When people learn about what I do for a living, the conversations always lead to this question: “How did you become interested in accessibility?”
The answer is buried inside 23 years working in usability, online conversions, software QA and providing web site audits as an independent consultant. Previous to this were the trial by fire experiences in the 1990’s when I built websites and promoted them in search engines and web directories.
Early on I made the connection from search engine marketing to usability. A confusing website is difficult to promote because it conveys the message that web visitors are not valued.
I connected accessibility to usability thanks to the human factors and neuroscience fields. My experiences there led to human experience design as my focus. I realized we were dismissing millions of people by literally designing them right out of the web experience.
- Who are the people we are excluding?
- What’s my incentive for advocating for inclusion?
- What design practices are helping or hindering profitable websites?
Analytics never told the whole story. I approached human experience design by staying up to date on current studies and research and applying my skills in QA, SEO, UX and IA.
I knew deep down I was missing something.
Independence is a Human Right
Why did I care about a web designed for all people to use?
I could use the web without aids for reading, working, email, watching videos and running an online community for web designers and marketers (my forums ran for 20 years). I didn’t have a personal reason to consider disabilities unless you count my terrible eyesight.
Sometimes I stutter. Not a biggie.
I could have walked away and disregarded compassion for customers and ignored competitive value and brand reputation. After all, my clients’ companies didn’t belong to me. I knew the companies that cared for generating income more than generating inclusive, pleasant user experiences.
I could have made recommendations for website conversions without a care in the world about whether people who could see or hear the website.
I was often asked to do that.
However, I always believed the Internet could unify rather than divide and to do that meant making what we built with it user friendly for everyone. Today the buzz word for this is “inclusive”.
Inclusive web design practices invite user independence. Independence feels good because it means they can, rather than they can’t perform any task. It provides equal access and no barriers.
For web conversions, text is vital for communication with site visitors. Understanding how to present text is where designers often fail. Too much text can lead to the need to stop reading. Too little text and we may lose focus, or become easily distracted.
As web or mobile app designers, we want to encourage staying on task. One way of doing that is by removing the page content elements causing stress and reducing momentum. (Yes, those ads!)
Web page abandonment is one of those signs you see in your data worth exploring. Rarely is page structure, text presentation and information architecture considered as clues. And even when they are, we’re still missing people with disabilities wanting to use your website or mobile app.
Advocating for Web Accessibility
I’ve written volumes over the years on how to structure page content so that it supports the reader who can see the text, buttons, images, headings, little arrows, sliding carousels and links that are usually dull and not exciting at all to click.
We may get away with designing boring pages. We may also get away with inconsiderate UI.
If only a requirement for buying a domain and building a property intended to reside on the Web was to promise to do no harm to our visitors.
But we can’t agree on how to do this. Or if we should. Some countries wrote laws to support or enforce web accessibility. The WC3 created technical web standards. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) unify best practices and provide guidelines that are updated and reviewed as the technology improves.
I support web experiences designed for everyone because it feels awful to be left out.
Respectful Design Practices Support Independence
Have you been taught to respect the needs of your web visitors? Do you know what those needs are?
Do you agonize over barriers to task completion by those who need support?
We forget to design user interfaces that show what to do next or what we just did. Audio status messages are vital when you can’t see any visuals.
I realized my missing piece is the basic right to choose how to navigate our environment and that this applies to websites and web apps.
Accessibility as a design practice is simply a way to lend a hand so people with disabilities can complete the tasks they want to.
For people with disabilities, we are in their way. I honestly had not considered this earlier in my career.
Imagine manifesting a no hassle way of interacting with the web using any computer device. Inclusive design means we tested it, worked out the kinks, threw it in the air, beat it up and by golly it works upside down and from far away with just the sound of a voice.
I Can Do This Myself
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the USA recognizes that discrimination in any form is wrong but when it comes to the web, there is no legal consensus on whether or not people with disabilities are welcome to use it.
Someone in a wheelchair without full use of their hands may need assistive tech to check email, converse on social media, write a book or buy gifts from online stores. How satisfying it must be for developers who invent accessible solutions!
Millions of people have poor eyesight and may need help to complete tasks from mobile apps either by changing their device settings or by firing up an assist such as a screen reader that will announce content, links, describe images, instruct how to fill out form fields and sort through the maze of content to get to the desired parts.
Transcripts for deaf people bring the web world to those who can’t hear it. People struggling with memory and cognition conditions benefit from all sorts of design enhancements to help them with recall, wayfinding and comprehension.
It took me a very long time to connect the pieces where web search behavior, user experience and inclusive design intersect. I could see the relationship. But I didn’t understand the why behind it.
People with disabilities desire the same access as everyone else. They don’t want to be a burden and find it hard to understand why they are treated as though they are.
Still not understanding what my incentive was for adding accessibility skills to my career, one day it hit me. I share the same fierce desire for independence. I relate to those who break down barriers. The experiences and stories from people with disabilities inspired me to do better.
Accessibility Design Isn’t Optional
Learning web accessibility is not for the faint of heart. It costs time and money to build accessible software or websites that don’t exclude people who have every right to access them.
It isn’t required to embrace user experiences that don’t exclude people. This is changing, both in the courts and public opinion.
Write your mission statement. Brands that welcome everyone to the table stand out as leaders. Invite all web visitors to use your digital product, whether it’s a simple blog, detailed ecommerce site or downloadable mobile app.
Write your accessibility statement. Sure, you may not have a perfectly coded website but you’re trying and showing you care about creating an inclusive experience. Be sure to include a way to contact you if there is an accessibility issue.
Fling open opportunities for training employees, yourself, designers and developers. Human experience design shouldn’t be an afterthought when you are building web experiences.
The person arriving to your website or downloading your mobile app is unique.
Say hello to them.
All photos by Unsplash