Chasing the Accessibility Business Case – Conclusion

Somewhere toward the middle of this series, someone tweeted a message to me saying “I’m having a hard time telling exactly what it is you do believe”. It will be this post, the conclusion, where I finally outline what I believe regarding the Business Case for Accessibility.

Background

In Chasing the Accessibility Business Case – Part 1 I outlined the criteria which I feel must be met for something to be considered a real “Business Case”, regardless of what we’re making a business case for, be it Accessibility or something else altogether. Namely that anything being called a business case must be able to definitively answer at least one of the following questions:

  1. Will it make us money?
  2. Will it save us money?
  3. Will it reduce our risk?

If a purported business case for accessibility cannot be clearly articulated in these terms, then it is not a business case at all. Furthermore, if there’s no real data behind exactly how it answers one of those three questions, then it also does not pass muster as a business case. For instance I’ve seen business case arguments such as: “If you make your software more accessible you’ll be able to sell more of your software to US Federal government clients”. This argument seems to make good sense. Agencies within the Executive Branch of the US Federal government are required to comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act when making ICT procurements. Therefore, the argument goes, if your software complies with Section 508’s technical and functional provisions, purchase of your software would facilitate compliance for the procuring agency. This may seem to be a good business case. But is there data anywhere to support this? Does anyone have data to supply which proves increased sales of accessible vs. inaccessible software? Or, conversely, is there data to supply which shows lost federal sales for inaccessible software? Without data to support it, any Business Case argument is weak. We can talk about maybes and what-ifs all day long but until real money has been made or lost, it is not a business case. This is the most important thing to keep top-of-mind when making business case arguments.

Assessing Common Business Case Arguments

With the above in mind, I took a stab at providing an overview of common accessibility business case arguments as articulated by the Web Accessibility Initiative. In the section I called Chasing The Accessibility Case Part 2, I created a blog post that provided some details regarding whether I thought the arguments made a good business case. Here’s a quick breakdown of each:

  • The SEO Benefits of Web Accessibility – Although it seems sensible to conclude accessible sites will enjoy the benefit of ranking better due to on-page factors, I’ve seen little actual evidence of a clear business case in this area. Certainly there is some crossover here and if your site places high value on organic conversions then SEO is a good thing to focus on. But in terms of development best practices which are both accessibility & SEO, I’ve seen no hard evidence of ROI here.
  • Increased Usability Through Accessibility – many argue that general usability is improved by accessibility. The arguments made are certainly sensible but again, I’ve yet to see a clear business case. Like SEO, accessibility can often be a great side effect of good usable design, but I don’t think that the converse is true and haven’t seen any hard data to back up these claims, either.
  • Web Accessibility and Reduced Design, Development, Production, Maintenance Costs – typically such cost savings are best realized after the fact when converting to a new design, CMS, or other platform change and keeping the same content. Most large organizations are already using standards-based development, so no specific accessibility-related cost savings are likely for new development. Like any bug, accessibility issues are cheapest if they’re avoided, so lots of money can be saved if you do it right vs. fixing them later
  • The buying power of persons with disabilities – Of all of the accessibility business case arguments, this one is perhaps most clearly backed by actual data.  The part that makes me skeptical of the strength of this argument is that nobody has actually shown that the accessibility (or lack thereof) has an impact on whether real money has been gained (or lost).  Despite this, I do believe that with proper marketing, owners of an accessible site could get real ROI from their efforts.
  • Web Accessibility and Reduced Resource Utilization – Again it seems relatively obvious that standards-based production techniques will lead to both higher accessibility and reduced resource utilization.  Thing is, most people making money on the web (those for whom this could be considered a business case), the types of production techniques which enhance accessibility aren’t like to make much of a dent in their resource usage.
  • Support for Low Bandwidth Users – Similar to the buying power of persons with disabilities, this argument is backed by pretty good data.  As I outlined in the post on this topic, there are still a lot of low bandwidth users on the web, many of whom do conduct business online. Usability studies have shown that users will bounce from a site which  takes a long time to load & respond.
  • The Social Factors of Web Accessibility – While the social factors of web accessibility are primarily the reason why I develop accessible websites, this is just not a good business case.  Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) can sometimes be a good business case, but I’ve just not seen any data regarding accessibility and CSR. This could be because nobody takes advantage of the public relations and marketing opportunities this affords them.
  • Accessibility Support for Aging Populations – On the surface there seems to be good data to suggest that this is a viable business case argument.  If this were true, however, then (all other things being equal) an accessible site would make more money from older users than their inaccessible competition. I’ve seen no data to suggest this is the case.
  • Reduction of Legal Risk as Web Accessibility Business Case – this is the business case which has the most real evidence behind it, but it really only matters if you’re in the United States, operating in a litigious industry, and among the largest of your industry.

Summary

With the above in mind, here’s my breakdown of how strong each business case is. Keep in mind, what I’m referring to here is specifically how easy it would be to prove that real money can be gained or lost using the reasons behind the stated business case.

Strong Iffy Weak
  1. Reduction of Risk
  2. Support for Low Bandwidth Users
  1. SEO
  2. Buying Power of Persons with Disabilities
  1. Support for Aging Populations
  2. Social Factors
  3. Increased Usability
  4. Reduced Design, Development, Production, Maintenance Costs
  5. Reduced Resource Utilization

Seeing the whole picture

As I’ve discussed in this series there are some good arguments to be made for possible benefits of accessibility. Each of the above arguments listed above are, by themselves,  mostly insufficient to serve as a business case. For example, only a very small subset of accessibility best practices is mapped to SEO which, in my opinion, negates the sentiment that we should build an accessible site because it’ll drive new organic traffic via SEO improvements.  The thing that tends to happen, however, is that when people discuss the accessibility business case it tends to become a discussion of one or two of these arguments while ignoring the rest.  In fact, I’ve purposely done exactly this in this series as a way to prove a point. Arguing the accessibility business case is a bit like playing Jenga. Jenga is a game played by taking a few small wooden blocks out of the stack while trying not to make the whole stack of blocks collapse.  What I see happen often is that accessibility advocates tend to regurgitate every possible argument they’ve ever heard when arguing for accessibility, even ones that are weak or irrelevant to the audience.  To reuse my Jenga analogy, this is like taking a bunch of blocks off the bottom of the stack. They weaken the whole argument to the point where accessibility can’t stand on its own.

Taken together, all of the business case arguments paint a picture of accessibility driving multiple benefits which tends to suggest that accessibility is an important component toward a holistic approach to overall quality. This becomes part of the problem when attempting to quantify the real cost vs. benefit for accessibility that is relevant to the specific organization. When organizations are most successful at accessibility, its cost is distributed.  Unfortunately this distribution makes it  difficult to track accessibility’s benefits.

What is the business case?

For some organizations, the real business case is clear: The reduction of risk and the need to comply with existing laws or regulations is a compelling case for most large companies in the United States.  In fact, I’ve seen more than a few companies spend huge amounts of money fixing stuff in response to litigation or specific threats of litigation. The business case for organizations with high risk profiles is that they would never have needed to spend that money if they’d made their website accessible in the first place. Instead, those working in response to legal threats need to embark on long and painful remediation efforts, pay consultants, and train their staff – all of which have a corresponding impact on fixing other bugs and adding new features because human and financial resources are being diverted to accessibility. But as I’ve said before in this series if you’re not in the United States, not in litigious industries, and not among the largest in your industry, this whole risk business is a very weak argument.

For those who conduct business over the web – either directly through actual sales or indirectly through ad revenue or lead generation – they can still get real ROI. As we’ve discussed, support for low-bandwidth users already has a fair amount of data behind it.  In addition, an organization can enjoy some limited corresponding benefits from improved SEO. Finally, if the organization is smart in their marketing & public relations efforts, they can market their accessibility to users with disabilities and potentially see a boost in business from a loyal customer base.  In these cases, it is vital to understand where & how money is spent on accessibility. Irresponsible spending and unfocused effort is a great way to needlessly rachet up spending.   The best way to attack accessibility is to employ an agile approach, incrementally including it into processes and going for quick, high-impact wins first.

Your Organization’s Business Case Is Unique

Though a lot of what I’ve focused on has been based on generalization, your specific business case depends upon your specific situation. For instance, if you’re not in a high risk situation, then risk mitigation isn’t going to mean much.  If you’re a government agency, then the Buying Power of Persons with Disabilities won’t matter.  If you’re a non-profit or a politician, perhaps CSR may be a big business case.  There’s no way to apply everything I’ve said to every single situation. My point is really that accessibility advocates should resist using business case arguments that are irrelevant and unprovable. If the situation warrants it and you have data to back it up, then go for it.

My Final Opinion

Despite all I’ve said in all of these posts, the only thing I think has real, true data regarding actual money having been saved/ lost is legal risk in the United States. Yeah, the support-for-low-bandwidth-users thing is compelling, but finding hard data showing that accessibility plays a large role in solving that problem is impossible. Furthermore, if pushed, I could demonstrate that accessibility causes more bandwidth usage. But I have a question for all those who continually want to go down the business case path to prove a value to accessibility:  What’s wrong with just doing a good job?

Unlike many accessibility advocates, I’m a developer.  I’m a Zend Certified PHP developer and have been developing in PHP daily since 2003. I also know JSP, and a little bit of ActionScript, Flash, Flex, Java, and JavaScript. Most of my development stuff is backend but I have a pretty encyclopedic knowledge of HTML and CSS.  For me, accessibility is a quality-of-work issue.  When someone hires me to make a website or web-based application for them, they don’t pay extra for cross-browser compatibility. They don’t pay extra for security. They don’t pay extra for reliable hosting. They don’t pay extra for SEO. They don’t pay extra for standards-based production. When they hire me, they don’t pay extra for accessibility, either.

I’ve discussed before that we need to get out of the mindset that accessibility is “extra” – that it is something beyond what should be expected.   If you were to discover that your developer had left your comment form vulnerable to XSS attack, would you consider that as a “nice to have”, like so many people do with accessibility? NO. You’d scream at the guy because he delivered insecure code.  Why is accessibility extraordinary here? Why do we have to try to prove a special business case? Let’s stop getting sucked into fruitless conversations that isolate accessibility as something special that deserves its own discussion and focus on what accessibility really is: a quality of work issue. So long as a web-based system is inaccessible, it suffers from quality problems and we should focus on quality.

If you are interested in learning about the next generation in Web Accessibility Testing, give Tenon.io a try.
If you or your organization need help with accessibility consulting, strategy, or accessible web development, email me directly at karl@karlgroves.com or call me at +1 443-875-7343. Download Resume [MS Word]

2 Comments

  • jimtobias
    Posted January 27, 2012 at 8:57 am   Permalink

    Good article, as usual, Karl! I have 3 thoughts:

    1. Your ‘legal risk’ argument applies to 508 in a certain sense. If a company believes it would jeopardize a federal sale if their product were not accessible, they would tend to make it more accessible even if there were no way to explicitly cost justify specific remediation. Companies spend a lot of time and money just reducing their uncertainty — eliminating stray factors that hamper their strategic focus.

    2. Many of the other arguments you correctly identify as weak are based on specific accessibility features, not on accessibility overall. For example, the low-bandwidth argument is connected to alternative text for images, videos, etc., and cannot be applied to other features such as document language. Wouldn’t it be great if WAI developed a resource that explained each guideline’s value outside the accessibility domain? I know this has been done informally, piecemeal, but a nice, clean, authoritative staement would do wonders (although it might lead to underutilization of the guidelines that don’t have those arguments).

    3. Your clients *are* paying you for accessibility, or you’re swallowing that cost yourself. Staying up to date (not to mention writing this blog) takes time away from directly billable services. It’s also an opportunity cost for you professionally in the short term (you’re less of an expert in some other area) and the long term (if disability disappears, you’ve made a tragic and irreversible career choice). I strongly believe in the ‘professional quality’ argument because it’s been successful in attracting and holding excellent developers. But why is it wrong to make it clear to clients that they are paying for it? If it adds value to the site, it should cost money. Maybe the key is that it needs to be in the spec, just as your security example should be.

    • karlgroves
      Posted January 27, 2012 at 9:30 am   Permalink

      Jim,

      Thanks for taking the time to respond. I always enjoy talking with you about these things because I think we have similar perspectives.

      1. I regard 508 as part of the legal risk discussion. We’ve seen in recent years a willingness of disability rights advocates to take action against agencies which do not comply, so in my legal risk blog post I listed the public sector as one of the industries that has high risk.

      2. I separated out the business case arguments to try to prove a point that it is easy to diminish the value of these arguments on their own. This is even more true where such an argument is irrelevant to the audience. I happen to think that its more of a holistic thing and a good potential business case could be carved out by focusing on specific existing weaknesses, the repair of which can help meet the organization’s overall goals.

      3. These posts have been focused on the business case for clients, not a business case for me. I think of myself as capable of saving clients money. Because I’m a developer, because I have experience with such an array of different teams, I can help clients focus on strategies that will minimize their pain and maximize the benefit.

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