I’ve had a lot of positions on a lot of issues over my career, but there’s one that I’ve been consistent on from the beginning.
You do not sell product inclusion and equity, including accessibility, on business cases.
One of the first things I did for the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative (W3C/WAI), in 2001, was to tell its director what I thought of their business case for accessibility document. From my perspective as a web engineer at the time, I just didn’t see how any of its arguments would resonate with my own executives. And, in practice, they didn’t. What did finally get that company to do needed accessibility work was a phone call from a blind would-be customer, who patiently explained how our service would make their life easier.
The WAI business case document has had a few versions over the years, but it makes four core arguments:
accessibility drives innovation;
it’s a way to “enhance your brand”;
it can increase your total addressable market (TAM); and
it can limit your legal risk.
Of these, I think that point 1 is the truest, and if you can convince someone that accessibility is a component of overall product quality, then you can win minds, if not hearts. Point 2 is superficial, and has led a number of companies to try a number of brand-awareness shenanigans that don’t lead to concrete progress.
Point 3 is a terrible argument. I’d advise against ever using an addressable-market case. TAM represents every single dollar available in a given marketplace. Just because disabled customers have a combined “spending power of more than $6 trillion” (that’s discretionary and non-discretionary, by the way) doesn’t mean a thing to your company if you can’t demonstrably link new revenue to disability-related work. (Spoiler: you probably can’t.)
Finally, arguing based on legal exposure is largely fearmongering, and forces organizations to think defensively and out of self-interest alone. It’s also vulnerable to a wait-and-see counterargument. Sure, there are sharks in these waters, but I’ve never had one bite me!
The moment you frame the case for any kind of inclusion or equity around the money an organization stands to gain (or save), you have already lost. What you have done is turn a moral case, one where you have the high ground, into an economic one, where, unless you have an MBA in your pocket, you are hopelessly out of your depth.
If you win a business-case argument, the users you wanted to benefit are no longer your north star. It’s money. More cents per share, more closed deals. You may be forced to determine which excluded populations are the most cost-effective to include. If you can’t deliver, your investment will be short-lived. And if the corporate balance sheet takes a turn for the worse, you’ve got more to worry about than your project.
The common message that “inclusive companies are more successful” can be misleading. Research bears this out, but organizational change is a bumpy road, and there are no shortcuts. In the end, companies who operate with a shared belief in realizing inclusion and equity in their products (as well as their processes and organizational makeup) end up making better stuff than companies who want to tell good stories about inclusion, without all the heavy lifting. The former create a culture that leads to higher-quality products. The latter make great ads.
There is a reason one of the most beloved quotes in all of accessibility was Tim Cook’s angry response to an activist shareholder. “When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind (sic),” he seethed, “I don’t consider the bloody ROI (return on investment).”
If you look closely at Apple’s history—for example, releasing the VoiceOver screen reader on the very first iPad, and all their new hardware since then—it’s easy for an advocate to show how that led to goodwill among disability communities, and how reasonable investments and hard work in research, design and engineering made their products much more attractive to customers in general. Inclusion first, then many, many steps, then profit. But if what you take from Apple’s success is that they were effective at marketing, and try to emulate that alone, then you’re pulling at the wrong thread. You can spend and spend on ad agencies, and it won’t make your products any better.
There’s more to that Tim Cook quote, after the “bloody ROI” bit. He added: “We do a lot of things for reasons besides profit motive. We want to leave the world better than we found it.” While one can quibble over how well Apple lives its values, Cook not only knows them, but states them with conviction. He’s also got receipts: Apple published accessibility tips for the Vision Pro in June, and gave a session on it at its Worldwide Developers Conference. All for a product that doesn’t ship until next year.
I believe companies do materially better when they work proactively on issues of inclusion, and when they are ready to do that work, progress is rapid and the job is fulfilling. When they’re not… well, a business case might buy you some time and some budget. But you need to use that time to find out what the real levers are to align your executives behind more inclusive, equitable business processes.
The best way I’ve found to lay that groundwork is to talk to marginalized users themselves—and to get them right in the faces of the decision makers. The voice of a user—even a would-be user—is more valuable than any business case argument I’ve seen.
Karl Groves has written about business cases for over a decade, often using approaches like “math” and “logic.” If that’s your thing.
…are open for this week. For those of you who don’t know, I’ve held free office hours weekly for the last six years, and I don’t plan on slowing down. Sign up for a slot here.
I mentioned last week that the newsletter had already reached five continents. Well, now we’re up to six! Growing from here is going to be a challenge. Got any inclusive design practitioner friends in Antarctica? 😉
Anyway, the subscriber count has forced me to upgrade my Buttondown account, which means I get to add some style to my posts. I’ll get right on that. In the meantime, if you’ve got something you want to share, feel free to drop me an email.
Okay, folks. Those of us in North America just got an extra hour. That’s for napping only.
Get your rest. Speak your mind.