Accessibility begins with design, and as designers we need to set the right foundations before writing even a single line of code.
We all ought to understand the value of producing digital products that are accessible. Having an accessible website or app is hugely important for supporting the needs of those with disabilities. The trouble is that accessibility is often left as a ‘technical’ requirement solely for developers to worry about. If not considered properly in our designs, accessibility can become more about ticking a series of boxes rather than a fully considered as part of the user experience.
So whose job is it to ensure the accessibility of the sites we build?
It’s true that a number accessibility factors are indeed related to code quality, however just as relevant are the decisions that we make in the design.
Colour, contrast and size
This is a pretty obvious one that can be very easily quantified and tested. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provides recommended minimum contrast ratios for text and backgrounds. This is to make sure that text is clearly defined and can be read easily. Likewise, the size of text is also important in this respect - guidelines are set around the size of both body and headline fonts.
These are decisions that can’t be retrofitted in the development. It’s our responsibility to incorporate these factors into our designs, and explain to our clients why we’ve made these choices.
Input device agnosticism
When designing interactions, it’s easy to start making assumptions about how people will be interacting with the site. If we’re going to design with accessibility in mind we can’t presume our visitors are all going to be using a specific device, such as a mouse or a touch-screen.
All of our interactive products should be designed independently of device specific interactions. Mouse-hover is a particularly prevalent example of this. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve seen sites present content or functionality in a way that is only supported by input devices with a ‘hover’ state. Sometimes an alternative mechanism is supplied for users without these devices, but they’re often very fiddly and seen more as a fail-safe.
There’s nothing wrong with using device-specific interactions like hover, but the design ought to be enhanced by them, rather than depend on them. I see this as being part of the whole ‘progressive enhancement’ attitude. If the user can’t support these kinds of interactions that shouldn’t hinder their user experience whatsoever.
This practice of being device agnostic should also extend to the text and instructions we provide in our user interface. For example, we should always avoid telling the user to ‘click here’ or ‘swipe down’ as these terms make assumptions about how a person is going to use your site. Part of ensuring accessibility is to accept that people could be using all sorts of devices.
With so much emphasis on users with visual impairments, it’s easy to think that this is where web accessibility starts and ends. Not all disabilities are physical though, and the way we design sites also has a large impact on those with cognitive disabilities.
Our designs should prioritise and clearly articulate information in an obvious way. Whilst this does involve some content concessions, like avoiding ambiguous language and steering clear of acronyms, the way that we present this content in our designs also has a major impact. Visually disassociating an instruction from its context can cause confusion - this can be reduced using clear headings, legends and fieldsets where relevant. We can also make sure interactive elements are clear by avoiding the ambiguous use of icons, and using descriptive instructions (such as ‘ Read the full article’ rather than just ‘read more’).
These kinds of considerations can only be made in the design, therefore it falls to the designer to be responsible and ensure the appropriate decisions are made at the start of a project.
Accessibility should enhance design, not hinder it
This is all well and good, but doesn’t accessibility come at the cost of restricting your design? I would challenge this opinion.
All of the practices discussed in this post don’t just enhance the user experience for people with disabilities. The term ‘accessibility’ refers to making your product work well for anyone, regardless of the end user’s ability or disability. We all use digital products whilst we’re tired, ill, drunk or distracted with other things going on in our lives. Making the interface easier to see, interact with and understand will inevitably contribute to improving the experience.
As designers we need to be driving these initiatives at an early stage, and making sure that conversations about accessibility are happening at the outset of the project. Creativity and innovation will always be important, but maintaining the usability of our products for all audiences ought to be our foremost priority.