Acting smoothly as part of society requires the use of digital services. The transition of services online is at best a matter of making people’s lives easier and more equal. It is easier for a person with disabilities to take care of things from home online than to move around, for example, with a wheelchair. But when the service moves online, there are new challenges emerging compared to the physical world. A wheelchair is no longer an obstacle to navigation, instead, we have to face many new challenges. The realisation of equality also requires the accessibility of digital services to all users.
Accessibility is not just a legal obligation, but also a strategic competitive advantage that brings many benefits to both service providers and end users. Accessibility may enable new, satisfied users to access the service. It may also create more revenue, which may at best exceed the incurred costs many times over.
What is accessibility and who benefits from it?
Accessibility is the consideration of diversity in the design and implementation of digital services. It means that all people can use websites and other digital services as easily and effortlessly as possible, regardless of their personal characteristics or usage patterns.
When talking about accessibility, the first thing that typically comes to mind is blind users and screen readers. This is an important topic, but ultimately make up a fairly small part of the users who benefit from accessibility. Many types of audiovisual, cognitive, motor and technical challenges can become an obstacle to use. Reasons for challenges in use can be, for example, visual and hearing impairments, physical and motor limitations, reading or memory disorders or other cognitive problems. Challenges for users may arise also if the language of the service user interface is not the user’s native language.
According to estimates, approximately 20% of the population will benefit from considering the accessibility of services. This means more than a million potential users in a country the size of Finland. So we are not talking about just a small group of people.
One might say that accessibility and usability are like sisters of each other. Accessibility essentially involves elements whose compliance supports ease of use, scalability for different devices, and service robustness. All those are things that are really important from a usability perspective, and all users benefit from these being in place.
Megatrends as incentives for accessibility
One global megatrend is the ageing of the population. Ageing brings with it many physiological changes. An increasing number have challenges with sight and hearing. At the same time, the fine motor skills of the fingers and the ability to remember things may weaken with age. When services are used more and more with smartphones in noisy environments, it gets tough for users if special attention is not paid to accessibility.
Another global phenomenon is internalisation. There are a growing number of immigrants in the population whose language is not any of those officially used here. Clarifying the service content brings much needed alleviation. If possible, it is good to offer the service in different language version. It is also important to focus on plain language, i.e. clear and easy to understand text.
The third phenomenon currently is the fragmented use of services with smart devices. Many services are used more on other devices than desktop computers. Various daily activities, starting with communication, information search and grocery shopping, are primarily handled on one’s phone, when there just happens to be a suitable gap. A highly distracted environment causes most mobile users to engage in one-handed use with short spans of partial attention. The truth is we just don’t know the circumstances that may hamper the person’s access to the web or application.
Due to temporary circumstances, the user may also be in a situation where the use of the device or service requires accessibility. For example, reading a phone screen in bright sunlight or cognitive overload in a hurry under a stress load easily causes mistakes. In these situations, taking accessibility into account by increasing the contrast of the screen and ensuring the intuitiveness of the service brings significant improvement.
The Digital Services Act and equality
The equality of people is already defined in the constitution of Finland. No one should be placed in a different position based on sex, age, origin, language, religion, conviction, opinion, health, disability or any other reason that concerns his or her person.
The Digital Services Act obliges the public sector and some private sector organisations to comply with accessibility requirements, which are the A and AA level criteria defined by WCAG. In addition, the law extends to some of the banking, energy, transport and postal services. In Finland, the authority following the implementation of the Digital Services Act is the Regional Administration Office.
From June 2025, the Digital Services Act will expand to several consumer services offered by the private sector. For example, electronic services for passenger transport and the banking sector, electronic book services, online stores and audiovisual content services will fall within the scope of the accessibility requirements of the Digital Services Act.
Competitive advantage from accessibility
The Accessibility Act already obliges many entities to consider accessibility in their services, but it is still not necessary everywhere. Still, its effects extend to the private sector. User expectations regarding accessibility and overall usability are growing. Companies can benefit from meeting accessibility requirements voluntarily and offering accessible services to all their users.
Nowadays, digital services are a company’s business card. High-quality, easy-to-use and accessible digital services stand out in a good way. It is important to understand that accessibility is not just compliance with regulations. It is a business strategy that improves the user experience, attracts new customers and promotes the company’s reputation and brand. By making services accessible, we build an equal society.
Users and the operating environment in the centre
Accessibility should be present as a key factor already in tendering and taken into account from the beginning of the planning phase of the service. If accessibility is tried to be glued on only at the end stage, unexpected repair needs may come up which can be very expensive.
The needs of the service should be taken into account in a user-oriented way from the very beginning. By identifying the users, it is possible to design the service to serve their special characteristics. By identifying the usage situations and the usage environment, we understand the factors affecting the user’s ability to function in the service. This way, the service becomes truly user-oriented and serves its users equally.
We don’t know where the laws and legislation are going from here, but we can be one step ahead. Let’s make services accessible together. Not because it is required by law, but because it improves equality and equity. Because it’s simply right.