What Is Digital Accessibility Testing? Standards, Guidelines and More

If a company wants to deliver great customer experiences, it must be fully digitally accessible. However, accessibility has long been an afterthought in web and app development.

Many companies claim they want to achieve digital accessibility, yet fail to invest in the expertise and resources required to build and validate inclusive user experiences. For meaningful change to take place, organizations must commit to educating developers and QA teams and arming them with the expertise and guidance to create accessible digital experiences. Accessibility testing should be an ongoing program, much like security and privacy programs, not a checkbox item conducted when convenient.

In this digital accessibility guide, we will explain everything that should go into an accessibility testing program. Here are the sections this digital accessibility guide will cover:

What is accessibility testing?

Just as digital products undergo usability testing to identify points of friction or failure for end users, they should also undergo accessibility testing to ensure they work as designed for people with disabilities. What accessibility testing does is evaluate the entire system, such as the software, hardware or middleware to make sure it is usable for people with a variety of impairments, such as hearing, vision, physical, cognitive, or technical.

While digital accessibility specifically aims to level the customer experience for people with disabilities, it actually applies to all end users. For example, a digital product should have clear and correct closed captioning within a video to make it easier for anyone in a noisy environment to engage with the content — not just people with hearing disabilities.

When a product is digitally accessible, all users benefit from the enhanced user experience. These UX improvements include:

  • more navigation options

  • sharper color contrasts

  • clear decoding of on-page elements.

Organizations can improve digital accessibility in a variety of ways, depending on the impairment. It’s important to invest in accessibility testing for common assistive technologies, such as:

  • speech input and recognition

  • screen readers

  • screen magnifiers

Some users might need assistive input devices to help them interact with the software. The system must support assistive devices, including head pointers, eye trackers and single-switch access.

Ensuring a product is fully digitally accessible means these inputs, outputs and devices must all work seamlessly. While there are shortcuts to digital accessibility in the form of widgets and other types of software, accessibility testing requires a continuous and ongoing commitment to creating products that everyone can use. That means making digital accessibility a priority from the outset of the software development lifecycle all the way through product release and feedback.

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Ensuring a product is fully digitally accessible requires a continuous and ongoing commitment to creating products that everyone can use. That means making digital accessibility a priority from the outset of the software development lifecycle all the way through product release and feedback.

The importance of digital accessibility testing

Digital accessibility is about making websites and applications useful for the widest and most diverse audiences. This includes making digital properties accessible for people with disabilities. According to the CDC, 61 million adults in the United States — or 26% of adults — live with a disability of some form. While some disabilities are visible, many others are not, such as color blindness.

As the world becomes more reliant on digital properties, people with disabilities will take their business away from organizations that fail to provide fully accessible experiences. For businesses, this represents lost sales, plus the risk of being branded as inaccessible and uncaring about the experiences of people with disabilities.

A few specific examples of the ways that organizations can provide accessible experiences for people with disabilities are ensuring that:

  • color contrasts are not a problem for users with lower vision, discolored eye lenses or color-deficient vision (color blindness)

  • users can navigate the site without the use of a mouse

  • products work with assistive technologies, like screen readers

  • images contain alt text

  • people with dyslexia can access easy-to-read fonts or can change the font

  • buttons and links can be selected by people with hand tremors.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other international accessibility laws exist to give all persons equal access to public accommodations. Of course, equal rights issues lie at the heart of these laws, but there are other reasons to ensure a business is digitally accessible to all, as this infographic shows.

In addition, being digitally accessible has a tangible effect on the rest of the business. Consider these three key areas that explain the importance of digital accessibility:

Accessibility affects everyone. User accessibility benefits everyone, whether intentional or not. For example, accurate and detailed alt text is essential for vision-impaired users to understand the visuals displayed on a page. However, alt text is also a valuable tool for users who are new to a site or app feature and can use tooltips (messages activated by hovering over a web element) to educate themselves.

Rather than think of digital accessibility as a benefit solely to people with disabilities, understand it as a benefit to all end users.

Inclusion fosters goodwill. Creating accessible experiences is not only important from a legal standpoint, but from a reputational one as well. Legal action can severely affect both the bottom line and brand perception.

Achieving digital accessibility standards helps an organization develop a reputation as a progressive leader and advocate. Consider Microsoft’s accessibility focus throughout its product line and its impact on the company’s overall brand image. Put in the extra work for customers, and those customers will pay it back. Or, to put it In Microsoft’s own words, “We all win.”

Improve SEO. Search engine optimization is essential to every company’s brand awareness. SEO represents a key competitive advantage for those who do it well. Many factors go into SEO, but many people forget about the importance of accessible visual elements. While not even visible to most users, alt text plays an important role in search rankings.

In some ways, search engines are similar to blind users; they are unable to see image content. Search engines use screen readers to get the full picture, which makes alt text essential to an organization’s message and story. Alt text, along with headers and proper punctuation, enables a screen reader to read the entirety of a page’s content in the intended order, cadence and context. Alt text, when written correctly, improves the site infrastructure as a whole.

It’s obvious why it is so critical for businesses to provide accessible digital experiences. However, according to an Applause global survey of more than 1,800 professionals who work with accessibility, many companies still will not invest in the steps needed to ensure accessible digital experiences.

Comprehensive audits and real-world feedback remove barriers to accessibility compliance and ensure that digital experiences work well for everyone.

To evaluate and build fully accessible products, organizations need many tools and skills. A digital accessibility partner, such as Applause, can help organizations through an assessment and development process for those that lack the internal resources. The partner can execute audits by manual testing, using tools and screen readers that identify all compliance issues and provide remediation recommendations. A partner also helps review and refine digital accessibility best practices, provides training for the organization and gets feedback from real users with disabilities across many devices and geographies.

Digital accessibility standards and discrimination laws

What makes accessibility compliance so challenging is that there are no official accessibility laws for developers to follow — only guidelines. Without standardized laws, engineers operate in a lot of gray area.

There are Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG) standards — not to mention international specifications — but these are just guidelines, not codified law. This is why ongoing accessibility testing is critical to both an organization’s short- and long-term success.

Let’s get familiar with some digital accessibility standards and discrimination laws.

WCAG

WCAG, published by the Web Accessibility Initiative, aims to provide a single shared standard for web accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organizations and governments internationally.

WCAG is organized under four principles:

  • perceivable

  • operable

  • understandable

  • robust.

For each guideline, there are accessibility testing success criteria, which have three incremental levels: A, AA and AAA. The criteria is cumulative — to conform to Level AA, an organization must also conform to Level A; and to conform to Level AAA, it must conform to Levels A and AA.

According to WCAG, Level AAA conformance is not recommended as a general policy requirement for entire sites, because it is not possible to satisfy all Level AAA Success Criteria for some content.

The most recent finalized version is WCAG 2.1, which published in June 2018. WCAG 2.2 published as a working draft in May 2021.

ADA

ADA, passed in 1990, is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals in all areas of public life, including jobs, school and transportation. All establishments, whether public or private, that are open to the general public are subject to ADA. The ADA makes it illegal for any government entity or business to provide goods and services to the general public without ensuring that the entities are accessible by people with disabilities.

Because ADA passed before widespread internet use, the law largely applies to physical accessibility, such as having a ramp for people in wheelchairs to enter a physical building. While digital accessibility lawsuits are often filed under the ADA, the law lacks specific statutes related to digital accessibility, which creates gray areas. When it comes to the ADA and digital accessibility, organizations should err on the side of caution and make themselves as accessible as possible.

Section 508

Section 508 is part of the United States’ Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and requires federal agencies to make their electronic and IT assets accessible to people with disabilities. This law specifically applies to organizations that are selling to government agencies.

If an organization has customers outside the U.S., there are other government guidelines to consider. For example, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act requires many organizations and businesses operating in Ontario to become accessible or risk financial penalties. Several countries have similar laws. Being compliant with WCAG 2.1 AA covers all these worldwide laws, with some minor exceptions.

Digital accessibility conformance and compliance

Keep in mind the key distinction between compliance and conformance. A lack of compliance can mean legal consequences for an organization, while failing to conform to digital accessibility standards means an organization falls short of non-legally binding guidelines.

Here’s an example outside of accessibility that helps explain the difference between compliance and conformance. In the United States, if a driver goes above the mandated speed limit outlined on a white sign, they fail to comply with the law — this could lead to legal consequences, such as a ticket or even loss of license. However, advisory speed limits, which are marked by yellow signs and often associated with a curve in the road, recommend that drivers lower their speed, but law enforcement does not necessarily penalize drivers for speeding.

Coming back to a digital accessibility example, let’s say a company sells to a government agency. If that vendor offers an inaccessible experience, it could be at risk of non-compliance with Section 508 and potentially face financial penalties. WCAG is a guideline, so there are no direct legal repercussions from the government, or another body, if products don’t conform to WCAG. Keep in mind, though, that an organization could be at greater risk of a potential lawsuit under the ADA for being inaccessible if websites or apps do not conform to WCAG.

Conformance is a yes-or-no question — an organization either conforms or it does not. An accessibility review shows how many WCAG checkpoints an organization passed or failed and how many critical/high/medium/low priority issues were found.

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Organizations can roughly measure improvement by the number of bugs found during accessibility testing — if the number of bugs goes down, hopefully that means the business is getting closer to conformance. However, the number of WCAG failures is not a true indication of digital accessibility standing. A site that fails 50% of WCAG checkpoints might still be fairly accessible, while a site that only fails 5% of WCAG checkpoints might have many blockers and be highly inaccessible.

Benefits of accessibility testing

For some organizations, the act of becoming accessibility-compliant is a tedious chore done simply out of necessity. In reality, compliant organizations open up a new world of opportunity — millions of potential missed customers with billions in potential spending power. That accessibility testing benefit alone makes the effort well worth it.

However, there is far more to digital accessibility than meets the eye. In addition to some of the advantages already discussed, here are several benefits of accessibility testing that go beyond simple compliance or conformance.

Improve the user experience for everyone. When organizations implement digital accessibility best practices and accessibility testing, they will likely discover and correct usability issues that affect all customers.

Broaden market penetration. If a website is not accessible, a business misses out on the potential to serve 15% of global users who currently have a disability. These users wield significant buying power. Accessibility tags also can improve SEO and make a site discoverable by more users.

Build an inclusive brand image. An accessible digital experience demonstrates corporate social responsibility, which helps a brand’s reputation. Commitment to accessibility testing shows a brand cares about interacting with all people in a meaningful way.

Improve automation efforts. Digitally accessible sites and apps contain tags and other information that enable people with disabilities to navigate them. Automation efforts that support updates and testing rely on many of these same attributes.

Mitigate legal risk. The number of web-related lawsuits filed in federal court continues to grow every year — and some businesses can get hit more than once if they fail to adequately address the problem.

How to get started with accessibility testing

To get started with accessibility testing on existing websites and products, choose 20-30 pages that are important to the customer’s journey. These pages should be unique templates. For example, news organizations probably have a standard article template. Testing that template and fixing those bugs will fix it across all pages that use that same template

To prioritize what existing digital properties to focus on, go in this general order.

Start with external customer-facing sites, and prioritize them according to the number of page views or importance to a user. Going back to the news article example, those pages are important, but a retail site would put less emphasis on a similar company news page. Instead, the ability to sign up for an account, complete a purchase or change shipping address would take priority. Then move on to internal sites, again prioritizing by number of users affected.

For new websites and digital properties, the organization should take a different approach to accessibility testing. Embrace digital accessibility during the design process — review designs and leave annotations to prevent accessibility issues when the designs get sent to developers. Once they are coded, conduct in-sprint testing to identify issues that could go to the live site or lower the amount of bugs found in the full test pass.

In addition to accessibility testing, incorporate accessibility training for design, development, QA, marketing and legal/contracts teams. For example, marketing email campaigns should consider digital accessibility principles, and third-party contracts with design firms or development shops should explicitly contain accessibility language in the contract.

When it comes to device coverage for accessibility testing, focus on the most popular devices and browsers for end users. The most common config for desktop web is the Chrome browser with Job Access with Speech (JAWS) screen reader. This configuration will catch a majority of accessibility issues. Test the same pages on mobile web using the iPhone and Android phone, which are becoming many users’ primary medium for web access.

Use both manual testing and automated testing for more thorough coverage As with functional software testing, the most comprehensive approach to accessibility is one that involves both automated and manual assessment throughout the SDLC. This is why accessibility testing requires commitment; it is an ongoing, constant process.

Build a digital accessibility program

A digital accessibility program likely requires buy-in and investment from upper management. It helps when corporate leaders are on board and understand the business benefits of accessibility testing. Treat digital accessibility like privacy or security — build it into the software; don’t tack it on at the end.

To start, send some design, development and testing teams to accessibility training. Under normal circumstances, onsite training is more effective, but remote accessibility training can suffice. Hire or train someone to be the main point of contact for digital accessibility. Look for someone who understands and has experience with digital accessibility.

If an organization does not have the internal capability, hire a company that can perform the audits. While an outside company performs the review, the organization should study the results of accessibility testing very carefully, then train staff to avoid these types of errors in future product development. Over time, these efforts build digital accessibility awareness into the product development process.

The sooner an organization incorporates accessibility into the timeline, the better. Accessibility issues found later in the development cycle are always more expensive to fix.

During the design process, review all wireframes and mockups with digital accessibility in mind. Remember that this requires that the design team be educated on digital accessibility principles.

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Ultimately, the key to a successful digital accessibility program is to think about accessibility all throughout the SDLC. If an organization can’t handle the resource bandwidth of building and maintaining an accessibility testing program, it can turn to an outside organization for temporary help and guidance.

Accessibility testing examples

Applause works with some of the world’s most recognizable brands to ensure digital quality, which includes accessibility testing to ensure all customers have exceptional experiences with a product. Our clients range from top-class travel and hospitality companies to global financial services companies to industry-leading B2C technology companies.

Here are some digital accessibility testing examples from our customer base:

BBVA. The Spanish multinational financial services company turns to Applause as an accessibility testing partner, helping to verify levels of compliance with its app and web site. BBVA prioritizes not just high-quality user experiences, but also implements a program to make its documentation transparent, clear and responsible for all customers.

Learn more about how BBVA turns to Applause for accessibility testing.

Dignity Health. The non-profit healthcare company relies on Applause for its telehealth services and mobile app. Through functional and accessibility testing, Applause helps Dignity Health achieve the device coverage it needs and ensure excellent digital experiences.

“Applause had all of the answers when it came to accessibility,” said Meredith McNeill, QA Manager at Dignity Health. “Anything that we threw at them, they knew, which gave us a base of knowledge that we normally wouldn’t have.”

Learn how Dignity Health prioritizes all customers’ experiences, not just some.

Swisscom. In addition to implementing internal accessibility training and awareness, the telecommunications provider turns to Applause to assist with accessibility testing and cover resource gaps.

“Finding a team to do the testing is sometimes difficult as everyone is short on resources, and A11y is often not the highest priority,” said Monica Castaldi, a DevOps engineer at Swisscom. “Applause helps us with regular tests and supports us if there are questions. Their reports are easy to understand and implement.”

Learn more about how Swisscom reaches all customers with help from Applause.

Applause commitment to accessibility

Every customer matters. Applause is ready to serve as your accessibility testing partner, both to help you stay on the right side of conformance while tapping into an oft-overlooked consumer market.

Applause’s accessibility solution includes:

Expert-led assessments. Our seasoned accessibility experts assess your digital properties, wireframes or content against digital accessibility guidelines, including WCAG, providing prioritized issues and recommendations.

Bug fix verification. Once issues are addressed, our team validates they were fixed correctly and identifies outstanding conformance concerns resulting from code changes.

Accessibility training. Applause provides customized course development and training to emphasize the importance of digital accessibility throughout your organization. We work to educate individual teams and help them incorporate best practices into regular operations.

Applause has accessibility experts located around the world who can conduct assessments of websites and products against WCAG, Section 508 and other digital accessibility guidelines. Applause provides a list of failures prioritized by severity level, along with detailed bug reports containing screenshots, videos, user impact and remediation recommendations when possible.

Applause delivers fast and comprehensive digital accessibility assessments for clients. On average, it takes about two weeks to test 30 pages of a website or native app. Several factors can affect the turnaround time, including:

  • number of pages

  • complexity of the pages

  • number of screen readers

  • testing a public site or beta/pre-production site

  • need for credentials

  • need for VPN

  • restrictions on testers' location

  • need to make purchases

  • need to open new accounts

Digital accessibility is a nuanced topic, and many organizations need expert guidance as they seek to make their properties and products more accessible. Let’s have a conversation today to learn about your digital accessibility goals and concerns. Our team is eager to answer your questions.

Editor’s note: The following blog is compiled from previously published digital accessibility testing articles from multiple Applause authors. These blog posts are consolidated here to provide comprehensive accessibility testing guidance.

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