Web content, software and online systems should be created for everyone to be able to use. There’s little point going to all the effort of launching a brand new product or website if vast swathes of people are unable to use it. The people behind these sites and programs have a responsibility to make the things accessible. Which is why design accessibility is so important.
It’s tempting to think of users as one giant homogenous group of identical people sat at computers. To do so, however, is dangerous. ‘Users’ are people. And people are unique. So when web and software developers create sites and packages, they need to ensure that they’re created in such a way that people of all abilities, disabilities and impairments can work with the product.
This is no box-ticking exercise or PR stunt. A 2011 United Nations report estimated there are approximately 1.3 billion people with disabilities in the world. You're looking at 15% of humanity there.
To illustrate what we mean exactly, here are some of the kinds of issues that can affect people that should be considered when developing software or web product:
- Colour blindness
- Motor control restrictions
- Missing limbs
- Cognitive disability
- Hearing difficulties
- Learning disabilities
The way to employ accessibility in design? Empathy. Designers need to consider the ‘user experience’ (UX) from the point of view of others.
To show what we’re talking about, let’s get specific and take a look at some of the ways UX can be refined and finessed with accessibility in mind, shall we?
Colours aren’t enough
A great example of design accessibility in action can be seen when a site is effectively 'colour blindness-proof'. Colour blindness is an often-inherited trait which causes some people (1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women) not to be able to see specific wavelengths of colour. It's most commonly found in the form of an inability to perceive green, something called 'deuteranopia'.
As red is oftentimes used to display an object which requires attention or is incorrect - and green is used to display when something is correct - this can cause significant problems for users attempting to complete a task correctly.
Let’s consider online forms. An invalid entry might be shown with red lettering. Anyone suffering from ‘protanopia’ - or, more simply, ‘red colour blindness’ - won’t be able to see the error. Developers should get creative and think about icons and other ways to provide notifications, such as using text, iconography and colour to indicate input validation.
Using solely colour to denote input validation. The user with deuteranopia (right) is unable to discern which inputs are valid.
Using text, iconography and colour to indicate input validation. The user is able to determine which inputs are valid and act on them.
Make the product keyboard-friendly
Anyone suffering from a physical limitation affecting their hands or arms may find prolonged - or any - mouse or sensor pad use difficult. As such, it’s important that your system or site can be successfully and easily navigated using tabs, shift tabs and arrows. Keyboard navigation is also extremely important for any visually impaired users who use a screen-reader. They should be able to interact with the entire screen without the need of a mouse or sensor.
As Oz Mills, one of the talented User Experience wizards in our UX Design Team here at Vision puts it:
“As the keyboard-user navigates through the page, the flow of this interaction must be logical and easily intuited. As such, it should follow the visual flow of the page, which is akin to Western reading habits: Left-to-right and top-to-bottom.
UI should also seek to ensure that at no point is a cursor 'trapped'. The tabbed cursor should be able to go between all major elements of the screen, and at no point find itself in a small loop of selecting items where it cannot select others. For example, when tabbing from a menu item at the start of the page, the user should be able to select all other items in the page, rather than just tabbing through menu items.
The use of a surround to indicate which section of the screen is currently in focus allows sighted users to be able to determine where their keyboard-cursor is on screen. There are areas where the keyboard may not select all elements, however this will allow the user to interact using other keyboard functionality. For example, tabbing may only select the first (or currently-selected) item in a list, however using the arrow keys may allow a user to scroll through and select additional list items, radio buttons, dropdowns, etc.”
Always use alt text
For users that are visually impaired and using a screen reader, alt text on images helps to explain the image that they’re unable to see properly.
Caption your videos
If you rely on video content to get your points across, caption them. That way anyone that’s hard of hearing (or even just using a computer or device that has shoddy sound or broken speakers) can learn what needs to be learned.
Those are just some of the ways that web and software developers can help improve the user experience for anyone with accessibility issues that’s likely to encounter their products.
Accessibility in design isn’t just about helping people with impairments navigate products, though. It’s fundamentally about allowing everyone to access and use them. It’s about creating something that’s logical, easy to use and straightforward, regardless of the user’s level of ability.
As we mentioned earlier, users are people. Every piece of software or website worth its salt will have not only been rigorously tested with a series of automated tools, it will have been tested by users. By people. If the needs and requirements of a wide range of users are taken into account during development, there’s no reason why the final product won’t be accessible and navigable by all. And that’s the goal.
Design is not just what it looks like. It's how it works. And it has to work for everyone.