Accessibility is too often treated as a “nice to have.”
But the reality is that there are tons of relatively simple things you can do to make your websites more accessible. And they’ll not only make your websites more accessible to the disabled, but also significantly improve your user experiences for everyone.
But first, let’s be clear about our terms:
Here’s accessibility expert Jennison Asuncion’s definition of accessibility:
Accessibility refers to designing and developing user interfaces that everyone, including people with disabilities, can independently consume and interact with.
Note that the stress here doesn’t fall specifically on “people with disabilities,” but everyone. That makes accessibility a natural concern for all of us involved in user experience design, regardless of discipline.
Now, on to the tips!
I can’t tell you many times I’ve had a mockup or prototype hit my inbox (or Slack) with 16 “learn more,” “read this,” or “see more” links scattered across it — and groaned.
Why? Because it’s horrible for users of screen readers, which typically allow people to skip from link to link on a page, ignoring the content in-between. It’s a highly efficient mode of navigation that helps screen-reader users quickly get where they want to go.
But how easy do you think it is for a blind or low-vision user to figure out which of those “learn more” links leads to the “more” they want to learn about?
And it’s actually not that different for sighted users. Think of all the times you’ve fired up a website knowing exactly what you’re looking for, but not quite sure where to find it. Do you read through all the content? Or do you simply hunt around for the right link?
You might scan through the headings and subheads first — after all, they’re bold and eye-catching — but you still have to live with the cognitive load of connecting those headings to the links below. But links tend to be pretty visually loud too, so wouldn’t it be even easier if every link told you exactly where it would take you without demanding I read all the other copy?
For more, check out the WebAIM article on links.
Alt tags also play a key role for screen-reader users on the web. Without these invisible bits of copy, there’s literally no way for low-vision and blind users to understand the content of images, data visualizations, and infographics. With alt tags, we can ensure that no one has to miss the information conveyed in our pie charts, hero photos, and infographics.
Back in the bad old days of black-hat SEO madness, alt tags were abused as just another method of stuffing a page with keywords. Which was horrible for users of screen readers. Just imagine reading through a blog article and hearing:
“CSS layouts let us CSS HTML tables table-based layouts tables web web design code markup floats inline inline-block block W3C web consortium…”
All in a screen reader’s eerily robotic tones.
Because of that abuse, search engines quickly moved to punish such “keyword-stuffers,” freeing alt tags up to do what they were always intended to do: provide useful information.
As with links, the key here is to make your alt tags clear, descriptive, and natural-sounding.
With many photos, this is a simple matter of succinctly describing the content of the image: “Closeup of blueberries.”
If your image contains text — and seriously, don’t do that — include the text verbatim in the alt tag.
If your image contains useful data, such as a bar graph illustrating mobile usage patterns, make sure the alt tag contains the same data: “95% percent of smartphone users view the same website on multiple devices.”
And I can’t pass up this opportunity to briefly rail against infographics: these massive images full of copy are horrible for accessibility, not to mention SEO.
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There’s a lot to keep in mind when you’re building accessible forms. (As you’ll see in this article on building accessible forms.) But a key element for any content strategist—and your users—is error messaging.
As WebAIM notes, error messages:
Should clearly describe the errors that are present and, optimally, include cues or instructions for resolving them. For example, ‘Course number is not formatted correctly’ is not as helpful as ‘Course number must be a 3 digit number’.
When writing error messages, don’t just describe the problem, but focus on how to fix it. In most cases, you don’t even need to belabor the point that there was an error: just focus on the fix, and do it clearly and succinctly.
All your users, sighted and otherwise, will appreciate the clear guidance on what to do next.
As I mentioned above, all error messages should do two things:
But you can easily achieve both goals in one message by implying that there was an error. For example, we could state an error message in the following ways:
Option 1 explicitly states that there’s an error, but doesn’t make clear how to fix it. Option 2 is also explicit, but adds a way to fix the problem, so it’s an improvement. Best of all is 3, which implies that there was a problem by explaining how to fix it.
Just as a screen reader allows people to skip from link to link, they can also skip between headings, ignoring the copy between.
Now, imagine that experience with the majority of websites out there. Do you think you could clearly infer the topic of every section of a given web page without referencing the body copy or links?
Personally, my answer’s “sometimes?” To quickly run through the Square page above:
As an exercise, I’d suggest turning off all your non-headline copy layers (if you’re using a desktop app like Sketch or Photoshop) or briefly turn your <p> tags to your page background color (if you’re using Webflow).
Now read through all your H tags, asking yourself with each: am I being clear enough with this headline alone?
If your answer’s no, it might be time for a rewrite.
Note that aiming for clarity in headlines often means using more words. I realize that might run counter to your impulse to create “clean” websites, but it’s worth asking yourself:
Is it more important that this site look clean, or that it give people all the info they need?
Forms may not be sexy, but they are the heart of product design, and the right content can make them vastly more usable — and accessible — for everyone. Here’s a few ways to do that:
Making your website more accessible to the disabled has a fringe benefit: It can actually improve everyone’s experience of your websites.
After all, a screen reader skipping from heading to heading, or link to link, behaves a lot like we all do the on the web: not consuming everything, but scanning for the specific info we need.
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