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Five Key Accessibility Considerations for Chatbots

Feb 18, 2020

With a growing number of businesses now using or implementing chatbots to manage and expand their customer base, the evidence is clear: employing accessible chatbots is more important than ever.

“Chatbots,” interactive software that communicates with a user through dialog boxes that mimic human conversation, are used most frequently in online retail, health care, and telecommunications industries and by giants such as Microsoft, Apple, and Google.

Chatbots are clearly trending and with them, so must accessibility in order to benefit more customers, reach a wider audience, and prevent complaints or lawsuits.

Here are five things to keep in mind when using chatbots on your website.

1. Use a customizable platform

It can be tempting to use a completely pre-built chatbot platform, but use caution, as they may not provide out-of-the-box accessibility support or solutions. If vended solutions claim to be accessible, be sure to test them yourself or have a trusted accessibility partner test them for you.

Likely, you'll need to customize to meet your needs or your accessibility standards.

Read: Use Caution with Automated Tools that Promise 100% Accessibility Compliance

2. Be mindful of screen reader and keyboard navigation

Chatbots can present a range of difficulties for users. All of the graphical and textual content needs to fit together in a way creates obvious connections and makes it intuitive to navigate to and within the chat.

Additionally, the buttons that activate chatbots are often at the bottom lower right of the screen. Take care to consider the screen reader or keyboard experience for reaching or returning to the chat. Will a user be forced to tab through the whole page each time? Adding landmarks and skip links, and making sure features are fully-accessible with a keyboard, can alleviate some of these issues.

3. Identify conversations and announce updates

Screen readers need to be able to notify users of the context of chatbot conversations and replies. For example, each response in a chatbot conversation may need to be marked as from the user or from the chatbot to contextualize it for the audience. An aria-label can be one way to provide the needed context.

Users also need to be notified of new conversations, replies, and updates to a page, but not only with sound or only visually. For example, screen readers will need to announce these events. One solution is to install aria-live attributes to vocalize page changes. Aria-live informs assistive technology of what parts of a webpage will change, allowing the assistive technology to notify the user of updates.

It's important to keep in mind that sound chimes or rings aren't enough, and there must be a visual cue of such changes (and that the visual cue can't rely on color alone).

4. Ensure rich media accessibility

Chatbots can offer a range of responses that require different accessibility features to reach all audiences. They’re often programmed to speak, play music, use pop-up windows, and require users to click images to activate them. But all content must be perceivable. Bots that use images will need alt text; audio should include closed captioning; videos may need captions, transcripts, or audio descriptions to accompany them; and buttons should be accessible via keyboard navigation. Always provide text for any non-text content.

5. Use accessible language, fonts, and color contrast

Accessible language, fonts, and color contrast should be part of any website and the same is true for a site’s chatbot. Chatbots should follow easy conversational speech patterns and avoid jargon and acronyms. Jargon can be difficult to understand and acronyms aren’t usually explained or understood by everyone. When this is unavoidable, include explanations to help.

While no official font is specified in most accessibility standards, chatbot developers should consider using sans serif fonts at a large enough size to enhance readability.

Color contrast proves especially important for chatbots, as a dialog box with text is the core function of most chatbots. Text with sufficient contrast relative to the background is critical for readability.

How can we help?

Contact us to learn about creating a customized accessibility compliance strategy to meet your organization's needs. Or, get started with a free website accessibility scan with a graded report. We look forward to helping you achieve, maintain, and prove digital compliance.

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