Closing the £17bn digital commerce accessibility gap

13 September 2023

Brands missing out on crucial revenue by excluding one in four consumers. 


It is all too easy to think of people with accessibility needs as those with visible or profound disabilities. However, while this cohort is a very important part of the picture and should clearly be catered for through accessible digital commerce, the issue is far more wide-ranging.

The truth is that the UK is home to 16m people with disabilities and, therefore accessibility needs – that is one in four people [1] - many of them routinely under-served by brand and retail digital commerce sites.


Excluded and frustrated

The facts are stark. The WebAIM annual accessibility analysis of the top one million homepages found that a sobering 97.4% had ‘detectable accessibility errors’ when measured against Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) [2].

In part, this is down to a failure to understand the true nature of disability and the associated accessibility needs. In particular, the idea that disability is permanent and profound is out of step with reality.  Disability can be permanent (such as deafness), temporary (ear infection) or situational (anyone working in a noisy environment).

What’s more, conditions like colour blindness, rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson’s Disease, Autism, ADHD, and even age-related disabilities create real and significant accessibility needs – some of which you can experience first-hand via UK government accessibility personas.

On top of all that, when you think about accessibility as a route to delivering inclusive digital customer experiences, the issue broadens even further. This is because, even where only a minority of people are excluded from using a product or service through accessibility failings, a significant additional number of people may have difficulty or be frustrated when they try to use it [3].

Graph showing the relationship between Number of People and Product Experience

The Click-Away Purple Pound

Clearly, these failings have very real implications for people with accessibility needs. Despite public commitments to accessibility and inclusion, all too many brands are doing the opposite - inadvertently making life harder or even excluding people with disabilities. 

That disconnect between what brands say and what they do can only harm reputation - and if a desire to make good on accessibility commitments from an ethics or brand perspective is not enough, there is a significant financial dimension too.

The total annual spending power of ‘Purple Pound’ families - those with at least one disabled person - is estimated at £274bn. But brands failing to take an inclusive approach to digital design are simply missing out:

  • Seven in 10 disabled customers will click away from a website that they find difficult to use.
  • 83% of people with access needs limit their shopping to sites that they know are accessible.
  • 86% have chosen to pay more for a product from an accessible website rather than buy the same product for less from a website that was harder to use.
  • Four million people abandoned a retail website because of accessibility barriers – associated losses from the ‘Click-Away Pound’ are estimated to be worth around £17bn every year [4].

On the other hand, according to Accenture, companies that prioritise digital inclusion realise 28% higher revenues, 30% better profit performance and higher shareholder returns than accessibility laggards.


Closing the accessibility gap

At a time when digital is becoming ever more pervasive, affecting almost every aspect of daily life, this accessibility gap is only going to get wider if brands do not step up – with consequences for consumers, staff, the bottom line and shareholders.

So, what can be done?

First of all, there are a range of accessible design approaches and guidelines brands can follow in developing inclusive digital experiences. They include the WCAG Guidelines highlighted above, as well as techniques such as accessible design, universal design and inclusive design

All of which begs the question – ‘With so much guidance out there, why are so many brands failing the accessibility test?’.

The answer seems to lie in context. That is, while guidelines and tools for accessible design are undoubtedly useful, they are by definition general. How they are applied must take context into account – and this boils down to the specifics of a brand, its products and services, customer base and so on.

This context will determine a range of specific accessibility needs, and accessible, inclusive or universal design techniques only really deliver when they respond to these specific needs. In other words, accessibility must be intrinsic to design, not an afterthought or overlay.


The solution: Design thinking

This is where brands appear to be falling down. Recent research found that just 31% of brands consider accessibility when they research customer needs, and 19% consider accessibility when deciding which digital products and services to build. 

To make matters worse, 54% only consider accessibility at the development stage and 65% admit they have never tested their digital accessibility with real customers [5].

This is the opposite of design thinking, an approach based on observing and understanding customer needs and behaviours, then using this insight to guide design decisions – in the context of inclusive and accessible design, this is the only way to truly embed universal accessibility in digital design.

At Biglight, design thinking is the approach we take to every programme of customer experience innovation we undertake – albeit modified to ensure client’s commercial goals are also very much part of the equation.

When it comes to truly delivering on their accessibility promises and, by extension, earning a share of the Purple Pound spend, design thinking is an approach that many brands could and should adopt. From a practical point of view, it does not require brands to veer so very far from the approach to digital design that many already take. 

It simply means including individuals with accessibility needs in customer research, considering and responding to those needs in design and development, and testing with diverse customers at every stage – from sketched-out ideas and prototypes to launch candidates. Anything else is simply guesswork and that is not good enough.

Make no mistake, accessibility is not a marginal issue. Affecting one in four people, it is very much front and centre – and accessible design is also a gateway to more usable, satisfying and convenient digital experiences for customers of all types.

What’s more, at a time when consumer decisions are increasingly driven by brands’ ethical credentials, accessibility is an issue that no business can afford to ignore – brands’ ability to live up to their promises has never been so important to commercial success.


With that in mind, we stand ready to answer your questions. Get in touch to find out how we can help you better understand your customers.