To start with, what is “accessibility” in our field?
Lasse: It means that a given service should be the same for everyone, whether you have poor eyesight, poor hearing or are in any other way disabled.
Veera: For us that comes down to three things: using technical solutions that enable the use of assistive devices like screenreaders, designing the user experience to be as clear as possible and designing the content to be easily understandable.
Lasse: In a visual sense that means maintaining good contrast, using clear imagery and having good typography. It’s also important to not complicate page structure. Grouping things by functionality is one way to keep the user flow logical and clear.
How does taking these things into account affect our processes?
Lasse: Accessible design doesn’t really differ from what we already do. Perhaps it makes me pay more attention to some details like colour contrast, but for example good typography is already accessible by its very nature. Actually, accessibility is really just an extension and deepening of the idea of designing for the end users rather than the client organisation.
Then why are we making all this extra effort to focus on accessibility in particular?
Veera: Why would you limit yourself to only 50% of your audience? Not to mention that once something is accessible, it’s better for everyone, not just those with disabilities. Beyond that, It’s also worth remembering that most of us will at some point, even if just temporarily, be disabled users.
Lasse: The EU directive on accessibility will also be making accessibility a legal requirement within a few years.
How should we approach thinking about less able users?
Veera: One important distinction is that we shouldn’t just be thinking about an “average user”. Rather we should make the content truly inclusive for everybody. Some companies make separate accessible versions of their sites, but from an equality perspective it can be unpleasant to have to use a different version. Unlike the physical world, there aren’t any natural, unavoidable obstacles in the digital realm, so why shouldn’t we keep it that way and offer an equal experience to everyone?
The technical and visual aspects of accessibility have very tangible guidelines that we can use to ensure accessibility. But what about the third aspect, content?
Veera: Requirement specifications rarely set demands for the understandability of content. But ensuring technical accessibility is not enough if the content itself is still unclear or overly complicated. Clear language and focusing on the main message of any given page is incredibly important.
Lasse: The logic of page flow is also important – especially with forms.
Veera: We have to remember that many disabled users are limited in how much they can take in at once – for many reasons. It might be technical, like how a screen reader can only read things out one at a time. Or the user might have a cognitive disorder that interferes with memory or understanding.
How can we know we’ve taken the necessary steps to reach all these varied users?
Veera: For all three approaches – technology, design and content – there are distinct user groups that are affected by each.
Lasse: User testing is – as always – the best way to get feedback. There are also companies like Annanpura that specialise in accessibility testing that have helped us with that.
You both attended the #saavuta2016 seminar hosted by the Finnish Federation of the Visually Impaired. I understand that gave you a lot of personal insight into web accessibility.
Lasse: I’d recommend trying their darkroom for all web designers, just to understand what it means not to see. I also tried web browsing with a sight-controlled system. My eyes were sore from staring after just five minutes! It really made me realise how important it is to avoid unnecessary visual distractions in page design.
Veera: It’s important for designers to experience what the tools feel like, not just to base their choices on checklists they have to go through. Screen readers, for example, are already part of the operating system on most computers, so that’s an easy place to start. But it takes a while to get used to such a different experience!
I guess that, in itself, illustrates why accessibility is something we should seriously make time for.
Veera: We should know about these user groups and learn to use the tools, so that we can explain to our clients why these issues are important.
Lasse: Even if they haven’t given special thought to accessibility, we have – and it should come through as a natural part of our design process.