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  • Writer's pictureAnda Sărăcuț

Accessibility in UX Design: Importance and Guidelines

When it comes to building a pleasant and comfortable digital experience for a user, there is a simple recipe to be followed, consisting of 3 ingredients: usability, graphic design, and accessibility.

Having such visual characteristics, the graphic design part is pretty much self-explanatory for now, so we’re going to talk about it another time. Our current concern is usability and accessibility - why do they sound like they are the same thing?

Indeed, they sound the same - usability and accessibility are occasionally mistaken because of their similarities - but they are different.

First of all, let’s present them in short:

- Usability is focused on the effectiveness and efficiency of a design.

- Accessibility is specifically concerned with the needs of people with disabilities.

It might seem that usability incorporates accessibility, however, the reality is that usability does not pay particular attention to people with disabilities.

Everyone deserves the opportunity to use digital products and services, especially in our days when they are such an essential part of our lives. Those who can’t see, hear or understand new technology may find it challenging to use it in their everyday life. Accessibility is a broad term, covering many different ways that people can have difficulty accessing digital content.

“Imagine if 90% of the websites or mobile apps you use today locked you out. Everyone else continues to experience the convenience of mobile banking, the connectedness of social media, and the freedom of online shopping, but, for you, they’re inaccessible.”

- Regine Gilbert, UX designer and author of “Inclusive Design for a Digital World: Designing with Accessibility in Mind”

Billions of people around the world have some kind of disability, and they aren’t being served well by today’s technology, simply because some companies tend to see accessibility as a “nice to have”, not a key part of the design process.

In fact, accessibility is a core part of UX design, and when designers follow the best practices and apply accessibility to their work, they’re eventually creating a better and more comfortable product for everyone, not only for people with disabilities - we’ll see about that immediately.

Accessibility in UX Design

Who do we focus on?

Accessibility benefits people with barriers from areas like:

- Visual (e.g. blindness, color blindness, low vision);

- Hearing (e.g. deaf, hard of hearing);

- Learning/Cognitive (e.g. autistic spectrum, dyslexia, learning disabilities, distractability, anxiety);

- Mobility (e.g. inability to use a mouse, limited motor control, slow reaction time);

- Risk of seizures (e.g. photosensitive epilepsy).

In addition to showing morality and empathy, ensuring accessibility has advantages for all types of users, not only for the ones with disabilities. The examples listed before are the permanent types of barriers, but they can be temporary or situational, too.

For example, regarding the mobility issue, here are the 3 types of barriers, in which the users have to complete tasks with only one hand:

- Permanent: user has only one arm

- Temporary: user has a broken arm

- Situational: user has to hold a baby

Due to different challenging contexts, many users will encounter difficulties, regardless of their abilities. So, you may think that you are designing only for people with disabilities, but you are helping many more people, who will find your product very practical and calming.

A few guidelines for accessibility in UX design

There are lots and lots of requirements and techniques that can help design an accessible product, a very (and probably the most) comprehensive guide being WCAG (The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines). It was published by The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which is an international community that develops web standards.

However, I’m going to share with you a few guidelines that improve the accessibility of a digital product, to get an idea about what this is all about:

1. Check the colors you are using:

- Regarding text, make sure you use good contrast in relationship with the background - low contrast designs could be difficult to read for someone, easy to read for another, and completely illegible for someone else (google “contrast checker” for plenty of online tools that can help you).

- Don’t use JUST colors to specify important information (errors, warnings, etc.) - people with low vision or color blindness might miss them; use a combination of color, shapes, and text.

- Use calm and simple colors as much as you can - don’t go for very contrasting ones, as they might trigger people within the autism spectrum, or the ones with anxiety.

2. Build a good structure and add accessible media content:

- Make the text blocks more narrow, as they are easier to read and scan, making them more comfortable for the eye.

- Break the content using sub-headings and different types of media (images, videos), for the same reasons as the point above.

- Add alt text (short for alternative text) - it’s a textual replacement for images and other types of media, and it can be read by text readers, helping people who have low vision or blindness understand the content.

- Add subtitles, transcriptions, and descriptions to videos - this is extremely helpful for deaf or hard-of-hearing people, people with cognitive and learning disabilities (who need to see and hear the content to better understand it), and also for the ones who use screen readers.

- Avoid forcing users to use only the mouse (or touchscreen) - don’t forget to build the product for keyboard use, as well.

3. Make the UI elements also accessible:

- Use consistency - whether it’s about navigation buttons or other elements, put them in the same place and keep them consistent throughout the pages - predictability is key.

- Make the buttons or other clickable elements large - don’t demand precision for a small button or link; it would be frustrating for users in the older demographic, or for the ones with mobility issues.

- Design clear focus states - this is helpful for people who don’t use the mouse or touchscreen; the focus states allow people to determine where they are on a page while navigating.

These are only a few important checkpoints when it comes to accessibility - you can read more on the W3C’s site:

But what about anxious people?

One of the issues that are very frequently forgotten about is a very encountered one among people these days - anxiety. I wanted to talk about this one separately because it isn’t an actual disability and it’s not included in the rest of the categories I talked about (temporary & situational barriers). The mental health topic should be considered more often when it comes to accessibility.

Because it’s so common, it’s very important to check these points too, to make sure all the users are feeling comfortable. Here are a few tips:

- Be careful with setting time limits on actions - don’t make them impractical and stressful, and give the users enough time to complete the tasks

- Don’t let the users be confused about what’s next - inform them about the effects on their actions, whether it’s about some next steps or timeframes

- Add an “undo button” - wherever it’s possible, take into consideration that we are all human and we can make mistakes

- Make re-checking possible - before submitting a form or any other type of input, let the users re-check their answers

- Respond to errors clearly - prepare for both system failure & human error, and state them in the most friendly and clear way possible.

Last but not least… it’s all about teamwork

Teamwork is essential when it comes to accessibility, so the designers, developers, copywriters, and content producers must collaborate and build the products with all of the standards in mind, in order to make their users feel comfortable.

Let everyone enjoy your content. Making a website accessible isn't as challenging as you might believe, but it is essential to making every visitor feel welcome and accommodated.

More to read:

1. Inclusive Design for a Digital World - Designing with Accessibility in Mind by Regine Gilbert

2. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines:

3. Regarding anxiety, here is a good article divided into 2 parts: A web of anxiety: accessibility for people with anxiety and panic disorders

a. PART 1:

b. PART 2:


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