Accessible Design and Good Design: The Same Side of the Same Coin

Sometimes, accessibility seems like an overwhelmingly large concept to think about when designing and developing websites or other interactive media — yet another thing to be concerned with in the giant list of things. It can be tempting to just “forget” about accessibility (hint: don’t do that) and write it off as a thing that’ll affect only a small percentage of the population, and therefore not a big concern.

Giant bubble bursting time: an accessible web is a better web for every human, period. And every human will at some point not be able to interact with the web in the most optimal conditions, and therefore require a web that is accessible.

Because all that an accessible web is, at its core, is a web that can be accessed and used by everyone, regardless of whether they have physical disabilities, mental disabilities, or just really slow crappy internet.

You wouldn’t deny that a person in a wheelchair, or a person on crutches, or even your grandma who can’t walk as well as she used to, should be able to easily access all public spaces or washrooms, right? Then why would you deny that a differently abled person should be able to use the internet, which is essentially a giant network of public spaces? Especially when you think about how differently abled people really can’t use all public spaces, given a vast number are still not accessible to those who can’t easily walk up or down stairs or fit through standard sized doorways.

Imagine for a second that you are not a privileged person who can walk on two legs, has great eyesight, is relatively young, and who everything in the modern world is essentially designed entirely for. Imagine you weren’t able to go out and physically enter half the public spaces in your city. Imagine that combined with that, at home, you also weren’t able to enjoy 90% of the public spaces on the internet.

Now, imagine you could do something about that. If you’re a person who creates things for the web, you can.

We’ve all experienced websites that drive us insane — from navigations that make no sense, to terrible scroll-jacking that leaves us frustrated and trapped going in only one direction (and usually not the one we want to go in), to broken CSS that results in too-big photos or too-tiny type. These are things that every user of the internet has experienced.

Now, imagine that was your experience almost all the time. Imagine that almost every single website you visited had an illogical navigation, scroll-jacking up the wazoo, and broken CSS. Imagine if almost every time you visited a website, you couldn’t do what you wanted to do or get the information you wanted to get without putting in serious time and effort.

This is what an inaccessible web is like for those who need accessibility (which, as mentioned before, will at some point in our lives be almost every single one of us).

So, I think it’s pretty clear: accessibility is important. There are lots of articles & podcasts out there with tips on easily making a site accessible (see here, here, here, and here), so there’s plenty of resources for helping designers and developers add accessible features into every site they build.

But I want to posit another way of thinking about accessibility, beyond the basics of adding in form labels and alt text. The more I read about accessibility and what makes a site accessible, the more I realize that accessibility is really at its core just good, thoughtful design.

The basics of accessibility — proper labels, clear inputs, states that change when actions are taken, information hierarchy and organization, contrast, repetitive button and link styles, logical and structured navigation… these are all basics of good web and interactive design that thinks about its purpose. Some — such as hierarchy, contrast, and repetition — are even core design principles.

In the case of web and interactive design, where the interaction of the human user with the design is so clearly the purpose that its in the name, good, successful design is synonymous with the ability to easily interact with the design — to the intention of both the designer and the user. So, when interactive design is not accessible, it’s actually not possible for it to be good design. The “good”ness of the design is predicated on the combination of user and designer fulfilling each of their purposes, so if any user (not just the non-existent “average user”) can’t interact with the design in a way that fulfils their purpose for interacting with the design… it fails.

Accessible web and interactive design is really just design that considers the humans who use it and their ability to use it — no matter what their physical, mental, or slow internet situation is — as vitally important. And if you think about accessible design as merely following the basics of good design that’s able to fulfill its purpose, it reframes it from an extra thing to think about to what it really should be: the fundamental core of every website and interactive design.