What the European Accessibility Act means for Digital Product Design
The European Accessibility Act aims at standardizing rules for accessible products and services across the European Market. Barriers resulting from divergent legislation in different European member states will be removed in order to make people and businesses profit from equal market opportunities for accessible products and services.
The overall goal is to foster accessible products and services in Europe and beyond.
Universal design – for full and effective equal participation
The main idea behind accessible design is to “design for all“.
Creating accessible digital products and services means to make them usable for everyone, regardless of abilities and limitations. When we talk about accessibility, people with physical and/or psychic disabilities come to the mind first. But in fact, accessible products and services may improve the experience of a much larger group of people.
Universal design involves anticipating the needs of a diverse user base and designing products that can be used intuitively by as many people as possible. The European Accessibility Act promotes the adaption of Universal Design principles.
“44.6 million – one in six – persons aged between 16 and 64 report that they have a long standing health problem or disability. People with disabilities represent at least 16% of the overall EU working age population.”Key figures on ‘active inclusion’ of people with disabilities in the EU
Every person can be affected by impairments under different circumstances:
- Someone traveling with heavy luggage will benefit from accessible entrances
- A person riding in public transport could comfortably watch and understand videos with subtitles on their smartphones, without disturbing other passengers
- Someone who forgot their glasses at home may still use a web application that uses large fonts with high color contrast
- Anyone in a hurry would profit from digital services that are concise and easy to read and use.
These few examples should make clear that everyone can benefit from clean, accessible design.
Of course, the main focus for offering accessible products and services lies on “persons with disabilities including those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others” (as cited from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities).
What is the European Accessibility Act?
The European Accessibility Act (EAA) is a legislative measure implemented by the European Union (EU) to improve accessibility for persons with disabilities. It was published by the European Parliament and Council in 2019 and entered into force in 2022.
The European Accessibility Act aims to improve accessibility for persons with disabilities in key areas of daily life, such as communication technology, public transportation, banking services, and e-commerce.
It aims to harmonize accessibility requirements across the EU member states, promoting equal access to goods, services, and digital products for individuals with disabilities among these areas:
- Computers, Smartphones and corresponding operating systems
- ATMs and other digital self service terminals (Ticketing, check-in …)
- TVs / Digital Television Services
- E-Readers & e-books
- Telephony services
- Audiovisual media services
- Transportation ticketing services
- Banking and financial services
- E-commerce services
Accessibility has been mandatory for governmental and publicly financed digital services for some years already. The goal of the EAA is to make it mandatory for the majority of digital products and services beyond the public sector and thus ensure that users with disabilities can access and use the same products and services as everyone else.
What Accessibility Requirements need to be met?
The EU imposes the harmonized European Standard EN 301 549 “Accessibility requirements for ICT products and services” in the regulations. It refers to the more well-known WCAG 2.1, an internationally recognized set of fifty accessibility criteria.
Therefore, the main principles of the WCAG 2.1 form the basic requirements to meet the European Accessibility Act. An accessible digital product must be perceivable, operable, understandable and robust:
- Information must be presented in a way users can easily perceive them
- More than one sensory channel must be used for conveying information
- Offer text alternatives for non-text contents
- Provide captions and transcripts for time-based media (audio and video contents)
- Content should be adaptable to be presented in different ways without losing information
- Make content distinguishable by offering enough color contrast and font size, separating foreground content from backgrounds
- Offer consistent and easy to use means of navigation
- A digital product or service must be operable using the keyboard
- Make sure that the UI is usable for all users by supporting a wide range of alternative input/control modalities
- Highlight the currently active elements, regardless of the used input device
- Provide users with enough time to read and understand content and complete their tasks
- Avoid fast animations and high-frequency flashes that could distract or even cause seizures and physical reactions with certain people
- Use simple language and avoid distraction and confusing messages
- Provide consistent layout and interaction design to guarantee a predictable experience
- Make your product as self-explanatory as possible
- To support a wide range of devices, content and technology have to be robust enough for broad compatibility
- Future-proof through open technologies and frameworks
The European Accessibility Act encourages a shift in mindset, emphasizing the importance of proactive and inclusive design practices. This shift requires a deep understanding of diverse user needs, including those with physical, sensory, and cognitive impairments.
User-centric design approach to ensure accessible product design
A user-centric product design approach helps to implement universal accessibility:
- User research: Conducting user research at the beginning of a project and continuously throughout the process is crucial to understand target users and identify their needs – especially those with special needs.
- Integrate and prioritize Accessibility: European Accessibility Act guidelines and the corresponding standards need to become a fundamental part of the design strategy for any project. Accessibility needs to be prioritized on an organizational level to ensure accountability and responsibility for those in charge of a project design.
- Accessibility user testing: Nothing can replace actually testing a digital product for accessibility. Regular accessibility user tests should be conducted to evaluate the accessibility status and identify problems early in the project.
The time to act is now
The EU required member states to implement the Act into national legislation by June 28, 2022.
Actual enforcement of the legislation will start on June 28, 2025.
While this may still seem as a long time to go from now, the time to act is now. After all, thoroughly ensuring accessibility standards for a digital product can be a time-consuming task.
While this means effort and dedication, eventually your product will become available for a much larger user base.