Tests revealed only 2% of online sales were accessible to disabled people

Written by Ben Leach on

After carrying out accessibility audits on the top 50 e-commerce giants in the UK, we found that, shockingly, only 1 of those will pose no issues for disabled people.

With the COVID-19 pandemic still looming over us as we approach Christmas, many of us were forced to browse sales online as opposed to visiting physical stores this year. 

With Black Friday and Cyber Monday falling within the UK’s second lockdown, we decided to take a look at what major online retailers were doing to accommodate customers. Specifically, customers who rely on using assistive technology to use their devices. 

Shockingly, we found that only 1 major retailer had made total accomodations for disabled people, and our accessibility audits revealed as many as 314 individual accessibility errors on one page for some retail giants. 

How we tested these sites

Testing

All the tests were carried out between 27 – 30th November.

All sites had one page tested using both automated and manual methods. These manual methods included attempting to navigate the page with keyboards, as well as voice navigation. 

The chosen page was based on points of interest around the time period of the test being carried out. If a website contained a dedicated Black Friday/Cyber Monday or ‘Deals’, ‘Sale’, ‘Offers’ or ‘Christmas Offers’ page, this page was tested. If the site contained no specific deals page, then the homepage of the site was tested. 

The tests not only tested the content of the specific deals page, but also the global issues present on the site, such as: CTA banners (i.e email newsletter sign ups), navigation bars, header and footer. As well as ensuring the site had semantic HTML layout, and correct language. 

Categorisation

All sites were categorised into one of the following lists: 

  • Needs significant improvement 
  • Needs improvement 
  • Not great
  • Good 
  • Excellent

Needs significant improvement

Websites categorised under this category contained greater than 30 serious errors. A site requiring significant improvement would be virtually impossible for a user using assistive tech to navigate. 

Needs improvement

Websites categorised under this category contained between 10 and 30 serious errors. Whilst not as bad as the previous category, a website with 10 – 30 errors on it would be extremely difficult for a disabled person to use. 

Not great

Websites under this category contained between 5 and 10 serious errors. These errors would still cause a major concern for some users, and as such would still pose difficulty when navigating the site. 

Good

Websites under this category contained less than 5 serious errors that may pose issues for some users. 

Excellent

Websites under this category contained no serious errors, and no more than 50 minor errors. They would pose little to no difficulty for users. 

A note about the categories

Whilst the categories have some parameters set on the number of serious and minor errors a site includes, the categorisation of issues is down to the discretion of the tester. The way in which we categorised issues into serious and non-serious would best be described using the phrase below.

Serious accessibility errors would affect a user’s experience significantly, such as missing form labels, no/incorrect alt text on product images, incorrect heading structure, broken ARIA references, keyboard traps and empty buttons/links. A minor error would not interrupt the user’s experience in a significant way such as a link to a PDF file, a redundant link, lengthy alternative text and redundant alternative text. 

The main issues we found:

  • No/Incorrect alternative text 
  • Empty links
  • Missing form labels 
  • Colour contrast problems
  • Keyboard traps
  • Poor Heading structure 

No/incorrect alternative text

Many online stores assessed had product images that contained no alt text, or alt text that contained no contextual information, such as ‘Product image 1’ or ‘Women’s coat’. Alt text provides description for users who are blind and visually impaired. 

Empty links

Many online stores have options (such as colour of an item) presented within the main page. These boxes are often left with no link text, meaning a user with a screen reader won’t know what options they are cycling through. 

Missing form labels

In some instances, online stores required you to enter your email to receive further details or further discount on products. However, in 80% of these forms, there were no form labels. This meant a screen reader user would not know what information needed to be entered in a form. 

Colour contrast problems

In a significant number of online stores, there were content boxes or banners that did not meet the minimum contrast ratio of 4.5:1. This could cause a colourblind or visually impaired individual to miss out on essential detail or offers. 

Keyboard Inaccessible/traps

One of the largest issues prevalent across most of the online retailers was that not all content was accessible when using just a keyboard. There were also instances of keyboard tabbing becoming ‘stuck’ on invisible elements. This would cause issues for those who may have age-related disabilities causing them to rely on keyboard navigation, those with physical impairments who cannot use a mouse, and those who are blind. 

Poor heading structure

Heading structure is used by screen reader users and those with processing difficulties. Headings allow a page to be broken up into sections that are navigable by screen readers, and easier for users to scan. This was prevalent on around 50% of sites, but still prevalent enough to make it onto our ‘most common issues’ 

The Hall of Shame

Each retail store has been categorised under the relevant category. It’s important to note that only those in the ‘Excellent’ category are likely to pose no problems for disabled users. Even those in the ‘Good’ category will cause problems for some users. 

The number after each store is the number of serious errors the page contained. 

Needs significant improvement

Forever 21314
Boots213
Debenhams132
River Island100
Office 98
Axminster93
JD Williams81
Oasis68
JD Sports63
Carphone Warehouse62
Waitrose54
Waterstones53
Boohoo.com53
Curry’s PC World 49
Karen Millen47
Argos44
New Look40
Morrisons 37
Next35
Moss Bros35
Jacamo33

Needs Improvement

Chain Reaction Cycles30
American Golf29
Nisbets29
Schuh29
Simply Be29
House of Fraser28
Screwfix28
AO.com26
M&S24
Space.NK23
Very23
The Perfume Shop 20
Halfords19
B&Q18
Asos18
Superdrug17
Wickes16
Dune London14
Holland and Barrett13
Asda10
Apple10

Not great

H&M 9
Beauty Bay 8
John Lewis 6
Evans Cycles6
Dunelm6

Good

Amazon3
Ann Summers2
Tesco1

Excellent

Sainsbury’s3

Discussing the results

The findings

It’s pretty clear from the data that very few e-commerce stores, particularly those that are market leaders within the confines of the UK market do anything at all when it comes to accessibility. 

Of most of the errors we assessed, only a small minority would be difficult to fix. In fact, in some of the worst stores on this list, the huge numbers of errors were down to something as simple as adding alternative text for product images. 

We went into this research hoping to be pleasantly surprised about what was found, but we came out horrified. The sheer number of errors on just one page for some stores is truly shocking. Some stores entirely unusable for a keyboard user, not to mention a screen reader user. 

On the better end of the spectrum, we’re glad to see two supermarkets clinching both first and second place. With Tesco narrowly missing out on making the Excellent grade due to a skipped Heading level. I have to give kudos to the top four Amazon, Ann Summers, Tesco and Sainsbury’s. Just by looking at the site, it’s clear they have thought about the journey of the user. With alt text on their images, and ARIA labels where they’re supposed to be (but not overused), it’s clear the sites have been worked on by teams of talented developers, who understand the importance of accessibility. 

The problem

Some of the main causes of inaccessibility is down to laziness, tight deadlines and lack of knowledge. 

For example, if the likes of Boots and New Look added alternative text to their product images, they’d eradicate up to 50% of their errors. It’s not a complex fix, it’s about taking the time to include them, and have the knowledge to be able to do so correctly.

Which, frankly, is the same for many accessibility errors; with the right knowledge, and enough time accessibility Is easy. 

There were of course global issues on some of these sites that would need to be addressed by developers and may change the site totally, if not the branding too. But needless to say, fixing all of these errors will change people’s lives. 

Why we carried out these tests

With COVID-19 and Christmas happening all at once, the UK public are having their pockets drained more than ever. 

We wanted to see if disabled people were at a disadvantage when it came to taking advantage of online sales during the UK lockdown. 

Just recently Scope revealed that more than 50% of deaths in COVID-19 were disabled people, saying that communication to the disabled community has been sub-par from the Government. We wanted to shine a light on the other ways that disabled people have been at a disadvantage. 

We believe in equal treatment, but more and more research is coming out that clearly indicates that others think differently. Why should disabled people be paying more for products online just because they cannot access sales? 

The beauty of the web is in its universality, everyone should be able to use it. So, let’s keep it that way.

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