What does having an accessible website even mean? In the past, you may have thought this simply meant that your site loads and performs as well on mobile as it does on desktop. Or maybe you understand that fluorescent green text on a purple background is hard on the eyes, and know to use something with higher contrast like black text on white background instead.
These aspects of responsiveness and contrast, while true, don’t dig deep enough into the mismatch between the user’s abilities, and the environment we build for them (a.k.a. your website). Basic functionality and legibility considerations are important, but truly accessible websites must also anticipate the wide variety of conditions that could affect a user’s interpretation of your content.
Ask yourself: “how would I use this website if…”
- I couldn’t see?
- I couldn’t hear?
- I can’t move my right hand?
- I don’t speak this language?
Are you still confident in your website’s accessibility?
We’re all guilty of making assumptions about our audiences based on our own biases and experience. But for many people, interacting with screens is still very challenging, and developing websites that assume all users will instinctively know how to navigate them with ease only makes this challenge more noticeable.
“Accessibility work is often seen as an additional feature that can be tacked onto a project later — rather than accessibility work being a core principle or standard of working on the web.”Robin Rendle, CSS Tricks
At Third Wunder, it’s our role as front-end designers and developers to make your product understandable by all your users—not just a pretty face that draws them into your marketing ecosystem. Responsibility also lies with company owners to prioritize a customer experience founded on equality and inclusivity, regardless of industry.
Understand the scope of accessibility
There are a number of conditions your users may experience that affect how they understand your content or navigate your product. These include, but aren’t limited to:
Aging eyes, lack of small motor dexterity, cognitive decline and memory problems mainly affect older users, which is why they tend to prefer simple content with clearly labeled navigational cues. On the other hand, younger users like kids need attention-grabbing visuals, multimedia elements, and gamification to help them understand and keep them engaged.
Where your users are geographically, politically, financially, etc. are all major indicators of their lived experiences (e.g. a user working three jobs due to financial instability will have less time and patience when browsing, a user who lives in a rural area may have limited internet service, etc.)
- Experience with Tech
Similar to age, how users learned to consume daily content can dictate their digital preferences. For example, younger users who grew up reading online tend to bounce around a web page, whereas adults who were introduced to the internet later on in life tend to prefer reading long-form content and articles.
- Cognitive Disabilities
The way a lot of web content is created and formatted online can pose a variety of challenges for users with cognitive disabilities. By serving content that doesn’t put unnecessary strain on memory, attention, comprehension, and problem-solving skills, we can reduce the challenges users with cognitive impairments might face.
- Colour Blindness & Other Visual Impairments
As a screen-first medium, websites rely heavily on visual methods of communication (language, image, video, etc.) But only using visual cues like colour on your website can end up confusing anyone who doesn’t have 20/20 vision. By styling your information outside the framework of accessible best practices, up to 35% of the population might not be able to properly access your content.
- Physical Disabilities
Browsing doesn’t seem like a taxing activity, but to someone with a physical disability, simple actions like moving and clicking a mouse could be physically demanding—even impossible. Just one broken finger can become a major obstacle when performing actions that require precise movements or dexterity.
Communicate with every level of your audience
Even if the audience you’re targeting doesn’t overwhelmingly identify with a particular condition in the list above, you should be anticipating the various cognitive and sensory capacities of every user. It’s easy to believe the myth of the minority user—that only a small percentage of your audience will experience challenges navigating your content—but the truth is your core audience also gets tired, multitasks, and is often distracted. And when a user is lost or frustrated it usually translates to them abandoning your page, making it an unpleasant experience for them, and a lost opportunity for you.
“The extra effort someone needs to do to get it to work indirectly communicates that they weren’t a priority, and therefore not valued.”Eric Bailey, Smashing Magazine
As more and more products and services are offered exclusively online, there’s a real risk of alienating users with a limited ability to navigate through screens. Too often, services that try to directly address a marginalised population fail to bridge the gap they’re trying to close. Sadly, stories of people unable to access basic needs because of a poorly coded submit button are not rare. In Canada, “information that is difficult or impossible to access, read or understand either due to technology or the way it is presented” is considered a barrier, and it’s our duty as communicators to not leave people’s human rights behind.
Additionally, it’s important to remember that communication is key. Make sure you’re communicating with your audience—not at them. Accepting feedback, actively listening, and continually learning varied customer perspectives is a crucial, and a mutually beneficial practice.
Cover your bases, but think with your heart
Did you know you can face legal action for having an inaccessible website? In Canada, federally-funded websites could pay a fine of up to $250,000 depending on the severity of non-compliance. Similarly, in the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act has been used repeatedly to challenge businesses that do not comply with the needs of their customers. Take the Dominos Pizza Tracker fiasco for example. When Dominos shifted their focus from new pizza toppings to developing tech for online ordering processes it was originally considered innovative. But things soured for the company when they didn’t provide an option for blind customers and were sued by a visually impaired man. Even worse, rather than addressing the oversight they appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the changes would be too expensive and that the Americans for Disabilities Act (originally passed in 1990) couldn’t predict or apply to “modern” websites like theirs.
In short, they didn’t want to make their website accessible to the blind, and were counter-suing for the right to discriminate.
In the end, disability advocates won this particular battle; the petition was dropped and updates were made to the website’s functionality. But the idea that a large international company like Dominos would be more willing to wage a legal battle than drop 40 grand on improving their customer service (and human rights violations) is disappointing, frightening, and all too familiar.
There needs to be better and transparent legislation around Web accessibility in general. Currently, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are considered the gold standard. They painstakingly detail compliance metrics that websites should adhere to. The foundational principles demand that websites be:
But WCAG and similar guidelines only serve to set a baseline, and can only go so far with each iteration. Why does ignoring marginalised individuals need to be illegal before we serve them equally? Can we use common sense and empathy at all levels of experience right now
“At its core, delivering an equivalent experience is ultimately about preserving intent — with the intent being the motivating force behind creating a website or web app and all the content and features it contains.”Eric Bailey, Smashing Magazine
Making your website accessible isn’t just about avoiding getting sued, it’s about serving people equally and consistently. It’s about ensuring that your message can be understood through all modes of communication, regardless of device or physical ability. Accessibility should be something that you continually strive for, demonstrating to every member of your audience that you’re going above and beyond simple legal requirements to provide them with an equivalent experience.
Accessibility issues are hard to identify and costly to fix
“I reckon a lot of websites have bad accessibility not because folks don’t care, but because they don’t know there’s an issue in the first place.”Robin Rendle, CSS Tricks
It would be naive to say that we address accessibility when we continue to ignore the real obstacles involved in an overhaul. Websites cost money and take time to build. When testing for so many variables in the experience, you’re working with unknowns, anecdotes, or assumptions that are outside of your lived reality. How can you plan for what you don’t know?
Additionally, website builders are often the advocates for more robust accessibility, but are the most constrained by budget or strategy. It tends to fall on the shoulders of designers and developers to guide and educate stakeholders on the importance of these considerations beyond the current mandate.
Our latest solution at Third Wunder has been to build these principles into our design & UX process. It’s not optional; our builds are WCAG compliant by nature. By using patterns, frameworks, and tools to address these needs from the get go, we ensure that standards are upheld throughout all our projects. That said, we’re far from perfect. We still need to test, listen, address feedback and bugs… but we encourage a continual push towards developing engaging user experience patterns at all levels of access.
Smart tech wants to talk with your website, so let it!
2020 has clearly demonstrated that fast and secure internet access is a basic human necessity, thanks to a global pandemic forcing the world to work remotely, teach and learn online, and connect virtually. Conversely, this year has also challenged our relationships with our devices, leading to an increase in screen fatigue (moreso for those who were already working at a disadvantage), as well as a rising interest in smart home tech.
As we wait for innovations in assistive tech to become more widely available, talking directly to our machines has not only become second-nature for many, but their only way to browse.
Smart devices, chatbots, and voice assistants have made Conversational Interfaces a norm that the general public is growing accustomed to. There are limitations, as always, but our device interfaces are getting better and better at interpreting and relaying the information we need quickly and concisely. How many times have you asked Siri what the weather’s like instead of opening your app (or looking out a window)?
Making accessibility a priority can leverage a lot of the work required for smart devices to interpret your content. As the Internet of Things gets more complex and intrinsic to our daily lives, everyone’s online environment has become a unique configuration.
So, how does your website fit into the average user’s ecosystem of information? As people move away from screens and towards voice and gesture, is your content, product, service, or brand ready to transcend beyond the screen?
Lucky for you, we’ve put together an in-depth checklist to ensure you’ve covered your bases.