What is Accessibility?
Accessibility is the concept of whether a product or service can be used by everyone—however they encounter it. Accessibility laws exist to aid people with disabilities, but designers should try to accommodate all potential users in many contexts of use anyway. To do so has firm benefits—notably better designs for all.
Frank Spillers explains how accessibility affects usability and search engine optimization (SEO).
Accessibility vs Usability
Since they have similarities, accessibility is sometimes confused with usability. Both overlap and are vital parts of user experience (UX) design, but there are also key distinctions between them. Usability is concerned with whether designs are effective, efficient and satisfying to use. Theoretically, this means that usability includes accessibility, since a product that is inaccessible is also unusable to someone with a disability; practically, however, usability tends not to specifically focus on the user experience of people with disabilities. Accessibility, on the other hand, is concerned with whether all users are able to access an equivalent user experience, however they encounter a product or service (e.g., using assistive devices). Unlike usability, accessibility focuses on people with disabilities.
Accessible Designs Help Everyone
Accessibility is not only the right thing to do, but often also brings benefits to all users. That’s because accessibility features that help people with disabilities often help other people, too. For instance, video captions that help people with hearing difficulties also help a person who is watching the video on mute (e.g., in a social media feed). Legible, high-contrast text that helps people with vision difficulties also helps people with perfect eyesight who are using the app outdoors in bright sunlight. Many users—whatever their abilities—will face challenges due to demanding contexts. When you design for all ability levels, you can create products and services anyone can use and enjoy—or at least find helpful or calming.
Although accessibility is a critical factor that impacts design, many brands overlook it. Based on a 2011 World Health Organization report concerning disability, however, you’ll exclude about 15% of Earth’s population if you don’t make your design accessible. Furthermore, many jurisdictions—including the E.U.—have penalties for failure to create accessible designs. However, designing for accessibility makes sense on more than a legal level; it brings benefits, including these:
- Improved SEO from semantic HTML
- Opportunities to reach more users on more devices, in more settings/environments
- Enhanced public image for your brand
Types of Accessibility Issues
You should consider the number and types of potential accessibility issues users will have. These are common barriers:
- Visual (e.g., color blindness)
- Motor/mobility (e.g., wheelchair-user concerns)
- Auditory (hearing difficulties)
- Seizures (especially photosensitive epilepsy)
- Learning/cognitive (e.g., dyslexia)
Ability barriers can also arise for any user:
- Incidental (e.g., sleep-deprivation)
- Environmental (e.g., using a mobile device underground)
The possibilities are virtually limitless regarding who might be trying to access your product/service.
“When UX doesn’t consider ALL users, shouldn’t it be known as “SOME User Experience” or… SUX?”
— Billy Gregory, Senior Accessibility Engineer
Practical Guidelines for Accessibility
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) stipulates standards for accessible design in its latest Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). You can follow these essential points to accommodate users with diverse abilities:
- Use a content management system (CMS) supporting accessibility standards (e.g., WordPress). Whenever you amend any pre-used template, ensure themes were designed for accessibility.
- Include personas with varying abilities.
- Use header tags in text (optimally, use CSS for consistency throughout). Move consecutively from one heading level to the next (without skipping).
- Use alt text on content-enhancing images.
- Have a link strategy (i.e., describe the link before inserting it – e.g., “Read more about the Interaction Design Foundation, at their website.” Offer visual cues (e.g., PDF icons), underline links and highlight menu links on mouseover.
- Improve visibility with careful color selection and high contrast.
- Reference shapes to help guide users (e.g., “Click the square button”).
- Consider how screen readers handle forms. Label fields and give descriptions to screen readers via tags. Make the tab order visually ordered. Assign an ARIA required or not required role to each field (know how to use ARIA). Avoid the asterisk convention.
- Use proper HTML elements in lists. Don’t put them on the same line as text.
- Present dynamic content carefully, including slideshows. Consult ARIA standards for overlays, etc.
- Validate markup using the W3 standards site to ensure all browsers can read your code.
- Offer transcriptions for audio resources, captions/subtitles for video.
- Make content easily understandable – simpler language reaches more users, as do effective information hierarchy, progressive disclosure and prompting.
- Try using your design without a mouse. It can be hard to scroll.
- Use tools such as WAVE and Color Oracle to test your design’s accessibility.
Naturally, you should test for accessibility on users themselves. Note that while it’s impossible to cover all use cases, your efforts to reach all users can yield many rewards—sometimes in unexpected areas.
Learn More about Accessibility
See some revealing insights on accessibility, including examples: https://uxplanet.org/a-primer-to-web-accessibility-for-designers-2c548448c612
Here’s a helpful resource featuring examples of accessible design: https://medium.com/tealmedia/designing-for-accessibility-the-ultimate-in-ux-e366165d0db7
Learn how to design with accessibility in mind with our course addressing accessibility: https://www.interaction-design.org/courses/accessibility-how-to-design-for-all
Literature on Accessibility
Here’s the entire UX literature on Accessibility by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:
Learn more about Accessibility
Take a deep dive into Accessibility with our course Accessibility: How to Design for All .
Good accessibility is crucial to making your website or app a success. Not only is designing for accessibility required by law in many countries—if you fail to consider accessibility, you are excluding millions of people from using your product. The UN estimates that more than 1 billion people around the world live with some form of disability and as populations age over the coming years, that number is expected to rise rapidly. Add to that the 10 percent of people who suffer from color blindness, and you start to get an idea of why accessibility is so important—not just for moral and legal reasons, but also so that your products can reach their full potential. You need to design for accessibility!
So… what is a proven and pain-free way to well-executed accessibility? If you’ve ever tried to optimize your site or app for accessibility, you’ll know it can be a complex and intimidating task… and it can therefore be very tempting to leave it until last or, worse still, avoid it altogether. By understanding that accessibility is about more than just optimizing your code, you’ll find you can build it into your design process. This will ensure you are taking a disability advocacy approach, and keeping the focus on your users throughout the development process.
This course will help you achieve exactly that—from handling images to getting the most out of ARIA markup, you’ll learn how to approach accessibility from all angles. You’ll gain practical, hands-on skills that’ll enable you to assess and optimize for common accessibility issues, as well as show you how to place an emphasis on the quality of the user experience by avoiding classic mistakes. What’s more, you’ll also come away with the knowledge to conduct effective accessibility testing through working with users with disabilities.
The course includes interviews with an accessibility specialist and blind user, as well as multiple real-world examples of websites and apps where you can demonstrate your skills through analysis and accessibility tests. Not only will this give you a more practical view of accessibility, but you’ll also be able to optimize your websites and mobile apps in an expert manner—avoiding key mistakes that are commonly made when designing for accessibility.
You will be taught by Frank Spillers, CEO of the award-winning UX firm Experience Dynamics, and will be able to leverage his experience from two decades of working with accessibility. Given that, you will be able to learn from, and avoid, the mistakes he’s come across, and apply the best practices he’s developed over time in order to truly make your accessibility efforts shine. Upon completing the course, you will have the skills required to adhere to accessibility guidelines while growing your awareness of accessibility, and ensuring your organization’s maturity grows alongside your own.
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