Comment: Retailers are losing sight of the bigger picture

Currently, there are nearly two million people in the UK living with sight loss – equating to around one person in 30. By 2050, this is estimated to almost double. These figures have led to many businesses, including the likes of internet giants Twitter and Facebook, taking steps to ensure their websites are user-friendly, and accessible – realising that if they fail to do this, they could be ostracising millions. These brands understand the impact that could be had on the business if they don’t become accessible.

The retail sector is one that could benefit hugely from considering accessibility – both in store and online – yet hasn’t traditionally prioritised it. Indeed, damning reports have criticised the high street in the past for not properly catering for those with disabilities. But it’s not just in-store issues that are causing those living with sight loss pain. Online accessibility, although it can be incredibly easy to improve with sustained effort, is currently posing huge problems too.

What is website accessibility?

In order for websites to be easy to navigate for blind and partially sighted people, they need to be accessible. To put it simply, website accessibility is the term that refers to a website or mobile app that is easy to use for people with disabilities – whether they be visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, or neurological.

Considering the factors that might affect these people when browsing online should have an impact on all aspects of how websites and mobile apps are designed and optimised. Making a site more accessible could involve anything from changing the colour contrast of text or the size of a button, to ensuring there is subtitles on videos or visual content hosted on a website.

Promisingly, we are seeing more and more websites appearing that have clearly considered accessibility throughout the design stages, as well as existing sites that are being re-designed to become more accessible. But unfortunately, there is still a large number of websites or mobile apps out there that simply aren’t accessible, which is causing real issues when blind or partially sighted people are trying to navigate them. Although it’s inevitable the user experience of blind and partially sighted people will be different to that of other users, technology has come so far in the past few years there should no longer be sites online that are completely impossible for those living with sight-loss to access.

The current issues those living with sight-loss face when online

We work with blind and partially sighted people everyday, so we understand the problems they face when trying to access the web. For example, we often hear the majority of desktop sites are cluttered, which isn’t useful for those using screen readers – the devices which allow blind or visually impaired users to read the text that is displayed on the computer screen with a speech synthesiser or braille display. A lot of the people we speak to prefer mobile versions of websites as a result, as they provide clearer interfaces and rely more on text links than desktop sites, which is good for the assistive technology they use.

When we assess mobile apps, it’s not much different. We know that blind and partially sighted people struggle when the buttons within an app aren’t clearly labelled, because screen readers can’t pick this up. When this happens, the apps are often impossible to use.

Why retailers need to take note

For online retailers, the issues discussed above can have an extremely damaging effect on loyalty, reputation, and sales. Everyone, despite having a disability or not, should be able to access retailers’ online sites or applications to make a purchase. They should also be able to understand everything about the product, just as well as a person that has their full sight could.

We get overwhelming feedback from the people we work with that when they come across an issue with the accessibility of a website, they attempt to find their own solution before they think about contacting a retailer about it. However, this shouldn’t be the case, as there are simple things that retailers can begin to do to improve accessibility.

So, as a retailer where do I start?

There are a number of organisations that are doing a really good job of catering for the needs of blind and partially sighted people online. But it’s usually big tech giants that are taking the lead on this – the likes of Google, for example, has been praised for being accessible – and a lot of retailers haven’t yet caught up.

The benefits of improving website accessibility could be huge for retailers. Whether it’s putting captions over images or video content (which can be read by screen readers or braille displays) to explain what products look like, or simply overlaying electronic text over the whole site so those living with sight loss are able to listen to the text contained on a site.

There are also a number of great tools out there to help users gain a greater awareness and understanding of accessibility needs. The likes of the BBC accessibility guidelines are a good place for retailers to reference if they want to know what they need to do to make their websites and mobile apps more accessible. In addition, here at RNIB, we also run our own accreditation, RNIB Approved, which sets to identify products, buildings, websites and services that are accessible.

As we continue to move on with technology, we are in danger of segregating a large amount of our population if we don’t start considering blind and partially sighted people in the design of it. Retailers really now must get clued up on accessibility, or be left behind.