An Intro to Designing for Accessibility

By on December 4, 2018 8:30 am

woman using phone while walking

Ensuring that your app or site is designed with accessibility as a priority isn’t only good design—it also makes good business sense. Giving thought to this early on in the product creation can save you headaches by reducing design and technical debt for your team. Better yet, interweaving inclusive user experience (UX) design principles into your team’s processes will make your product better for the most significant number of users possible, which in turn makes it more valuable to users over the long term.

Most of the time, we take for granted how easy it is for us to utilize our devices. Many people cannot access all the information an app or site offers without assistance, ranging from reliance on screen readers and keyboard navigation to screen magnifiers and color-blind friendly assistance. To give you an idea of the breadth of users:

  • More than one percent of Americans have serious limitations to their dexterity
  • Globally, approximately 1.3 billion people live with some form of vision impairment
  • One in six Americans has some level of hearing loss
  • In the UK, 1 in 5 people have a disability; this could be visual, hearing, motor, or cognitive (affecting memory and thinking)

Your product’s usability could also be affected by what you can think of as temporary disabilities or limitations, such as if the user is in a noisy cafe, has just broken his arm, or is using an older device or browser. All of these factors can add up to a suboptimal or downright impossible experience. Later, we’ll look at some guidelines and practical ways to design an inclusive experience.

Showing different types of disabilities on the web such as vision, hearing, speech, touch and cognitive.
There are five categories of disabilities to keep in mind.

  • Sight: low-vision, blind, cataracts, distracted vision
  • Hearing: ear infection, noisy environment, deaf
  • Speech: heavy accent, laryngitis, non-verbal
  • Touch: temporary injury, permanent disability
  • Cognitive Abilities: motor perception, short and long-term memory, sustained attention, cultural knowledge

Empathetic Design

Now is the time to examine and possibly update your product to be proactive towards accessibility. Just as not every user uses the same device to view your product (remember responsive design?), not every user has the same ability to see, hear, process information, etc. To take this a step further, when you provide an accessible experience, you are allowing people with disabilities to take advantage of the potential of the web and devices. As Tim Berners Lee has stated, “I imagined the web as an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities, and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries.” In a sense, the case for accessibility parallels the case for the foundation of the internet itself.

“For people without disabilities, technology makes things convenient. For people with disabilities, it makes things possible.”– Judith Heumann, U.S. Department of Education’s Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.

Business Implications

Over the past few years, there have been several high-profile legal cases including Winn Dixie, Hulu, and Netflix to name a few which—combined with the tightening of federal government regulations—has brought notice to the importance of accessibility. In the case of Winn Dixie, the company had just completed a $7 million overhaul of their website before they got taken to court. According to the judge presiding over the case, “The factual findings demonstrate that Winn-Dixie’s website is inaccessible to visually impaired individuals who must use screen reader software. Therefore, Winn-Dixie has violated the ADA because the inaccessibility of its website has denied Gil the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages or accommodations that Winn-Dixie offers to its sighted customers.” Apparently that investment for the rebuild did not include enough concern for accessibility.

Besides being apathetic or unaware, budget constraints and time to market are typically the reasons that accessibility is an afterthought at best. Gaining support from company leadership requires honest conversations regarding the implications of not effectively implementing these principles.

Awareness is indeed the keystone to optimizing the experience of your app for those with disabilities. Once you understand these principles, commit to them and hold your team accountable. Implementing check-ins at every stage can help to stay on track during the project design cycle. 


How to Get Started


The W3C (Worldwide Web Consortium) provides WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) as the basis for best practices—and most web accessibility law. These guidelines built on four principles:

  • Perceivable: Available to the senses (vision and hearing primarily) either through the browser or through assistive technologies (e.g., screen readers, screen magnifiers, etc.).
  • Operable: Users can interact with all controls and interactive elements using either the mouse, keyboard, or an assistive device.
  • Understandable: Content is clear and limits confusion and ambiguity.
  • Robust: A wide range of technologies (including old and new user agents and assistive technologies) can access the content.

Just as good UX starts with not making assumptions about our users, following these guidelines enables your product to be usable by the largest number of people possible. We cannot assume that our users are engaging with the content without the use of assistive technologies, keyboard-only navigation or screen readers.

Testing for accessibility early and often while designing your product enables you to catch issues early. Getting it right can be daunting and at times overwhelming. Take the time to go through WCAG’s principles and understand how they relate to your product. In the meantime, here are five simple design considerations to implement:

  • Check UI color choices to see if they meet contrast requirements or are problematic for those with colorblindness
  • Provide plain and understandable copy for your UI (buttons, input labels, etc.)
  • Avoid complex and cluttered layouts
  • Be careful with animations and transitions that they don’t happen too quickly or leave users confused about what just happened
  • Make adequately large clickable actions and inputs, and ensure they can be used without the aid of a mouse

Conclusion

What we have covered only scratches the surface of how to make your product a great experience for all users. As we have seen, creating less biased digital experiences is paramount in today’s digital world. What I’ve come to understand when revamping a product is that a 100% accessible experience is tough to come by. If you’re part of a design or development team that’s looking to implement an inclusive design methodology, the important thing to come to grips with is to implement the accessibility guidelines as best as possible and realize:

  • Your team will get better at designing this way. It’s not an instantaneous switch. You don’t just say, “Ok, we know accessibility now!” There is a process for your team to build and evolve while putting into daily practice the mindset of inclusive design.
  • The guidelines typically change every few years. Some of this is dependent upon device or browser updates or simply better understanding of the needs of users. Be flexible and add these to your toolbox as they come along.
  • If you must convince management of the importance inclusive design, be patient. Understand that management teams have a set of business needs (and typically someone breathing down their neck for the next release). Reiterate why this is a wise decision for the company and in the long run saves money and increases the return of users to your product if you build—or rebuild—it correctly.

Access to your product doesn’t have to be a privileged experience—make sure all users can experience your experience.

Next Steps

Need help with a new application or redesigning an existing application with better accessibility standards? Let’s talk about it.