Do you read me? Do you hear me? Accessibility concerns you.

Your life depends on accessibility.

It’s true: access to food and water is essential to your survival, access to medicine helps you to overcome illnesses, access to transportation enables said food, water and medicine to be accessible to you. Education has led to advances in medicine, transportation and technology. Technology, such as the internet, is an integral part of our lives, and we use it at home, at work, to educate, to navigate, to stay up-to-date with current events, connect with friends and family, and even more.

Web accessibility may not be a matter of life or death, unless you are one of those people who literally cannot live without the internet”, but it will affect you and the way you live your life. Especially as you grow older.

You move somewhere with slow broadband. Anything. Any number of things could change how you access the web. Even reading this ‘simple’ blog post could become difficult. Accessibility concerns you.

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There is nothing complicated about accessibility. It’s binary.

Something is either accessible or inaccessible. Take this blog post, for example, if you can understand it, then it is accessible and if you can’t, then it is inaccessible. Simple!

If you talk about “making something accessible”, what it really means is “making something inclusive”. Accessibility is a result. Inclusivity is the process. We are enabling people to use our websites, who would otherwise be excluded. Usually, this focuses on people with disabilities. However, accessibility goes beyond that. Think about audiobooks. It isn’t exclusive to those who cannot read. Some people use them because they don’t have time to sit down and pick up a book. Others may find it easier to download it. The audio version may come in different languages too. The ways in which the book can be read may be different, but everyone gets the same story and the same core experience.

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Building completely accessible websites is the ultimate goal, whereby anyone could access it from anywhere. Creating such a spectacle would mean reaching the peak of usability: both cavemen and millennials alike could use it. No one would have any complaints. Everything would just work…almost too good to be true, I know. Don’t think that accessibility is guaranteed to make your website any good. It just means more people should arrive at the same conclusion.

The subtle art of design.

True consideration is never an afterthought and designing websites is not an exception.

Think about wheelchair access to buildings. Buildings that did not provide access beforehand were modified to do so. The solutions do the job, but they occasionally look out of place. The ramps might be too steep. You might end up going the long way around, while others only have a few steps to take. I’m sure you can think of a few examples. Now compare this to the majority of newer buildings: everyone enters and exits the same way. If you’re struggling to think of an instance of this, good. That generally means that the design doesn’t stick out. It doesn’t make you think. Gaining access to that building came naturally. Inclusive designs require smart, calculated decisions.

If there is a big difference between the mobile and desktop version, you’ve ended up making two websites. Think about images and animations. They can make a website look nice, but they increase the size of a website, making it less accessible for those with slow internet or using mobile data. Not exactly practical. Does your page need small, detailed images with animations, or would words suffice? Is the user just looking to navigate elsewhere on the site? Or am I going to miss the point without the images? Do they help the user understand or do they make elements look out of place?

Designers cannot be expected to think of everything. Hence why establishing communication with developers, testers and various societies is important. Even meeting once a month can provide beneficial insight. Designs start to take form from other people’s experiences. Eventually, those types of considerations become fluent in your work. Doing so also helps include groups of people into society. It’s a win-win!

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From the ground, up.

No styles. No assets. No nothing. Just plain old HTML. With this approach, you shift focus to enforcing accessibility standards, which are a legal requirement, rather than trying to shift an image to the left. We can ensure that, in extreme cases where nothing but the HTML loads, people can still use the website.

By not including images you can check they all have alternative text. Something that usually explains the image when the image doesn’t load. But why stop there? An image, after all, is worth a thousand words.

I’m not saying you need to write them an essay. However, alternative text, titles and captions enable us to talk with a user. Almost like a one-to-one. Explain things in a little more detail. Communicate the website’s personality. A personality which would otherwise be lost to those with a severe visual impairment.

When development does focus on styling, it needs to ensure everything makes sense. Think about the use of colour. If all interactive elements on your website are blue, users will subconsciously assume that all those elements can be interacted with. Suddenly, using a different colour makes it unclear. How does the user know it works the same? Sometimes other styles can help, such as underlines, but it may still be called into question.

Additionally, there is an unconsidered variable with colour: monitors and screens. Users could have their brightness all the way up. Dimmed down. Adjusted contrasts. Varying levels of sharpness. Set to ‘Gamer’ or ‘Eye Saving’ mode. Changed their red, green and blue channels.

The monitors could be far away, which makes finer details blur together. Colour arrangements could make it difficult to read. Especially for those who are colour blind or have astigmatism. Fast scroll speeds and alternating bright colours could trigger someone with epilepsy. They could overwhelm someone with autism. Compositions of colour may look fine on one monitor, but for someone else, it could make something unreadable. These things are beneficial to feed back to designers, but up to developers to enforce.

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Testing the waters.

As with development. No styles. No assets. Not even the amazing JavaScript functions we developers worked so hard to make. This ensures the user can still navigate through the site and that all information is accessible – even if nothing loads correctly.

Sometimes testers can become familiar with how the website works, either from testing the same website or others just like it, which makes it difficult to test from a fresh pair of eyes. We can become oblivious to little things, which might otherwise ruin the experience for a new user. Go back to those communities you reached out to in design, and showcase your work to the target audience. Incorporating others at the beginning and at the end of a project creates a collaborative environment. We can establish stronger connections. We could have misunderstood our design focus group. A feature could be different to what was expected. A compromise may have been made which we want to check doesn’t detract from the user experience, which is only made clear in these sessions.

We don’t usually get much feedback when a website is published. It’s very unusual to get messages from users saying, “I absolutely loved using your website”. We only really hear from a user if there is a problem. Even then, just because we don’t hear from a user, it doesn’t mean they aren’t having a bad experience. A feature could only be mildly annoying, rather than outrageous. Analytical tools can be great for tracking usage, but they don’t tell us how users feel when using the website, why they visit the site, why they keep on returning, how they use it, what they expect when they use the website. Only people can tell us that.

Some points to consider…

  • Include people in the process.
  • Learn from other people’s experiences.
  • You will never represent everyone, you just have some insight, so use it.
  • People change, and technological advancements are made, be aware of this.
  • How you approach integrating accessibility into your website depends on the specification and make considerations based on that.

Accessibility concerns everyone. Inclusivity benefits everyone. Unfortunately, there is no definitive guide to achieving complete accessibility. There are hundreds of resources about this; guides, tutorials and standards which can help. From people who have dedicated their lives to this. Accessibility is a big topic to cover. Not something you can do in a single blog post. Despite research, designing, developing and testing accessible interfaces for the last three years, I’m still learning.

How you learn is by inciting conversation. Understand how different people work. Read as many resources as you can. Accessibility doesn’t just concern you. It concerns everyone.

Oliver Wallbank – Developer at drpdigital

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