Many Financial Services Firms Not Adequately Addressing Digital Accessibility
April 15, 2020

Dylan Barrell
Deque Systems

The internet has revolutionized how people handle their finances over the last two decades. Instead of physical branches, customers primarily engage with banking websites or apps, making a flawless user experience vital. Without an exceptionally user-friendly design, these digital gateways — and the complexity of the services being offered — can be difficult to use, for even the average user.

Now imagine you are someone with a vision, hearing or cognitive disability who relies on assistive technologies to access content and services. The ability to access personal financial information without blockers is critical for people with disabilities. That's where digital accessibility — making certain a site or app is navigable by users with disabilities — factors into the software development process.

There are more persons with disabilities in the general population than you might imagine — approximately one in five people in the United States, or 64 million. One would think that designing financial services websites to be user-friendly specifically for such a large population segment would be a priority; however, this isn't always the case.

QA Financial, an independent information, resource and events company focused on helping financial services firms improve software quality, recently conducted a survey of these firms (including banks, but also insurance companies, asset managers and fintechs) and found that many of them are not adequately ensuring their digital properties are accessible. Specifically the survey found:

■ Only 35 percent of software leaders across various types of financial services firms say accessibility is among their top strategic concerns.

■ Only 25 percent are embedding accessibility testing into software development. Attention to accessibility is usually driven by legal action or complaints.

■ More than 70 percent of financial services firms indicate no clear ownership of digital accessibility within corporate governance.

■ Fewer than 30 percent of financial services firms have reliable or meaningful key performance indicators (KPIs) for accessibility.

Failure to invest-in and practice accessibility can have several negative ramifications. Beyond the sheer market size for persons with disabilities, there is also potential brand damage to consider. This is particularly dangerous for financial services firms whose offerings are increasingly becoming commoditized and are challenged to stand out via other means, including corporate social responsibility.

Inaccessible digital properties may also translate to legal risks, with ADA data showing that accessibility-related lawsuits exploded by 181 percent from 2017 to 2018.

The good news is that it's never too late to ensure digital accessibility, even for software assets already in production. There are relatively simple additions and adjustments that can be made, such as captioning for the deaf; using descriptive alternative text to accompany images for the blind; and autofill on passwords for people with cognitive disabilities.

Many firms find it helpful to work with digital accessibility experts, but new developments like guided tools and open source rules libraries are empowering even non-experts to take the lead on accessibility, all while contributing to an ongoing best practices dialogue.

The optimal way to address digital accessibility, however, is to shift it left in the development process, which means to embed accessibility as early as the design phase of the application development process. Using previous IBM studies as a reference, the cost of fixing a defect in production can be as much as 30 times higher than addressing it in the design or development phase. This doesn't take into account the potential legal costs if the software upgrade resulted from a lawsuit.

Conclusion: In their efforts to create websites offering a stellar user experience, financial services firms have made great strides, offering beautiful visuals, innovative and intuitive user interfaces, clear and compelling copy and more. But unless digital accessibility is prioritized as a key user experience pillar, these efforts may be in vain for a substantial population segment. Many companies erroneously believe achieving digital accessibility is too costly and time-consuming, when in fact, the risks and potential expense of not addressing digital accessibility are far greater.

Dylan Barrell is CTO of Deque Systems
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