Sustainability and accessibility: The new digital frontiers


By Hannah Kaner

21 March 2022

What is the digital carbon footprint? And how do we improve a site's sustainability, while keeping it accessible?

The digital carbon footprint

How do you improve a site’s sustainability, while keeping it accessible?

The internet contributes to 3.7% of global carbon emission. Even air travel is less, at 2.1%, and we’re taking notice. Green is the new good. Load time, website bloat and web carbon calculators are building the foundation of more environmentally conscious service design approach and making digital better for our environment.

However, environmental activists are rightly pointing out that when improving a site’s sustainability, we must ensure it remains accessible and engaging to its users.

These aren’t mutually exclusive approaches. In fact, addressing a site or digital service’s environmental impact, can also improve its accessibility, as can be shown in an initial look at the baseline and strategic measures for both.

Baseline measures

Designing sustainably and designing inclusively are goals that can be measured together. Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), a legal standard for web content, and standard carbon calculation highlight some of the following as baselines:

Designing sustainably Designing inclusively

Reduce image size and quantity

Only use images when necessary and useful. Enable alternative text.

Reduce video sizes and quantity

Only use videos when necessary and useful. Enable transcripts and captions.

Reduce downloadable files such as PDFs

Reduce inaccessible files such as PDFs that are not created with accessibility in mind, replacing them with HTML

Reduce site bloat: number of pages, number of user journeys, overall amount of information

Enable clear user journeys

Improve SEO optimisation to enable task findability and completion

Enable clear site structure with a task-based approach

Reduce emails, and use HTML emails when necessary

Provide only useful updates and ensure they are in accessible formats

Promote colour palates that are lower energy, such as dark mode.

Enable colour palates that allow users to tailor their experience. Facilitate readability and quality of information.

By focussing on and improving these parameters when developing and managing your digital services, you can successfully improve your site’s access and reduce its carbon footprint.

Strategic measures

Some measures of success for an inclusive and sustainable service need to be embedded into the service. These can be tailored through careful service design to yours and your audience’s needs, tasks and goals.

Designing sustainably Designing inclusively

Reduce text to its clear purpose and actionable information

Use plain English and retain ongoing content management and strategy

Reduced data waste to minimum required

Reduce cognitive load on user and amount of data they need to input

Improve conversion through top tasks

Focus site on user needs first

Enable task completion, focus on top tasks and reduce web content

Accessible components and support users with validation requirements

Reduce repair and update requirements

Clear information architecture

By focussing on your sites design, information architecture, top tasks and user needs, you can increase audience engagement and satisfaction while improving its sustainability long term.

Why is this important?

Losing audiences

Most organisations create websites for the audience they know well, that are most ‘visible’: users with high digital literacy, no obvious accessibility issues, and have phones full of data.

However, potential service users are extremely varied:

Disabled users: 15% of the global population have some type of disability. People with a registered disability in the UK are 4 times more likely to be offline.

Low digital confidence: 21% of UK citizens do not have all five basic digital skills, 43% have lower digital literacy.

Reduced access to data: 33% people in the UK have low digital engagement, often due to data poverty such as access to effective internet speeds, phone contracts or required data for common internet use.

As most services move online, these aren’t users that can be passed over, they’re the users that need supportive services, online and off. At its lowest, that is an average of 23% of your audience you might be missing due to data heavy, confusing, unsustainable sites.

"High carbon and inaccessible sites may be losing you audiences while costing you more."

But that isn’t all. You may also be losing the users that you think you know.

79% of users are likely to revisit and/or share a mobile site if it works easily. However, 53% of site visitors abandon pages that take longer than 3 seconds to load.

According to baseline sustainability measures above, sites are getting larger, with more content and less focus. This is often referred to as Website Bloat. The average time it currently takes to load a webpage is now 10.3 seconds on desktop, 27.3 seconds on mobile.

Digital users are more likely to abandon a site or service if it is functionally frustrating for them to use by taking too long to start their task, due to website load, or complete it due to site weight and complexity. all factors which accessibility-driven design works actively against.

If your service isn’t achieving these standards of accessible and sustainable design, is full of information but little action, it’s likely that audience you’re missing is higher than that base 25%.

Costing more

Increasingly, cloud hosting services are moving to the Pay Per Click (PPC) models previously used primarily by advertising.

This means, that the more interactions your site gets, the greater the cost. If those interactions don’t represent conversion to your service or task completion, such as ordering a prescription or buying your product, then your site hosting service is costing more than it should. The Baymard institute reports that current cart abandonment rate is as high as 80%. Users are generating clicks through site use, but they’re not finishing their task.

The same goes for advertising. If you have ads that get clicked on, but don’t give you new and loyal customers, then your advertising spend could be more efficient.

In addition to this, maintenance, content management, image management, hosting costs and service speeds are dependent on the weight of your site.

Designing sustainable and accessible services is essential to making sure your services stay relevant and valuable to your users.

How can I improve my site or service?

By working with specialists that can deliver an accessible and sustainable services, you can help broader audiences access and use your site by working on these key points:

  • Reduce site data consumption to enhance load speed - reduce page weight and optimise content
  • Improve accessibility and usability - following inclusive design practices will improve their access to your services
  • Improve search and discovery, helping your audiences find what they’re looking for
  • Improve conversion rates and task completion across sites for more users from broader audiences

References

  1. Web waste’, Gerry McGovern
  2. What is Data Poverty' (PDF), Nesta
  3. Exploring the digital divide’, ONS
  4. Consumer digital index' (PDF), Lloyds Bank
  5. ‘Mobile site load time statistics’, Google
  6. Search penalties for slow, low functioning websites’, Wall Street Journal
  7. Disability: The Global Picture’, Humanity & Inclusion
  8. Cart Abandonment rates’, Baymard