10 Things People With Disabilities Wish Online Retailers Knew
Updated: Apr 11
Many shoppers would be just fine if they could never set foot in a retail store again. After all, everything is available online: books, groceries, pizza, household necessities, even big ticket items like mattresses and cars. However, 15 percent of people worldwide have a disability that affects their daily life, according to the United Nations, and many retailers are unaware that their websites are not always accessible to them.
The longer retailers wait to create an inclusive online shopping experience, the more money they could lose to their competitors, as perhaps 15 percent of their potential customers are forced to find accessible alternatives. This is especially important now, since many in the large Baby Boomer population segment may be starting to experience disabilities related to age.
Although technical abilities and access needs are unique to each individual, following are 10 common things that customers with disabilities wish online retailers knew. Included are insights from Level Access accessibility consultants Nat Tarnoff and Kara Van Roekel, and Chief Accessibility Officer Jonathan Avila, a member of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Accessibility Guidelines Working Group.
1. ‘I’m more likely to abandon your website than ask for help.’
Only 7 percent of people with disabilities will reach out to a retailer’s customer service department for help when they encounter an access barrier, based on results of the Click Away Pound study done in 2016.
Slightly more (11 percent) will ask for help from a friend or family member, but the vast majority of those shoppers will “click away” to seek out a more accessible website to complete their purchase.
Eighty-two percent of the customers with disabilities surveyed said they would spend more online if retailers’ websites were accessible.
Retailers can help by creating an inclusive user experience. In the meantime, they retailers can provide training to customer service representatives, so they are prepared to provide a pleasant and helpful experience for people with disabilities when they call or reach out for assistance.
“When someone calls customer service to say they have a problem using the site with JAWS (a popular screen reader),” said Level Access’ Avila, “the last thing they want to hear is, ‘What is JAWS?'”
2. ‘You’ve blocked me from using my keyboard to navigate.’
Many retailers are unaware that there are people who navigate the Web without using a mouse. There are many reasons why this might be the case. For instance, customers may have low vision; have limited mobility or dexterity;not have use of one or both of their hands (or even have hands); have arthritis that makes using a mouse painful; or have Parkinson’s or another condition that can cause hand tremors.
Retailers can help by verifying their website works for keyboard-only users. When a customer presses the Tab key, there should be a visual indication of focus, often a box around the selected field on the screen. Designers sometimes remove the visual indication of focus (by making it invisible), but this feature is vital for many customers with disabilities.
“Set your mouse aside and see if you can complete a purchase without it,” said Avila. “You should be able to select items and click on links using only your keyboard.”
3. ‘I need descriptions of your images.’
Alternative (“alt”) text was important to everyone back in the dark ages of dial-up modems when images wouldn’t always load. Nowadays, images load quickly, but alt text is still needed to describe the image for people with visual disabilities.
If a customer is using a screen reader like JAWS or NVDA, it will read the alt text for the image. Without meaningful alt text, customers with disabilities will not have the same information about the product as sighted customers. If customers don’t have a clear understanding of the product, they probably won’t buy it.
Retailers can help by writing meaningful alternative text for all images that convey information. (Purely decorative images do not need alt text.) For retailers creating product pages, the easiest time to write alt text is when the creative team is selecting images for the product. Why was that particular image chosen? What does it highlight about the product?
Worst Alt Text: No alt text or meaningless text (“image_042.jpg”)
Not Very Meaningful: “laptop bag”
Pretty Meaningful: “open laptop bag, showing padded interior pockets”
Even More Meaningful: “forest green canvas laptop bag with main flap open, showing light olive green padded interior pockets”
4. ‘Your color scheme makes it difficult to read.’
The spectrum of visual ability is wide and varied and includes many people who are not completely blind but have vision that is limited in some way. Color contrast is crucial for those customers to be able to read text online. Color contrast is an especially pressing issue now that Baby Boomers are starting to experience age-related vision loss, cataracts and glaucoma. There are many loyal customers who would like to continue shopping online at their favorite retailers despite their decreased visual acuity.
Retailers can help by verifying that their site’s color contrast meets WCAG 2.0 AA guidelines, which is a 4.5-to-1 contrast ratio between body text and background. There are many free online tools to check color contrast, including one at Level Access.
5. ‘I can’t find the items I want.’
Search is a powerful tool to help customers find exactly what they want quickly, even if they aren’t 100 percent sure of what they want. Unfortunately, some features are inaccessible to screen reader users.
“Improper field labels are a huge barrier,” said Level Access Senior Accessibility Consultant Kara Van Roekel. “Another is when content updates are not announced. For example, you add some filters to your search and the page updates visually, but the screen reader doesn’t announce the updated number of results.”
Retailers can help by having robust and properly coded search functionality. Checkboxes or radio buttons should be labeled and announce their status (i.e., checked or unchecked) to a screen reader. When the search results update, the new status should be announced so that the customer knows that something has changed.
6. ‘Your site is too crowded with information.’
Overly crowded websites were one of the top three problems cited by shoppers with disabilities in the Click Away Pound study. For customers with cognitive disabilities, such as ADHD or dyslexia, crowded websites can be extremely difficult to read.
“If there is animation or flashing ads alongside the main content, it can be very difficult for some customers to focus on what they want to read,” said Van Roekel.
Retailers can help by following best practices for Web design and keeping clutter to a minimum. They also can offer the option to use their mobile website on a desktop or laptop browser, since mobile experiences generally are pared down to just the necessities.
7. ‘The animations on your site make me sick. Literally.’
Animations may seem like a way to add visual interest to a website (or in the case of a carousel, put more content above the fold), but Technical Consultant Nat Tarnoff advised caution: “I have a vestibular disorder, and certain animations trigger a feeling of nausea, especially ‘wizard’ style interfaces that make the next screen slide in from the left or top.”
Retailers can help by limiting animation unless it is absolutely necessary to the functionality of the website. A good compromise is offering an easy way for the customer to stop or pause the animation so that it is under their control.
8. ‘I love your product videos, but they need better captions.’
Customers who are deaf or hard of hearing can enjoy product videos through captioning, but not if retailers leave the job up to YouTube’s artificial intelligence. While automated captions are certainly better than no captions at all, they are often full of errors.
Up to 85 percent of Facebook’s mobile users watch videos without sound, suggest recent studies by several online publishers. Without captions, retailers are losing many more viewers than just those with disabilities.
Retailers can help by adding captions for videos or including a link to a transcript. If videos are scripted, it just takes a few moments to format the text so it will appear as perfectly timed captions.
9. ‘I want to check out… but I can’t!’
Abandoned carts are the bane of e-commerce, and much has been written about how to recapture those wayward customers. What if the barrier between customer and finish line were related to accessibility?
Free shipping won’t help a customer with a cognitive disability finish the checkout process before being timed out. A 20-percent-off discount won’t help a customer who is blind fill out a checkout form that is missing proper field labels.
Retailers can help by verifying that the checkout process is accessible: form fields should be labeled for screen readers, it should be possible to activate all buttons without the use of a mouse, and that a customer who needs more time to complete checkout should be able to request it.
10. ‘I can help you with usability testing.’
Retailers can make great strides in digital accessibility by training their developers, designers, quality assurance testers, and customer service representatives — but nothing compares to feedback from — and usability testing by — people with disabilities.
“While you can train a sighted employee to use a screen reader like JAWS,” says Avila, “it will never be the equivalent of usability testing by someone who depends on JAWS daily in order to navigate the Web.”
Retailers can help by hiring people with disabilities. Creating an inclusive user experience starts with including as many types of users as possible in a website’s creation. People with disabilities are expert users of assistive technology and can pinpoint areas of an e-commerce website that are technically compliant with digital accessibility guidelines, but don’t offer the best user experience.
Inclusive Design Helps Everyone
Committing to inclusive design not only makes a retailer’s website accessible to customers with disabilities, but also creates a shopping environment that is easier for all customers to use. Streamlined designs load quicker. Captions let customers watch videos in public places.
Thoughtfully planned content structure makes it easy for everyone to get where they want to be. Robust search helps every customer find exactly what they want. So much of inclusive design dovetails with a great user experience for every customer.
By integrating these accessibility tips into their website design best practices, retailers can ensure that they are serving every potential customer and keeping them happily supplied with goods, regardless of their physical abilities.