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Why is accessibility still an afterthought in tech (and what we’re doing about it)
Achieving accessibility in tech is tough for many reasons. Learn how Hotjar is rising to the challenge to build a more inclusive product and business.
Last updated18 Aug 2022
Reading time6 min
Technology pervades almost every aspect of our daily lives. But for the 15% of the world’s population living with a disability, using technology isn’t always a breeze.
Accessibility doesn’t only affect people with permanent physical disabilities. It also involves the elderly, those with restricted internet access or smaller screens, and people with temporary disabilities (like a broken arm or post-surgical limitations). Those with limited access to visual or hearing aids are also affected.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, many with visual and hearing impairments felt excluded from video conferencing because of the lack of transcription, sign language interpretation, and screen-reading capabilities.
Other examples of inaccessible technology practices include everything from poor website design to the absence of supportive features like alt text, screen magnifiers, and forms that are easy to understand and fill out.
Fortunately, since 2020, Zoom’s video conferencing platform has made some strides in including live transcription and screen reading capabilities.
But accessibility issues in tech are far from solved. These issues continue to have a negative impact on those who rely on accessible technology.
Why many businesses disregard accessibility concerns
A lack of accessibility can exclude entire groups of people and make it frustrating or even impossible for them to use and benefit from technology.
Although people with disabilities make up the most populous minority group, they’re still a minority. One in four adults in the US has a disability. While this percentage can translate into a major portion of a business’s audience, for some businesses, it’s only a minute fraction.
As a result, many businesses choose to prioritize the majority of their customer base and their overall return on investment.
Additionally, in most countries, privately owned businesses are not obligated to implement accessibility policies.
Some companies are also unaware of how challenging accessibility issues are or how to implement effective solutions.
With these factors in mind, it can be tough for businesses to focus on accessibility. Unsurprisingly, at Hotjar, we’ve faced our own share of challenges on the road to creating a more accessible product.
Challenges to accessibility in technology
It’s essential for any business or department to have a good grasp on why and how to implement better accessibility—but perhaps that’s most important in my own department, the engineering team. Because we are creating the products people use, we must understand from the outset what their needs are and how to meet them.
Poor understanding of what accessibility is
Even in the recent past, our understanding of accessibility was limited to making technology usable by people with prominent physical disabilities. But we’ve learned that this definition is not comprehensive.
People have a wide range of disabilities, from learning difficulties to dyslexia to temporary injuries. Even impermanent limitations can make technology usage difficult without the right accessibility features.
For example, I once had an accident that restricted me to using one hand. This meant I couldn’t type and use a mouse at the same time. Before that temporary disability, it would have taken some imagination to empathize with people who have similar disabilities. And even after, my scope of imagination is still greatly limited.
So we’re working hard to understand what disability means, why accessibility matters, and how it should be prioritized. We participate in training programs to help us better understand these concepts.
We are dedicated to providing accessibility in the ways that matter most to the communities that benefit from it.
Lack of experience building accessible products
Closely linked to our lack of understanding was our insufficient experience with building accessible products.
Before their tenure at Hotjar, many people on our teams had never worked with a team that prioritized accessibility. Now we focus on training our teammates to think of accessibility as a priority, not an afterthought.
We do this by initiating accessibility training, beginning in the onboarding period, and constantly reviewing improvement opportunities with our teams over time. This way, we’re continually learning through experience and using the information in our work as engineers.
Balancing act: prioritizing accessibility with customer needs
As a company, one of our core values is putting our customers at the heart of everything. Many times, this naturally means prioritizing value creation based on the majority.
However, with accessibility in mind, we have a dilemma: do we launch products as soon as they’re ready for the larger audience, or should we prioritize releasing accessible products, which often means that all customers will receive the product later?
We’re working to determine the best point in the product development stages to start building in accessibility. The goal is to find the right balance between getting the best product out to the most customers in a timely manner and creating a product that is easily accessible to all users.
How Hotjar is working to prioritize accessibility in technology
For us at Hotjar—especially the engineering team—accessibility is not optional.
As a business, improving accessibility is essential because:
We have a website available to the general audience
We have a product that our customers use and interact with
This means as we incorporate accessibility into our design, we need to consider both our customers (present and future) and our customers’ customers. Here’s how we’re doing it:
1. As a business
This year we’re focusing on leveling up our accessibility efforts by improving the experience for two types of users:
End users (respondent persona). These are visitors to our website who use features like our surveys and feedback widget. Our end users make up the greater percentage impacted by accessibility improvements. As such, our goal is to make our feedback tools fully accessible.
Internal dashboard users (customer user persona). These users are our customers—they use Hotjar for their own websites. They benefit from the reports on their dashboards and can view heatmaps or watch session recordings to understand the way users behave on their sites. Once we have completed our end-user section, our focus will be on making this section more accessible.
2. As a product
Hotjar helps other businesses recognize the accessibility deficiencies in their own websites. For example, users can use playback to tell when site visitors are using the mouse or just the keyboard. Using Hotjar, businesses can improve the digital user experience for their customers.
One of our driving goals at Hotjar is to inspire change through empathy. Enabling clients to empathize with their customers by observing the customer experience helps us to accomplish this. It also helps us realize our vision of creating enjoyable digital experiences on the web.
Our new unified approach for improving accessibility
Last year we released a new universal design system that helps us prioritize accessibility.
This design system provides a set of pre-built building blocks that can be built once but reused in different features by different teams.
An accessible design system makes it easier for designers and developers to create products that are accessible by default.
By designing a system with these building blocks in one place, we can have these components accessible in the first place, make it easier to test them, and audit and update them to adopt to continually evolving standards. When the building blocks get an update, every feature that is built on them can immediately be updated as well.
Prioritizing accessibility is a constant work in progress and the work will never be done, but we are committed to it.
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