Every eCommerce brand wants to deliver the best customer experience possible. Having excellent products, a beautiful website and exceptional customer service isn’t enough, however.
It doesn’t matter how good your website looks or how great your sales support staff are if some customers can’t use your website in the first place. That’s why web shops must be built with user accessibility in mind; in some countries, there is a legal mandate to do so.
For brands that want to remain compliant with those regulations, want to reach more customers and want to solidify their reputations, having an accessible website is not optional. With that in mind, here’s how to make your website accessible to everyone.
ADA Compliance and Accessibility in eCommerce
The Americans with Disabilities Act is a 1990 law that prohibits public spaces and businesses from discriminating against disability. It was designed to make sure everyone could use and access facilities and businesses — places like schools, shops and restaurants. In this, it has been very effective.
Unfortunately, because the act was created before the internet had entered mainstream consciousness, there isn’t any guidance for online businesses. That said, eCommerce brands in U.S. jurisdictions should strive for compliance. As the team at InteractOne point out, most U.S. courts believe websites should be held under Title III of the act.
Title III doesn’t specify what a direct-to-consumer eCommerce business should do to be compliant, however. The only guidance online businesses are given is that their websites must offer “‘reasonable accessibility’ to people with disabilities,” says Business News Daily’s Adam C. Uzialko.
Without clear guidance, most online organizations turn to the World Wide Web Consortium for help. The web standards organization has published a series of recommendations — the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) — to help standardize online accessibility. These have been developed alongside individuals and organizations across the globe to make sure that they meet as man needs as possible.
Lawsuits Await Brands That Aren’t Accessible
Some companies — including Amazon, Apple and Nike — have been sued over their sites’ levels of accessibility, writes Redstage’s Don Pingaro. The number of such suits is on the rise, too. More than 13,000 cases were filed between January and October 2018. While not all of these claims turn out to be serious — some are legal trolls out to make a quick buck — over 7,000 were arraigned in federal court.
Perhaps the most prominent case was the 2016 Domino’s suit, reports Mainebiz’s Maureen Milliken. The plaintiff in that case, Guillermo Robles, who is visually impaired, argued he couldn’t order a pizza through Domino’s mobile app because it wasn’t compatible with text-to-speech software. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court ruled that because Domino’s website and app facilitated access to goods at a public place, ADA rules applied.
Brands without brick-and-mortar locations also must adhere to the ADA. It doesn’t matter what your revenue is or which online eCommerce platform you use, says Netalico Founder and CTO Mark Lewis. He reports personally having seen eCommerce companies with $1 million in revenue pay six-figure settlements.
“The lawyers for these plaintiffs are targeting eCommerce websites that rank high in Google search results because they assume they have deep pockets or insurance that they have insurance that will result in an easy settlement,” Lewis writes. “So the more successful you are, the more you’re at risk.”
Accessibility Is About More Than Legal ADA Compliance
Failing to make your website accessible can mean alienating a part of your customer base and undermining one of the core benefits of eCommerce in general. eCommerce has proved so popular because of its convenience. Consumers can make purchases without ever setting foot in a store, something that those with physical disabilities find particularly appealing. That’s not the case, however, when your site isn’t accessible.
Accessibility can also impact your brand, notes the team at DigitlHaus. As an online retailer, you are expected to know what it takes to be ADA-compliant. Being compliant is imperative if you want to build a reputation as a trusted online retailer that provides an indiscriminate shopping experience.
Further, the team at Corewaysolution argues that improving your website’s accessibility will also improve your SEO. Meta tagging, alt text, transcripts and screen readers make websites easier for those with disabilities to navigate, but they also make it easier for a search engine’s crawlers, too.
How to Make Your Shop Accessible
Electric Eye Cofounder Chase Clymer recommends all eCommerce stores follow the four principles outlined by WCAG:
- Be perceivable. Add alt text, captions and other technology that makes it easier for users to see and hear your content.
- Be operable. Provide multiple methods of input, and give users enough time to read content to make an informed purchase.
- Be understandable. Make text clear, both visually and grammatically, to help users avoid obvious mistakes.
- Be robust. Make your website as compatible with as many assistive tools and programs as possible.
A good starting point is to consider the needs of visual- and hearing-impaired individuals, Sourcify CEO Nathan Resnick writes. Consider how users navigate websites using their voice alone. You’ll want to add a screen reader, too, and include transcripts for any video content.
One manageable optimization that all sites can make is to add alt text to each image, says PaperStreet founder Peter Boyd. This is simply a word or a sentence that clearly describes the image. “Having accurate alt text is important not only because it enables screen reading software, such as NVDA or JAWS, to describe images to visually impaired users, but also because it enables search engines to display images based on written descriptions and to display search results more accurately.”
The checkout process is a crucial part of any eCommerce shop, and it’s therefore essential to make it as accessible as possible, notes the Bureau of Internet Accessibility. Test your checkout process thoroughly to make sure your third-party transaction software meets WCAG guidelines.
The Role of BaaS in Accessibility
Improving the accessibility of your website by hand is certainly possible. For most eCommerce stores, however, that work would be too complex and time-consuming.
Marketing consultant Chris Yoko believes there’s only so much testing you can do on your own. Ultimately, you can only make sure your website is fully accessible and compliant by using the same tools and technology that people with disabilities use. For most eCommerce brands, this will mean partnering with a third party that has access to these tools and the expertise to use them.
Business-as-a-Service (BaaS) providers are the perfect partners for brands looking to ensure website accessibility and avoid legal attention. BaaS combines software with industry expertise to deliver a comprehensive solution to the real-world challenges that eCommerce companies face.
In the case of accessibility, brands need consultants who understand the legal aspects of the ADA but also the knowledge and software to optimize store. Lawyers can do the first, web designers can manage the latter, but only BaaS can deliver both.
This is particularly important if your website is complex, with dynamic or frequently updated content, writes internet marketer Zac Johnson. The last thing you want is for a single update to ruin your site’s accessibility.
In other words, your website’s accessibility is far too important not to trust an expert.