Designing for Voice Devices May Improve Web Accessibility

Jon Sasala

Jon Sasala
Published May 18, 2020

Accessibility-Audio-Devices

Optimizing for voice search will likely leverage the same elements established for screen readers, resulting in developers inadvertently addressing web accessibility. As Global Accessibility Awareness Day approaches, we encourage everyone to consider the level of accessibility of their websites while simultaneously preparing for the voice design revolution. 

In 2011, Joe Devon accidentally entered the world of web accessibility—one he would influence greatly.

Devon's incidental entry into accessibility began while he was spending time with his aging father. That's when he witnessed for himself how people like his father were struggling with the internet in ways that could be avoidedthings like the contrast of text not being high enough for people with poor vision, or how increasing the font size of a website can break the layout if not coded properly. 

A developer, Devon was frustrated for his father and a lot of other people suffering from a non-inclusive web experience. It wasn't only those who were aging he was concerned about, but everyone overlooked during user experience (UX) conversations, including low- and no-vision users, hard of hearing and deaf people, and users with mobility or cognitive issues.

The percentage of people who officially identify as “disabled” might not seem very high, Caroline Casey, founder and creator of Valuable 500, a movement to build awareness around disability issues in the international business community, said during a recent interview with Be My Eyes podcast.

"[But] if you put a mother and a father attached to every one of the 1.3 billion people in the world who have a disability," she adds, "that is 54% of our global consumers."

Indeed, the market and the need for accessibility is massive yet remains dramatically underserved.

Back in 2011, Devon shared his frustration in a short, simple post on MySQLTalk.com, a developer forum he'd frequently visit. Describing the lack of information surrounding accessibility, he suggested there be “a day of the year where web developers across the globe try to raise awareness and know-how on making sites accessible.” 

This idea sparked a fire that still burns: Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD).

Voice Devices: An Unintentional Catalyst for Change

Though awareness of web accessibility is growing, either through GAAD events or from the rise in accessibility lawsuits, the progress towards a more inclusive internet does not seem to be moving fast enough. Something is coming, though, that might inspire change at scale: voice-enabled devices.

Currently, ubiquitous voice-enabled home devices, such as Amazon Echo and Google Home, have limited access to the internet and can deliver brief answers to simple questions pulled from top-ranking search results.

Other than short, featured snippets, these devices cannot take you much deeper into a website. Of course, navigating a website via voice commands is not something the masses are clamoring for because, from their perspective, it is a strange experience. While this might feel unusual at first, that is exactly what occurs when people surf the web via a screen reader.

The bottom line: Voice devices that provide audio representations of websites would eventually benefit everyone, but there isn't widespread calls for such action just yet.

Consider this: A few years ago, with the growing adoption of the mobile web, people recognized the need to address responsiveness, but predicted users would still prefer to make large purchases on a desktop. As the thinking went, large investments, such as booking a trip or purchasing a car, would rarely, if ever, take place on a mobile device. That proved to be wrongwe are just as comfortable managing our digital transactions on a phone or tablet as we are sitting at a desk.

We're beginning to witness similar conversations around voice devices, namely: What opportunities lie ahead when we won’t need to physically interact with technology?

In everyday life, there are plenty of innovations enjoyed by the populace as a whole that were created to better serve the disabled community. For example, curb cuts were originally implemented for people in wheelchairs, but became  appreciated by parents with strollers, delivery workers wheeling hand trucks, and skateboarders all over the world. Accessing the internet via voice devices will be another benefit we all share.

To get to a place where websites are accessible by voice devices they will likely need a lot of what has already been defined for screen readers, including proper image descriptions, Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA) roles and labels, “skip-to” links, link destinations, and form input labels. With these in place, we can freely explore an audio-only version of websites through voice commands.

Just like the mobile responsive revolution, where developers started accounting for different device sizes in their design, this too will inspire a revolution. Experiencing how your website is “displayed” on a voice device could be the catalyst for the wide adoption of accessible design fundamentals. Websites aiming to optimize for voice and take advantage of this new channel will be simultaneously addressing web accessibility.

 

Lead the Voice Design Revolution

Google, Amazon and other tech outfits are likely working toward this reality and preparing their devices. However, the onus is on those managing websites to do their part. To ensure you are ready when the future arrives we ask that you start addressing accessibility now. Join Joe Devon and the GAAD accessibility advocates doing their part to push accessibility forward. You will be preparing yourself for this new opportunity and simultaneously helping users that have long been ignored. There is a business case for it, but to quote Caroline Casey again:

"I am coming to the point that I don't want to make the business case for disability anymore. Since when were we ever supposed to make the business case for human beings?"

Learn more about Global Accessibility Awareness Day and events you can participate in to start your journey toward a more inclusive internet.

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