Why UX Accessibility Design Should Be a Top Priority (And A Checklist to Get Your Site Up to Par)

By Doug Collins
Editor, UXNewsMag.com

Designing for UX accessibility means designing for those with disabilities.  Disabilities can be physical, visual, auditory, or psychological.  Whatever the nature of a disability, we as UX professionals need to ensure we are doing all we can to make our sites accessible.

Not every UX professional knows the ins-and-outs of accessibility design (and if you don’t, maybe it’s time to update your skillset.) Far from being a secondary concern, accessibility design should be a primary for every UX professional.  Here are some of the big reasons, both from an ethical and bottom-line standpoint, that optimizing a site for accessibility is a must.

There Are Way More People With Accessibility Issues Than You Probably Think

If you had to guess how many people were permanently disabled worldwide, what would you guess?  If you said anything less than 1.3 billion, you were wrong – and for the love of God, don’t go out disabling people to make yourself right.  That’s more than the population of 4 of the 7 continents.

Nearly 10% of Users Share 1 Disability in Common

Have you ever heard the rule “don’t use color alone to convey information?”  It’s a cardinal sin of UX design, and It springs from a single accessibility issue: colorblindness. Nearly 8% of men and 1% of women worldwide share this accessibility issue, making this the perfect first piece to address when re-designing a site for accessibility.

We’re All Disabled… Sometimes

We tend to think of accessibility design as affecting only those with permanent disabilities, but that’s not always the case.  A mother holding a toddler in one arm has the same functional capabilities from a usability perspective as someone was born with the use of only one arm.  A construction worker in a loud work zone is as functionally deaf as someone who was born without any hearing.

These fleeting disabilities tied to a temporary condition, called microdisabilities, can impact a person anywhere from seconds to hours, but still must be considered when deciding the impact of accessibility on a site and its audience.

When you consider the amount of people dealing with either permanent or microdisabilities, it becomes clear not taking accessiblity design as a top priority means abandoning a large portion of your user base.  From both an ethical and bottom-line standpoint, designing for accessibility is one of the best investments to make from a UX perspective.

Where to Start – An Accessibility Checklist for UX Designers

The biggest challenge many UXers face when starting to audit a site for accessibility concerns is simply figuring out where to start.

Fortunately, the W3C has our backs.  They created a set of accessibility guidelines called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to help designers and developers create fully accessible websites that are usable by all.

While most of the guidelines have to do with web development patterns, a fair bit applies to UX professionals as well.  The below is the stripped-down checklist of accessibility guidelines that UXers can use to audit the accessibility of their site and make necessary changes.


(Printable PDF Version, From DenverUXer.com, My Personal Site)

Section 1: Make Site Perceiveble

1. Do all important images have alt attributes? Important images that convey content or important information should have alt attribute content that conveys the same content or information as the image in written form. Images like icons or decorations need not have alt ext attributes.

2. Does video content have either closed captioning, open captioning, or a transcript available? All captioning or transcripts should convey all information and content included in the video. (Audio Impairment / Visual Impairment)

3. Is color alone used to convey meaning or information? Color alone should never be used to convey meaning or information. (Visual Impairment)

4. Does the site have at least a 5:1 contrast ratio between text color and background color? At least a 5:1 contrast ratio is necessary to allow partially visually impaired users to read text. (Visual Impairment)


Section 2: Make Site Operable

1. Is it possible to navigate to all links on a page using the keyboard only? Passing keyboard navigation tests is an important threshold for those with impaired fine motor skills. (Physical Impairment)

2. For pages with a search form, is it possible to navigate to all search form field and submit a search using only the keyboard? Passing keyboard navigation tests is an important threshold for those with impaired fine motor skills. (Physical Impairment)

3. Does the cursor get trapped anywhere on the page when attempting to navigate by keyboard only? Passing keyboard navigation tests is an important threshold for those with impaired fine motor skills. (Physical Impairment)

4. Is there any flashing content on the site? Flashing content may present a seizure risk and is not consider good UX practice in any case. Flashing content should be avoided under all circumstances. (Cognitive Impairment)


Section 3: Make Site Understandable

1. Does the site contain any jargon, unusual words, acronyms, or abbreviations without providing a mechanism to identify and define each? These elements can be difficult to discern and retain for those with learning disabilities or other cognitive impairments, such as short-term memory loss. If these pieces are used, a mechanism to define the meaning of each should be used, such as linking to a dictionary definition. (Cognitive Impairment)

2. Is the page content written at no more than a 9th grade reading level? Run the page copy through a readability checker such as readability.io. If the readability level is higher than 9th grade, revise the content by reducing the number of words per sentence and number of sentences per paragraph. (Cognitive Impairment)

Section 4: Make Site Robust

1. Is the destination and context of each link clear when read out of context? Links text should be descriptive of destination and content to allow for ease of use with screen readers and assistive technology (Visual and Physical Impairments)

2. Is the content of each section clearly defined with a header that makes sense when read out of content? Many screen readers and assistive technology allow navigation by jumping from header to header. Each content section should have a header that is descriptive of the content when read out of context. (Visual and Physical Impairments)

3. Do the first two sentences of each paragraph make sense when read out of context? Many screen readers and assistive technology allow navigation by jumping from paragraph to paragraph. Each content paragraph should have solid topic sentences that are descriptive of the paragraph content when read out of context. (Visual and Physical Impairments)

4. Are buttons used only to complete an action, such as submitting a form? Buttons should only be used to complete actions and never for navigation. (Visual and Physical Impairments) 5. Are links only used for navigation? Links should never be used to complete a task. This can cause errors in assistive web browsers. (Visual and Physical Impairments)

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