As a product leader, there’s no doubt how you would answer these questions: Do you care about user experience? Do you want to avoid expensive lawsuits? Do you want your product to appeal to as many users as possible?

A resounding yes to all the above, surely. A product leader oversees the entire lifecycle of a product, from its inception to its deployment and well beyond.

Any product manager who’s been around long enough knows that accessibility for people with disabilities is important. Making products digitally accessible is the right thing to do. And if you’re not accessible, it creates risk for litigation.

But there isn’t a magic wand that can make a product fully accessible. There’s the product, the team creating it, the stakeholders, and the processes followed to build and maintain the product. Then there’s you. You are the glue that holds a product together. And that product’s successes – and failures – are your own.

Done correctly, building usable and accessible products opens the doors to millions of new customers. Digital accessibility, then, isn’t a nice-to-have. The legal risks are real. The huge market of people with disabilities and their communities can’t be ignored. 

Understanding the ROI – or loss potential – of digital accessibility practices comes down to two separate conversations. The first: embracing accessibility in the first place to mitigate lawsuits, reach a vast and often untapped market, and increase brand loyalty and perception. The second: the cost savings of shifting left or moving accessibility into the early stages of your SDLC. 

The first ROI conversation: Embracing accessibility

Countries in every continent have legislation that requires information and communication technology (ICT) to be accessible.

In 1990, the United States Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which mandates that public and private spaces must be made accessible to individuals with sensory, cognitive, and physical impairments or limitations. Digital accessibility is an extension of ADA principles to the use of assistive or adaptive technology.

U.S. regulations include Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which prevents discrimination by any entity receiving federal funds. Most states have similar provisions for entities receiving state funds and have non-discrimination laws like the ADA.

In the European Union (EU), providers of products and services must comply with the European Accessibility Act (EAA) by June 2025, encompassing many types of digital technology.

Additionally, the Accessible Canada Act (ACA) seeks to create a barrier-free Canada by 2040 – including ICT accessibility – with guidelines and legislation already in place.

Website and app accessibility is essential, and both receive significant attention in the legal space.

The ADA Title III Team at law firm Seyfarth Shaw reports a 12% increase in website accessibility lawsuits in 2022 over the year prior. Lawsuits have steadily increased since 2017, with 813 ADA website accessibility lawsuits. In 2022, 3,255 suits were filed in Federal Court and are likely to continue increasing. 

The missed market cost

Outside of the potential legal risk lies an exciting business opportunity too. Anywhere between 15 and 25% of the U.S. population live with some form of disability. Globally, that number reaches about one billion people or 15% of the world’s population.

The American Institute for Research (AIR) reports that people with disabilities have a purchasing power of $490 billion. This market controls over $13 trillion in disposable income globally, according to the Return on Disability Organization. Add in friends and family, and that market reaches 3.3 billion potential consumers who act on their emotional connection to people with disabilities. Together, disability touches 73% of consumers globally.

When asked, people with disabilities reported that between 75% –80% of their experiences with customer service are failures. If these customers cannot use your website, app, or self-service kiosk because of accessibility barriers, they will be lost to a competitor that has made their accommodations accessible. And it’s safe to assume their friends, family, and community will follow suit. 

Even more, people with disabilities have the potential to become highly loyal, according to Matt Ater, Vice President of Vispero.

“As a person with a disability myself, being blind, I’ll tell you that if people with disabilities feel comfortable engaging with a business, they’re more likely to come back and be loyal,” Ater says. “They often have so much trouble with the vast majority of [digital assets] that once they find one that actually accommodates their needs, they stick with it.”

The second ROI conversation: The cost benefit of shifting left

If you’re baking a gluten-free cake and forget to add a flour substitute, the final product will end up in the trash. Then, you’ll have to purchase new ingredients and start all over again. That’s time and money wasted. Addressing the necessary cost and work to create a fully accessible product at the earliest stages of development is the most effective – and cost-efficient – approach. You may be “doing accessibility” or addressing accessibility issues as they come up, but without the right ingredients of executive leadership support, resources, and strategy, your product costs and sprint timelines are going to stack up. And quickly.

A proactive approach to fully and carefully integrating accessibility testing in any product’s lifecycle could avoid innumerable costs over time. Accessibility should be built into your team’s process and tested at standardized checkpoints. From a project’s kick-off, requirements, mock-ups, design, development, QA, and testing – accessibility issues need to be identified and corrected along the way.

In its simplest terms, addressing accessibility barriers is just like addressing bugs. Product leaders know that taking steps to minimize the chances of introducing bugs is the best approach while also having an effective process for identifying, documenting and addressing bugs as early as possible.

The Systems Sciences Institute at IBM has reported that the cost to fix an error found after product release was four to five times as much as one uncovered during design and up to 100 times more than one identified in the maintenance phase.

Similarly, the cost of fixing an accessibility barrier goes up based on how far down the SDLC (Software Development Life Cycle) the barrier is found. When a barrier is found in production, the code needs to go back to the beginning of the SDLC so the agile development cycle can restart.

There’s also the domino effect to think about. The software development approach often needs to change to accommodate a code fix, which, can in turn, bump back other code changes. So not only is the bug going to cost more to fix as it moves through a second round of the SDLC, but a different code change could be delayed, which adds cost to that code change as well.

To illustrate, if a bug is found in the requirements-gathering phase, the cost could be $100. If the product owner doesn’t find that bug until the QA testing phase, then the cost could be $1,500. If it’s not found until production, the cost could be $10,000. And if the bug is never found, it could be secretly costing the company money, and no one could be the wiser.

Add on potential legal fees and customer loss for not fully embracing digital accessibility as a product leader, and the case for ROI is clear.

One step at a time

Successfully incorporating accessibility practices also comes down to education. Do your stakeholders have the information needed to understand why adopting accessibility is a must-have, and their role and responsibility in delivering accessibility? Do your designers know accessibility best practices? Do your developers know how to automate and manually check the code for accessibility failures based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)? Does QA know what to look for? Your team will likely need accessibility training so they can competently support your accessibility efforts.

You’re the glue that holds a product together and gets it across the success line. Ask yourself: What are the procedures currently in place for QA processes? Who’s responsible for what across the software development lifecycle? Who needs to understand accessibility so you can avoid the potential profit loss outlined above? What do they specifically need to understand for their role so your digital accessibility ROI skyrockets?

As a product manager, you’re a master at spinning multiple plates simultaneously. However, developing usable and accessible products doesn’t happen in a single sprint. You don’t have to put everything in place all at once; instead, try assessing the current landscape with an accessibility audit to have a clear understanding of the work that is ahead. 

Want to learn more about creating accessible and usable products? Join TPGi at the Virtual Chief Product Officer Summit on November 9, 2023. Dr. David Sloan, Head of UX at TPGi, will talk about how product teams can leverage Accessibility as a Driver for Usable Digital Products. Register today. 

Only TPGi’s accessibility approach proactively identifies accessibility barriers through automated and manual testing, making it easier and more efficient to maintain the accessibility of your products. 

No matter where you are in your accessibility journey, TPGi solves your unique needs. Our unrivaled holistic and comprehensive process has enabled thousands of teams to achieve the best outcomes for their business, employees, and consumers.

Speak with a TPGi Expert about your accessibility goals.