The “A” Word: Accessibility as Part of UX

People often go a bit faint when you mention accessibility. Visions of text-only websites, monochrome designs, and static content swirl in their heads. They grit their teeth and prepare excuses. Battle conditions ensue.

The reality is that accessibility is simply a key part of UX. A truly outstanding digital experience is a fusion of accessibility, usability, creativity, and technology. The trick to successfully weaving these things together requires a cross-pollination of skills and expertise.

The good news is that accessibility is simply usability under a magnifying glass. If you’re thinking about great usability, chances are that you’re already thinking about great accessibility, too.

Meaningful Reading Order

It’s a curiosity of web design that the visual order of content doesn’t have to match the order of content in the underlying HTML code. With the separation of HTML (for structure) and CSS (for visual design), it became possible to change the visual arrangement of content without disturbing the underlying HTML.

This is handy for web developers because they can easily make cosmetic changes to a web page without rewriting the HTML code. Used wisely, it’s also something that can help create web pages that work well for both sighted and non-sighted people.

Most people don’t know that HTML exists, let alone that it’s the key to the way their browser controls the structure of information on the page. That’s the way it should be, of course. Providing the page is laid out in a logical way, most people will experience the site without giving the slightest thought to what’s going on under the hood.

For blind people who use screen readers to access their computers, the HTML is a bit more important. Screen readers pay almost no attention to the way a page looks, but they do care a lot about the way it’s structured. While a sighted person might read the flow of content from top left to bottom right, a screen reader will read the content in the order the HTML presents it.

Let’s take a typical page with a header, footer, left-hand navigation, main content column, and right-hand column as an example. It’s a common page layout because it makes sense visually. A sighted person can focus on the area of the page they’re interested in, and, assuming they use a mouse, click on the relevant bit.

A screen reader user, on the other hand, would have to move through the header and the left-
hand navigation before reaching the main content column. Screen readers can only focus on one thing at a time, so they have to move through the page in order, and HTML governs that order.

Rearranging the page so that the header is immediately followed by the main content column, then by the navigation and related information columns, makes things much more convenient for screen reader users (see Figure 1). Visually, this layout wouldn’t be nearly as convenient for sighted people because it breaks the common convention of a left-hand navigation.

Diagram of a web page. Reading order is banner, main content, left navigation, right column.

Figure 1. A typical page layout with one potential reading order indicated.

Here’s where the clever part comes in. When a web page is created, you can do both. You can have an HTML content order that works for screen reader users a visual content order that works for everyone else. The two don’t have to match, but they should both make sense in their own right. Of course, you’d never make the footer the first bit of content someone encountered, whether they could see the page or not.

So what does this mean for UX practitioners? The way content is ordered in your wireframes will influence the way it’s ordered when the page is translated into HTML code. Don’t worry, you don’t need to become a full-fledged web developer. However, it’s a good idea to understand the different ways people will engage with the content on the page. Also, bear in mind that the process of translating a wireframe into code may mean the resulting experience for a screen reader user is very different from that of a sighted person.

Consistency

When you create wireframes for a website, consistency will already be on your UX radar. What you may not realize is that you’ll also be thinking about an important aspect of accessibility.

When people with disabilities evaluate a website, it’s common to find that mild challenges for other people are tremendously magnified for people with disabilities. For example, a slight pause on a link might indicate the text isn’t helpful to someone. When that pause becomes a sustained break in the task for a person with a reading disability, suddenly the problem becomes much more evident.

Consistency is one of those areas where this magnification effect is very noticeable. Putting elements such as the logo or search facility in the same place on every page makes it easier for everyone to locate and identify them. Moving things around arbitrarily tends to confuse us.

For a partially sighted person using screen magnification, that kind of confusion can become a real problem. When the area of the screen you’re focused on is magnified multiple times, you don’t understand the whole screen at a glance. A common strategy is to look for key landmarks (signposts) on a page that you can use to orient yourself. Knowing the navigation is on the top part of the page makes it easy to move the magnified area to the extreme edge of the window, so you know immediately where you are (see Figure 2). Unless, of course, the navigation vanishes or moves elsewhere on the page.

Wireframe showing location of search and navigation.

Figure 2. Key elements such as navigation and search should be consistent across all pages

Interaction consistency is also important for much the same reason. Each time you add a widget to a wireframe, it should behave the same way that it does everywhere else on the site. Changing the way someone is expected to interact with something takes us right back to general confusion for everyone.

But for someone with a cognitive disability, that kind of confusion may be a complete showstopper. Each time they encounter a particular widget (such as a search facility or content filter), they are forced to learn a whole new way of interacting with it. Ensuring that things look and behave consistently each time they’re used makes the experience possible for people in this group.

Form Controls

If you’re creating high-fidelity wireframes, another thing to consider is form and widget controls. It might sound obvious, but forms should have submit buttons and widgets should have controls.

Let’s take a dropdown used for navigation as an example. Technically speaking, the form doesn’t need a submit button. A mouse user might click on the field, scroll down through the options, and release the mouse button to indicate their selection. At that point, the chosen web page would load automatically.

For someone with a mobility impairment who doesn’t use a mouse, however, things get a bit more complicated. Opening the dropdown list of options isn’t a problem, but without a submit button the form has to work automatically. That means that as soon as keyboard focus lands on an option, the selected page will load in the browser. It’s too bad if you wanted anything other than the first option in the list. By including a submit button in your wireframes, you’re putting people in complete control of the action.

Including a submit button with an appropriate label is also helpful for people on the autism spectrum. Unless there is a very clear call to action, it might not be possible for someone on the autism spectrum to complete a task. A search form with no submit button, or with a submit button labeled “Go!” (go where exactly?) can make it next to impossible to complete the task.

Making room in your wireframes for widget controls is also a good idea. A revolving carousel is one example. For someone with a learning disability, it can be a monumental effort to try and read the content before it disappears. People on the autism spectrum may find the constantly moving content enough of a distraction that they have to leave the page entirely. Neither is a great experience. Including pause/play, next slide, and previous slide controls puts people in charge of the way they consume information.

Descriptive Links

Clear and concise link text is another key UX consideration, whether the links form part of the Information Architecture (IA) or sit within a piece of content. From an accessibility point of view, it’s even more important to choose link texts that are helpful (see Figure 3).

Screen image

Figure 3. Poor link text of “Click here!” and good link text of “Learn more about accessibility.”

Many screen readers include the option to list all the links on a page, effectively removing them from the surrounding content. No distinction is made between links from the IA or links from body content. For this approach to work, link labels need to be understandable in their own right. A list containing fifteen “More…” links completely undermines the task.

Something similar happens for screen magnifier users. When a link is magnified multiple times it can take up most of the available viewing space. This makes it difficult to associate with the surrounding content. Unless the link text acts as an effective signpost, it takes some effort to explore the nearby content and discover where the link might actually lead.

Conclusion

You may be wondering whether this level of granularity is really within the realm of a UX practitioner. The reality is that the best practice you put in place now will influence the creative designers and developers that take your wireframes and evolve them into the finished website. Also, your decisions might affect the way other UX practitioners modify or update the website.

Accessibility is a journey and that journey starts as soon as a UX practitioner first considers how someone might use the web page, what it might contain, and how to best present it. By choosing to follow accessibility best practices, you ensure that accessibility, usability, creativity, and technology can come together to deliver an outstanding user experience!

Watson, L. (2012). The “A” Word: Accessibility as Part of UX. User Experience Magazine, 11(3).
Retrieved from http://www.uxpamagazine.org/the-a-word/

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