With the widespread use of and increasing reliance on Web-based banking and financial systems by many consumers and businesses today, it is important to ensure that banking and financial systems provide equitable and full access for individuals who are blind. There is currently little publicly available research on the topic of blind users and accessible Web-based banking and financial systems, apart from anecdotal commentary and experiences. Recognizing this lack of concrete data and the critical need to ensure equitable access to these systems, we began an exploratory study to investigate the accessibility issues within banking and financial systems. The results of our survey comprise the first formal, peer-reviewed research that documents the state of accessibility problems on banking and finance systems and provides insights and future research suggestions that could improve the user experience of these systems for individuals who are blind.
Within the broader U.S. population, 87 percent of adults use the Internet (Pew Research Center, 2017) and 77 percent of adults have a smartphone (Board of Governors of the U.S. Federal Reserve System, 2016). Data from as far back as 2010 indicated that 80 percent of households with Internet access were conducting financial activities online (U.S. Banker, 2010), and 53 percent of current smartphone users with a bank account report using mobile banking (Board of Governors of the U.S. Federal Reserve System, 2016). These numbers are likely to continue to increase and are particularly relevant in an era when U.S. bankers are expecting an ongoing decline in the number of physical bank branches (Meara, 2014). There is also an increase in the number of banks that offer mobile banking apps along with Web site access (Crowe, et al., 2015). This increase in mobile app availability is, of course, a reaction to the growing number of consumers that are shifting towards mobile devices for many of their daily online activities. Common uses for mobile banking include retrieving account balances or recent transactions, transferring money between accounts, and receiving account-related alerts. At least 94 percent of mobile banking users check transactions and account balances on their mobile devices, 48 percent have deposited a check using their mobile device, and 65 percent have used their mobile phone for bill payments (Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, 2016).
People who want to manage their bank accounts and/or their personal finances online have multiple options. First, they can use either a computer or a mobile device to access the Web site provided by their bank/financial institution. Many banks (especially technology-oriented ones like Chase, PNC, and Bank of America) also have mobile apps that allow customers to do the same types of transactions that they can do on their Web sites. Examples of these transactions include accessing e-bills, scheduling payments, transferring money, depositing checks, and checking account balances. Second, there is the option of using many personal finance mobile apps developed and managed by third-party developers. Apps such as Mint, Bill Guard, and Personal Capital are popular for their convenience and often provide useful tools such as expense-tracking, budgeting, and bill payment. However, to use these apps, people need to disclose their personal financial information, such as their social security number, bank account, or credit card account details.
There are an estimated one billion people worldwide with a type of mental, physical, or sensory limitation that could impact their ability to fully use technology (World Health Organization (WHO), 2016). Within the U.S., 19 percent of the population has a reported disability, and half of those report their disability as being severe (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012). So, clearly, a large base of computer and mobile users now and in the future, are users with disabilities. As an example to fully understand those numbers, in the US the number of older adults is projected to comprise over one-fifth of the population by 2040 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Administration on Aging, 2016). Worldwide, it is estimated that older adults will outnumber all children under the age of 14 within less than 50 years (World Health Organization (WHO), 2012). The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that as the population ages, approximately 40 percent of those over 65 will likely to acquire a disability (Heidkamp, et al., 2012), and this population is very likely to be affected by low vision and blindness. Worldwide, an estimated 285 million people are blind or visually impaired (World Health Organization (WHO), 2014), and 14 million individuals in the U.S. age 12 or older are estimated to be blind or visually impaired (Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2015). While blind and low vision individuals comprise one subset of the overall population of people with disabilities, it is important to note that accessibility problems that affect blind users typically impact users with other disabilities, including many users with motor impairments (limited or no use of hands for pointing or typing), and some cognitive impairments.
People who are blind or low-vision cannot easily read paper billing statements or paper checks from banking accounts, without the help of assistive technology, some of which is itself very expensive and cost-prohibitive. Because of the default paper obstacle, there is a higher likelihood that individuals who are blind might be conducting (or desiring to conduct) a majority of their personal banking or other financial tasks with a computer or mobile device, compared to the general population. Some of this is related to transportation challenges and the persistent preference by many banks and financial institutions to use paper statements. While many individuals consider online financial management and transactions a convenience and preference, it is more likely a necessity for blind individuals. There is some research on the accessibility of banking and finance systems for people with cognitive disabilities (Erazo and Zimmermann, 2015), however, there is no published, peer-reviewed research about the usage of banking and financial Web sites/apps by blind individuals. The exploratory findings that are available (Holton, 2016) indicate that personal finance companies are failing to consistently follow the current standards for accessible interfaces. While there are anecdotal comments and assumptions on the state of banking and finance accessibility, anecdotal evidence is not sufficient justification for corporate or legislative motivation to improve the current state of accessibility. There is a need for this to be formally established through empirical research.
The primary accessibility guidelines for Web pages and applications are developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and are known as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG. The current version of WCAG is WCAG 2.0 and specifies 12 standards that fall under categories of Web content being perceivable, operable, understandable and robust (W3C, 2012). A few examples of accessible design principles from the WCAG are providing appropriate alternative text for non-text content, using alternatives for multimedia (including captions), ensuring that all functions of a Web-based system can work from a keyboard alone, providing users enough time to read and use content, and creating links that are clear from the link text (i.e., no “click here” links).
Screen readers are the primary method used by blind users to access Web sites and apps. Screen readers audibly read content to a user in a linear manner, and they are reliant on good and accessible interface design. Examples of desktop/laptop screen readers are VoiceOver on Macs and JAWS or WindowEyes on PCs. Android mobile devices provide the TalkBack screen reader, and iOS devices have a mobile version of the VoiceOver screen reader available. Screen readers are an essential part of the users’ experience for this population, but if Web sites and apps are not designed accessibly, the screen reader will not compensate for that inaccessibility.
It is common for the expense of accessibility to be stated as the rationale for the lack of progress or improvements. However, when the market potential, cost savings, and ancillary benefits are evaluated, the justification for creating accessible banking and financial interfaces is clear (Brinck, 2005; Goetze and Rowland, 2013; SSB Bart Group, 2013; W3C, 2009; Wilton and Howell, 2007). Studying the potential use of online banking and financial tools for blind users can also point to future uses, products and improvements, which may be adopted by the general population at a later time. Historically, many products that have been highly-used and valued by the general population were originally developed as assistive technology, including the typewriter, record player, audiobook, and even primary aspects of text-to-speech and optical character recognition (Lazar, et al., 2015).
Current legal advice to banks strongly recommends the accessibility of online systems for business, litigation risk, and reputational damage reasons (Hansche and Chen, 2014). Further, since physical bank locations in the U.S. are categorized as places of public accommodation under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it is quite possible that the Web-based services for these banks (e.g., paying bills, depositing checks, transferring funds) may also be classified as a public accommodation. In 2014, there was a legal settlement involving the U.S. Department of Justice (Civil Rights Division) and the National Federation of the Blind, requiring H&R Block to make their Web site, online tax preparation software, and mobile apps accessible to blind people (National Federation of the Blind, 2014). Similar legal agreements took place relating to the Bank of America Web site and mobile app (Bank of America, 2013) and with the Charles Schwab brokerage Web site (Charles Schwab, 2012). There have even been lists of inaccessible bank Web sites compiled to encourage compliance prior to any litigation, in particular with the U.S. Department of Justice work underway in regards to revising and strengthening the ADA, Title III (Bureau of Internet Accessibility, 2014) and the proposed rulemaking regarding Web site accessibility (Briggs and Sass, 2016). It is certainly evident that there is increasing legal activity in this area.
The primary goal of this research project was to formally document and begin to qualitatively describe the accessibility barriers that exist on banking and finance systems. It was not anticipated that the accessibility problems of banking and finance Web sites/apps would be dramatically different from the types of accessibility problems that occur on other Web sites/apps (e.g., lacking or poor alternate text, poor labeling, etc.). We began this exploratory research with a Web-based survey of individuals who were self-reported as blind or visually impaired to collect initial, exploratory data relating to the usage patterns, experiences, frustrations, challenges, and opportunities of online personal banking and financial management. The survey was widely distributed via established connections to advocacy groups such as the American Council of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind. There is no central repository of all blind users, so anticipating a randomly-selected, statistically significant sample that might be available to other research is not possible. However, our goal was to obtain a sample size that is comparable to that of equivalent research of similar populations (Brady, et al., 2013; Lazar, et al., 2007).
Two different types of Web sites/apps were investigated: Web sites/apps offered by banks/financial institutions and finance Web sites/apps developed by third parties. The list of banks/financial institutions was selected based on information analyzed on forbes.com, bankrate.com, and usatoday.com about the popularity of the banks/financial institutions in the U.S. This was proxied by the size of the banks/financial institutions in terms of total assets and total deposits. In order to build the list of Web sites/apps developed by third-party developers, we examined many sources including Investopedia, Business Insider, and quora.com, and developed a list of more than 20 popular third-party mobile Web sites/apps. We then used additional information like the number of downloads and availability to have a final list of 10 Web sites/apps. In our survey we also provided the opportunity for respondents to discuss other Web sites/apps they use that might not have been on that final list.
The survey was constructed through an accessible, Web-based survey tool, and it contained conditional “logic” within the question structure, which meant that the participants could receive different questions. In addition, the number of questions they were asked was based on their answer to the previous question. For example, if they answered that they only used the Web sites/apps provided by their bank/financial institutions, not by a third-party developer, then they would see a list of banks/financial institutions in the next question, not a list of third-party developers. Another example is that they would not receive an opportunity to write an open-ended response about a problem if their answer indicated that they did not experience that particular problem.
The survey was also set up so that participants could leave and return to continue their survey at a later time. We conducted an initial pilot test of our Web-based survey with a blind user prior to releasing the survey. The accessibility of the survey was also manually inspected prior to this pilot test; however, the pilot test provided us with verification that our survey itself was indeed accessible. The survey went live in December 2015 and closed in February 2016. The details of the entire survey structure with all possible questions (bound by the conditional logic) are included in the Appendix and will be discussed in the following results as Q1, Q2, etc.
We received 320 responses to the survey, but many of those were incomplete (only a few questions answered) and 23 responses were duplicates. We filtered this down to 162 unique respondents who both reported that they did use banking and finance Web sites or apps and completed the survey, a relatively large sample size for this specific population. It was immediately evident from our survey responses that banking and finance systems are of importance and highly used by blind users.Click here for the complete article