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Accessibility Online

In late 2016, the BBC reported that retailers may be “missing out on £249bn because many are inaccessible to disabled customers”.

Under the Equality Act 2010 all retailers must provide access to their goods online as well as in store. So this seems like a much more attractive option.

A review looking into the main barriers for online shoppers with disabilities was done. The retailers under the scope were:

  1. Boots
  2. Mothercare
  3. House of Fraser
  4. Joules
  5. Tesco
  6. Not on the High Street

How Accessibility Was Measured

To assess the accessibility of the site, a comparison was made with the Web Consortium Accessibility Guidelines from the W3C (AKA WCAG 2.0). These guidelines help to improve the web accessibility and are the best way to ensure the widest audience of the site.

A typical shopping journey was taken on these sites to see their approach to accessibility. This included:

  • Homepage and search
  • Browse (including any product category and product range pages)
  • Selection (product page and basket)
  • Payment (delivery and payment details)

With the focus put on key accessibility features on WCAG 2.0 Level AA, including keyboard accessibility and screen reader compatibility. Items looked out for included:

  • Use of headings
  • Alt text for images
  • Availability of skip links
  • Inclusion of a visible focus
  • Access to forms
  • Use of ARIA to provide greater context
  • Access of pop ups / modal windows
  • Colour contrast
  • Navigating around is in a logical order
  • Links are meaningful and describe their purpose

What were the common barriers?

A good insight was gained into the main issues users with disabilities face when shopping online. There were many common themes and sadly none of the sites met the Level AA of the WCAF 2.0 guidelines.

This means that users with disabilities would have difficulty buying a product on each site, with half of the sites totally inhibiting the user at certain points in their journey.

Visible focus

This navigational feature highlights where the user is on the page visually. This is essential for users who are sighted who rely on visual cues to navigate with a keyboard.

As positive examples, Tesco and House of Fraser provide clear and consistent visible focus so users can see their location as they move their focus through the site. Other retailers had a mix of custom, default or no focus at all so that they relied on the default browser focus which is not sufficient since it can be unclear and inconsistent between browsers.

A positive example is made by Tesco and House of Fraser, who provide clear and consistent visible focus on the location as they move their focus throughout the site. Other retailer had custom, default or no focus at all. So they relied on the default browser focus. This is not satisfactory as it can be inconsistent and unclear between browsers.

‘Skip to’ links

For Blind users, ‘skip to’ links provide an easy way to move through the navigation and into the main content of the page.

Only half of these sites had ‘skip to’ links. This means that keyboard users would have to repeatedly step through the long navigation menus.

Alternative text for images

Images use alt text to allow screen readers to describe the image. This allows the content and function of images to be available to users who have visual or particular cognitive disabilities. Therefore, all Informative images on a page should have alt text that provides users with the same access to the content.

Both Boots and Mothercare had alt text that were read to the screen reader more than once. This is due to the images having alt text and an identical title attribute.

All the other retailers had acceptable image descriptions.

Providing context to screen reader users

This is crucial for screen reader users who are not able to visually group information together or understand the meaning through visible presentation. Information must be put into context in a way that is accessible for the users.

Examples of this from our retailers included:

Form fields need labels so that a screen reader tells the user what information is required.

This was an issue for all the retailers. Some sites such as notonthehighstreet.com successfully implemented this in some areas of the site but not others. This inconsistency is a big problem for those that use screen readers.

All retailers at one point or another had links that did not make sense out of context. Common examples found were ‘show more’ and ‘edit’. As we can see below, Mothercare.com used ambiguous links such as “edit” and “remove”.

All retailers had links somewhere that did not make sense out of context. Common examples were links saying ‘show more’ and ‘edit’ with no context.

Some sites did not provide screen reader use with all information need to make a purchase. For example, product options such as size and colour were not accessible.

Retailers such as Joules and House of Fraser had no notification for sizes being out of stock. Visually, these were clearly unavailable, but there was no differentiation on the screen reader, making it seem as if they were available.

As a result, this would inhibit a screen reader user from choosing a product size, and would need assistance or would give up.

What we learned:

Since physical accessibility in store can be a challenge, online may seem like a great solution. However, retailers who do not consider the issues mention will not be accessible to those with certain disabilities.

Most retailers had claims on their site boasting their dedication to making their site accessible. Many also include some feature making parts of their site accessible. yet many pitfalls were found.

Since these flaws were found in a relatively short test, retailers should take these great intentions and put more work into it. Many are not suitable for those with disabilities, and therefore the accessibility features must be consistently good.

In order to improve, retailers should work with accessibility and UX experts to fully understand the needs of customers with disabilities and the solutions to provide these customers with accessibility to the site.

Once implemented, Retailers should have their site tested by people who need to use these features to identify any issues there may be.

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