-commerce storefronts.

This shift had the potential to remove many of the barriers to communication that existed for people with disabilities in the physical world, but only if websites were designed and developed accessibly.

Unfortunately, there is no ecommerce site that I know of that is completely accessible. Most people today can hardly conceive of life without the Internet, or without ecommerce. But these online retail stores are effectively closed for this population.

So why is this happening? What it all boils down to is that it’s a design problem.

Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works. And the web works in a variety of ways.

It can work with a mouse pointing device and a monitor, the way many of us probably use it.

It can work with just a keyboard and a monitor. Consider someone who has a tremor and cannot focus their mouse pointer and needs to use a keyboard instead. Or, a sighted person who may be paralyzed, and use a puff and suck device that mimics the function of a tab key.

Or, people can use their keyboard in conjunction with a screen reader.

In both of these latter two cases, the main way people are navigating is with their keyboard, not a mouse. But most people who design websites today actually use a mouse pointer to navigate. This is a critical point.

A screenshot of a form from a long-time e-commerce giant, that won’t read these important steps to a keyboard reader.

Information not read on tab stop is faded out in this graphic for illustration purposes.

Compare what the product price is compared to what a screen reader says.

Would you ask someone to design the perfect bike who has never ridden one?

You probably wouldn’t. But that is effectively what we’re asking designers and developers to do, when they usually navigate the web using a mouse-pointing device, and we ask them to start creating experiences for people who mainly use their keyboards.

As developers, we craft these experiences, and likely don’t test with these impairments in mind. As you begin (or continue) your development career, it’s important to think about integrating this type of consumer into your thought process, and encouraging the companies you work for to do the same. If we all push this objective, we’ll be navigating accessible online experiences in no time.

Indeed, it’s part of a developer’s responsibility to help craft code that ensures the widest population of people possible can access it. With that in mind, there are several key areas to consider (and test for) to ensure that we are designing for an accessible online experience:

  1. Usability basics are not considered for keyboard/screen readers.
  2. Keyboard users are not given the same quantity or quality of information as mouse pointer user.
  3. Nobody tests to hear what the screen reader is saying.

All of these issues are easily solved, but nobody finds them because nobody tests with a screen reader.

These are just a few of the issues that I see on ecommerce sites every day that make it impossible for a person with disabilities not only to check out, but to really be part of our community. However, by understanding the design flaw that creates these errors, developers and designers can work to avoid it.

I like to imagine the incredible impact that will result from big names in ecommerce investing in adding accessibility enhancements to their sites. Imagine one of the top ecommerce sites becoming truly accessible, and what it will mean to so many people. If you have the opportunity to work on or influence the direction of any e-commerce sites in your career, take the time to consider how it can help (or hinder) someone’s online experience.

To make your mark on the new era of accessible design, learn more about our Front End Development Bootcamp.

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