Accessibility in UX Design

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Accessibility in UX Design: Principles and Guidelines

Posted January 12, 2024


Posted January 12, 2024

One of the most overlooked aspects of digital design is accessibility. According to WebAIM (Web Accessibility in Mind), more than 96% of the world’s most popular websites are inaccessible to people with disabilities. 

With many web designs inaccessible to individuals with disabilities, the need for accessible design is critical. An accessible design can help you grow your customer base, increase revenue opportunities, help you avoid legal consequences, and damage to your reputation. More importantly, it’s the right thing to do.

This is where accessibility UX design tools and principles come into play. Following these principles ensures your site is accessible to all — regardless of their ability.

What is Accessible UX Design (and Why is it Important)?

Simply put, accessible UX design is about making a digital experience accessible for all, regardless of their circumstance, background, or ability. The goal behind an accessible design is to create UX and design elements that fulfill the needs of an end user.

Essentially, you’re creating a user experience that enables everyone to use the product or service — not just those without disabilities.

Why is Accessibility Important?

Aside from creating a digital experience that’s usable by all, there are a number of benefits to implementing accessibility in UX design. These include:

  • Better usability: An accessible web design improves the overall usability of your site. Features such as clear navigation, few distractions, and proper use of headings enable users to easily interact with your site. This ultimately boosts user engagement and satisfaction. For examples of how websites have prioritized usability, check out these examples of ADA-compliant websites.
  • Increases user base: Improving the accessibility of your site opens the door to people from different backgrounds or situations which increases your customer base. For example, people with disabilities are a very loyal community and are more likely to share accessible websites with their network. Essentially, capturing one new customer can increase the chances of capturing many.
  • Fulfills legal requirements: All websites are required to be compliant with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and ADA guidelines; adhering to these principles ensures compliance and helps you avoid potential legal issues.
  • Better SEO rankings: Designing with accessibility in mind helps you write clearer digital copy as well as leverage alt-text for images and links more effectively. This makes it easier for assistive technologies (such as screen readers) to scan your site which can contribute to higher SEO rankings.
  • Creates an inclusive experience: Most importantly, an accessible UX design promotes inclusivity. Everyone deserves equal access to online information, services, and products — no matter their background.
Web browser showing the accessibility logo being edited.

Accessibility vs. Usability UX Design

Accessible design is often confused with usable design but the two are actually very different design methods. Both are parts of UX design; however, usability is centered around how the design is used. More simply, usability is about creating a design that’s easy-to-use and enables users to quickly accomplish tasks. However, it does not focus on whether or not all users can use the product or service.

Accessibility, on the other hand, is focused on how well users can use a digital product or service and is an attribute of the final web design. Accessible web design asks: ‘are all users provided with an equal experience, including those with disabilities?’ or ‘Can users with disabilities understand, navigate, and interact with the website just as someone without disabilities can’?

The Principles of Accessibility in UX Design

While no official guidelines or standards exist for accessible UX design, there are certain principles designers can follow to create a more accessible design.

1. Empathy

Empathy is considered to be the cornerstone of accessible design but is one of the hardest skills to practice. UX/UI designers should consider the needs of their target audience, understand their abilities and concerns, and create a user experience that fulfills these needs. For example, designers should understand how a screen reader works and how individuals with low vision or other disabilities use it to navigate web content. This ensures they create a design that’s optimized for screen readers and other assistive technologies.

2. User Research

Designers need to step into the real world to make a truly accessible design. This involves talking to real people to understand their needs, concerns, and preferences and creating an innovative, useful solution that solves them.

3. Inclusivity

Inclusivity must be built into every aspect of a design project. For example, if a product or service is designed for a global audience, the personas and user research need to be focused on a global audience as well. Additionally, designers should ensure that people with varying physical and mental abilities are brought into the design process. Ultimately, an inclusive design helps you overcome common accessibility challenges and improves overall usability.

4. Control on Navigation

Web navigation can be a difficult task for some users — particularly those with visual or motor impairments such as color blindness, low vision, or cerebral palsy. To make web navigation simple for these users, designers should incorporate multiple forms of navigation into the design. This ensures users who rely on assistive devices or keyboard navigation can easily interact with the page.

5. Context

The context in which a design is used should address the needs of all users — regardless of their physical or cognitive abilities. For example, if a user is interacting with a mobile app, they’ll likely do so while sitting, laying down, or on the move.  While this does add more complexity for designers, it does ensure the experience is responsive in all environments.

Chart showing the five principles of accessible UX design with icons representing each principle.

Accessibility UX Design Guidelines

Now that we’ve covered the basic accessible UX design principles, let’s delve into the guidelines designers should follow.

Visual Design

The visual elements used in a web design play a major role in accessibility. When used properly, they ensure users can easily navigate the page and complete tasks. Below are some of the visual elements to use on your site to improve navigation and usability:

  • Use high-contrast color schemes (use a color contrast checker to help you find a good color contrast ratio)
  • Implement scalable text and images
  • Avoid using color as the only means of conveying information
  • Provide alternative text (alt text) for images and icons
  • Use clear, readable fonts

Auditory Design

Accessibility also extends to audio elements as well. Individuals with hearing impairments (such as deafness) need additional options to interact with videos, sound clips, or other auditory features. To ensure these are accessible to deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals, the following should be included in your designs:

  • Captions for videos
  • Text-to-speech options
  • Visual indicators for audio alerts
  • Compatibility with screen readers
  • Adjustable volume controls

Navigation and Interaction

Not all users are able to use a mouse and keyboard to navigate a site. Additional methods such as keyboard shortcuts or voice commands are often used by those with assistive technologies to navigate web pages. Additionally, users with cognitive disabilities or visual impairments may get lost on the page if the navigation is confusing. A few guidelines to follow to keep navigation accessible include:

  • Providing keyboard navigation for all features
  • Designing consistent and predictable navigation patterns
  • Offering voice commands where possible
  • Implementing clear focus indicators for interactive elements
  • Providing alternatives to drag-and-drop interactions

Content Structure and Clarity

The accessibility of your content directly impacts understandability. If the context of the page is unclear or has a confusing structure, users are highly likely to leave the page. One way to create inclusive content is by building an information architecture and mapping content to that. Other ways to improve content accessibility include:

  • Using clear, simple language
  • Structuring content with headings and lists for easy scanning
  • Providing summaries for long articles or videos
  • Implementing breadcrumb trails for complex websites or applications
  • Using clear, descriptive labels for links and buttons

Assistive Technology Compatibility

Designers should always keep screen readers in mind during the design process. With roughly 2.5 billion people worldwide relying on assistive technology to navigate the web, it’s important your site is usable by these technologies. You can do this by:

  • Ensuring compatibility with various screen readers
  • Supporting speech recognition software
  • Enabling compatibility with alternative input devices like switch controls
  • Testing with real assistive technology users for feedback

Feedback and Error Handling

Errors happen; when they do, users need to not only be aware of them, but also know how to resolve them. This means using more than just colors to indicate an error. Using more than one method ensures people can continue interacting with digital content and accomplish tasks. To help users resolve errors, consider implementing the following:

  • Clear error messages and guidance for correction
  • Confirmations for completed actions
  • Accessible status messages for ongoing processes
  • Multi-modal feedback (i.e. visual, auditory, haptic)

Inclusive and Flexible User Options

No user interacts with the web the same which means your site needs to cater to a myriad of preferences. As you’re building your site, ensure users can customize their experience by offering:

  • Customizable theme, layout, text, and color options
  • Different modes of operation (e.g. beginner, expert)
  • Options to adjust the pace of content delivery
  • User-controlled timing for disappearing content

Accessibility Testing and Maintenance

Usability testing and maintenance should be done throughout the design process by both UX/UI professionals and real users. This ensures the design meets users’ needs and provides maximum accessibility. Below are some best practices to follow:

  • Regularly conduct accessibility audits
  • Involve users with disabilities in testing
  • Update and maintain accessibility features with technology changes
  • Train the design and development team on accessibility best practices

Design and Develop with Accessibility at Every Stage

Accessibility should not be an afterthought in the design process — it should be built into every stage of the design and development process. Knowing the effects accessibility has on all users and the benefits it provides your business can help you create a digital experience that’s inclusive and accessible for all individuals.

Remember — accessibility is a journey, not a destination. At AudioEye, we provide numerous resources to help you learn more about accessibility. From helping you avoid common accessibility design mistakes to creating accessible videos, AudioEye has you covered.

Curious about how accessible your site is now? Scan your website with AudioEye to learn where accessibility issues are on your site and how you can resolve them.

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