Rakuten’s services are used by more than 1.4 billion people around the world — a number that continues to grow. With such a vast user base comes a wide variety of customer needs. Working to ensure accessibility in its online services is one of the ways in which Rakuten aims to respond to the increasing importance of diversity, equality and inclusion in every area of its ecosystem.
Yuya Sato and Katerina Todorova of the Creative Design Strategy Department, together with Maddy Deason from the Leisure Product Department, are three of the many Rakuten employees collaborating to achieve expanded accessibility across all of the Rakuten Group.
Web accessibility: Who is it for?
Some 9.3 million people in Japan live with a disability. Worldwide, the number is estimated to be more than a billion. Visual impairments make up a significant proportion of this population; approximately one in 12 men suffer from color blindness, for example. While web accessibility is, in part, about accommodating people with disabilities, it is also about making the internet easier to use for everyone.
Sato, Todorova and Deason’s teams are aiming to make Rakuten’s services as accessible as possible through a set of in-house design guidelines based on the W3C’s (the main international standards organization for the World Wide Web) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.
“For visually impaired users, the main goal is to make web content readable by machines so that users can choose how to get their information,” Sato explains.
Screen reading software does exactly what you might imagine: It reads out whatever text is displayed on a user’s screen. This software is an indispensable tool for visually impaired users, and it works particularly well for websites built using correct HTML and following accessibility guidelines.
“At the end of the day it is about people ― living, breathing people and their experience with our services… “Tasks as simple as applying for a job ― if you can’t fill out the online form, that’s going to impact your financial situation, and your life.”Maddy Deason, Leisure Product Department, Rakuten
As it stands, however, any online task more complex than reading a simple article ― such as applying for a credit card, using social media, or shopping online ― can still be too much for screen readers to handle. That’s where Rakuten’s accessibility guidelines come in.
“It means we need to be more descriptive in our design. We can’t express something through only shapes or colors,” Sato says. “For example, it’s pretty common to see a red asterisk marking a mandatory field in an online form. But to make it truly accessible, you’d need to actually write the word ‘Required’ as well.”
Color blindness is another issue: “A lot of people can’t distinguish between red and green, for example,” says Todorova. “If you make your error state red and your success state green, not everyone will be able to tell the difference.”
Good coding is accessible coding
Many of the changes being encouraged by web accessibility advocates amount to nothing more than sensible coding.
“Alt text and labels, labeling your headers, it’s just basic HTML stuff,” Sato says. “But not many organizations really practice correct HTML on the internet, so people have started arguing that it’s good for accessibility instead.”
“Of course, it is good for accessibility, but it’s also just a requirement of basic coding,” Deason remarks. “It affects things like SEO as well. If you want your site to appear at the top of search results, proper HTML practices are really important.”
“There are many different types of accessibility ― not just visual,” Deason explains. “There’s auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical and speech as well.” All of these need to be taken into account to build an experience that works for everyone.
“Color contrast; logical structure; do the inputs have labels; can you resize the text; is there text being used in images; is there anything that is only displayed on hover; does the page use focus styles; can you navigate the page using just the keyboard; are links that open in a new window correctly labeled; is the language designation correct ― there’s a lot of stuff to think about. But the first step, when it comes to accessibility, is to complete what you can, from your current starting point, without overstretching. You don’t want to take on too much, going about it in a half-hearted way, or the wrong way.”
Making the internet more user-friendly for everyone
Countries around the world have various legal policies in place when it comes to accessibility online. In the USA, for example, the Americans with Disabilities Act has been around since 1990. But it was only in 2006 that authorities began regarding online spaces as “public accommodation.” Japan, by contrast, has yet to act on building a legal framework for online accessibility.
“In Japan there are laws for accessibility in general,” Deason says. “But they aren’t super specific when it comes to technology. I think that probably has to do with when they were originally written.”
Industrial standards do exist for digital accessibility, but until they are written into law, it’s up to IT companies to take responsibility for their own content. Sato believes that accessibility measures will be more important than ever as Rakuten enters new fields like mobile communications, which form truly indispensable pieces of social infrastructure.
“Changing old, complicated services is really hard, but Rakuten is a challenger in several industries, so we have more opportunities to tackle accessibility issues in a variety of fields.”Yuya Sato, Creative Design Strategy Department, Rakuten
In 2017, Rakuten first identified a list of important sustainability topics to ensure that its combined sustainability efforts have an impact. That list was updated in early 2021 to reflect Rakuten’s latest business developments and changes in stakeholder expectations, through a process combining online surveys and individual consultations with more than 5,000 internal and external stakeholders. This process confirmed the growing importance of diversity, equality and inclusion to the Group and sets the stage for even more focus on accessibility initiatives.
“A lot of companies, including mobile carriers, do have accessibility declarations, but a huge number of today’s homepages don’t meet accessibility standards,” Sato explains. “As a company gets bigger and bigger, it becomes harder and harder to govern it. Changing old, complicated services is really hard, but Rakuten is a challenger in several industries, so we have more opportunities to tackle accessibility issues in a variety of fields.”
In the end, it’s about people
“As someone who has been aware of accessibility needs, thanks to my experience and my family background, I’ve always tried to push for these changes on my own ― not always successfully,” Deason relates. “But having all of this in the official Rakuten regulations makes it so much easier for me to say hey, these are the rules! This isn’t a matter of opinion anymore ― this is what we’re going to do because it’s written right here!”
“At the end of the day it is about people ― living, breathing people and their experience with our services,” Deason concludes. “Tasks as simple as applying for a job ― if you can’t fill out the online form, that’s going to impact your financial situation, and your life.
In the minds of those working to enhance accessibility, access to the internet is a basic human right. In order to create accessible websites that can be used equally by as many people as possible, Rakuten is creating a new design culture that ensures accessibility becomes an integral and fundamental part of all design and development processes.