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Friday, 28 January 2022 12:30

Digital accessibility in the post-pandemic era

By Paul Arthur, OutSystems
Paul Arthur, Regional Vice President, ANZ at OutSystems Paul Arthur, Regional Vice President, ANZ at OutSystems

GUEST OPINION by Paul Arthur, Regional Vice President, ANZ at OutSystems:  From cashless payments to online food delivery and getting assistance from AI-assisted chatbots, the pandemic has accelerated digital transformation across countries and industries. This has normalised many tech advancements that were considered revolutionary only months earlier. Almost overnight it became necessary to know how to navigate a digital-first environment to access the most basic of services.

For example, a recent report from Deloitte states that Australian enterprises are planning to spend an average of $68 million on advanced wireless technologies over the next three years, with a key driver being increased ability to respond to business disruptions like COVID-19.

Digital accessibility has become critical for ensuring universal access to basic services. In developer terms, this means that organisations need to design products and services that can be used by everyone – not just tech-savvy younger generations.

Accessibility considerations for tech are not just age-related – there are more limitations that developers need to consider. The spectrum spans people with disabilities, whether they are visual, auditive, speech, physical, cognitive, or neurological. It also includes those with health conditions or temporary impairments (the healthiest person may get a gym injury and be obliged to use the mouse with their non-dominant hand, or have tired eyes after staring at a screen all day).  It is also essential to have solutions that are accessible – again, with universal access to fast networks. While the NBN rollout has made considerable inroads towards ubiquitous access to decent speeds and bandwidth, mobile data black-spots are still common, especially in regional areas. Australia is simply too vast and sparsely populated to avoid it.

As Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web once said, “The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”

Usability vs Accessibility

Accessibility and usability are often mistaken for one another – an obvious , considering they both fall under the user experience umbrella. However, they are very different.

Accessibility concerns itself with universal products and providing an equivalent user experience for everyone regardless of their chronic or temporary limitations.

Usability considerations, on the other hand, make the product more effective, efficient and improve ease of use. However, it does not address the very specific needs required for different groups of people.

What Digital Accessibility Looks Like: Standards and Guidelines

Thankfully, there is a single shared standard for digital accessibility to refer to for counsel. Put in place more than 20 years ago by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) document outlines in detail how web content can be made accessible for individuals around the world. The guidelines are extensively adopted globally for making accessibility laws and regulations.

Co-created with individuals and organisations around the world, joint efforts like this are essential to affirm that the needs of differently-abled users are represented in accordance with best practices. For example, the Australian government’s Digital Transformation Agency states that local companies have a legal requirement to ensure their service is usable and accessible to people with disabilities according to the Disability Discrimination Act 1992. Furthermore, Australian Government agencies are required to meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA, and are strongly encouraged to meet WCAG 2.1 Level AA.

Why Should You Care About Digital Accessibility?

While the importance of digital accessibility has been receiving greater attention in recent years with more frequent conversations around diversity and inclusion, the pandemic has definitely pushed it forward and into the centre of the public eye.

More than ever, digital touch points are replacing traditional in-person or telephone interactions with customers and employees. With greater efficiency and agility at their fingertips, companies are able to deliver new products and services that give users the flexibility and convenience to address their needs in their own time.

Digital adoption in Australia and New Zealand has accelerated significantly due to the pandemic. In fact, according to government statistics 90 percent of Australian companies adopted new technologies to maintain business continuity as a direct result of pandemic conditions. To leverage this digital boom, it is pivotal for companies to design digital spaces that are easy to reach and interact with for consumers, in order to maximise the impact of every single application designed. 

While there might be implementation costs involved, the positive ROI from having a strategy that centres on digital accessibility far surpasses these costs and will boost the business in the long-run.

These benefits may be, among other things, increased website traffic from a wider user base (think of an e-commerce website or an enterprise application) or increased online sales due to greater ease of use.

These factors remain valid for in-house applications designed for employees as well.

Having accessibility built into products also becomes crucial for websites or applications that are developed to reduce costs with traditional communication channels, such as customer service or traditional government bureaucracy as it takes away costs associated with customer service agents and paper interactions.

Think about marketing amplification - having accessible apps also optimises Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), assisting marketers and promoting corporate social responsibility agendas.

When to Care About Accessibility?

Designing for accessibility should not be an afterthought, but form part of the foundation of every application.

With user experience becoming a global buzzword and UX designers finally getting a seat at the table, customer centricity has to be married with user needs and demands, capabilities and abilities, preferences and situations.

From assistive technology like screen readers to technical support like keyboard navigation, the goal is for seamless and intuitive digital interactions between people, services, products, information and entertainment.

Accessibility should and needs to be considered in the early stages of any application development, and the OutSystems modern application development platform comes equipped with all the tools needed to ensure that applications are universal, accessible and compliant with the recommended best practices and WCAG 2.1 guidelines.

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