Digital accessibility is on the rise. Since meeting the basic accessibility standards became a legal requirement and not a mere nice-to-have, more and more organisations are questioning how well their digital interface serves users with disability.
The truth is, unless your product is specifically aimed at users whose physical or cognitive abilities are likely to be impaired, such as the elderly, chances are, you have not given much thought to the accessibility of its interface.
We often idealise our users, picturing them as flawless, fully-able human beings with only one problem in life — the one our product is solving. As a result, we rarely consider disabilities as potential friction points, thus failing to design accessible solutions, meaning people with impaired abilities will be less likely to use our products, so we have even less reasons to consider them when thinking about our targeted audience… It’s a vicious cycle, but ethical design processes and regular accessibility reviews are the best ways to break it.
Disability is complicated. It can affect a range of skills in a number of ways to various degrees, manifesting differently from person to person and changing depending on the situation and over time. So accessibility evaluation is not a simple test the interface either passes or fails. Instead, it’s a holistic assessment of the content, design and code against a set of the most common impairments, aiming to highlight the areas that users are most likely to find challenging. No interface is 100% accessible, so the accessibility review is an ongoing process or refinement, but every change you make and every problem you fix will open new doors for more users. It’s a journey worth taking!
The accessibility review is most commonly performed against the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which is an internationally recognised set of recommendations for improving web accessibility. All digital interfaces must meet the AA level standards and some are required to reach the level AAA.
The WCAG 2.2 principles are grounded in the notion that a user interface must be perceivable, operable, understandable and robust at all times. They cover the content and design of the interface, as well as the code behind it, meaning the review will require input from all members of a project team.
The aim of the review is to understand how well users with impaired vision, hearing, mobility, and/or thinking and understanding are able to use the interface. It covers the most common disability types, but, in some instances, you may want to narrow the focus and look at specific challenges that a particular user group faces.
It is also important to remember that not all disabilities are permanent and you should consider how your users’ visual, hearing or motor skills may be affected by the situation. For this, you should review the context of your user journeys, such as: are there any tasks that are typically performed on the go (impaired mobility), in the dark (vision), noisy places (hearing) or where the person is likely to experience a high level of stress, which may affect their thinking and understanding.
There are four methods for conducting accessibility evaluation that can be used alone or in combination with each other:
- Usability testing
- Assistive technology testing
There are a lot of free and paid-for tools that help to streamline the evaluation process. Some focus on specific aspects of digital accessibility, like a11y colour contrast validator. Other tools like WAVE perform an overall check and help highlight major structural problems that can be hard to spot on complex interfaces. W3 has a comprehensive list of web accessibility evaluation tools for all levels and purposes.
While these tools are a great starting point for the evaluation process, they currently don’t cover all of the accessibility issues and should not replace a manual audit entirely.
This is a process of manually checking and rating the interface against a list of standards and providing recommendations for improvement. I use an extensive checklist grounded in the WCAG’s principles for creating perceivable, operable, understandable and robust interfaces. Each category has its own set of tasks for review, for example:
Perceivable, meaning users must be able to recognise and use the interface with the senses that are available to them.
- Provide transcripts for audio and video
- Do not use colour as the only way to communicate something
- Provide text alternatives (‘alt text’) for non-text content or mark them as decorative
- Use text colours that show up clearly against the background colour
Operable, meaning users must be able to find and use your content, even if they choose to access it using a keyboard or voice commands.
- Make sure all functionality can be accessed by keyboard-only users
- Let people play, pause and stop any moving content
- Do no use blinking or flashing content — or let the user disable animations
- Use descriptive links
Understandable, which means users must be able to understand the content and functionality.
- Use plain English (or another language)
- Make it clear what language the content is written in, and indicate if this changes
- Explain all abbreviations and acronyms
- Ensure all form fields have visible and meaningful labels and are marked up properly
Robust, ensuring the content can be reliably interpreted by a wide variety of user agents, including reasonably outdated, current and anticipated browsers and assistive technologies.
- Use valid HTML so user agents, including assistive technologies, can accurately interpret and parse content
- Ensure your code lets assistive technologies know what every user interface component is for, what state it is currently in and if it changes
- Ensure important status messages or modal dialogs are marked up in a way that informs users of their presence and purpose and lets them interact with them using assistive technology
You can get a lot from running the interface through an automated accessibility checker and even more from having an expert do a step-by-step review, but nothing beats watching people with impaired abilities using your interface and getting feedback on the challenges they face!
The process is similar to a standard usability test: each user will be asked to perform a range of common tasks on the interface and comment on things that work well and areas that can be improved. These sessions should be conducted in person, to give the observer an accurate picture of the wider context and any off-screen tools or interactions.
Assistive technology testing
Many users with impaired abilities will be relying on assistive technologies to help them navigate the interface, so it’s important you are aware of what this process may look like and the potential challenges that users may face. This can be done as a part of the manual evaluation process, usability testing or both.
It can be challenging to get stakeholders’ buy-in for an extensive accessibility audit, especially if your user personas don’t reflect true social diversity. While running a full-scale manual review of the entire interface will likely uncover many accessibility concerns, even a short automated test will help you better serve a more diverse user base.
Don’t be overwhelmed by the range of tools and techniques available — the resources are out there to enable your team to be truly user-centric, and every accessibility audit, review or test will bring you one step closer to that vision of inclusive product design. Good luck!