Embracing expectation

Claiming to produce accessible websites based solely on quantitative metrics results in a twisted view of your organisation’s trustworthiness.

This post was originally published on April 30 2021. It was last updated on May 8 2021 (2:15 pm).

Reading time: 6 minutes


This post is based on a short speech that I wrote for my local Toastmasters club. In my speech, I argued that efforts to contain the Coronavirus crisis were being hampered by cracks in our society. These cracks were the result of a breakdown in trust.

This message is equally relevant to the current Web Accessibility crisis. If we continue to under-deliver on equal access to information, then we as digital stewards are proving that we can’t be trusted to honour our obligations. This fuels disharmony, which weakens our society and makes it less resilient to future challenges.

It’s within our power to resolve this crisis, but meaningful social change doesn’t happen by chance, it happens by persuading people en masse. This post argues that persuasion only succeeds at scale when our promises to others meet their expectations, and are underwritten by voluntary transparency and earned trust.

Table of contents

This post is broken into the following parts:

  1. The purpose of persuasion
  2. Promise creates expectation
  3. Metrics ignore expectation
  4. Transparency is telling the truth
  5. Transparency creates trust
  6. Trust is the foundation of healthy relationships
  7. Trust can be earned
  8. Summary

The purpose of persuasion

Persuasion is the art of getting someone to think or do something.

Persuade enough people, and you can build a loyal army, even if that’s just an army of consumers.

But what happens when loyal consumers are sold on the idea of a product, only to find out that the reality doesn’t live up to their expectations?

Promise creates expectation

Here’s a quick roleplay:

Imagine that your weekend YouTube binge session is rudely interrupted by a paid advertisement for a hamburger.

You’ve forgotten to eat and the burger looks really filling. Maybe it even has Big in the name.

Clicking on a series of links, you digitally book a home delivery, then resume your viewing while subconsciously fantasising about your tasty purchase.

Imagine: time passes, not a lot, then the rumbling of your stomach is abruptly interrupted by a knock at the door.

You jump up, thank the delivery person and haul your kill into the kitchen. Unfolding the stiff paper bag, the aroma hits you like a freight train and you can’t help but visualise the mouth feel of a soft bun, crisp lettuce and hot, moist patty.

But with expectation comes disappointment:

  • The lettuce is soggy
  • The patty is dry and lukewarm
  • And you’re hungry again 10 minutes later

Let’s face it, we’ve all been there. We’ve all been Goldilocks, trading that just right promise and expectation for a delivered product that seldom delivers.

So what’s our recourse? Well, in New Zealand, food purchases are covered under the 1993 Consumer Guarantees Act. This covers serious issues like food safety and accurate pricing, but not other issues like general disappointment. That’s just business as usual.

And maybe that engaging burger ad doesn’t actually promise a hot moist patty, but it does promise a life-changing burger experience. My expectation is that any great burger experience would involve a hot moist patty, so what’s the difference?

If only someone at the burger company was interested in my expectations, my insight. What did I expect to happen? And what did happen?

Metrics ignore expectation

The promise of Web Accessibility is like the promise of a great burger. With a little care, it seems entirely within reach. Yet despite much marketing about great burgers, many burgers aren’t great, and the same goes for websites.

Capitalism is a race to the bottom. Automation is popular because it allows costs to be reduced, increasing profits with no apparent downside for consumers.

Quantitative Accessibility metrics (full or partial WCAG audits) are synonymous with automation. Automated linters are integrated into development workflows to provide rapid feedback to developers.

But these linters only test a narrow subset of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Most critically, they treat humans as sets of physical criteria, rather than acknowledging that people also have individual preferences and learned behaviour.

Low product price means nothing if the product itself doesn’t live up to consumers’ expectations. Metrics can test that burgers contain specific ingredients in certain quantities, but they are not a reliable measure of how acceptable the product is to consumers. Better to ask them what the sticking points are, therein lies their expectation and insight.

Transparency is telling the truth

Most consumers do realise that life isn’t perfect, that a fast food burger probably won’t ever be as great as the advertising makes out.

But they are not fools either. Clinging to marketing in the face of poor public opinion only highlights that a producer’s priorities are elsewhere and that their promises are not aligned with customers’ expectations.

Popular opinion amongst Digital Consumers Living with Disability is that Web Accessibility is a thorn in the industry’s side. Digital stewards do as little as possible to address the thorny issue, rather than questioning what that discomfort is trying to tell them, or how the thorn got there in the first place.

The reality, is that many people in the industry care deeply about Disability Rights and Digital Inclusion. But we must also acknowledge that Web Accessibility is not an absolute, it’s a journey. Being transparent about your process and progress in that journey allows you to regain control of the narrative. It tells digital consumers that you get it and that you treat your accessibility obligations as more than just a marketing exercise.

Transparency creates trust

Enough about disappointing burgers, let’s talk about disappointing democracy.

Since the turn of the century, global communications company Edelman has been conducting a yearly survey on trust.

In the midst of a pandemic, their Trust Barometer takes a sharp dip, revealing:

… an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust …

Edelman Trust Barometer 2021

In 2021, this mistrust is directed at Governments and undermines their ability to function effectively as agents of their constituents – with serious implications.

Governments cannot persuade enough of their citizens to get vaccinated. Without widespread vaccination the Coronavirus will spread and mutate, defying attempts to control and eradicate it. People will needlessly die. Rather than penalising only those who choose not to get vaccinated, everyone will be affected. Society as a whole will lose out.

Edelman’s Trust Barometer identifies misinformation as a key driver behind this rise in mistrust:

This rising tide of misinformation and mistrust is threatening Covid-19 recovery, as people are deeply suspicious and hesitant about the Covid-19 vaccine.

Edelman Trust Barometer 2021

Poor information hygiene is to blame. That is, people taking at face value misinformation about the Coronavirus vaccine, such as that it

  • changes your DNA
  • is Bill Gates’ attempt to microchip the population
  • is more likely to kill you than the actual Coronavirus.

In recent years, shock revelations by whistleblowers have provided fertile grounds for conspiracy theory. With Governments regularly in the news for overstepping their remit and encroaching on their citizens’ right to privacy, it’s no wonder that people don’t trust their Governments anymore. In lieu of transparency from those in power, people instead believe what they hear through the grapevine.

Democracy is a contract of trust between citizens and those elected to act as their agents. There is an expectation that agents will serve in the best interests of their constituents. When they don’t, this contract is violated.

A lack of voluntary transparency by those in power undermines their persuasiveness in times of crisis. In order for persuasion to withstand the demands of a pandemic, it must be built on trust. But real trust requires transparency. Transparency creates trust.

Trust is the foundation of healthy relationships

The World Economic Forum says it best:

In the long-term, organizations that cultivate greater levels of trust will be better placed to thrive in this new era.

Achieving this trust will demand an unprecedented level of transparency from all of us.

Why 2020 will see the birth of the ‘trust economy’

Transparency affects how we communicate our needs and our intentions. What you promise and how you deliver on that promise affects how you are perceived, whether you are deemed worthy of trust, and whether you will be persuasive and successful.

Let’s go back to our burger for a minute, and that disappointed, post-consumption melancholy that we now inevitably find ourselves in.

It’s hard to ignore advertising, to avoid being persuaded to buy something based on empty promises. But disappointment always leaves a sour taste. And who really believes that their next burger is going to be any better than their last?

Trust can be earned

Solving the Accessibility crisis requires that digital stewards engage with the wider community. Relationships will be formed and tested.

This requires time and energy from both parties, and motivation to do this is disappointingly low. Like the Coronavirus challenge, ideals are being derailed by apathy and historical mistrust in the motivations and agenda of the web industry.

Deep down we all know that a more inclusive society will be richer and more resilient. But those whom the system favours have historically ignored the needs and voices of those who it doesn’t.

Trustworthiness is not some secret je ne sais quoi. People can learn to trust, but we must prove that we are worthy of that trust.


Producing products that surpass expectations requires understanding what those expectations are.

Claiming to produce accessible websites based solely on metrics undermines this effort and results in a twisted view of your organisation’s trustworthiness. Consumers are not just sets of metrics, they also have expectations.

By embracing the whole person, we can earn their trust. By meeting expectations, being honest about our own limitations, and building and maintaining reciprocal relationships, we can move forward.

If human appreciation is your measure of success, then it makes sense to embrace the qualitative side of Web Accessibility. In doing so, we can persuade users that our motivations are sound and we are worth partnering with. Only by working together can we begin to tackle the Web Accessibility crisis in earnest.

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