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Improving Accessibility for E-Commerce: A Complete Guide

February 28, 2024

Table Of Content

Understanding Accessibility in E-commerce

Accessibility in e-commerce refers to the practice of designing websites and online shopping platforms in a way that makes them usable by as many people as possible, including those with disabilities. This encompasses a wide range of conditions, including visual, auditory, motor, and cognitive impairments. The goal is to ensure that all users can navigate, understand, and interact with e-commerce sites, thereby having equal access to online products and services.

Core Principles of Accessibility (WCAG Guidelines)

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are developed through the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) process in cooperation with individuals and organizations around the world. They aim to provide a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organizations, and governments internationally. The guidelines are organized around four core principles, often abbreviated as POUR:

  • Perceivable: Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive. This means that users must be able to perceive the information being presented (it can’t be invisible to all of their senses).
  • Operable: User interface components and navigation must be operable. This means that users must be able to operate the interface (the interface cannot require interaction that a user cannot perform).
  • Understandable: Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable. This implies that users must be able to understand the information as well as the operation of the user interface (the content or operation cannot be beyond their understanding).
  • Robust:
    Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies. As technologies and user agents evolve, the content should remain accessible.

Legal and Ethical Obligations

Legal Obligations

In many jurisdictions, there are legal requirements for digital accessibility. For example, in the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been interpreted by some courts to apply to websites, requiring businesses to ensure their online content is accessible to all users. Similar laws exist in other countries, such as the Equality Act in the UK and the European Accessibility Act in the EU. These laws mandate that e-commerce sites be designed and developed in a way that disabled users have full and equal enjoyment of the goods and services provided.

Ethical Obligations

Beyond legal requirements, there is an ethical obligation for businesses to be inclusive and to not discriminate against people with disabilities. Providing an accessible website is a statement of an organization’s commitment to inclusivity and equality. It demonstrates a recognition of the diversity of customers and a desire to provide an equitable experience for everyone, regardless of their abilities.

Benefits of Accessibility for Everyone

Benefits for Potential Customers

Accessibility benefits not only those with disabilities but also improves the user experience for all customers. For example, features designed for accessibility, such as clear navigation and text descriptions for images, can enhance the usability of a site for users in a noisy environment, or for those using mobile devices with small screens. Accessible websites tend to have better search engine optimization (SEO), as the practices that improve accessibility (such as meaningful link text and heading structures) are also favored by search engines.

Benefits for Brand Reputation

Committing to accessibility can significantly enhance a brand’s reputation. It positions a company as socially responsible and demonstrates a commitment to equality and customer care. This can attract customers who value inclusivity and can lead to increased loyalty and trust in the brand. Moreover, by catering to the full spectrum of potential customers, businesses can tap into a wider market, including the millions of people with disabilities and their networks, potentially leading to increased sales and market share.

Benefits of Conducting an Accessibility Audit

Conducting an accessibility audit is a comprehensive evaluation of how well your e-commerce platform meets the needs of users with disabilities. This process identifies barriers that prevent access to your website’s content and functionality, serving several key benefits:

  • Identifying Accessibility Barriers:
    An audit provides a clear picture of where your website stands in terms of accessibility and pinpoints specific areas that need improvement. This can range from simple fixes like adjusting color contrasts to more complex issues related to navigation and site structure.
  • Ensuring Legal Compliance: By identifying and addressing accessibility issues, businesses can ensure they are in compliance with relevant laws and regulations, thereby reducing the risk of legal action and penalties.
  • Improving User Experience for All: Accessibility improvements often enhance the overall user experience, making your site more navigable and understandable for everyone, not just those with disabilities.
  • Expanding Market Reach: By removing barriers, you make your site accessible to a larger audience, including the millions of people with disabilities, thus expanding your potential customer base.
  • Enhancing Brand Reputation:
    Demonstrating a commitment to accessibility can enhance your brand’s image, showing that your business values inclusivity and equality.

Tools and Resources for Accessibility Testing

Automated Testing Tools

Automated testing tools can quickly scan your website for common accessibility issues. While not exhaustive, they are a good starting point. Examples include:

  • WAVE (Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool):
    Offers a visual representation of potential issues directly on your website.
  • Axe Accessibility Checker:
    A browser extension that allows you to test web pages for accessibility issues.
  • Google Lighthouse: An open-source, automated tool for improving the quality of web pages, including accessibility checks.

Manual Testing Resources

Manual testing is crucial for identifying issues that automated tools might miss. This involves:

  • Keyboard Navigation Testing:
    Ensuring that the site can be fully navigated using a keyboard alone, which is crucial for users with motor disabilities.
  • Screen Reader Testing: Using screen readers to navigate the site and check for logical flow and meaningful interaction for blind and low-vision users.
  • Accessibility Checklists: Utilizing checklists based on WCAG guidelines to manually assess the accessibility of a website.

Involving Users with Disabilities in the Audit Process

Involving users with disabilities in the audit process is invaluable for gaining authentic feedback on the accessibility of your website. This can be achieved through:

  • User Testing Sessions:
    Conducting sessions where users with a range of disabilities interact with your website, providing real-time feedback on their experience.
  • Surveys and Interviews: Gathering insights through surveys or interviews with users who have disabilities to understand their challenges and needs better.

Importance of Accessible Design Principles

Accessible design principles are foundational to creating an inclusive e-commerce platform. These principles ensure that all users, regardless of their abilities, can navigate, understand, and interact with your website effectively. Key accessible design principles include:

  • Clear Navigation: Implementing a logical structure and clear navigation helps users find what they are looking for easily. This includes consistent layout, meaningful link text, and the use of headings to structure content.
  • Keyboard Operability: Ensuring that all interactive elements are operable with a keyboard alone is crucial for users who cannot use a mouse due to physical disabilities.
  • Responsive Layouts:
    A responsive design adapts to different screen sizes and orientations, making content accessible on a wide range of devices, including mobile phones and tablets. This is particularly important for users with low vision who may need to zoom in or modify content display.

Techniques for Creating Accessible Content

Creating accessible content involves understanding and implementing practices that make your content usable for everyone. Some key techniques include:

  • Proper Semantics:
    Use HTML elements according to their intended purpose (e.g., using <button> for buttons). Proper semantics assist in conveying the structure and purpose of content to users with assistive technologies.
  • Alternative Text for Images:
    Providing descriptive alt text for images allows users who cannot see the images to understand their content and function. This is also beneficial for SEO.
  • Color Contrast: Ensuring sufficient contrast between text and its background makes content readable for users with visual impairments. The WCAG guidelines specify minimum contrast ratios for text and images of text.
  • Readable Fonts:
    Use fonts that are easy to read and make sure the text size can be increased without losing content or functionality. This helps users with visual impairments or reading disorders.

Using Accessible Content Management Systems and Templates

  • Accessible Content Management Systems (CMS):
    Choosing a CMS that supports accessibility out of the box can significantly simplify the process of creating and maintaining an accessible website. Look for systems that offer accessibility features and allow for the creation of accessible content.
  • Accessible Templates:
    Utilizing templates that are designed with accessibility in mind can provide a solid foundation for your website. These templates have been crafted to meet accessibility standards, ensuring that your site starts off on the right foot.

Accessibility Considerations for E-commerce Technologies

E-commerce platforms often utilize a variety of technologies to enhance functionality and user experience. However, it’s crucial to ensure these technologies don’t create barriers for users with disabilities. Key accessibility considerations include:

  • Responsive Design: Ensure your website’s design is responsive and flexible across all devices and screen sizes. This not only benefits mobile and tablet users but also supports users who need to zoom in or adjust text sizes.
  • AJAX and Dynamic Content:
    Websites that use AJAX and other technologies to load content dynamically must ensure that changes to the page are communicated to screen readers. ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) landmarks and live regions can be used to alert users to updates without refreshing the page.
  • Multimedia Content:
    For video and audio content, provide captions, transcripts, and audio descriptions where necessary. This makes your content accessible to users who are deaf, hard of hearing, or have visual impairments.

Compatibility with Assistive Technologies

To ensure your e-commerce platform is accessible to as many users as possible, compatibility with assistive technologies should be a priority:

  • Screen Readers Compatibility:
    Ensure your website works seamlessly with screen readers by using semantic HTML, proper headings, ARIA roles, and labels for interactive elements. Regular testing with different screen readers can help identify and rectify issues.
  • Keyboard Navigation:
    All interactive elements should be navigable using a keyboard alone. This includes links, buttons, forms, and any custom widgets. Ensure that navigation is logical and intuitive, and consider the use of skip links to allow users to bypass repetitive content.

Evaluating Accessibility of Third-party Tools and Plugins

Third-party tools and plugins can add valuable functionality to your site but can also introduce accessibility issues:

  • Choose Wisely:
    Before integrating a third-party tool or plugin, evaluate its accessibility. Look for tools that are committed to following accessibility standards and that provide detailed accessibility documentation.
  • Regular Testing: Even if a third-party tool is accessible at the time of integration, updates or changes to your website could affect its accessibility. Regular testing is essential to ensure ongoing compatibility with your site’s accessibility standards.
  • Fallback Solutions: In cases where an essential third-party tool lacks accessibility, consider providing a fallback or alternative solution. This ensures that all users, regardless of the technologies they use, can access the services and information they need.

Establishing an Accessibility Maintenance Process

Accessibility is not a one-time task but an ongoing process that requires regular attention and maintenance. As e-commerce platforms evolve, new content is added, and technologies change, maintaining accessibility standards is crucial. Establishing a robust maintenance process involves:

  • Regular Audits:
    Schedule regular accessibility audits to identify and address new issues that arise from updates or additions to the website. These audits should encompass both automated testing and manual evaluations, including testing by users with disabilities.
  • Content Guidelines:
    Develop and enforce guidelines for creating accessible content. This ensures that all new content, whether it’s text, images, videos, or multimedia, meets established accessibility standards before it’s published.
  • Technology Updates:
    Keep abreast of updates to web technologies and assistive technologies. Updates may introduce new accessibility features or, conversely, create new challenges that need to be addressed.

Assigning Responsibility for Accessibility

For an accessibility initiative to be successful, clear roles and responsibilities must be established within the organization:

  • Accessibility Officer or Team:
    Designate an accessibility officer or team responsible for overseeing the accessibility strategy, including compliance monitoring, training, and reporting.
  • Training for Teams:
    Provide comprehensive accessibility training for relevant teams, including web developers, content creators, and design staff. Training should cover the basics of web accessibility, the use of assistive technologies, and how to create and maintain accessible content and designs.
  • Inclusion in Workflows: Integrate accessibility checks and considerations into existing workflows to ensure they become a routine part of the content creation and website development processes.

Utilizing Continuous Monitoring Tools

Continuous monitoring tools can automate the process of detecting accessibility issues on your website. These tools can provide real-time feedback and help prioritize issues based on severity and impact. Examples include:

  • Automated Accessibility Scanners:
    Tools that scan your website at regular intervals to identify accessibility violations against standards like WCAG.
  • Browser Extensions and Toolkits:
    Use browser extensions and development toolkits that can highlight issues directly within the development environment or during content creation.

Leveraging User Feedback

User feedback is an invaluable resource in identifying and resolving accessibility issues:

  • Feedback Mechanism:
    Implement an easy-to-use feedback mechanism on your website that allows users to report accessibility issues. This could be a simple form, email address, or phone number.
  • Engagement with Disability Community: Engage with the disability community and invite users with disabilities to provide feedback on your website. This direct input can uncover issues that automated tools and checklists might miss.
  • Responsive Action Plan: Develop a responsive action plan to address feedback and resolve reported issues promptly. Communicating updates and fixes to users who reported issues can also build trust and loyalty.

Communicating Your Commitment to Accessibility

Effective communication about your commitment to accessibility is crucial for building trust and demonstrating your dedication to inclusivity. Here are ways to effectively communicate this commitment:

  • Accessibility Statement: Publish a clear and detailed accessibility statement on your website. This statement should outline your commitment to accessibility, the standards you strive to meet (such as WCAG 2.1), and the measures you have taken to ensure your site is accessible. It can also include information on ongoing efforts and future plans to improve accessibility.
  • Contact Information:
    Provide specific contact information for users to report accessibility issues or to request assistance. This could be a dedicated email address, phone number, or contact form. Make sure the response times are swift, demonstrating that you take accessibility concerns seriously.

Offering Alternative Ways to Contact Customer Support

Ensuring that all users, including those with disabilities, can easily contact customer support is a key aspect of building trust and ensuring accessibility:

  • Multiple Contact Methods:
    Offer various ways for users to contact customer support, such as email, phone, chat, and contact forms. This ensures that users can choose the method that best suits their needs and abilities.
  • Accessible Contact Forms: Ensure that any contact forms on your site are fully accessible, with clear labels, error messages, and keyboard navigability.
  • TTY/TDD Services: For users who are deaf or hard of hearing, provide TTY (Text Telephone) or TDD (Telecommunications Device for the Deaf) services, allowing them to communicate with customer support.

Sharing Accessibility Improvements

Openly sharing updates and improvements regarding accessibility can further build trust with your audience:

  • Regular Updates:
    Regularly update your users on improvements and updates made to enhance accessibility. This can be done through blog posts, newsletters, or a dedicated section on your website.
  • Engagement on Social Media:
    Use social media platforms to share updates about your accessibility efforts. This not only raises awareness but also encourages feedback and engagement from a wider audience.
  • Feedback Loop:
    Create a feedback loop where users can see how their contributions have led to improvements on the site. Acknowledging user input and demonstrating tangible changes based on that feedback shows that you value user experience and are committed to making your site accessible to everyone.

Engaging in Open Communication

Open communication with your users about accessibility efforts demonstrates transparency and builds trust:

  • User Surveys:
    Conduct surveys to gather input on how to improve accessibility. This shows that you value the opinions and experiences of all users.
  • Accessibility Forums or Panels:
    Consider setting up forums, panels, or feedback sessions that specifically focus on accessibility. Inviting users with disabilities to participate and share their experiences can provide valuable insights and foster a sense of community.
  • Transparency:
    Be transparent about the challenges you face in implementing accessibility measures. Openly discussing obstacles and the steps you’re taking to overcome them can help manage user expectations and foster a supportive community.

Measuring Success in Accessibility Efforts

To ensure the effectiveness of accessibility initiatives and continuous improvement, it’s essential to measure progress towards established goals. Here’s how you can track and evaluate your accessibility efforts:

Metrics and Tools for Tracking Progress

  • Automated Testing Tools: Utilize automated web accessibility evaluation tools to regularly scan your website for compliance with standards like WCAG. Tools such as Axe, WAVE, or Google Lighthouse can provide insights into areas of non-compliance and track improvements over time.
  • Manual Testing and Audits: Incorporate manual testing and professional accessibility audits into your evaluation process. These assessments offer detailed insights into the user experience that automated tools might miss, particularly in complex interactive scenarios.
  • Performance Indicators:
    Establish key performance indicators (KPIs) for accessibility, such as the number of accessibility issues resolved, the time taken to address reported issues, and user satisfaction ratings among users with disabilities.

Utilizing User Testing and Feedback

  • User Testing with People with Disabilities:
    Conduct regular user testing sessions involving people with various disabilities. This direct feedback is invaluable for understanding the real-world usability of your website.
  • Feedback Mechanisms: Implement and promote feedback mechanisms on your website to encourage users to report accessibility issues and suggestions. Monitor and analyze this feedback to identify trends and areas for improvement.
  • Surveys and Focus Groups:
    Use surveys and focus groups to gather targeted insights on the accessibility of your website. This can help gauge the effectiveness of recent changes and inform future improvements.

Staying Updated with Evolving Standards and Best Practices

  • Continual Learning: Accessibility standards and best practices are continually evolving. Stay informed about updates to accessibility guidelines, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), and adjust your practices accordingly.
  • Professional Development: Encourage ongoing professional development for your team in the field of web accessibility. This can include attending webinars, workshops, and conferences focused on accessibility, as well as subscribing to accessibility newsletters and forums.
  • Networking with Experts:
    Engage with the accessibility community, including experts and organizations dedicated to accessibility advocacy. Networking can provide insights into emerging trends, tools, and techniques in the field of web accessibility.

Continuously Striving to Improve Accessibility

  • Setting Ambitious Goals: Beyond meeting minimum legal and technical requirements, set ambitious goals for accessibility on your platform. Aim for inclusivity in every aspect of your user experience, from browsing and navigation to checkout and customer service.
  • Iterative Design and Development:
    Adopt an iterative approach to design and development that incorporates accessibility from the start and throughout the lifecycle of your website. Regularly revisit and revise your site to incorporate new solutions and technologies that enhance accessibility.
  • Inclusive Culture:
    Foster an inclusive culture within your organization that values diversity and accessibility. Making accessibility a shared responsibility across all teams ensures a more comprehensive approach to inclusive design.


Improving accessibility in e-commerce is not just a legal requirement but a moral imperative and a smart business strategy. By embracing the principles of accessible design, conducting thorough audits, and engaging with users with disabilities, businesses can create inclusive digital environments that welcome everyone. Tools and resources are readily available to help identify and remove barriers, making the web a more accessible place for people with disabilities. However, the journey doesn’t stop with compliance. Continuous learning, user feedback, and evolving with technological advancements are key to staying ahead in accessibility.

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