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JONAS OLOFSSON: Web accessibility is the forgotten one

There’s a great moral and business case for making sites accessible to all. Expedia director of technology Jonas Ollfsson tells us more

The first and biggest part of solving any problem is admitting that there is a problem. A couple of years ago, a visually impaired man was asked to book a flight on the Expedia.com website in front of a boardroom filled with senior Expedia executives. This man, Toby Willis – a software engineer and Expedia’s usability test specialist – failed completely to process his booking online. It was the wake-up call Expedia needed.

According to a recent report on user experience from digital agency Sigma (bit.ly/2fKShqW), many of the world’s top travel brands failed to provide an accessible and inclusive experience for people with disabilities. In fact, six out of ten sites were deemed ‘too cluttered’, which made the booking process difficult to navigate.
The Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) found that 89 per cent of holiday bookings in the UK were made online, so having a flawless online user experience is crucial to overall business success. If a customer has a bad experience when either booking or researching travel, they may abandon the site in frustration and take their business elsewhere. This is the last thing that online travel agents (OTAs) need when, according to Statista (bit.ly/2eF0vOp), the travel sector experienced the highest shopping cart abandonment rate of all sectors measured in Q2 2016, before any concerns over UX were taken into account.  With mobile accounting for a huge percentage of this, it is now more important than ever to ensure booking sites are inclusive to all across a wide range of devices.

So, what is the biggest challenge? Creating awareness is the ultimate challenge. Inclusive design often falls too far down the agenda, and business leaders often aren’t aware that in addition to the strong moral case, there’s also a business case to be made for building websites for accessibility. Over 10 million people in the UK live with a disability, and they want to purchase holidays just like everyone else.

The good thing about using Toby is that he’s a real user. It is easy to fall into a false sense of security when evaluating the usability of a website when you’ve built it yourself, but using a tester you will get a much better idea of what works, what doesn’t and what has been ignored.

What’s behind the tech when it comes to making a website more accessible? Retrofitting an existing website can be problematic, especially if you’re a small company. A more sustainable solution is to tackle the problem from the very beginning. 70 per cent of the work is ‘quick wins’, things that good developers shouldn’t find too challenging. Using HTML markup so that components are visible to screen readers is key: a button really has to be a button in the code, ideally with a helpful name. Strong colour contrast is also helpful, as is using native components instead of custom ones to ensure design is consistent across all aspects of the site.

The remaining 30 per cent can be achieved by making sure there are equivalents for key points in the visual and auditory experience. This may include selecting a tab, which then changes appearance so the user is aware that the selection has been made, but how would you rectify this problem for, say, a blind person? This could be achieved by using an audio cue to signify when a selection has been made.

But it is not all about the tech. In addition to introducing new tools, Expedia has invested its efforts into raising awareness and empathy through on-site and remote training (which is mandatory for all Expedia engineers), having an accessibility team and a network of champions seeded in multiple teams in our offices across the globe.
Creating awareness may be the first challenge to overcome in the UK, but other countries already have accessible design embedded in law. Back in 2000, an Australian blind man won a court case against the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) because they failed to adequately customise the official Sydney Olympic Games website to cater for blind people.

The European Union also agreed on a provisional set of rules dictating that the websites and mobile apps of public sector bodies should be made more accessible . In the UK, however, the issue of web accessibility has not yet become mainstream.

So what has changed at Expedia? Things have improved considerably at Expedia, where we are definitely ahead of the curve. The company scored highest when it comes to web accessibility, according to the Sigma report.

But how have we achieved this? We are built on a culture of continuous testing, but this is not enough. In order to improve our inclusivity, we must continue to create awareness, both within Expedia and externally. There are two key points that need to be brought to people’s attention: the importance of building empathy between the web designer and the user you’re looking to include, and secondly, raising awareness of how easy it can be to build a website to encompass all users – irrespective of their abilities. It boils down to what Toby once said: it’s not about ‘web accessibility’, it’s about ‘user experience’ and ‘web design’.


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