I’ve been writing on this site for a long time. In that time, I’ve written over a dozen times on the accessibility business case. Time and again, the message I’ve hoped to convey is that issue prevention is the best way to save money. Once lawyers become involved, all roads lead to one destination – and it is an expensive one. But avoiding issues is only possible on new work. So while it is fine for myself and others to talk about cost savings through avoiding issues, the truth is, the only organizations that avoid accessibility issues are those that have mature accessibility programs.
You will be spending money on accessibility
If your organization doesn’t already have a highly mature accessibility program, then there’s only one way to save money on accessibility: don’t do anything. But that’s a horrible strategy that might actually cost you more in the long run. As legal actions continue in their high pace, it is inevitable that large organizations will eventually address the accessibility of their ICT systems.
Get beyond audit-fix-audit-fix
The biggest challenge your organization will face is in overcoming the audit-fix-audit-fix cycle prevalent in most organizations. When most companies begin their accessibility journey, they do so because of a current or anticipated legal threat. This often puts the organization in the mindset that accessibility is a project and that once the project is complete they consider themselves “Done” with accessibility. But that’s never actually the case. Companies continue accessibility-related activities after that first project for one of three reasons: They see the benefit of accessibility, they fear further legal action, or they face a new legal issue. Unfortunately, in all 3 cases they continue to regard their accessibility efforts as a series of projects in which they audit an asset, fix the issues, re-audit the asset, fix the issues, ad infinitum. Worse still, they may subject multiple digital assets to this exact same cycle over and over. While this may generate a lot of great revenue for their chosen accessibility vendor, it is a colossal waste of time and money and the cycle never ends. Somewhat shockingly, many companies spend hundreds-of-thousands or even millions of dollars a year over and over auditing and re-auditing their products with third parties. Some companies go a decade or more stuck in this cycle.
- Level 1: Initial. Performing accessibility activities in an ad hoc, uncontrolled, and reactive manner
- Level 2: Repeatable. Encouraging discipline and increasing the repeatability of accessibility processes
- Level 3: Defined. Using standard, documented processes for accessibility across the organization
- Level 4: Managed. Actively managing, controlling standard accessibility processes
- Level 5: Optimizing. Continually optimizing accessibility processes
Organizations who stay in this audit-fix-audit-fix cycle are in the “Level 1: Initial” phase of accessibility maturity and will not move beyond that until they have begun defining their processes and following the processes that they’ve defined. That can (and often should) include using a third-party provider for important parts of their accessibility program until they’ve upskilled their staff or hired in internal expertise.
One of the reasons why companies get stuck in the audit-fix-audit-fix cycle is that they refuse to acknowledge that they’ll be doing this accessibility stuff beyond their initial audit. After all, it is often an unexpected expense and remediating the issues found in the audit is disruptive to other work. It is easy to understand why a company would want to avoid incurring these disruptive, unexpected expenses again. But as I’ve said before: You will be spending money on accessibility especially if you’re a medium-or-larger business.
Understand what the disruption actually costs
First, gather together what your people cost
While many people may dislike being reduced to a number, the truth is your employment costs money to your company and there’s an expectation that you contribute a value that is greater than your cost. This isn’t very easy to know on a per-person basis for most roles. After all, some people cost more than others while still others don’t perform a role that even tangentially results in revenue. So while it might be useful to look at things like Revenue per Employee, and Operational Expenses Per Employee, those don’t really key into the concern: what value would our development staff deliver to the company that they cannot deliver because of the disruption? For that, we need to figure out two things: what our people cost and what their individual return on investment is.
The person cost is simple: That’s their salary, benefits, and other expenses. Often referred to as the “fully loaded” cost, you can generally assume it to be 150% of their base salary, although there are more accurate ways to get the real number. For our purposes, we’ll call the salary $93,000 for our developer, for a final cost of $139,500. Using an assumption of 2080 work hours in a year, or $67.07 per hour.
Second, gather together the ROI per person
Note: Getting the ROI per person is heavily dependent on what type of business you’re in. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll assume you’re a software vendor or operate an e-commerce website.
ROI is pretty simple to calculate. Your ROI is your profit minus expenses. Put simply, if you spend $50,000 and earn $75,000, then your return is $25,000 (
75,000 - 50,000 = 25,000). Naturally, the goal in business is to earn as much as you can while spending as little as you can.
Using our prior information as a simple example:
- Assume have a total of 11 people working on our software project, each carrying a fully loaded cost of $139,500 for a total of $1,534,500
- Assume have an annual revenue of $10,000,000
Given the above:
- Our return for those 11 people is $8,465,500 per year, or just over a 5.5x return
- The total paid work-hours for those 11 people is 22,880 per year
- This means we earn a profit of $370 for every hour worked, per person.
Understand the actual cost of disruption
I’ve previously discussed the cost per bug for accessibility. Unfortunately, that was not focused on the lost profit, but only the person cost. The real answer is more along with the following:
average cost per defect = ((number of devs * number of hours ) * potential profit per person) / total bugs to be fixed
Given the above, a bug that takes 1 hour to fix costs us $370. Put another way, we incrementally lose $370 per hour for every hour that a developer is involved in doing anything other than working on new features or enhancements on our main profit-generating system. Bug fixes of any kind fit into that loss calculation but for our purposes we’ll focus on accessibility bugs.
cost of disruption = total number of bugs * average cost per defect
A real-world example
Prior to our acquisition by Level Access, we kept pretty close records over at Tenon on how many issues we found during each manual accessibility audit we did as well as how many hours it took to fix a bug.
- Anticipated issues per audit: 134
- Average time to fix each bug: 7 hours
So, using our existing data so far, we can assume that each issue will cost us $2590. From there we can assume that the issues discovered under a typical audit will cost $347,060 to fully remediate. There are, of course caveats to this estimate:
- Your development staff may be more or less efficient
- Your development staff may be more or less expensive
- Your system may have more or fewer accessibility issues
Regarding the latter point, there is a fair amount of variation in our data. The fewest issues ever logged by an audit we performed was 20 and the highest was 330. However, while the data had a lot of variation, the kurtosis and skewness both fall within acceptable ranges. In other words, I feel pretty confident that my estimate above will fit most cases, but your own situation could be unique.
In short, the final math to figure out how disruptive inaccessibility can be is:
cost of disruption = total number of bugs * ((number of devs * number of hours ) * (profit - (number of developers * average developer salary)) / total bugs to be fixed
Assuming you’re tracking such things – and if you aren’t, you should be – then it will be easy for you to determine how much it is costing you to be inaccessible by simply using the above. This math isn’t simply useful for accessibility, by the way. It can be used to track the budgetary impact of any quality-related defects.
Turning this into ROI
In its simplest terms, the long-term ROI for your accessibility program is a measure of how much you spend on accessibility and how much you improve your systems over time. Your accessibility journey never starts and ends with one audit, the single worst accessibility-related business strategy you can take is to stay in that audit-fix-audit-fix cycle. Beyond the fact that you never reduce any legal risk it is also the most expensive way to handle accessibility. Growing your company’s maturity with respect to accessibility allows you to spend less and less on it as you learn to bake it into your design, development, QA, content, and procurement processes.
In a future article, I’ll discuss how to use the math above to measure the benefit of growing in your organizational maturity.