Why Digital Accessibility is a "Must Have” in SaaS Ecosystems
Digital accessibility is critically important for every organization – as a key component of your organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs and as part of your commitment to inclusivity in your products, partnerships, and support for your customers.
For SaaS market companies, digital accessibility is now much more than a compliance checkbox – it’s fast becoming a “must have” and a clear differentiator for every company that wants to do business with large, global corporations and public sector customers.
Jason Breed, Crownpeak’s Global Lead, Partnerships and Alliances and Chairman of the Board of the Cloud Software Association sat down with Shilpi Kapoor, CEO of BarrierBreak a web accessibility company that specializes in end-to-end accessibility solutions for SaaS companies, to discuss why accessibility is important and how SaaS companies can make business more accessible to everyone.
Watch the full webinar on-demand or read on for key takeaways from the discussion, below.
What is digital accessibility and why does it matter?
Jason: Accessibility can be hugely valuable for the SaaS companies that get it right. Let’s start by looking at what digital accessibility means and why it should matter to every SaaS organization?
Shilpi: Accessibility is a topic that’s often forgotten but increasingly needs to come front and center as companies move forward with their technology ecosystems.
Digital accessibility is about making sure all employees, customers and other users of technology can access and use our products. One of the biggest things you start to realize when you work in this area is that it is so much broader than what we usually talk about. That’s why I love the word “inclusion” more than anything else to describe what we’re doing with digital accessibility.
Jason: So it’s about bringing everyone into the fold and ensuring they have access. But there are also some serious business considerations around accessibility as well, right?
Shilpi: Yes. There are more than a billion people living with disabilities globally – which is actually one of the largest minorities in the world. I don’t think we can ignore that. Let’s also consider that people with disabilities have $8 trillion in disposable income. That is a huge number and it means there’s a lot of opportunity.
I can tell you that over the last 20 years I’ve been working in this space, the last five are where the concept of “inclusivity” has taken center stage. At Crownpeak you are doing so much in this area with your innovative , and you’re seeing this from the side of organizations that are building digital solutions. I’m hoping others in the SaaS community will take this message forward too.
What does it mean to have a disability and how should we be thinking about it?
Jason: So what is considered a disability? And should we be looking at issues of accessibility more broadly?
Shilpi: When we think about disability, we typically think about people who are blind or low vision, deaf or hard of hearing and people who have physical challenges. But there are also many of us who have invisible disabilities. All of us, at some point, will experience some kind of disability. It might be age-related, for example.
A lot of us look at people with disabilities as being “outside” our world, but when we look at how we interact with the world, we realize we are doing a lot of the same things and using a lot of the same solutions, especially when it comes to tech.
When I think back to when I started working in technology, working with an American firm but sitting in India, I realized that I had a bias about people with disabilities. I thought of them as not being able to do things as quickly or efficiently as I could. I had been with that company a couple of years, working with a boss who taught me everything I knew about the subject. When I found out he was paralyzed from the neck down and was using his breath – a sip and puff device – to control his computer, well that just blew me away.
More recently, I started having vision issues and couldn’t see the screen as well. I discovered I have developed both near-sightedness and far-sightedness. Today one of the biggest things that I use on my computer is pinch and zoom. This technology was created for people with low vision, but now everyone is using it.
Jason: Let’s unpack that a bit. You mentioned how, when we talk about disabilities, we usually talk about visual, auditory, motor disabilities, etc., but it doesn’t have to be a permanent disability. It could be a temporary disability, for example somebody who broke their arm and is in a cast for six weeks. That’s important to understand. And it gets to that point of how we define what digital accessibility means and who it’s for. To me digital accessibility is really about inclusive technology and using web accessibility tools to ensure a “like-for-like” experience for people of different abilities.
Shilpi: I think that’s a perfect way to look at it. And talking about it in those terms is how we’re going to get everybody else to look at it – to help them relate to the idea. You talked about temporary disability, I’ll also add situational disability. For example, you’re driving the car and you have your Google maps speaking to you. At that moment in time, you can’t see your screen because you need to be watching the road. So you’re using speech output and listening to it for your navigation. So that’s the additional mix I would add to the accessibility discussion. It’s critical for developers and manufacturers to understand that there is a lot more to it.
Digital accessibility means creating an inclusive culture and ecosystem
Jason: Let’s jump into talking about the ecosystem. Why is it important for all the components of the ecosystem to be looking at inclusion and digital accessibility and using accessibility tools and services to up their game?
Shilpi: It really starts with getting your own house in order – that is, making sure your employees who have disabilities can access your solutions. When you work with a company that talks about being an “equal opportunity employer” but their systems aren’t accessible, how can they possibly be an equal opportunity employer?
It’s about creating an inclusive culture that supports digital accessibility in your organization and throughout your ecosystem. Here are some ways to move that process forward:
- Make your products accessible to people with disabilities. This is not only something that’s good to do for your customers and end-users, it’s a must-do for your business if you’re selling to the U.S. government or other companies that have accessibility requirements. A good place to start with your web accessibility program is to use a website accessibility checker to get a high level view of your greatest accessibility issues. For example, Crownpeak offers a free web accessibility scan, which a great way to see how you’re currently performing.
- Ensure digital accessibility across your partner network. In the SaaS market we all work with a wide range of partners, and this network also needs to ensure that they include solutions for people with disabilities. This is also true for agencies that work with SaaS companies. Everyone in your network should be using digital accessibility tools and/or working with web accessibility services providers to ensure their websites and services are accessible.
- Build an inclusive culture with diverse hires. When you have a pool of a billion plus people with disabilities, you have the opportunity to hire and build an interesting, diverse mix of people within your organization. When you do that, you will automatically begin to discover that differences bring about varied conversations. Different ideas come to the forefront. For example, 65% of our BarrierBreak team are people with disabilities. For most of us it’s not just about “personas” when we design solutions. It’s about having a deeper understanding of how a specific individual on your team would work with a given feature, because they also are end-users of the solution. Having people with disabilities on your team helps you take the conversation further.
- Create digitally accessible processes. Building digital accessibility into your company’s processes benefits everyone in the company. Think about videoconferencing solutions like Zoom and Teams – they all have live captioning on them. It’s not just for hearing impaired people. You can switch it on, and if you can’t understand my accent, you’ll still be able to understand what I’m saying. If you start to build those sorts of things into your processes, you are building a more accessible culture.
- Communicate your commitment to inclusion and accessibility. When we are all investing so much into building diversity, inclusion and accessibility, it makes good business sense to communicate about it both internally and to external stakeholders. When you communicate that your company has a culture of inclusivity, it inspires others and helps make sure that your message, and your access to technology, reaches the right people.
Doing the right thing while driving ROI with digital accessibility and inclusion
Jason: Putting digital accessibility front and center throughout your organization and your ecosystem of partners is a good thing to do. I love your point about building an inclusive culture, and all the components you mentioned are great. Frankly some people treat accessibility as a set of checkbox items, but when you think about it from a culture perspective, it takes on greater meaning and commitment.
And what you said about communication is so important. At Crownpeak, we include culture in how we interact with our partners. In our onboarding deck for new partners we have a culture slide that says “here’s what we believe, here’s how we act, we always put the customer first,” etc. and if you don’t act like this, you’re probably not a good fit for us. Now, one thing I will add to this is that we are also an inclusive culture. As much as I’m in this business, and we’re already doing it, it never occurred to me to put that word on our slide to make sure it’s a subject we talk about with our partners.
Shilpi: In the last couple of years we’ve seen so many companies standing for social and environmental causes. In the US there’s an organization called Disability:IN that’s focused on getting CEOs to stand together and make a commitment to disability inclusion.
So when you have a Microsoft or VMWare or Google stand up and say “we’re going to build inclusion into our people, processes and products,” that extends to all of us because we’re a part of that same ecosystem and we’re using or extending so many of their solutions.
The interesting part about this is while we build accessible technology and deliver accessibility services, as organizations we can push the boundaries of inclusion. I think that’s something we all want to do. We don’t just want to sell technology and make money, but we also want to give back. And what better way to do that than to make your own technologies more inclusive?
Jason: So it’s the right thing to do for your company, your customers, your partners and the ecosystem at large. And driving digital accessibility is also a smart business decision. When you build digital accessibility into your people, processes and products, you open up your world to a large part of the global population – those billion plus people – and they hold $8 trillion in potential value.
Shilpi: It’s important to consider that aspect of ROI. And one of the critical markets for many of us is in procurement. Some of the largest customers that all of us are reaching out to are federal and state governments. So your point is bang on when you’re talking to partners – it’s critical that we work with people and companies that have similar values. We should first focus on that before we even go down the path of signing NDAs and agreements.
Digital accessibility features are changing user experiences for everyone
Jason: If you know eight people, one of them is going to have a disability by the law of averages. Many people you know are living with disabilities, whether situational, temporary or permanent. This makes accessibility personal. But it already is in many ways, isn’t it?
Shilpi: A lot of the technology we use today was originally created for people with disabilities, but now it’s being used by everyone. Think about word prediction on your phone – that was originally created for people with dyslexia, but now many people are using it because it makes life easier. If you use pinch and zoom on your phone or tablet or use the zoom feature in your browser, you’re using a technology that was originally made for people with low vision. The dark mode on cell phones was created for people with low vision or color blindness. If you’re using a keyboard and you use the raised bump on F and J to center your hands on the keyboard, or you use control+S to save instead of using a mouse, you’re using accessibility features because they give you greater speed and efficiency.
Once you realize you are using technologies that were created for people with disabilities – and you’re using them every day to make your own life easier – you start to think about digital accessibility differently, and the whole concept becomes a little easier to understand.
Jason: That’s such a great point. What are some of the drivers acting as a force function for companies, products and ecosystems to think about why they need to be inclusive?
Shilpi: The first reason companies typically start focusing on accessibility is the law. It’s a reality that we are all subject to legislative requirements globally. For example, if you want to do business in the US, Canada, EU or Australia, they all have disability laws because it’s about creating an equitable access environment for people. If you are working with governments – or with partners and larger corporations who do – you need to be considering laws like the ADA in the US and the associated risk of lawsuits. A famous one is Domino’s – it was a situation where a lack of accessibility features meant someone couldn’t order a pizza online.
Shilpi: Public procurement, as I mentioned earlier, is also a big aspect of this. Governments are saying, with things like Section 508 in the US, that the federal government will only procure solutions that are accessible. It’s been around for a long time, but now we seem to be taking it a lot more seriously. Similar standards exist in Europe.
So for many companies, it’s a stick that often gets people to get on the accessibility bandwagon. But eventually it becomes a carrot. The world is starting to harmonize on disability, and laws and standards are largely the same globally, as most countries adapt existing standards. WCAG by the W3C Consortium is a great example of standards we’ve all worked together on.
As tech companies, if we make our solutions accessible to the US market, it’s also relevant to Europe, UK, Australia, India, etc. You can take the same solution globally and meet the same standards and guidelines because these laws, standards and policies are in place.
Global drivers are pushing companies to seriously take on accessibility. And once they do, they start looking at all the other benefits we discussed earlier.
Putting it all together with a framework for inclusivity
Jason: Let’s talk about a framework for inclusivity and what we can do in our companies and around our ecosystem of partners.
At Crownpeak we provide an automated Digital Quality Management (DQM) scanning tool that’s designed to monitor all kinds of digital properties and alert organizations to areas that fail WCAG accessibility requirements. Even if you have thousands of sites, Crownpeak DQM can give you a global perspective on the accessibility issues impacting your digital presence. Using automated tools like DQM gives you a good kickoff point to then bring in a web accessibility consultant team like BarrierBreak to help you do the remediation work.
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of having an ecosystem that is aligned on its commitment to inclusivity. And automated tools are one way to help ensure that standards are being upheld. For example, at Crownpeak we have a number of customers, some of the largest global consumer goods companies, that have a presence in multiple countries and languages and have products in all these areas. What they’ve said to their partners is: “Inclusivity is so important to us, in order to do work with us, you must ensure your deliverables meet our accessibility criteria.” They use the Crownpeak DQM solution as an umbrella, to monitor the accessibility status of their digital properties, to verify compliance and ensure their agencies are meeting agreed WCAG targets and fulfilling their commitments. So if you’re a smaller company and you look at accessibility and think, “this probably doesn’t apply to me,” think again – if you ever want to work with one of the largest CPG companies in the world, then it will matter to you. Because these companies are taking inclusivity seriously across all of their people and their ecosystem of companies that want to work with them.
Shilpi: It is a must-have today. To your point, without automated solutions like Crownpeak DQM, people struggle to maintain accessibility and keep track of compliance. Accessibility is something that takes automation as well as manual effort. It takes training as well as processes to bring it all together.
Jason: It’s also important to realize that digital accessibility is not a point in time, it’s a journey.
Shilpi: Yes, and it’s continuous. It’s not a journey that starts today and ends three months later when you go live. It continues as you enhance your product, build new features, roll out new versions. Unfortunately, a lot of people think it’s a one-time thing. What they forget is they put in all the effort to get things right, and two years later they’ve undone everything and have to start over. That’s where having a roadmap is essential. I know companies that have been striving to make things accessible for the last 10 years and continue striving.
Here’s a useful framework for how companies can approach building in inclusion:
- Define your accessibility vision. We all create vision boards. We create plans and roadmaps. Why not one for accessibility? Whenever we talk to customers about helping them define their accessibility vision, we always say to start small. Start with the simple things, like: defining your vision, what standards do you want to meet, which guidelines do you want to follow, and by when do you want to get there? What is the process you’re going to put into place to monitor that vision and ensure you’re reaching your targets?
- Take stock and prioritize. Many organizations have so many digital assets and properties, it’s no longer about just one website – it’s your internet, your CRM, your HR portal, your support site, your career website, your employees having access to a community portal of their own. Take stock of all that and prioritize, looking at where you want to start and what you want to focus on next.
- Identify skills, resources, and partners. Take a look at your internal team to identify whether you have people with the right skills in place. Sadly, for a large number of technologists out there, accessibility is not taught to us. I learned it on my own and I know so many peers who did the same. If you don’t have the skills in house, bring in people like BarrierBreak or Crownpeak so we can help support you on that journey.
- Conduct accessibility audits. Across an entire organization’s digital properties, there are many things that need to be checked. This is where it’s helpful to use automated testing as well as manual testing. Automation helps identify the problems and manual testing helps us ensure that we deliver on the quality. For example, if you have an image description under a person’s photo with the wrong person’s name in the caption an automated solution won’t be able to pick that up. Someone needs to manually check to make sure that information is correct and is helpful.
- Embed accessibility into processes. When we do this hard work to ensure accessibility and inclusion, there’s no sense in doing it one time. We need to ensure it’s embedded in our processes so that with every iteration we are maintaining or enhancing the gains we’ve made. One way we help to ensure that accessibility is top of mind, is we include people who have disabilities, and who have been trained in accessibility, doing our manual audits.
- Create Voluntary Product Accessibility Templates (VPATs). This is about getting the right information to your customers. Your VPAT says what your accessibility plan is. It says that you have a roadmap and you’re moving ahead in this endeavor. “Do you have a VPAT?” is something customers are asking for today when they’re buying products – they want to know what’s your vision for accessibility and where you’re planning to take your solution.
- Monitor your progress. We all thrive on numbers, so why not apply that to how you’re doing on the accessibility matrix? When you’ve created your vision, done your audits, embedded accessibility into your processes and created VPATs to communicate those efforts, you have all the key points you need to continue to monitor to make sure your accessibility efforts aren’t a singular event, but are an ongoing process.
SaaS companies have a unique opportunity to lead with digital accessibility
Jason: From what you’ve seen, where are organizations in this process, generally?
Shilpi: Sadly, 70% are at the stage where they’re saying, “We already have our product, can you please test it and give us feedback.” So they’re already late. There are also many companies that don’t think about it at all until they go live and then start getting emails.
Companies need to come in with accessibility a lot earlier in the process. This is where SaaS enterprises have an opportunity. SaaS don’t have as much legacy as other tech companies because most of what they’ve developed has been in the last 10 years. They can start bringing in accessibility at the time when they’re conceiving a product and building their first wireframes rather than waiting until “we’re going live tomorrow, let’s test it in 24 hours,” which is not going to happen.
There’s a lot to do, but it will change as we shift how companies are thinking about accessibility from a “stick” to an “opportunity.”
Jason: Especially in the SaaS space, this truly is an opportunity to differentiate your company. From a partner perspective, we’ve all seen the Scott Brinker map with more than 8,000 martech solutions. If you start talking about how you’re getting your own house in order and becoming a more inclusive company, that sets you apart among all the other vendors in your space.
From an ecosystem perspective how cool would it be to say that not only do you offer best-in-class solutions, but it’s the only completely inclusive ecosystem on the market that you can get today. The biggest companies in the world would gravitate to that messaging.
In the future, I think accessibility will become table stakes. But right now it’s still unique in the space and is a way to differentiate your company, your partner ecosystem and the way you do business. This is why, right now is the time to act in having an inclusive mindset within your culture, your product, your people, and your partners, and to bring it all together and shout from the top of the mountain that this is what you believe in and this is what you’re doing in the market.
Shilpi: It surely is a differentiator today, and it will become a must-have.
How is your organization living up to the promise of inclusion? Find out with a free web accessibility assessment using Crownpeak DQM.