Digital technology is an indispensable tool to entrepreneurs and startups. In fact, technology is synonymous with all industries in both established and emerging markets globally. The devices and technologies that we all use to work, connect, and manage our lives can make these experiences richer and more fulfilling. The ability for technology to reach out to people, to build and maintain networks means that more than ever before, technology is an important consideration of even the earliest stage startup.
When you get technology solutions right, they can be easily scaled, allowing the transition to high growth to be as seamless as possible. With the ubiquity of handheld devices and the growth of the ‘internet of things’, characteristics such as a person’s race, gender, age, and ability shouldn't be a limiting factor in accessing opportunity and information.
The question is, how many tech entrepreneurs consider these demographics in the early stages of development and design? Startup accessibility should matter to your tech startup, and here are 3 reasons why.
1. Startup Accessibility – An Important Market
Accessibility is a time-intensive and costly practise that'll only impact a small number of people...or is it?
In the United Kingdom alone, there are 14.1 million disabled people. Of the UK population, 8% of children; 19% of working-age adults and 46% of pension age adults are disabled. These demographics show that there is an opportunity to connect with a large number of users that are currently facing barriers to accessing technologies, and ultimately missing out on the products and opportunities available through them.
Young people in the United Kingdom use technology in all aspects of their lives. Social networks are maintained using it, the school curriculum is accessed through it and leisure activities are increasingly played out on it.
If 8% of young people face challenges in this space, that is an opportunity to include a potential 1.01m young people in your enterprise by facilitating their access. During the Covid-19 school closures and lockdown cycles, the UK was shown just how much young people rely on technology to access education, even in a school setting. Once distance learning became important, the lack of access to devices and internet connections became acute and there was a rush to provide a continuity of opportunity for some pupils, particularly those in non-affluent areas.
As the ‘millennial’ generation ages, the population will rely more and more on technology and the internet to access markets, leisure activities and communities. The age of a potential connection for your tech startup should no longer be seen as a limiting factor, as all age groups continually show increases in the use of the internet. For example, the proportion of those aged 75 years and over who are recent internet users nearly doubled since 2013, from 29% to 54% in 2020. Soon, the internet and technologies that rely on it will be omnipresent and important in all aspects of our daily lives. Age, and the habits that certain generations maintain, will not prevent technologies from becoming utilised to certain demographics. We can see this in the introduction of technology in nursing homes and nurseries at the other end of the spectrum.
Building in early consideration for all your potential users, otherwise known as startup accessibility, allows your product, service or opportunity to reach the maximum number of possible connections. Adopting this inclusive approach will lead to the maximised potential for growth and ultimately the maximum return on investment.
2. Startup Accessibility – Easy to Implement, with Hidden Benefits
A fully inclusive design is a natural outcome of having a sincere understanding of the needs of your potential market. If the necessary time and resources have been devoted to design and development, then your startup will have genuine regard for every potential user.
This approach to accessibility has more meaning and is of more value to the market than accessibility being an after-thought. If a design has been developed and then modified to ‘add people in’, this can be obvious and appear disingenuous. There are many more advantages and opportunities for startups who develop an idea that includes everyone from the start. These advantages include attracting investment.
The concept of having a ‘universal design' is defined by the National Disability Authority as "the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability". The general principles of Universal Design include: the design is useful to people with a diverse range of abilities; the design makes accommodations for a range of individual preferences and abilities; the design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
These design principles are good practice in their own right and shouldn't only provide benefit to a few potential customers. When universal design principles are employed, products meet the needs of potential users with a diverse array of characteristics. Disability is one characteristic of many that an individual might possess. Other characteristics include age, race, native language, ethnicity, and gender. All of these characteristics can contribute to, or become, a barrier to access or participation and all should be considered by tech startups and entrepreneurs.
Just as a new building or a new method of transport is designed to be used by as many people as possible, a new product, service, application, software, website or online environment/experience should also be created to allow all potential users to fully participate in it.
Startup accessibility has benefits to the entire community or marketplace that the startup intends to operate in. There might be times when someone without any specific disability experiences a short-term constraint that presents as similar to that caused by a disability. As an example, a person who uses English as a second language can experience difficulty reading complicated instructions. In practice, the barrier to this person accessing a technology that requires this skill is similar to the barrier faced by a person with a learning difficulty. We can all experience times where we may face similar barriers to those with specific additional needs throughout our lives. This can be as simple as becoming ill, having an injury, or even through environmental factors such as broadband internet being disconnected. By building accessibility and inclusivity into the fabric of your startup, you are giving yourself the broadest possible audience from day one.
Applying principles of universal design provides support to all people, regardless of their individual needs. For example, when considering someone with English as a second language, you can facilitate access by incorporating a design that uses clear and simple text and methods of navigation. However, the design clearly benefits all users and so through the process of startup accessibility, you now have a strong product that promotes ease of use. The hidden benefit to these design elements is that those with visual and/or learning difficulties find them useful and allow them to fully participate and interact with you.
A further example might be the ability to turn off features within the technology solution that have rich colours or flashing videos. This might benefit those who have seizures, are colour blind or who are accessing your solution through a device or environment which doesn’t support them.
As described here, startup accessibility is not a separate, bespoke enterprise requiring special effort to ‘tick a box’ for a minority. Startup accessibility in practise is a by-product of excellent design and development, has wide-ranging benefits beyond people with specific disabilities and maximises the potential network available to make connections with.
3. Startup Accessibility – Start as You Mean to Go On
As an organisation grows in size and becomes established, it may turn out to be more complicated to integrate accessibility into the operation. Including accessibility in the DNA of the organisation from the ground up is much easier than attempting to add it on at a later time. In this sense, startups hold a competitive advantage against existing competitors operating in the same space. Holding accessibility and inclusion as a core value to the startup also holds certain benefits in using corporate responsibility to show your network that the brand cares about these issues.
Corporate responsibility means different things to different people. Some companies consider it enough to upload a report to their website once a year or to reflect on strategies to reduce their carbon footprint during an AGM. However, there are obvious advantages available to entities that operate with a strong and clear social responsibility. These advantages include greater employee satisfaction; a resilient public image; increased customer loyalty and increased creativity.
As a startup, the value in having a happy, engaged and creative employee team is self-evident. Creative thinking and problem solving are absolutely needed in any successful workplace, especially during the frenetic and exciting days of a startup. These attributes can help overcome obstacles and foster a unique environment capable of identifying and leveraging opportunities.
Technology startups face many challenges, even more so as we move towards operating in the post-Covid economy. Navigating these uncertain times is easier if your network considers you to hold added, non-tangible values, such as honesty and integrity. Reaching out to marginalised communities, online or face to face is proven to build brand recognition and helps to maintain brand awareness.
The rise and rise of social media and information sharing mean that messages are spread faster and more widely. Communities and individuals who have been previously overlooked can now find a voice and these can be an important influence on mainstream trends and behaviours. The reality of how people access and share news is that people have become more aware and interested in social causes. Typically, this goes as far as individuals supporting brands whose values align with their own.
If a tech startup starts from day one with a clear vision to include and consider all people, regardless of personal circumstances or needs, it has an authentic claim to be a good global citizen. This can attract both investment and creativity and drive growth strategies within your marketplace. Having a responsible brand, one that includes and promotes all user demographics helps retain your network, creates network loyalty, and allows them to share in your sense of ‘doing good.
Technology is integral to almost every workplace, industry, transaction and network. For many people it is taken for granted that technology can be used to make almost every job or task easier. However, for other people, introducing technology creates a risk of being excluding from a job or a task.
However, as seen above the benefits to startup accessibility are wide-reaching and often end up creating useful design aspects in their own right, that would not necessarily be considered as an accessibility function. Beyond this there are excellent commercial reasons for wanting to include as many people in your enterprise as possible, such as allowing diverse users to feedback and interact with your service or product allowing for greater development and unlocking the spending power of an often-overlooked demographic.
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