The 2023 Guide to Accessibility Considerations in UX Design

Update your accessibility standards to meet all users’ needs

People with disabilities constitute one of the most significant segments of online users, but it is an often-overlooked population in the digital world. Increasing accessibility to this population is an empathetic choice and an intelligent business decision, especially when you consider that temporary and situational disability adds up to include almost everyone who uses the internet. Improving accessibility can increase an organization’s reach, enhance the user experience, and boost SEO. Additionally, with new accessibility directives in play, organizations that expand their site’s accessibility will maintain compliance with the law.

The business case for accessibility

Some executives and stakeholders remain wary of increasing accessibility; the perceived initial effort is a barrier. “There is an extra effort for developers, especially in the beginning,” admits Daniel Gorges, frontend developer at b13 and TYPO3 Integrator, “but the effort pays off significantly.” One of the reasons that effort can pay off is that the disabled population is much larger than most of us realize. You can’t necessarily pick out someone disabled in a crowd, and those with temporary and situational disabilities qualify as well.

Types of disability

  • Permanent disability: An enduring disability. For example, you are blind, deaf, or have cognitive or mobility difficulties that aren’t going away.
  • Temporary disability: A disability you will recover from. For example, you have a broken arm and can’t navigate online the same way, or you got Lasik surgery and your vision is blurry.
  • Situational disability: A disability created by your situation. For example, you have a baby in your arms and can’t use both hands at your computer, or you are outside and the sun is too bright to read your screen.

The disabled population also includes those who may be color-blind, people on the ADHD or autistic spectrum, and elderly people. With this expanded perspective of disability, it might make more sense to think of most of us as “temporarily abled”!

When you realize how inclusive the disability umbrella is, it adds up to millions of people worldwide. Savvy businesses are becoming more aware of this, and adjusting their accessibility accordingly. More sophisticated technology has given companies more clarity and assistance in accelerating their accessibility process and making it easier to achieve. “Accessibility has become increasingly important as we refine our interactions with the web through improved technology,” says Daniel, “Now our technology can do things like evaluate web content and react to commands or web settings.”

The Theory of Accessibility in Design

Differentiating accessibility from usability 

Accessibility and usability are related but different concepts. Usability is about making a product or service easy and organized to use for everyone, while accessibility is ensuring that people with disabilities can use a product or service. Daniel adds his interpretation. “Usability tries to make a website as efficient as possible for all people. Accessibility goes further, and includes technical solutions that help the disabled user and the web interact.” 

How empathy factors into UX Design

Empathy is the practice of seeing the world through other people’s eyes. This is a vital skill for a UX designer, especially when designing for accessibility and usability. However, the array of disabilities is vast and often much less obvious than we think. Empathy provides a good foundation, but increasing accessibility for such a wide range of users requires more structure. Daniel agrees. “Empathy plays an important role for implementing accessibility concerns, and it is a good start to try and ‘see’ content differently,” he says, “but it is not quite enough.” 

The WCAG can guide your UX design

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) can provide that structure. The WCAG is a set of international standards developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3) to make web content accessible for people with disabilities. They are organized around four principles that state online information, web content, and user interface components must be: 

  1. Perceivable
  2. Operable
  3. Understandable
  4. Robust

Daniel adds, “The WCAG is an initiative that tries to make the web more accessible. WCAG has three different standards for conformance — A: Essential, AA: Ideal Support, and AAA: Specialized Support.” Organizations can choose which level of accessibility they want to conform to; but it should be noted that A is required for all websites, and AA is the level most recommended by accessibility experts.

The impact of the latest accessibility directives and developments in the EU

There have been several new developments that put the WCAG into practice. The Web Accessibility Directive (WAD), based on the WCAG and implemented in 2018, applies to all government and public sector websites. With the WAD in place, these organizations must ensure their products and services can be used by everyone — regardless of ability or disability. 

The European Accessibility Act (EAA), which took effect in 2019, applies to the private sector. Its goal is to make a wide range of private products and services — smartphones, computers, tablets, banking services, public transport, and e-readers — more accessible to people with disabilities. The EAA, as the most recent directive, is still undergoing enforcement.

The EU’s accessibility directives have not only helped raise public and private consciousness of the importance of accessibility, but also enforced it legally. This ensures a more even and widespread adoption. Designers and developers are now factoring accessibility into the beginning stages of new projects, staying compliant with the laws, and ultimately creating more inclusive and user-friendly experiences for everyone. 

How to Increase Accessibility in Your UX Design

Know your current level of accessibility

Before you make alterations, it’s essential to have an accurate picture of your present-day level of accessibility. There are many tools available to help. One example is the AXE Chrome extension, which gives you a score that estimates your site’s accessibility.

Familiarize yourself with the WCAG and how to apply them

Knowing the WCAG is important, but translating those guidelines to real-life changes is challenging. Designers and developers will need to consider color contrast, multiple navigation paths, image alt-text, font size, keyboard-only usage, and video and audio captions, to name a few.

Prioritize issues

The changes you can make may differ depending on your budget, timeline, team, or organization size. Reaching an “AA” level of accessibility is recommended, but prioritizing the most helpful and far-reaching adjustments to achieve level “A” is still okay. 

Use the resources at your disposal

Technology can be a boon to organizations seeking to implement accessibility standards and improve them in their code. The a11y project, for example, provides a helpful checklist, or TPGi’s color contrast analyzer. But there are non-technical resources available to you as well. “The very best thing you can do as a developer is asking the stakeholder which accessibility levels they want to meet, and then adapt the standards in your code,” says Daniel. “That way you have full control over the changes.” 

Test along the way

Accessibility tests should be conducted throughout the design process to confirm their successful implementation. There are a few ways you can do this. Speaking with real people with disabilities will give you the richest and most accurate feedback. You can also test through assistive technologies. Screen readers, keyboard-only navigation, and speech recognition software will aid your understanding of weak spots and highlight opportunities for improvement.

Include all team members

Improving accessibility is not just a task for designers or engineers. Everyone on your team, including content managers, project managers, and decision-makers all have a role to play and can contribute. “It’s important to share your experience with your team members,” Daniel notes. “Everyone has experienced something that’s affected accessibility.”

Use an accessibility checklist at the end of the process

Whew! Accessibility is complex and things can easily slip through the cracks. An accessibility checklist can lift some of the overwhelm, help you stay organized, and identify areas for future improvement and higher levels of compliance.

Improving accessibility brings real-life benefits

Wading through the minutiae of the accessibility directives can make the concept seem abstract. But increased accessibility has tangible benefits, both to your organization’s success and to the ease of people’s everyday lives. Daniel offers up his experience.“Talking with people who are actually affected was the most instructive for me. When I met up with people with visual disabilities, for example, I learned most of them did not use highly specialized technology to access the web — just their smartphone,” he says, “If a smartphone can access your content well, then you are on the right track.” 

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