For businesses, accessibility is far too often an afterthought in website design and optimisation. What happens when an organisation treats accessibility like user experience, and builds a transformation around it from the word ‘go’?
When Scope, a disability equality charity based in England and Wales, embarked on its digital transformation some five years ago, the organisation knew that accessibility would need to be a central focus.
The charity undertook a major review of its strategy that would see it shift away from delivering mostly in-person support and services – which are fairly high-cost compared to their potential impact – towards a social equality-focused approach, amplified by digital, which would ultimately be more scalable and have a more widespread impact on the disabled community.
During the transformation process, in addition to redesigning and modernising its digital presence, Scope made the key decision to approach accessibility in the same way that companies typically approach user experience (UX). It treated people with different impairments as individual audiences, and carried out extensive user testing with disabled users, so that accessibility was ultimately “baked in” from the design stage.
I spoke to James Longstaff, Digital Product Owner – UX and Optimisation at Scope, about how this accessibility-first approach enabled Scope to better serve its user base, the results that its digital transformation has produced, and why all companies – not just charities with a focus on disability equality – should be approaching accessibility as a fundamental part of their design and transformation process.
More than a ‘tick box’ exercise
“Accessibility, when it is considered at all, is often considered a technical tick box exercise, often at the end of a project,” said James Longstaff. “‘We’ve built this site, now let’s make sure it functions with this piece of assistive technology.’ There’s a certain amount that that can help with, but when it’s not baked in from the start – you can’t just click your fingers and add some code in the background to suddenly make things accessible.”
When Scope initially embarked on its digital transformation, the charity had a website and an online community, but both were a little neglected – Longstaff described them as an “overgrown garden”, adding that “effort had been put in to make them technically accessible, but that work had been done a little while ago.”
“A lot of content had been put on there, without much thought to trimming it back when it was no longer needed,” he said. This made the website difficult to navigate, with users unable to easily locate the most relevant content to them.
As Scope set out on its transformation journey, the organisation made an early decision to treat its accessibility efforts in the same way that most companies would treat user experience: by accounting for the needs of disabled audiences very early on in the design stage, and carrying out frequent user testing with disabled users at different stages to ensure that Scope’s web services were catering to their needs.
“When we were in the process of creating initial designs and sketches, we made sure we did some testing with various disabled people at that stage,” said Longstaff. “Once we’d converted those into high-res design concepts, we also partnered with an accessibility expert called Hassell Inclusion, who carried out a review of those designs to pick out aspects that would be more difficult to make accessible, and made some suggestions about how we could approach things differently.
“Throughout the build, we continued doing user testing with our disabled audiences. At the end, we also did that ‘tick box exercise’ to make sure our site conformed to WCAG [Web Content Accessibility Guidelines] standards – but the crucial difference was not seeing that as the end goal. For us, the end goal wasn’t making sure that the site conformed to WCAG; our goal was to go beyond that, and make the site as easy to use for our disabled audiences as it would be for anyone else.”
User Experience and Interaction Design for Mobile and Web
Longstaff also pointed out that a lot of usability principles aren’t that dissimilar to accessibility considerations. For example, users can often have ‘situational impairments’, such as being temporarily unable to use their hands while driving – which has given rise to innovations like voice control that cater to users in these situations. “It’s just taking that a step further.”
A large proportion of Scope’s accessibility efforts were concerned with making the website content more user-friendly and streamlined. The amount of content on the site was trimmed down from more than 1,200 pages to around 400, and the language used was also made more accessible. As Longstaff emphasised, this work is just as important as the technical side of things: “There’s so much you can do towards accessibility that has nothing to do with technical dev work and screenreaders. One of the biggest impacts you can have is making sure your site is written in plain English.
“Getting that language accessible doesn’t require any technical coding skills, design or UX skills – there are principles that anyone can pick up and run with.” The positive impact of this on the site’s users was clearly reflected in user feedback after the launch: users wrote in to say that the advice on the site had made a complex subject easy to understand, and easy to take in and digest.
Scope took steps to greatly streamline the content on its website, and ensure that it was written in accessible language. Users wrote in to say that the advice on Scope’s website had made complex subjects easy to digest. (Image: scope.org.uk)
Initial results and future plans
Longstaff recalled that a key moment for him in appreciating the importance of the work they were doing came from watching a visually impaired person in the late testing stages successfully navigate Scope’s website entirely using VoiceOver (Apple’s in-built screenreader software), moving up and down the menu levels and understanding where they were on the site, with everything working as it should.
“That was the first point where I thought, ‘Right, we’re really onto something here’,” he said.
Scope carried out a beta launch of the new website and reached out to its own online community, as well as other disabled people’s organisations it had relationships with, to get their impressions, and received positive feedback. Following the full launch, bounce rate on the site decreased by 8% on desktop and 9% on mobile. There was also a 39% drop in search refinements as users more easily located what they needed on the site, and the whole site loaded 44% faster thanks to Scope factoring in barriers like old technology and poor internet connection quality.
In 2019, Scope and Aqueduct, a digital transformation consultancy that worked with Scope on its transformation, took home an award for Best Website at the BIMA awards. However, the team isn’t resting on its laurels after this initial success.
“Our transformation is absolutely ongoing – we’re taking a continuous improvement approach,” said Longstaff. “If you stop moving forward, then essentially, you’re going backwards.”
Like the vast majority of businesses, Scope found itself having to very rapidly shift most of its services online as the Covid-19 pandemic spread and the UK went into lockdown. Thanks to its digital transformation work, Scope was already delivering some of its services through online channels, such as its flagship Support to Work employment service (in partnership with Virgin Media), but other services were still being delivered locally and in person.
Fortunately, with the infrastructure that Scope had built during its digital transformation in partnership with organisations like Aqueduct and Sitecore, with whom Scope worked to implement a new CMS and CRM system and de-silo its data, it was much easier for Scope to shift its remaining services to a digital format and continue delivering them through the lockdown.
“We’ve seen a big opportunity there to go even further, and deliver those more widely on a permanent basis, rather than just during the pandemic,” said Longstaff. Going forward, Scope intends to take a more ‘digital-first’ approach to delivering its services; up to now, the team has mostly taken established tools and processes oriented around in-person services and made them available online, but now they intend to more radically reimagine what they could achieve with a digital format.
“The next step is to really think about – if this was a new service and we were going to deliver it digitally, how would we do that differently, and what benefits could we take advantage of? How could we improve the services and deliver them in a truly digital way, rather than delivering an ‘analogue’ service on a digital platform?”
Furthering its commitment to inclusion and making sure that disabled audiences have a voice and input in the direction it takes, Scope is moving towards a model of co-production with advisory panels made up of disabled users who will be able to make decisions throughout the entire process. Other current initiatives include the completion of a major project around Scope’s CRM system to improve the integration of customer journeys, and improvements to services content.
Longstaff emphasised that Scope sees digital as the future for delivering its services even once the pandemic ends and offering in-person services becomes safer and more viable again.
“We want to reach more people and have scalability in what we do, and digital is the way we do that,” he said.
Why accessibility and usability are one in the same
Since Scope set out to transform its web presence with accessibility at the heart of its efforts, the organisation has taken up the cause of promoting accessibility to other businesses and convincing them to approach it in the same way that they do user experience and usability.
Scope’s redesigned website acts as an online accessibility best practice standard for other UK charities and businesses, and Scope has launched an initiative called The Big Hack that works with businesses to improve their services and online accessibility for disabled people, and to show them the merits of approaching accessibility like UX.
“If you’re trying to make your website easier to use – a lot of innovation comes from taking the problems faced by people with specific impairments and then applying them more generally,” Longstaff pointed out. “If you make something easy to use for someone with an impairment, it’s going to be even easier to use for everyone else.
“At the end of the day, disabled people are a section of your audience – there are very few businesses that can claim to have an entirely non-disabled audience. Usability is making something usable for your audience, and if you’re not catering to a section of your audience – you’re failing on that front.”
Although there are both moral and legal obligations for businesses to make their websites accessible, Scope has found it most effective to make the case for accessibility – particularly true, non-‘tick box’ accessibility – in commercial terms. “The way to get businesses to do things is to show them that disabled people are a consumer base: they have money, and they are more likely to spend that money with you if you provide an accessible experience.
“If they come to your website and it’s not accessible, often they will have no choice but to go elsewhere. Demonstrating that it is a business opportunity is a great way to get that across.”
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