Welcome to our three-part series on accessibility, looking into the enormous potential of smart technology to make the world more inclusive—if we design it with intention.
The future of commerce will merge physical and digital worlds.
Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) – or, combined, mixed reality – have already become powerful tools for popular brands. Just ask Samsung, which made waves by opening a virtual store in the open-source 3D virtual world platform Decentraland.
The benefits of mixed reality are huge. Google’s AR survey in 2019 found that 66% of people are interested in using AR to help them make purchasing decisions, and Shopify’s data suggests that products with AR content have a 94% higher conversion rate than products without AR – which isn’t all that surprising considering the 810 million people already using mobile AR.
As these exciting technologies develop, they’ll open new opportunities to tell your brand’s story in creative ways – all more inclusive and accessible than ever before.
Here are seven ways to create an immersive mixed reality shopping experience that everyone can enjoy.
1. Diversify the ways that customers participate in your shopping experience.
In Kat Holmes’s book Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design, inclusive design expert Susan Goltsman says, “Inclusive design doesn’t mean you’re designing one thing for all people. You’re designing a diversity of ways to participate so that everyone has a sense of belonging.”
For every aspect of your experience, ask yourself, “Can someone use this if they can’t see, can’t hear, can’t move?” And so on. If not, think of ways you can adapt to allow them to participate.
Use these adaptations as opportunities to break outside the box. For instance, the Touching Masterpieces exhibit, created by Geometry Prague and NeuroDigital in collaboration with the Leontinka Foundation, used haptic glove technology to allow users with visual impairments to “touch” 3D virtual recreations of popular sculptures like Michelangelo’s David.
While this specialized technology doesn’t yet apply to the everyday, the not-so-distant future could have opportunities to build your brand through all senses, including touch and even smell, in VR.
2. Make your accessibility features explicit and searchable in every medium.
No matter how brilliant your mixed reality experiences are, no one will buy your product if they can’t find it or don’t know if they can use it.
Accessibility digital marketer Meryl Evans faces a common frustration as a deaf person using VR: accessibility features for video games often aren’t searchable (or even listed), making it difficult to find games that she loves.
This isn’t unique to video games. Users with disabilities often have to put in extra work to figure out which products will be accessible, let alone enjoyable, for them.
When you highlight accessibility features like voice control and closed captions up front, everyone wins. You make it easier for people to find you while also showing that you value their time and their needs.
AR and VR technology could even make the search process itself more accessible. For instance, users could one day search via sign language with technology like Hello Monday’s project Fingerspelling, which tracks and recognizes hand movements through machine learning.
3. Embrace AR in your physical stores.
AR is a powerful tool for mobile commerce, but it also holds huge potential for in-person experiences.
Imagine mixed reality animations that entertain kids while their parents shop. Or personalized product recommendations, complete with directions to the relevant sections of the store and accessibility features like ramps. Or instant translation for people who speak other languages and need to connect with an employee.
AR glasses or QR scans paired with a mobile app could help people with visual impairments navigate stores and hear the finer details of products, like prices or washing instructions that are written in tiny print on tags.
In retail stores, AR body scans – rather than outdated sections based on gender – could help customers find clothes that fit both their style and their body. The flexibility to accommodate people of various body types and abilities, including people in wheelchairs, could launch a new era of inclusivity in clothes shopping.
4. Create a fully immersive VR experience.
Rather than replicating physical stores in the digital realm, we have the opportunity to create all-new virtual experiences.
Customers could try on your latest makeup look at a virtual ball, or run through the jungle with your newest sneakers. You could gamify your shopping experience with quests, or create a more social experience where people can communicate across languages – including sign language – with instant translation.
You could even follow in Gucci’s footsteps and sell virtual items.
These VR shopping experiences can allow people to participate from the comfort of their homes, opening doors for those with limited mobility or challenges with transportation.
5. Use a chatbot or virtual assistant.
In the world of mixed reality, virtual assistants built with artificial intelligence could one day show up in people’s living rooms, giving them a more personalized experience – and giving you another opportunity to build your brand’s voice and story.
Even without AR, voice and text chatbots can provide an easy and engaging experience for your customers. Voice-based virtual assistants like Google Assistant can be helpful for people with limited mobility, visual impairments, or hands full of groceries, while text chat can be useful for deaf people, people with anxiety about making calls, and a wide range of other contexts.
AI chatbots can answer common questions and build a connection that feels personal, all while freeing up your human reps for more complicated cases. For those situations, you should make it easy to get help from a real live human – like how outdoor retailer Patagonia offers a specific phone number for people experiencing difficulties using a screen reader on their site, or how T-Mobile offers a phone call relay service that transcribes spoken words and reads out typed responses.
6. Give people the opportunity to stick to the basics.
For many neurodivergent people, too much sensory input can be overstimulating. What’s fun for some may feel exclusionary and overwhelming for others.
Instead of forcing people to adapt to your idea of a good time, you should focus on their needs and give them the option to turn it off. Even an immersive VR store with lively quests and 3D replicas of your products should have simpler options, like a basic eCommerce website with photos and text descriptions.
This flexibility also benefits users who want to make a quick, straightforward purchase rather than playing in the metaverse, or users who have a slow Internet connection and don’t want to wait for an animation to load.
And most importantly…
7. Make accessible products.
The most accessible shopping experience in the world means nothing if the product itself isn’t accessible.
So make something awesome and accessible.
Then help people find it.