Being part of a company that makes it a priority to develop WCAG-compliant products has evolved me into a better designer. I’m writing this article to share what I’ve learned about accessibility in design and some application points for others to consider.
What is accessibility in design?
Accessibility in design is also known as inclusive design. It refers to the design of products, devices, services, or environments for EVERYONE — including those that need assistive technology (e.g., screen readers). In other words, accessible designs should allow all humans, to the greatest extent possible, to fully experience the product, device, service, or environment, without the need for an adjustment.
Why is this important?
Humanity has not seen an adaptation to technology like this before. Technology has a serious influence on the lives of billions — especially in areas where it matters: education and healthcare to name a few. In fact, Mahmoud Mohieldin from the World Bank views technology as a leverage to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations in 2015. It becomes increasingly important to consider accessibility in design as more people use technology every single day.
This gives UX Designers, like myself, an important mantra to follow: Understand people deeply.
“Why do we need to know about the human mind? Because things are designed to be used by people, and without a deep understanding of people, the designs are apt to be faulty, difficult to use, difficult to understand.”
― Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things
What is WCAG?
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) was created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that develops open standards to ensure the long-term growth of the Web.
WCAG 2.0 was published in 2008, then in 2018, WCAG 2.1 was published as an extension to the original.
What design principles must I consider when designing for accessibility?
There are four basic principles that come from WCAG:
- Perceivable — present to users in a way they can recognize and understand
- Operable — user interface components and navigation must be functional
- Understandable — content and information on the user interface must be readable and predictable
- Robust — content must be resilient enough that it can be interpreted by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies
And, here are some other general guidelines that I’ve learned to appreciate:
- Use native accessibility features if your product is a mobile application (e.g., VoiceOver on iOS)
- If your company has a copywriter, elect to use their services! They are a valuable resource for your product’s content. You want to make sure there is consistency in the labels for headings, buttons, and links. Also, there will be some use cases where you need to use text as an alternative to a visual element.
- It is extremely valuable to sit with your team’s developers and QA to go through a specific accessibility use case or user story together. For example, if you want to hear how a screen reader sounds like as you navigate a website, gather your team, turn off the monitor, increase your volume, and tab through your website. You will soon realize how quickly you can get lost. This, personally, was an eye opening experience (no-pun intended) as I got to put myself in the shoes of someone with a visual impairment using the website.
- There is no “I” in “TEAM” — as you can imagine, getting your product to be fully WCAG 2.1 compliant, takes quite a bit of work. In fact, design alone just isn’t going to cut it. Developers are responsible for the technical accessibility by following web and platform standards, and QA must test the code output and also check on the assistive technology. It is critical to have every member of your team on the same page about the vision for accessibility in your product.
I’m still learning a lot about accessibility in design. I’m findings ways to better understand people who have accessibility needs — through user interviews and/or usability testing. I’m also reminded that inclusive design should be the default mode when designing anything — using Sketch plugins and other tools (Lisa Dziuba and UX Collective wrote a comprehensive article on this), and understanding people deeply should be part of the equation, always.
Big shoutout to Enrique Sallent for spearheading the Accessibility initiative at TD Ameritrade. I would not have understood the importance of this subject without him. 🙏🏻