Ecommerce Site Accessibility: What Retailers Need to Know

At any given time, an estimated 12-19% of the population is living with a disability. With the goal of serving all people, improvements in ecommerce site accessibility can make online shopping available to everyone, regardless of ability. In this episode of Recommerce, join the conversation as our company Founder, Sara, sits down with our Tech Lead, Tif, to discuss how retailers should be thinking about and planning for greater levels of site accessibility. You’ll learn:

  • How little changes create big improvements (case in point: skip page navigation links)
  • What to do if you’ve received a legal complaint about site accessibility
  • The spectrum of accessibility, from 1A to 3A, as outlined in the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) guidelines
  • What it means to be proactive about site accessibility, rather than reactive

Sara: Hey everyone. This is Sara. I’m back for another episode of Recommerce with Tif, our Tech Lead.

Tif: Hi Sara. Hi everyone.

Sara: Today we’re gonna talk about why ecommerce site accessibility matters and how we at Command C think about it.

Tif: So at its most basic, accessibility means that people with disabilities can use the internet. I mean that seems pretty obvious. It’s a pretty simple definition. But we like to dig into it a little bit. At its core, accessibility is a usability problem, but it’s also an experience problem. Our goal, and your goal as a site owner, should be to really present the same level of information and create the same feeling, create the same level of utility, regardless of how a user will consume it. This is a problem that you’re probably familiar with when you think about how, maybe at some point in time, you had to transition your store from not being mobile responsive to being accessible on mobile devices. You solved an accessibility problem when you did that.

Your goal as a site owner should be to present the same level of information and utility, and to create the same feeling, regardless of how a user will consume it.

Most of the time, when we talk about accessibility, we’re thinking about the assistive devices that are used by customers of your store. For example, people who have low vision or have motor skill issues and so they’re just interacting with your site in a slightly different way.

The most common example of that is a screen reader which is something that I won’t belabor too long. This is something I think that we can all think about and relate to. If we couldn’t see what was being presented to us, how could it be read to us in a way that would still mean the same thing?

So we spent a lot of time when we’re thinking about accessibility, thinking about it from a usability standpoint and then also making sure that we’re establishing the same exact experience.

Sara: Got it. Thanks, that’s helpful.

I want to make a case for the idea that accessibility in ecommerce is especially important. The ability to be able to shop may not be something you’ve considered unless you’re living with a disability or have someone close to you who’s living with a disability.

Shopping is so critical to surviving and thriving and participating for everyone. For both merchants and consumers. If we deny a whole demographic that ability, that has a globally negative impact.

Shopping is so critical to surviving and thriving and participating for everyone. If we deny a whole demographic that ability, that has a globally negative impact.

Tif: Indeed it does. I think the world of ecommerce has really opened up a lot of utility that only exists if we take accessibility into mind, but the ease of ordering something online as compared with finding a ride to the mall, I’m showing my age a little bit, do we even have malls anymore?

Sara: In airports.

Tif: Okay, okay. So finding a ride to the mall, finding someone to assist you, making your purchases, handling all of that, I mean it’s pretty easy to argue that ecommerce is a simpler solution. But it’s only simpler if all of its utility is accessible to you.

Sara: Absolutely. I mean I think it’s safe to say that we’re both pretty obsessed with this topic and the importance of it. Talk to me about some of the experiential ways to make ecommerce sites more accessible.

Tif: One of my favorite examples, after I just got done saying I wasn’t going to belabor the idea of the screen reader, one of my favorite examples which I think is the most accessible example is skip navigation. So this is something that you may have heard of before, and it may already make sense to you. But if you think about the way you shop when you go to a website, if you’re cruising around inside the pants directory, for example, you’re not re-reading everything in the header of every single page you go to. So if you go to shorts, you’re not gonna re-read all of the menu items to make sure that they’re the same. Assuming that we’ve done our job right as developers, we’ve created sort of persistent, predictable navigation for you. So all of those things, header, footer, to some degree side-bar menus, those should all fade into the background.

The problem, though, if you’re using a screen reader to consume the information on that page, is that the screen reader may not have a way to know how to skip past all of that fluff. Sorry, I know headers are really important, but after a while, it’s fluff.

Sara: Well, it’s redundant at least.

Tif: Yes, yes. There you go.

So what happens when a screen reader enters the page about skip navigation, is that it will read the entire menu. Everything. Every word and yes, it reads very, very quickly. I would encourage you, if you’ve never attempted to use a screen reader to navigate around your own website or any website, to do it. It opens up such a world of understanding and it also makes it easy to see how valuable something as simple as a skip navigation link which is, quite honestly, just a link that says skip to the main content, can be. How valuable that can be when you’re having to walk through the same things on every page. And that’s just one example of how we create space for the same experience. The same experience that someone with full vision has where they can kind of let the header fade into the background, we’ve created that same experience for someone who has low vision or is otherwise using an assistive device to navigate the site.

Sara: So, I love the point you brought up earlier about ecommerce potentially being a much simpler way to get what you need. I’m really stuck on what you said earlier about ecommerce being potentially a much simpler solution and viable means of getting what you need with less hassle. There could be a ton of innovation opportunity in this space. What are some other examples where there’s opportunity to make this experience easier for folks?

Ecommerce is potentially a much simpler solution and viable means of getting what anyone needs with less hassle.

Tif: Definitely, so there are the very utilitarian examples, like shopping for groceries or things that don’t really require a lot of thought, because they’re things that you buy all the time, for example. Creating utilities to assist, and this again goes to usability, not just accessibility, but creating utilities for reorder. Creating utilities for easier keyboard navigation. Considering that someone may be using an even less complex tool than a keyboard to navigate through the site in order to purchase the things that they need. All of that really comes together and makes a difference. That’s sort of on the very utilitarian side, but then if we also think about it from kind of a marketing and a brand personality perspective, it also makes a huge difference if you don’t describe the Mona Lisa as a lady smiling in a square.

So paying attention to how you present alternatives to media, things like alt text which I’m sure most of you have heard of if you’re thinking about accessibility at all. It’s kind of the most common example. But really thinking about describing the content that you can’t see with the same level of detail and attention that you describe the content that your marketing team has spent countless hours slaving over to put together and push out into the world.

Interlude: You’re listening to Recommerce, a podcast for ecommerce wearable brands navigating technical complexity and change. Brought to you by Command C, a development team that saves ecommerce retailers from outdated tech and ineffective operations with a strong focus on Magento and Shopify Plus. You can learn more about how we help at

Sara: We always want to think about accessibility from the humanitarian perspective first. We stand behind that very firmly and there’s an increasingly common scenario where businesses are receiving legal letters that lawsuits are being filed because the merchant site isn’t compliant.

Tif: Yeah it’s not uncommon for our merchants to believe that they have a usable and accessible site, and still receive the paperwork that notifies them one day out of the blue that they have created a site that is not accessible. The first reaction, of course, is like man, I’m being totally honest, man that feels crappy to have someone say that, especially if you thought that you had taken some measures to prevent it.

So really what we like to do is to encourage merchants to think about this proactively. Rather than just reacting to the note that you get that says you’re not doing it, think about it proactively. Start by writing an accessibility statement today that outlines the measures that you’ve taken and the ways that customers could reach out to you if they had concerns or if they needed additional help. I mean, it may be one note from a customer who hopefully is being helpful and not angry, that opens up an entirely new demographic of folks that couldn’t use your site at all previously.

Start by writing an accessibility statement today that outlines the measures that you’ve taken and the ways that customers could reach out to you if they had concerns or if they needed additional help.

And so being open and understanding how you’re already addressing it and what you’ll be willing to do to make it better in the future is such a better approach than just trying to fix what’s already been pointed out.

Sara: Yeah, I like your point about being proactive rather than reactive. I think it’s probably impossible not to be reactive if you get a letter saying that you’re having a lawsuit being filed against you, but there’s so many conversations that we have with folks where we’re sort of talking them off a ledge and explaining that this is a solvable problem. It’s actually an incredible opportunity to be a good person, you know, be a good business, but also to have the fact that you’re aware and making the effort to make the site more accessible reflect positively on your brand. And there’s also the plain and simple sort of business case for being able to sell more widely and being a business that folks with disabilities are talking about and spreading the word about.

Tif: Yeah and I like what you said about sort of this is a solvable problem. These are simple steps that we can take. I mean, so it’s always easier, of course, to build accessibility in when you’re building something. But that does not mean that building it on after is a futile attempt at reaching more people. I think that if we think of it as something that constantly grows and expands, we’re likely to continue improving not only the accessibility of the site but the usability of the site.

A really great example of this is curb cutouts. So if you’ve noticed some years back, I don’t remember them from my childhood so I’m feeling like they’re a relatively new thing, but curbs were adjusted so that we had curb cutouts. And that certainly made everything easier for folks who required a wheelchair, but think about all of the other people that it helped. It helped people pushing strollers, it helped people with carts, it helped folks who had other sort of struggles with walking. It just really made the world a little bit better for everybody and it was a simple step.

It’s probably impossible not to be reactive if you get a letter saying that you’re having a lawsuit being filed against you, but…this is a solvable problem.

Sara: Yeah I think that brings up an important point which is that I think there’s a tendency, especially if you are a merchant who has received a legal letter to be like okay, make me accessible, right? And really it’s a spectrum. It’s an effort. That spectrum, it’s not like a pass/fail kind of thing. It’s not like if we didn’t have curb cutouts it would be pass/fail. It’s like oh, having curb cutouts is clearly an effort to be mindful of this which would be like a check in the side of, in terms of urban planning, this city is thinking about these things.

Sara: How is that similar in the ecommerce space? Is that just an identical process? Who’s regulating this kind of thing?

Tif: The official word is section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Section 508 is what deals with digital experiences. It is loosely based on a prior version of the web content accessibility guidelines from the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium). We like to use the version 2.0 of that guideline when we’re putting together projects. It really is important to attempt to hit a level A compliance which is the sort of easiest criteria to meet. It’s really important to hit that kind of right out of the gate. These are things like alt text, skip navigation like I mentioned, the ability to navigate your site with a keyboard which is another thing that is frequently overlooked when it comes to building a really snazzy experience. It can sometimes get complex enough to be un-navigable with a keyboard and so making sure that people without the ability to use a mouse are able to still use the site matters.

Those are the kinds of things that a part of level A. Then we move into level 2A which sort of layers in some additional help on top. I still think the level 2A items are pretty critical and then as we move into level 3A, those are really nice to have and those are the kinds of things that if you’ve opened up an accessibility statement and you’ve told people, this is how you reach out to us if you’re having a problem because we want to include you. We want to help you. And if you’ve told people that and you’ve received a note from a customer that’s requesting the kind of help that would be a level 3A item, then that’s a really good argument to go ahead and take that extra initiative and take that step.

Usually, we don’t end up implementing the level 3A things unless there’s a really strong case to do so. But level A and level 2A are very achievable and they’re achievable even for legacy systems. We retrofit them all the time. It just takes a little bit of forethought and a willingness to be inclusive.

Sara: I think that the whole idea of the willingness to be inclusive is what is so key here. I mean we live and are operating in a world of increasing complexity and unless these things are brought to the forefront, unless folks are standing up talking about them, unless, unfortunately, someone’s receiving a legal letter, it’s very easy to not be aware of these things. And so I know, for both of us, we’re kind of all about the awareness and doing this because it’s overall a good thing to do and not just because you should do it for legal reasons. I think just continuing to dialogue about this kind of stuff is what gets folks thinking about it differently.

I loved that example you gave earlier about it’s just like when it became standard for sites to be [mobile] responsive – that was a great comparison and that was painful in the beginning. That was a really, really painful thing, but this is gonna become a second language sooner rather than later. And so whether or not you’ve actually received a legal letter, get ahead of the curve and start thinking about it now.

Tif: Yeah and it’s funny, I’m not one of those people that believe that you have to know somebody in order to feel empathy for a situation, but I can tell you that as all of us who sort of exist in this generation who either grew up with the internet or encountered the internet in college as the case may be, as we get older, increasingly everything is going to become less usable. The things that we’re building now with 11 point fonts will become unreadable. The tools that we’re building with the snazzy animations, unless those are really sort of focused and built in consideration of accessibility, we’re all going to start requiring more and more assistive devices. So it’s not going to be long before this really hits home, and I think that we can all sort of feel that empathy and take those steps right now. We don’t need to wait until we can’t read 11 point font anymore.

Sara: Yeah, yeah. Totally, thanks. That’s an important point and I know we could talk about this all day but I think that’s getting to the end of our episode so thank you so much, Tif.

Tif: Thanks, Sara.

Sara: Have a good one.

Tif: You too.