Make Sure Paywalls Don't Lock Out Accessibility Features

December 21, 2021

For publishers and software developers, paywalls provide an important revenue stream. Paywalls prevent users from accessing content on a website or mobile app unless they’ve purchased a subscription or a license. Users who haven’t paid can usually access a limited version of the content. That model can be effective, but in some circumstances, paywalls can create an unequal experience.

Recently, video conferencing provider Zoom announced that all users could enable auto-generated transcripts (which Zoom refers to as “live transcription"). Previously, that feature was only available to paid users. In a blog post announcing the change, Theresa Larkin of Zoom noted that auto-generated transcripts are an important accessibility feature.

It’s important to us that everyone can successfully connect, communicate, and participate using Zoom,” Larkin wrote. “Without the proper accessibility tools, people with disabilities face tremendous barriers when using video communication solutions. That’s why we are focused on building out a platform that is accessible to everyone, and features such as auto-generated captions are an important part of that mission.”

Zoom’s accessibility statement notes that the website conforms with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 Level AA standards, which is generally considered a reasonable standard for web content. WCAG doesn’t require app developers to offer auto-transcription, but disability advocates have noted that auto-transcription is especially useful for people with hearing disabilities. Locking the feature behind a paywall compels those users to pay extra for essential functionality. 

Fortunately, Zoom has taken a proactive approach by making accessibility features available to all users, regardless of whether they pay for the privilege. It’s an excellent lesson for developers: Before using a paywall, you’ll need to make sure you’re not creating barriers for users with disabilities. 

Related: Mistakes to Avoid to Make Video Conferencing More Accessible

Maintain an accessible mindset when making development decisions

The WCAG framework doesn’t address paywalls directly, but the goal of accessible design isn’t to conform with specific standards; accessibility expands your digital audience and improves the user experience. Some features may be especially beneficial for people with disabilities, so think about real-life use cases when developing your product or service. 

Here are a few methods to help you determine whether to lock features behind a paywall.

Consider whether the feature locks out content or functionality

Does a feature make your app or website easier to use? If so, it probably shouldn’t be paywalled. 

This is an especially common issue with mobile apps. Developers often assume that all users will access the app in the same way, but some users with disabilities may need more time to navigate and interact. For example, if a mobile game allows users to play for 30 minutes per day, users who access the app with assistive technologies may get less actual playtime than other users. 

Other examples of paywalls that lock out functionality:

    • A blog offers audio versions of its articles, but only for paying subscribers.
    • Users can view videos, but transcriptions are only available with a subscription.
    • A mobile app requires free users to answer a long quiz before using essential features.

Generally, paywalls that lock out content will affect all users equally. News websites often use paywalls to prevent users from accessing more than three or four articles per month — but since these paywalls allow users to read at their own pace, they don’t discriminate on the basis of disability. 

Find out how people use the feature

For people who don’t live with disabilities that affect their computer usage, features like auto-transcription might seem like an unnecessary convenience. Of course, automatic captions are practically important for Deaf users, but developers might not realize that without studying real-life user behavior. 

Consider accessibility when testing new features. Ideally, user experience testing should include accessibility experts and people with disabilities, which can limit development costs over time — remediating issues is much more expensive than building with an accessible mindset.

Related: How Do I Test My App or Mobile Website for Accessibility?

Exercise caution when paywalling large portions of your content

Even if you decide to lock your entire website behind a paywall, make sure that you provide potential users with essential information. Paywalls should never prevent users from accessing contact information, accessibility statements, and descriptions of how your pay system works. 

Many paywalls activate pop-up notifications, so ensure that these elements are accessible. Notifications should have obvious focus indicators, appropriate color contrast ratios, and text alternatives for all non-text content.

By creating accessible content, developers can improve conversions

Paywalls aren’t necessarily a bad idea when implemented carefully, and developers who prioritize accessibility will see substantial benefits. As we’ve discussed on this blog, accessibility improves customer retention and may improve conversions for paid apps and websites. 

Your accessibility partner can help you evaluate features and design paywalls that function as intended — without creating unnecessary barriers for people with disabilities. The Bureau of Internet Accessibility offers iOS and Android app accessibility testing, website accessibility audits, and training resources to help your team build a better approach.

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