Devon was a guest this week on Bob Dunn’s Do the Woo podcast for WooCommerce online store owners. Devon brought her down-to-earth and holistic perspective about integrating accessibility into ecommerce sites, and both the challenges and opportunities that await folks building purchase path experiences for their users.

I had the pleasure of speaking with designer, blogger, and content enthusiast Bob Dunn for the latest episode of his podcast, Do the Woo, covering ecommerce and WordPress. We chatted about the challenges and benefits of providing accessible shopping experiences for online customers—and the ways ecommerce sites can start to make their platforms accessible. Bob and I hashed out some ideas about emerging technologies and the internet of things, both great opportunities for reaching customers with a whole variety of disabilities.

Listen to the episode on Bob’s site, or check out the transcript below.

What kind of experiences have you had with accessibility and online shopping? What do you think ecommerce sites need to think about for customers with varied needs? Tell us in the comments!

Podcast summary

Podcast transcript

This is the transcript of a podcast recorded on July 6, 2016, between Bob Dunn of BobWP and Devon Persing of Simply Accessible. It was recorded over Skype and published as part of Bob’s Do the Woo podcast on July 13, 2016.


Bob: Hey everyone, welcome to episode 21 of Do the Woo, a podcast for WooCommerce shop owners. Bob Dunn here, also known as BobWP on the web. Today we’re talking about a hot topic which just about every website on the internet needs to actually be a part of, and that is accessibility. In today’s show we’re digging a bit deeper into it, exploring how accessibility and your ecommerce site play such an important role now and in the future. To help us better understand this, we’re talking with Devon Persing from Welcome to the show, Devon.

Devon: Thank you very much.

Bob: Over on I see that their tagline is, “We believe in a digital world for everyone.” Devon, why don’t you tell us more about yourself, the site, and what Simple Accessible is.

Devon: Sure. Pretty much what I do day to day is—and what we do as a company is—work with clients to make their websites more accessible, which very broadly just means making websites, and mobile apps as well, that everyone can use. That includes people with disabilities. It’s really a people-first way of thinking about improving technology and trying to make technology as precise and software agnostic as possible. Really, it’s about making things that are technically usable as well as pleasant to use for everyone.

Bob: Okay, that’s good in a nutshell. I think it’s such a hot topic right now. I know in the WordPress world there’s a lot of real advocates of accessibility and they’re trying to get it across the plate more to everyone and get more people aware of it. I think it’s kind of a challenging subject, too, because I know that some people think they know what it means—and what you just explained in a nutshell, that’s what it is. But, since they think they know what it means for a website to be accessible, can you give me or give our audience a more broad definition of what it means for a website to be accessible?

Devon: Sure. Typically people look at the W3C standard, the web content accessibility guidelines, which is really meant as a framework for being able to make things accessible. Their rules, from the same people who brought you all of the specifications for how you’re supposed to write HTML and JavaScript and those sorts of things, those guidelines are really about creating the scaffolding to create an accessible experience. It has things to do with making sure that there’s keyboard support for people with dexterity issues, making sure that someone uses a screenreader can access your website. They’re technical guidelines or recommendations that are meant to give you the tools you need to be able to make an accessible experience.

The harder part is then taking those technical guidelines and making sure that the thing that you built is still actually usable and pleasant for people to experience. I think one of the challenges we see is that people look at those guidelines as sort of a checklist and they’re like, “Well, it does all these things, so it must be accessible.” It’s very possible to build something that is technically accessible but still hard to use. A big piece of it is really usability and making sure that the thing that you’ve built that’s technically correct is still actually usable by people. A big part of what we do, in addition to assessments for clients is we’ll look at their websites and their apps to see if they’re, how technically accessible they are. We also do usability testing with users who have disabilities. We have actual humans looking at your websites and seeing if they can actually complete a transaction or do any sort of other experience. It’s really the technical piece and the sort of design piece, and then also the usability piece all together.

Bob: Yeah, okay, that makes a lot of sense.

Strengths and weaknesses

Bob: Looking at where we are now, I know this has been—I can’t even really say how long I’ve heard about it and heard about people getting into it more and more. What would you consider to be the biggest stride that has been made with getting websites accessible as of now, and on the other end, what is the biggest weakness you see right now?

Devon: I think for strengths, there’s a couple of things. I think one has been mobile thinking and mobile design has really made people start to think more about streamlining the user experience and streamlining the interaction those people need to go through to complete whatever they’re trying to do. Mobile has been huge in terms of just helping people think about making an experience that works end to end. The screen is smaller, you have to do things in a certain order usually, and you really have to think about what is the best workflow for a user. Sometimes, if you’re on a desktop experience, you can sort of put stuff anywhere and it gets harder to think about things in that sort of more streamlined way. That’s been huge for, just in general, creating experiences that are easier for people to understand and easier for people to get through.

I think the other thing we’ve been seeing a lot this year is that organizations are coming to terms with the idea that accessibility isn’t sort of a one-off technical fix they need to do, maybe to meet certain guidelines or to meet a legal deadline. It’s really something they need to take into their organization and make a part of everything they do the whole time from when they’re designing a product and thinking about what an experience might be like to building it and designing it into testing it and making sure it’s actually usable. It’s not one person’s job, it’s really the responsibility of everyone in the organization. That’s something we’ve been seeing people are coming around to in realizing: that they need to think about it that way for it to be successful.

As far as weaknesses go, I think, sort of in a similar vein, mentioning about looking at the criteria as sort of a checklist. Organizations are going to have situations where they’re maybe being sued or there’s a threat of suit. It’s easy to think about accessibility as something that’s scary and hard, and also maybe antithetical to what they’re trying to do. People can start to think about accessibility issues as a bug list they need to fix, which again, sort of goes against the idea of this being part of an overall experience. I think that’s still a challenge that we see a lot. Not being scared by it, I think, is a thing. As it’s becoming a bigger thing and you see more situations where organizations are having to think about it, either because of legal pressure or laws or whatever is happening. It can be a challenge to help them think about this as ultimately a good thing for their organization. It just feels scary when the first thing you are approached with about accessibility is something bad is going to happen to you if you don’t make your website accessible.

Bob: Yeah, yeah. That’s interesting.

Themes, plugins, and accessibility

Bob: One question that kind of came to my mind, and I don’t even know if you have any thoughts on this or if you’re the right person ask, but when you were talking about mobile, from the accessible standpoint, do you see one being better over the other? In the WordPress world, we have all these themes that work for mobile automatically, and then there’s these plugins and other things that can help your site to become a mobile site by maybe creating a mobile-specific site. Between the responsive design and plugins or apps or whatever that help you do that, is there one that you think is really going in a better direction for accessibility than the other? Or does it really depend on each one and how they work?

Devon: I think it depends on what the plugin or theme is actually doing. In general though, only having to worry about one version of your site is easier just for maintenance and also it’s just less of a headache. We’ve seen a lot of success for clients who have mobile-first design that just works across devices. One of the other things we’ve seen a lot, as organizations are moving towards actually responsive mobile-first frameworks or themes or whatever it is they’re using for their sites—it’s a huge benefit to low-vision users on desktop because they might be resizing the content in the browser. They’re not seeing a desktop website with the text bigger, they’re actually seeing the tablet layout or the mobile layout, which can be much easier for someone to use if they have vision issues. That’s just an extra benefit that you get from doing it with a single theme. I think from the perspective of having been a developer and knowing the pain to maintain multiple things that you don’t have to, as well as just seeing users interact with those, I think having a single solution is usually easier for a bunch of different reasons.

Bob: Yeah, that’s good to hear because that’s obviously the direction WordPress and the themes are going in. I know that’s what I’ve used myself. Good news to hear that that’s one of the better routes to go. Stepping away from the broad accessibility that we’ve been talking about, I kind of want to focus a little bit on ecommerce. When we were chatting before we started the podcast, I was telling you how it’s been a challenge myself to find somebody that is in that accessibility field, but who also understands the unique challenges that come with ecommerce sites and accessibility. I know, basically, people need to shop, and they need to shop online and be able to do that easily.

Challenges for ecommerce

Bob: What are the unique challenges, whether they’re technical, usability, whatever, that ecommerce store owners have as far as making their site accessible? What are you seeing as a constant challenge with online stores?

Devon: I think the biggest thing is that you’re usually trying to present so much information to a customer. You’ve got recommendations, you’ve got photos, you’ve got videos, you’ve got text descriptions, you’ve got controls to configure a product or pick a size or colour. There’s just a lot of stuff going on all the time. Start going back to what I was talking about a little bit earlier about trying to streamline and figure out what is the best way to present all this information to a user that isn’t overwhelming. Something that’s going to work on a smaller device, as well as something that the order of the content is presented in a way that’s logical. That’s difficult, especially when you bring in dynamic content. You usually have some search results you might be able to filter and do different things the user can interact with, and they can customize their experience. You also have a lot of forms that people usually need to fill out for shipping information and their personal information.

It’s basically this perfect storm of all the things that are usually really difficult for organizations that are first starting out. And that’s not even getting into making sure that your photos have descriptions that convey the same information to users who can’t see pictures of the product, things like that. There’s content challenges around what is the way to convey any non-visual information or descriptions or anything that’s included. Coming up with a user experience and a layout that supports different ways that people are going to interact with the site. Making it so that users know if content is updating dynamically—someone changes a setting and the price updates—you want to make sure that that is presented in a way that they can understand what’s happened. Making it so they can fill out forms with as little stress as possible. Forms are one of the things that are everywhere, and there’s some really specific technical things to do to just make sure your forms are accessible. But, there’s still a challenge because, like you’re saying, often people are building ecommerce sites with plugins. They’re using a bunch of third-party JavaScript libraries. You’re trying to get all of these different things that sometimes you don’t have control over to work together, and there’s just a bunch of stuff.

Bob: Yeah, I was just thinking it seems overwhelming. I was thinking of those forms, I thought, “Man, those…” Some people have challenges with forms that don’t have disabilities.

Devon: Absolutely, absolutely.

Bob: Wow. On that same question, has there been any research done or that you know of about how many people with disabilities  feel it’s a good thing, or it’s easy for them to shop online?

Devon: I’m not aware of any. I do know that, in general, the purchasing patterns and preferences and things like that of people with disabilities typically are just the same as everyone else. In general, people want to be able to shop online, they want to be able to shop from large online retailers that have lots of different options for them, they want to be able to use mobile apps and buy stuff on their phones, because you never know where you might be. You think of something, you want to buy it, you don’t have to wait to go home to your desktop computer, which a lot of people don’t need to do most things day to day. Pretty much all the same things that everyone else does people with disabilities want to do as well with technology in general and for online shopping in particular.

Bob: Yeah, that totally makes sense, and that’s what I was thinking. I was just kind of curious if there was any other insight to that.

Best practices for accessible ecommerce

Bob: Obviously you and your team are working with tons of sites and seeing all sorts of things out there and major screw-ups and probably sites that are perfect. But have you found any really interesting or creative ways that any online shops are addressing the needs of accessibility, something that you’ve thought, “Wow, this is kind of cool”?

Devon: I think a lot about it. I keep coming back to this idea of sort of streamlining and making things as easy for a person to get to the process. I think there’s already such a small margin. A person shows up at a website, they look up a product, maybe they put it in their shopping cart, maybe they leave it in their shopping cart for two days. And then, the actual conversion percentages for people actually buying stuff is already low enough that a lot of the things that companies are already doing to try to shorten that are also good for accessibility. Things like being able to save your credit card information, your details, anything that reduces the amount of forms you have to fill out. That’s super important.

I think in general, not trying to create a separate experience. There are still online shopping sites, I won’t name them specifically, but there are still places that, depending on the technology you’re using to access them, you might be encouraged to go to a separate website, which is never as up to date, never provides the same experience. I think there was this initial idea that we’re going to have a website and then we’re going to have something that turns our website into a website that works better on a phone. There was that initial idea, I think, about, “We just need to create a separate thing because doing this is going to be hard otherwise,” but the overhead for maintaining a separate website or separate experience is going to be so much more than just doing it right the first time. I think it’s just created a better, more streamlined experience in general for people to have something you can use on a phone, you can use with a screen reader, you can use it.

One of the things that comes up a lot for shopping sites is contrast, the colour contrast for controls. One of the things that’s really great for low-vision users, which is having sufficient contrast on any sort of device, means that you can look at a website if you’re in really bright light on your phone and still be able to read it and still be able to do what you need to do. There’s a lot of overlap and benefits for just shopping in general, when you think about things in the way it’s going to make sense for users that are consuming that content and a variety of different ways.

Bob: Yeah, I know that I was listening to a presentation, it was at a Woo Conference, and they were talking about colours, contrast, and they were talking just about how important. I’m sure you go on sites and you see this horrible white text on black background or different things that are just… You never think it’s tough enough with decent eyesight to deal with some of them, so anybody with any vision disability, yeah, the contrast would be huge. Excellent points.

The future of shopping and accessibility

Bob: Do you have any foresight into what may be the future of ecommerce and accessibility? Anything that you see in the works, or they’re trying to solve a certain issue? Something that we might be seeing on the horizon?

Devon: One thing that’s come up a few times in the past year or so, basically other platforms, in general. Everything from kiosks to being able to shop on maybe your TV. Just thinking about being more platform agnostic—not thinking about your website as being the sole place. If you have a mobile app, that includes you. In general, thinking about all these other devices that we have now that are also computers. So I’m thinking of TVs, smartphones, the internet of things, Alexa, Amazon’s robot that lets you order things just by talking to it. Just in general, thinking about all these technologies that are being built to be able to get people to buy things when they think of them, using whatever platform they’re currently on, are also great opportunities for making accessible shopping experiences for users with disabilities. Because you’re broadening people’s options for doing any sort of interactions with technology that are either just their preferred way of doing it, or just make it easier for them to do those things. I think in general being more device agnostic and thinking about: “What are the different ways that we can bring whatever it is we’re selling or providing to people on different platforms?”

Bob: I just was reading an article recently, and it kind of throws another whole wrench into things because somebody was talking about the next big thing in ecommerce is going to be virtual reality. As you’re talking about this I’m thinking, “Boy, how does that play into accessibility?” That’s an interesting one, any thoughts on that?

Devon: I guess it’s funny because I feel like yeah, VR was very big this year, which comes up every once in a while, like every 10 years, but we actually have technology now that supports it in a reasonable way. Yes, I think we will totally be shopping in virtual reality. Why not? We’re shopping on everything else. I think for folks with mobility issues it could be huge. I’m just thinking off the top of my head now. I think there’s opportunities for doing augmented reality type experiences for shopping in a physical space, as well, or providing someone with a sort of physical shopping type experience through virtual reality. I think there’s just a lot of opportunities for providing information to people in different ways.

Bob: Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see how that all plays out. You’re right, it’s something that keeps cropping up and stuff. We’ll see where that goes.

Where to start

Bob: Okay, so before we get into some other questions here I have for you, anything I’ve missed or any other nuggets you share with us around accessibility?

Devon: Usually the questions I’m asked are: “What is accessibility? Who does it affect? What can I do to make my site or app accessible? What are some quick tests I can do or quick things I can do?” I think it’s becoming clear to a lot of people that there’s not an easy fix. A place to start that we often recommend is: if you’re just starting out with accessibility or you don’t know how accessible your site is is to focus on keyboard support, making sure your app or website can be used with a keyboard. Makes it available to anyone with motor or dexterity issues, as well as anyone that uses technologies like screen readers. That’s huge population, that’s people with arthritis, that’s people with any sort of muscular issues. That’s a lot of people. Keyboard support is super important.

Support for images in media. If you’ve got any sort of image-based content or videos or anything like that on your website, making sure that those things are accessible. Having text alternatives, having captions, things like that. A lot of those things have gotten a lot easier if you’re using YouTube or one of the other larger third-party video websites. They make it really easy to make captions, so that can be a huge help to users.

The other thing is forms. We talked about forms a little bit. On a good day, forms can be really difficult for everyone to use, so making sure that your forms are implemented following web standards. Making sure that your labels are all correct. Making sure that it’s really easy for people to fix errors if they’ve made errors. Making sure that the states of things are really clear. That’s usually the last thing someone is doing, too, in a shopping experience. They’re filling in their credit card and they’re filling in their address and stuff, and so you don’t want them to abandon what they’re doing because you made it hard for them to type some stuff in a box. Forms are super important to you. Those just are the big three things we tell people to start with.

Bob: Yeah, and that reminds me, actually, that I do need to get transcripts for my show. I’m feeling very guilty right now and I didn’t know that.

Devon: I’m sorry, that wasn’t my intention.

Bob: No, that’s good, I need a reminder.

Online shopping with your friendly neighborhood accessibility specialist

Bob: I’m going to have you answer a few questions as an online shopper to kind of wrap up this show. We are going to have you put on your online shopping hat when you’re off work and you’ve got all this money to spend that you’re making all the time. I’m not sure how much you shop online, but I think we’re going to find out. I know that you, as somebody that works in accessibility, this could play into the answer to this question, but as an online shopper, what is the biggest frustration you come up against when you’re shopping online that you see time and time again?

Devon: I hate to bring up forms again, but forms.

Bob: Forms.

Devon: I use 1Password for storage and keeping track of credit cards and stuff because I can’t remember anything. Often it’ll be a new website I haven’t used before and I’ll go to use 1Password to fill in my details and it doesn’t work, so I have to go and look. Usually it’s because the form isn’t implemented in an accessible way. It’s not programatically correct. The labels aren’t tied to a field, maybe the fields aren’t even real. HTML form fields might be custom ones and the other ones, they’re just doing everything with JavaScript. You never know. That’s the frustrating thing for me when I’m trying to get through a purchase path is that I can’t use the tools I need and try to reduce my stress in filling out a form. That’s the biggest thing I think for me is forms.

Bob: You have a thing for forms, don’t you? I’m just kidding.

Devon: I do! I spend a lot of my time looking at forms!

Bob: Oh, I bet. Sounds like it. I’m going to hide all of my forms from you from now on. Please don’t go to my site, please. Is there anything that’s available online that you would never buy online, that you have to buy in person?

Devon: I’ve thought about this for a while. I can’t think of anything. I think there are a few factors. I work at home and I don’t drive a ton, so just having things mailed to me is very convenient. I also live in Seattle, so I live in like Amazon town. I feel like in general I just live in a very online shopping centred culture. It might also be my age. I’m in the latter days of millennials so I have had a very web-centred life in general. I book appointments online or via text. When we were shopping for a house, we were like, “Wouldn’t it be nice if there was just an online house store we could go to?” It’s the real estate agent. I can’t think of anything. I don’t think there’s a genre of products I can think of that I wouldn’t want to buy online.

Bob: Last, if you could start your online store and it didn’t matter—time, money, resources, none of that really mattered—you just would love to sell something online, whether it sells tons or not, just because you would enjoy doing it…is there anything you can think of?

Devon: My beginning in web work was in online publishing, academic publishing, actually. I’ve always had a soft spot for online publishing and online people that write stuff, whether it’s stories or games or anything—being able to sell the things that they make. I think I would want to do something along those lines. I don’t know if it might be my own stuff, might be other people’s work, but some sort of online content, I guess. Fiction, non-fiction, I think that would be it.

Bob: I bet you all the forms would be just so incredibly…

Devon: They’d be spectacular.

Bob: Yeah, they’d be the best forms on the web. We would just come to your site and get stuff just because we’d want to use your forms. I just know that would be it. Well boy, I think this is great. This is, like I said, a topic I’ve been wanting to get somebody on to talk about. I know we could probably go on and on forever, but I think you’ve covered quite a bit and it’s going to really help our listeners. I just want to thank you for taking the time to be our guest today.

Devon: Thank you so much for having me.

Bob: You bet. Until we meet next time, remember: we all need to believe in a digital world for everyone. As a listener, I ask you to learn more about how you can join in to help the web become more accessible. And of course, don’t forget, every Wednesday, to do the Woo.