Designing with accessibility in mind

To create more usable products we need to understand and care about user requirements that differ from or even conflict with our own. One of the most important aspects of this is designing for accessibility. This ensures our products work, not just for some, but for as many people as possible.

What is accessibility?

“Web accessibility means that websites, tools, and technologies are designed and developed so that people with disabilities can use them.” – W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI)

It can be simply defined as “the ability to access”, but more specifically it is about ensuring that people can perceive, understand, operate, and interact with the web. When we talk about accessibility, we are talking about encompassing all disabilities that affect access online. This includes auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech, and visual. 

When designing for accessibility, one concept is that of universal design. Where accessible design creates products that are usable by those with disabilities, universal design creates products for the widest possible audience, this includes, but isn’t limited to, people with a disability.

An example of this would be:

Adding a button to your site to increase the font size (making it accessible).

Making all the text bigger so more people are able to read it without needing to change the size (making it universal).

Who does accessibility impact?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) more than one billion people in the world live with some form of disability. This can range from everything from sight loss, hearing loss or dexterity issues to dyslexia, learning difficulties or colour blindness. 

Accessibility isn’t just about people with disabilities. It can impact everyone. 

We can all find ourselves in different circumstances that are situational or temporary that affect how we access the web. 

Permanent - One Arm
Temporary - Arm Injury
Situational - New Parent
Credit: Microsoft Design

Sometimes, non-disabled users will make use of accessibility features for convenience, without even realising it. For example, if you are on a train home and you have forgotten your headphones, you may watch a video on YouTube with captions on.

In this situation, your needs are the same as someone with an auditory disability.

Not all users may have a disability but they may use your website in the same way.  Accessibility helps to improve the experience for everyone. 

Why is accessibility important?

The main reason that accessibility is important is that it makes your website usable by as many people as possible. This not only helps maximise your target audience, but accessibility often improves overall usability. A positive user journey is good for the user and is more likely to lead to repeat visits. 

There is also the legal side to consider. Through the UK’s Equality Act 2010, disabled people have the right to access everyday goods and services (for example websites). To comply with this law, reasonable adjustments must be made to accommodate these users. There are similar laws in different countries around the world. 

Other benefits to accessibility include Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). Search Engines view websites similar to screen readers and poor accessibility standards can penalise a site from their rankings.  Accessibility can also benefit those on mobile devices or smaller screens as well as slower internet connections. 

How to improve accessibility?

There are many things that can be done to improve accessibility on your website, here are some of the most important that are quick and easy to implement:

Content and Language

Accessible content begins with well-structured copy. Clearly identifiable headings,  short sentences and paragraphs make it easier to skim content and retain information. Separating out content such as lists or quotes from the rest of the copy helps to break up the page. 

Language makes a huge difference to your content and striking the right tone with your users. Clear, simple and concise language makes for the most accessible text. Overusing technical jargon, acronyms, abbreviations or vague terms can be off-putting so try to avoid these where possible.

Example of how to implement content with headings of different sizing, spacing between and paragraphs broken into smaller chunks.

Contrast

When the text colour is too close to the background colour it will be hard to read. Ensure the contrast is strong enough to read clearly, you can use bold text to help with this. For text over images, use gradients or overlays to help. Whatever the contrast, it is important to use a font size that will be readable across the page, ideally 16px or above.

Example of contrast on two donation buttons, one that fails and one that passes AA tests.

Images and Video

Adding a text alternative for an image, which is used by screen readers or when an image doesn’t load, is essential. Make the text as descriptive as possible to help understand the context of the image. For video, make use of captions and subtitles for users to be able to clearly distinguish audio. Keep the captions short and don’t forget to include important audio cues. 

Example of alternative text, one with a poor alternative text and one with good alternative text that provides context tot he image.

Forms and error messages

Forms are the key elements on interactive sites but even the simplest form can be difficult for people with learning difficulties. Keep important information on the screen at all times to refer to when needed. Make use of icons to support colour on error messages to help draw attention to them quickly. Try to use human language like “Sorry, we couldn’t find the page you wanted” instead of “Error 404” as well.

Example of form design, one with no labels or icons for error message, and one that uses labels and icons for error messages.

These are just some of the things you can do to ensure your website is accessible to all users. There are many more that can be included such as keyboard functionality, reducing motion and avoiding/correcting mistakes through validation.

Who is responsible for accessibility?

“Accessibility is not the responsibility of one person. Everyone on your team is responsible for making your product accessible.” – Gov.uk

Everyone is responsible for accessibility at some level. It is a collective involvement throughout the whole organisation, from project managers to developers,  who all have different roles when it comes to accessibility. 

It is important to create a culture of accessibility and universal design so it is part of each project from the offset and not considered an afterthought or one person’s responsibility. 

At THINK Digital, we are able to review, test and implement accessibility standards on your digital user experience. Recent clients include UNFPA, UNICEF, Oxfam, and the Swedish Red Cross. If you would like to know more, please contact us.

The value of user testing

When it comes to the design process, one area that can often be overlooked is testing, especially with real users. Time and budget constraints can be a factor, but as user testing can add invaluable insight into how people interact with your site, it is too important to avoid.

What is user testing?

User testing is any form of testing that includes the user in the design process. One common example of this is usability testing where participants are asked to complete specific tasks while being observed. This allows you to see how real users interact with your site and identify ways to improve the experience.

Why is it important?

Every time you include the user in the design process, you are able to understand more about the people who use your products and the way they interact with them. Observing a user complete a specific task, such as making a donation, will help you to learn if they can complete it successfully and how long it takes to do. You discover how satisfied the user is with the experience and if anything can be done to improve it.

For example, when we recently carried out some user testing for a client, we were interested to learn that users wanted a more personal connection to the cause. They wanted to see the impact a donation was making to those in need before donating themselves. It helped us to understand the ‘why’ behind the user’s decision making process and we were able to add relevant information to the page.

These learnings help you to shape the products you build and ensure they put usability at the forefront. By creating a positive user experience, you can help to improve engagement and conversions on your sites.

When should you do it?

Testing in any form should be included throughout the design process, but during the early stages it can help identify issues that would be expensive to fix later on. There is also value in testing during the final build stage as it can help to identify issues that might have been hard to replicate earlier on in the project.

Of course there is no bad time to run user testing. During a recent project, multiple changes were made to the point where the user experience no longer matched our original intentions. We went back to the drawing board and designed a new version that incorporated the updated requirements and put this through a round of usability testing. This helped us to iterate the process and release a version that offered a better user experience than the original concept.

How do I get started?

The best time to start is now. Any insight into how your users interact with your product will lead to a better user experience. As Christopher Murphy says in his post “A Comprehensive Guide To User Testing”:

“It’s far better to run some usability testing using what you have to hand than to run no usability testing at all.”

At THINK Digital, we are able to help support and implement user testing strategies to gain key insights in your digital user experience. Recent clients include UNFPA, UNICEF, Oxfam, and OCHA. If you would like to know more, please contact us.