With digital experiences – from apps to the internet – still in their historical infancy, accessibility unfortunately remains an afterthought.
Creating accessible digital experiences benefits everyone. Businesses and organisations reach millions more people if they consider the variety of ways people experience the digital world. So, if you’re having meetings with web designers or agencies and accessibility isn’t front-of-mind in how they pitch to you, then look elsewhere.
In this short guide, we’ll run through the basics of accessibility, so you have a general idea of how to assess projects and potential partners when designing digital experiences.
The impact of disability
Disability can include many things, for instance:
Seizure disorders — photo-sensitive epileptic seizures
Cognitive — distractibility, memory, learning and intellectual difficulties
Literacy — difficulty with language often due to undiagnosed disabilities
Vision — blindness, low vision, colour-blindness
Physical — difficulty using a mouse, limited fine motor control
Finally, there’s a less discussed ‘disability’ out there. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has noted depression as the leading cause of disability, with the United Nations (UN) estimating the associated global costs exceeding $1 trillion each year. People simply struggle to focus while experiencing depression, making it potentially impossible for them to effectively interact with your services or offering.
Disabilities affect a person’s internet navigation if the website they wish to use hasn’t been set up in an accessible way.
For example, if a user has a physical/motor impairment — e.g. a spinal cord injury or cerebral palsy — they could require non-mouse access to a website’s functions. If they’re using a mouse, their fine motor skills aren’t as accurate, so they can have difficulty with small ‘hotspots’ or CTA buttons. A person with a hearing impairment may need transcripts of audio or captions on videos, while a person with a cognitive impairment may require clear and consistent interfaces with no distracting movements.
What is web accessibility?
Web accessibility is the practice of making digital experiences accessible to all. While inclusivity and web accessibility are often used interchangeably, inclusivity is a broader way of thinking about different people. On the other hand, web accessibility is the specific craft that makes websites a more inclusive space.
For content designers and copywriters, this can include considerations around site structures and Information Architecture, language choice, phrasing, paragraph design and multimedia support (i.e., Closed Captions).
For visual designers, accessibility is a wide-ranging area, but can include things like colour ratios (for easier visibility), typography and text sizing, and hierarchy/layout decisions.
For developers, accessibility often relates to the backend – the code behind a website. This can include things such as heading structures, metadata, link design, the layouts and functionality of forms, popup design and keyboard accessibility.
Why is web accessibility important?
Accessibility is still neglected across website builds and content marketing. Major national businesses can think they’re ticking all the boxes, prioritising mobile-first experiences and doing user research. But some are forgetting a crucial question: Who are their customers and are there barriers to reaching them?
If truly customer-first thinking runs through every facet of the project, including design, content, tech and launch, you’re far more likely to have a higher quality output.
Regulation is also starting to play its role in protecting individuals’ access to the internet. If you’re providing a vital service for people, such as banking, then you need to be doing everything you can to ensure people aren’t kept out of accessing your services because of disability.
Everybody benefits from designing for accessibility. If you design with accessibility first, the trickle down effects will benefit all users as they have a more intuitive experience with your content.
What are some misconceptions about accessibility?
Misconception 1: Accessibility is only for those living with physical challenges
Disabilities are not just what you can see. If you limit your thinking to this specific group, it’s easy to think it impacts fewer people. But cognitive and situational impairments should be considered too.
Misconception 2: I don’t know anyone with a disability
Stats don’t lie! While it may not be at the front of your mind, you’re likely to know an elderly person, someone with bad hearing or vision, or someone who’s not great with technology.
Misconception 3: We don’t have anyone like that using our websites
1 in 4 people in the U.S live with some form of disability. Do we need to say more?
Misconception 4: We don’t have enough time or budget
If accessibility is a small part of every decision-making stage, you won’t have a long list of problems to go back and fix. You might even save money. And you’ll end up with a higher quality product that connects with more people.
Misconception 5: Accessibility is only for government sites
This misconception is probably driven by the fact web accessibility is mandated for government websites in Australia. But it’s not just for government sites – everyone can benefit from following the guidelines below.
Introducing web accessibility guidelines
All web content must adhere to web accessibility guidelines – called WCAG2.1. These are rules and techniques that help the vision-impaired and disabled access web content via assistive technologies.
Guidelines are split into three different levels: A, AA and AAA standard. Adhering to AA is best practice for everyone, and mandatory for government sites. The Australian Government Information Management Office monitors the accessibility of all government-affiliated websites. Non-compliance with web accessibility guidelines can result in action for contravening both the Disability Discrimination Act and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Tip: The best way to ensure you’re on the right track with your accessibility is to hire designers and developers who can speak confidently about accessibility in your project. If you’re working with a designer on a new website, have them run you through how their designs support strong accessibility. If they seem unaware of this concept of accessibility or can’t speak to how they’ve considered it, then they might not be the right designer for the job.
Things to look out for when designing accessible content
It’s best to work with people who can guide you through accessibility when building digital experiences. But it pays to have some general knowledge of the topic, so below are some common considerations to look out for during a project.
1. HTML code and structure: <h1> and <h2> tags
Screen readers navigate your content by heading tags (<h1>, <h2>). Your main heading at the top of a webpage is an <h1> tag. Each ‘section’ of that page then has an <h2> tag. Any subheadings within these sections can have an <h3> tag and so on. This is a simple system to follow that allows those with vision difficulties to navigate your page with their keyboard or via screen reader.
If you’re using a web developer or agency to build your website, make sure they run you through their use of heading tags before signing off on a project. They should be able to confidently point out their use of heading tags and show consistency across your site.
Beyond making your pages accessible, good use of heading tags will help your SEO (Search Engine Optimisation), as search engines crawl your website looking for these backend indications of good accessibility. If you don’t have these things set up correctly, you risk having your site penalised.
2. Colour ratios
Have you ever considered how vision-impaired users might see the colours featured on your website?
To make your site as easy to read as possible, your colour contrast between text and background should be a minimum of:
4.5:1 for AA level
7:1 for AAA level
To check how your website measures up, you can download a free colour contrast analyser at the Vision Australia website.
5. Keyboard function
Many sites require you to use a mouse. However, some users cannot use a mouse – they browse websites by using the ‘tab’ function and arrow keys on a keyboard. To activate links, they press ‘enter’ or the space bar. To make your site web accessible, make sure your users can easily ‘tab’ their way through your site.
Better yet, add a ‘skip to content’ link at the start of every page. You may have seen ‘skip to content’ links before at the top left corner of web accessible sites. These allow the user to navigate straight to the main content of the page, rather than ‘tabbing’ through each link across the top of your web template.
6. Alt text for images
How does a sight-impaired person interact with images on your website? If using images is an important way you connect with your customers, you may be losing potential customers without considering different needs.
The best way to do this is to give the image ‘Alt text’. This is a very short text description of the image that sighted users can’t see – unless they hover the mouse over the image, in which case the Alt text usually pops up.
It is added to the website by your web developer, and more often than not, you need to provide them with the descriptions yourself or through your copywriter.
7. Write in plain English
Plain English is clear, concise copy that’s easily understood by most people. This is done using common words with better readability and avoiding overly long sentences or clumsy phrasing. A strong copywriter will deliver plain and engaging copy, but there are also tools out there you can use to assess all of your copy. To get started, check out this readability analyser.
8. Prioritise the mobile experience
If you’re designing an app, then mobile will be front-of-mind by default. But many website builds and refresh projects still approach things from a desktop perspective first. Ask whether this is the best approach. As of 2022, roughly 60% of internet usage is accessed with a mobile device. The trend has only been going up, and with the majority of people interacting with your website on a mobile, why would you design your desktop experience first? Why would you create copy and content for a desktop experience first?
Designing accessible experiences on mobiles is its own discipline. It involves various considerations, such as accessibility to particular phone models and internet connections, which can impact your design choices and what content is prioritised during loading. It also informs the backend of your website, so that those using mobiles can easily navigate and read content at various font sizes.
Whose responsibility is accessibility in the web development process?
The short answer is: everyone. Every person involved in a website build or refresh, from the digital team through to business analysts, strategist, board members and the CEO, has a responsibility to consider the needs of their users. In particular, it sits with the decision-makers who are driving the project and writing the requirements. They should be the champions, helping people stay on the same page and follow their lead.
The best CMS for accessibility
When it comes to choosing a Content Management System (CMS) or even a Digital Experience Platform (DXP), easy accessibility tools are an important factor.
Today, a CMS needs to go beyond having an easy way to add in Alt text to your images to put it above its competitors. As of 2023, AI isn't yet doing this at scale, but it will very quickly become an automated process as AI can create imagery with associated Alt tags or identify imagery and automatically create Alt tags. For the moment, Wordpress and Drupal continue to lead in many ways, simply due to the fact you can add specific accessibility-related plug-ins to help you maintain and improve this area of your website and digital channels.
But smaller competitors are doing great things with accessibility, such as Jadu, which was the highest-scoring CMS for accessibility in 2021, according to a Silktide report. The report also identified poor colour contrast, inaccessible PDFs and incorrect field labelling and formatting as some of the most common problems users living with a disability face.
The platform promotes accessibility as being core to its functionality and design, working with partners to help clients ensure their content and websites are accessible.
What’s the future of accessibility?
It’s worth considering where we’re going as a global population and how this relates to digital accessibility. Across the globe, we’re getting older. Population demographics across major economies – from China through to Germany – have been shifting for decades as fertility rates decline and life expectancy increases. With an ageing population comes a greater need for accessible user experiences.
But we may not need to worry too hard. The explosion of tools like ChatGPT in 2023 showed us a glimpse of what’s possible – from using these tools to speed up and improve the design and build of entire digital experiences through to automatically ensuring accessibility is a part of these processes. The many technical and often repetitive and low-skill tasks that come under maintaining accessible digital experiences will quickly become the purview of AI.
Find your sweet spot between easy to fix and high impact
Designing for accessibility does take time and resources. It’s an investment in the usability and perception of your brand’s digital experiences. This means it can be hard to know where to start. Rather than focus on what you can’t do, find the little opportunities that are in your power. These could be heading structures, meta data, colour schemes and font sizes. Once you have these sorted, you can move onto larger considerations, such as site structure, copywriting and the backend.