Lucy Beldon CDS

From public sector directives to consumer interactions, communication underpins everything we do as a society. Yet there can be many barriers that get in the way of individuals receiving your message as intended. Here, Lucy Beldon, Head of Planning and Performance at CDS, explains why – and how – accessibility and inclusion should form a core component of your organisation’s engagement strategy.

Isn’t it right that everyone has a fair chance of understanding the messages which are presented to them? Particularly given that Gartner recently predicted ‘the most profitable and successful businesses over the next 10 years will explicitly place profit second in their mission statements and business and operating models’.

Research by the Click-Away Pound Survey (2019) estimated that businesses lose £17bn every year by ignoring accessibility.

The United Nations describes inclusivity as ‘the practice and policy of including people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalised.’ Therefore, no matter the size, context, method, or frequency of communication with others, companies must be aware that every decision taken has the potential to include or exclude users – and that’s a lot of responsibility.

In essence, everything should begin with understanding.

While many academics would agree that age, ethnicity, social class, educational status, and disability are the main ways that people are marginalised in society, by truly understanding the challenges such demographics may face, we start to comprehend what the typical communication barriers may be – and who they are most likely to impact.

But don’t just take my word for it. According to a 2020 FCA report, 50% of the population has one or more characteristics of vulnerability at any one time, while The Guardian found that nine million adults in the UK are functionally illiterate. 

The latest data from the ONS tells us that 81% of disabled adults and 86% of adults aged 65–74 are now internet users – and a total of 11 million people in the UK are digitally excluded, according to the Good Things Foundation.

What’s more, the Click-Away Pound Survey (2019) found that 70% of customers with access needs will exit an inaccessible site – evidencing that we need to ensure that digital experiences are accessible and available to all.

Why does accessibility matter?

There were more than 3,550 digital accessibility cases filed in the USA last year, taking action against companies thought to be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act – and this is a trend we’re starting to see in the UK, too.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) exist to provide a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organisations and governments internationally. And, while WCAG is not enforceable by law in the UK, failure to ensure the accessibility of platforms could see organisations in breach of the Equality Act 2010.

In February 2021, WebAim conducted an accessibility audit of the homepages of the top one million websites globally and discovered that 97.4% had detectable WCAG 2 failures.

With figures like this, it’s vital for organisations, of all sizes, to start prioritising the accessibility of their digital estate – including websites, mobile apps, and digital documents. We need to stop accessibility being an afterthought – and letting people down.

How do I improve my digital communications?

As more people embrace the virtual world, we need to create a landscape and experience that works for all users – regardless of their digital skills or needs.

Many organisations are trying to modernise, speed up processes, and cut costs by moving things online. It’s important to sense-check that such good intentions don’t accidentally hurt or negatively affect those already marginalised. This is why you need to truly understand your audience.

  1. Conduct a site audit

A great place to begin is with a simple site audit – which can help to identify any potential problems with your existing digital estate. There are plenty of tools – such as WAVE®– available for self-testing, and while the results may not be exhaustive, they do provide a strong overview of areas for improvement. Once you know what could be better, it’s then possible to make a plan to fix the problems and achieve compliance.

  1. Publish an accessibility statement

This details how accessible your website is – and to what extent it is compliant. Accessibility is a continuously evolving state, so show commitment to it by constantly revisiting – and updating – your statement, as well as embedding this mindset in your processes.

  1. Think carefully about every upload

It might seem obvious, but any new content or development projects should be created with accessibility in mind – and built to comply with WCAG regulations. Of course, Rome wasn’t built in a day, so this should be about continuous, incremental improvement, rather than trying to do everything at once.

No website is 100% compliant, but the key is transparency. Allowing errors to be reported by users – and committing to fixing them – will help to improve overall experience. And, while there is no official guidance on how often an audit should be conducted, every 12-18 months is a good timeframe to aim for, depending on the speed of change within your digital estate.

Why we mustn’t forget offline communications

While it may feel as though we are living in an online-first world, digital exclusion is a real issue. In the UK, 4.2 million people over the age of 65 have never used the internet, nine million cannot access it without help, and seven million have no connection at home.

Therefore, to be truly inclusive and accessible, consideration must be given to how to include and engage those on both sides of the tech divide. Communications should aim to cover every single customer touchpoint, ensuring each stage is fit for purpose. That’s why focusing on offline and printed material should also be a major consideration and complement any digital activity. Consider the following steps:

  1. Understand your audience

Digging into audience data can be daunting but will always deliver enlightening insight and enable segmentation from a needs perspective – instead of ‘typical’ marketing personas. This will allow you to build a more detailed and accurate picture of the people you are communicating with.

  1. Review your physical content

Once you truly understand your audience and their potential barriers, you can start to ensure what you’re producing is fit for purpose. Auditing for accessibility should be built into your design and delivery process and should review everything from fonts, layout, text, images and diagrams to colour contrast, readability, paper stock and size – as well as any alternative formats available, such as braille.

Examine all outputs too – including point of sale, adverts, brochures, contracts, packaging, and instruction manuals. Only when you understand where you stand and what needs to be fixed, can you start to communicate in a more inclusive way.

  1. Carry out user research

Performing user research is also a must. It needn’t be expensive or exhaustive but should be a priority.

Physically speaking to – and hearing feedback from – your audience will deliver useful insight and ideas that will vastly improve the quality and satisfaction with what you produce. After that, user testing with a robust and representative sample is key to understanding what works – and where you can develop.

Allocating for testing as part of planning, budgeting, and design will ultimately save time and money in the long run – by producing better content that is completely relevant and user-centric. Ideally, you’ll include assistive technology testing within this too.

  1. Test and optimise

Whether it’s print or digital communication, testing the effectiveness of your messaging is crucial, and can be done through a combination of analytics, reporting and user feedback. Ultimately, knowing which channels work best for what information, and to which users, will improve overall return on investment. We never stop learning about our customers, so aim to create – and stick to – a strategy for ongoing research. Allocating the time and budget will always pay dividends.

Of course, building the business case for accessibility can sometimes be tricky – because the ultimate question is always going to be: “But what impact will it have on the bottom line?”.

As we saw earlier, Gartner is predicting a change in such mindsets – and organisations which embrace diversity and inclusion will thrive and foster long-term, genuine relationships with their audience. But crucially, commitment must come from the very top in order to ensure widespread adoption which leads to real change and tangible results.


Key takeaways…

  • Improving the accessibility of your organisation’s communications is an ongoing task that you should factor into your planning and budget – and that will pay dividends in the future, allowing more people to engage with your business
  • You can use a free tool such as WAVE® to audit your website’s accessibility and then plan for improvements
  • Remember to consider your online and offline communications when you do an audit – and see if you can spot any gaps in – do you have online communications that don’t have an offline option available?
  • For more inspiration and advice to help you with running your business, visit the UMi platform:


About Lucy Beldon

Lucy Beldon is the Head of Planning and Performance at strategic communications agency, CDS, an award-winning communications agency on a mission to ensure that every customer-facing output is accessible to every person, on the platform they want and in the format they need. 

Lucy and her team are responsible for coming up with the ‘big campaign ideas’ for organisations and mapping out the strategic roadmap of how to reach the end goal. Often involved in both the initial ‘deep dive’ discovery phase and after the behavioural research stage, CDS's planning and performance staff work together with the creative and service design teams to devise and activate user-centric, inclusive campaigns. Analysis is also a core component of this area – monitoring and evaluating the success of a campaign and learning from what worked well or could be improved upon to drive further positive change.

Contributed by Lucy Beldon
Neina Sheldon
Article by Neina Sheldon
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