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Universal Accessibility

Sir Tim’s vision for the Web was that content could be created once and accessed from anywhere. Disparate but related pieces of “hypermedia”17 scattered across the globe could be connected to one another via links. Moreover, they would be retrievable by anyone on any device capable of reading HTML. For free.

Ultimately, Sir Tim’s vision is about accessibility.

For a great many of us, ensuring our websites are accessible is an afterthought. We talk a good game when it comes to “user centered” this or that but often treat the word accessibility as a synonym for “screen reader.”

Sure, people with visual impairments often use a screen reader to consume content. But they might also use a braille touch feedback device or a braille printer. They probably also use a keyboard. Or they may use a touchscreen in concert with audio cues. Or they may even use a camera to allow them to “read” content via optical character recognition (OCR) and text-to-speech. And yes, visual impairment affects a decent percentage of the populace (especially as we age, which we all do), but it is only part of the “accessibility” puzzle.

We all benefit when designers consider accessibility. We all have special needs. “Accessibility” is about recognizing that fact and taking steps to address them.

People consume content and use interfaces in many different ways, some similar and some quite dissimilar to how you do it. Designing for universal accessibility means not imposing a certain world view—yours, your boss’s, or your client’s—on how or where someone is going to access your website, giving your users ultimate control on how they choose to consume your content.

The dimensions of interactive elements—links, buttons, and so on—and their proximity to one another is an important factor in ensuring an interface actually registers your intent. Have you ever injured your dominant arm and had to mouse with your other one? It’s frustrating, especially when links are small or buttons are too close together. Visual design is an accessibility concern.

The color contrast between text and the background is an important factor in ensuring content remains readable in different lighting situations. Some websites are nearly impossible to read on your phone while outside on a sunny day or when you’ve turned down the screen brightness to sip that last 5 percent of your battery life. Color choice is an accessibility concern.

The language you use on your sites and in your interfaces directly affects how easy it is for your users to understand what you do, the products you’re offering, and why it matters. It also affects how you make your users feel about themselves, their experience, and your company. Terms of service are a perfect example of this: No one reads them because they are alienating and unfriendly.18 Language is an accessibility concern.

The size of your web pages and their associated assets has a direct effect on how long your pages take to download, how much it costs your customers to access them, and (sometimes) even whether the content can be reached. One time I unwittingly played 30 minutes of a high-definition video while tethered to my phone, traveling abroad, thanks to YouTube’s auto-play “feature.”19 It cost me about $30. Bandwidth use and performance are accessibility concerns.

I could keep going, but I’m sure you get the point.

To me, accessibility is ultimately about ensuring people have equal opportunity to access your content while simultaneously recognizing that we all have special needs—physical limitations, bandwidth limitations, device limitations—that may require each of us to have different experiences of the same web page.

When I load a website on my phone, for example, I am visually limited by my screen resolution (especially if I am using a browser that encourages zooming), and I am limited in my ability to interact with buttons and links because I am browsing with my fingertips, which are far larger and less precise than a mouse cursor. On a touchscreen, I may need the experience to be slightly different, but I still need to be able to do whatever it is I came to the page to do. I need an experience, but moreover, I need the appropriate experience.

Experience doesn’t need to be one hulking, monolithic ideal. It can be different for different people. That may be hard to wrap your head around at times, but embracing it will help you reach more people with fewer headaches.

Experience can—and should—be crafted as a continuum. Progressive enhancement embraces that continuum.

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