The Business Rationale for Virtual Accessibility

November 14th, 2011 by Kel Smith | Filed under Sample Chapters

First in a series of sample excerpts from the book Digital Outcasts.

Business people standing on puzzle piecesAdvocacy for inclusive design takes many forms. There is the user-centric position: accommodating people with high levels of physical or cognitive challenge will improve products and services for all people. There is the legal perspective: accommodate people with disabilities or risk an expensive battle in court. The 2006 class-action lawsuit between the National Federation of the Blind and Target Corp falls into the latter category.

A third and perhaps more compelling argument is that failing to provide universal access is an error of economics. By disrupting access to online shopping experiences among those with disabilities, commercial retailers in effect close the door to potential business opportunities on both a local and global scale. From the data, people with disabilities represent a very strong economic market. Consider the following:

  • The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 27 percent of the world population are over the age 45, at which point in life the incidence of disability begins to increase significantly (along with increased availability of discretionary income).
  • According to the United States Department of Labor, the spending power of Americans with disabilities was estimated to be over 175 billion dollars annually.
  • The Employers Forum on Disability in the United Kingdom estimated in 2005 that there were ten million adults with disabilities in the UK, with an estimated purchasing power of over 80 billion pounds sterling.
  • According to the Conference Board of Canada, the combined annual disposable income of working age Canadians with disabilities was 25 billion Canadian dollars.
  • A study by the Open Doors Organization estimated that people with disabilities spent 35 billion dollars in restaurants in 2003. American adults with disabilities currently spend an average of 13.6 billion dollars a year on tourism, representing 32 million trips annually.
  • One in seven people on this planet have some form of disability, comprising 15% of the world’s population.

With this in mind, consider the hypothetical scenario where a commercial online retailer joins forces with a virtual enterprise provider to create a new form of marketplace. Just think of what could happen should Amazon decide to purchase a company such as Linden Lab, creators of Second Life. Such a merger would combine the Web’s strongest e-commerce model with the rich interactivity and community-building benefits currently enjoyed by participants of virtual worlds.

Online users shopping in a rich, immersive space would enjoy higher fidelity engagement and increased fellowship with like-minded peers. These interactions would spawn a transposition of virtual goods to the offline world, thus providing retail organizations the opportunity to take advantage of “planned serendipity” model — a model that Amazon has been successfully employing for over a decade. These small communities of interest could transform such commonplace actions as buying a book. A publisher could sponsor a virtual reading by a real life author in a decidedly borderless space, one unencumbered with such “book tour” formalities as transportation and lodging expenses for authors.

It’s an intriguing idea for a number of reasons, some specific to consumers with disabilities. We’ve already seen a slightly dovetailing path intertwining the interests of Web accessibility and virtual worlds. We may be seeing a legitimately commercial relevance finally being applied to the use of 3D online environments. For people with disabilities, virtual worlds already operate as a sort of online gathering space whose functionality directly impacts interpersonal reciprocity. Applying this social model to the retail sector simply makes good business sense.

Social networking has always been a sort of concentric framework originating from the self. A person who has 500 Facebook friends doesn’t necessarily view herself interacting with the entire network as a whole. Rather, people tend to operate from a vantage point starting with the self, then they follow a sequence of decreasing importance: “First me, then my friends, then the friends of my friends, etc.”

Now take this model to virtual worlds. Since communities tend to grow by ancillary association, virtual retail groups could be formed around common shopping interests. With a growing number of virtual world participants dotting the digital landscape, it only makes sense that a combining of retail and immersive experiences would bring great value to consumer marketers. Users of Second Life, particularly those with disabilities, strongly identify with their avatars and use them to draw a sense of empowerment and collectivism. With this confidence comes an emerging social vocabulary that instigates activity, improving the chance that a digitally designed product will compel a response.

User experience practitioners see this behavior all the time and call it social actability: the incentive a person feels when they take a defined, modal action and apply it to a different technological setting. One example is how an ATM represents an authentic banking experience, even when no personal interaction is made with an actual human bank teller. People with disabilities who use Second Life often assign this personalization to their avatars, which in turn provides the confidence necessary to interact with environments and other users. It’s technology that provides the vehicle, yes, but it’s social actability that removes psychological (as well as physiological) barriers to access. Without that sense of empathy, such interactions would otherwise be difficult or impossible.

There are no answers here, only questions. Could the future of e-commerce involve three-dimensional environments? Is the virtual landscape an emerging crucible of economic growth? Will product teams need to take gaming technologies into account when designing online shopping experiences? Will shoppers continue to place their trust in retail systems from the safety of their respective digital communities? And from the point of view for people with disabilities, perhaps the most important questions are if such a platform as ‘Amazon Life’ will enable user variability towards a greater functional model, and thus a better shopping experience? And if it does, will anyone care?

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