Web Accessibility: A Human-First Approach

Illustration for accessibility article

Defining Web Accessibility

Web accessibility is here to stay, and that’s great news for everyone. Whether it’s more organizations committing to diversity, equity and inclusion, the massive increase of web accessibility related lawsuits, or even the introduction of state legislature requiring accessibility compliance for government websites — tides are turning towards a better internet for everyone.

But what exactly is web accessibility to begin with? If you’re not really sure what web accessibility standards are or why they’re important, this article is for you.

The web should be easy to use

The advent of the internet changed everything. More than ever before, world and local news, entertainment, detailed niche information, commerce, the realization of all sorts of day-to-day tasks and so much more is right at our fingertips. And with digital agencies increasingly bent on improving engagement, facilitating quick task completion, and endlessly improving usability, getting the most out of the internet is easier than it’s ever been. Sometimes, anyway.

Chances are you still have major frustrations with a few of the websites and applications you use in your everyday life. Hover menus with a million links, confusing navigation labels, tiny print on complex forms, and captchas with their very own learning curve definitely make the list. Where’s my account status? How do I preview my changes? How do I get in touch with support?

There’s nothing more frustrating than discovering that the people who built the websites you interact with just didn’t consider you. Whether through carelessness, over-familiarity with their own content, or preconceptions about who their users are, somehow the way you expected to use their website simply got overlooked. And now you’ve been clicking around hopelessly, picking traffic lights from grids of obscure photos, or trying to balance the browser’s zoom between “readable text” and “broken form” for minutes on end.

It happens to everyone sometimes — but what if it was most of the time?

Web accessibility is usability

Web accessibility standards help us build better technology for users. Not so long ago tech companies focused on designing interfaces that worked for most users, assuming that aiming at a fictitious median or “everyperson” user would cost effectively reach the largest audience. That assumption bakes in a lot more exclusion than you’d imagine.

20/80 graph shows edge users vs. median users
Focusing on a "median user" towards the center of a curve explicitly excludes users at the edges of everyday use cases.

Design flaws like links that are the same color as regular text and poorly implemented (or altogether missing) keyboard navigation frustrate lots of users. But those frustrations are amplified and exacerbated for users with disabilities. From a broken finger through a wide gradiance of other mobility, hearing, visual, or cognitive impairments, users who stray from the fictitious “everyperson” are often left out in the virtual cold.

20/80 graph shows edge users included
When the focus is shifted to use cases at the edges of the curve, common use cases are implicitly considered.

Luckily, that’s changing. More and more the tech industry is recognizing that building interfaces designed with the fringe user in mind not only creates a more inclusive web and increases potential audiences, but actually improves the experience for all users.

Think about other assistive technologies like “Walk” sounds played at crosswalks. While the sounds are aimed at making the crosswalk accessible to non-sighted people, they benefit sighted people as well. For anyone looking at their phone, chatting with friends, or just not staring at the Walk signal — that chirping sound is universally understood. Accessible technology improved the crosswalk experience for everyone. Just so with clear, visible links, concise image descriptions, keyboard navigation, and a host of other assistive technologies.

POUR: The principles of web accessibility

The cornerstones of web accessibility are the POUR principles. All digital interfaces should be Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust for as many users as possible. The World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) — the gold standard in modern web accessibility — are structured along these principles.

  • Perceivable: Users must be able to perceive the information. This means, among other things, providing text for those who cannot hear and audio for those who cannot see.
  • Operable: Everyone needs to be able to operate websites with a variety of tools. Keyboard and screen reader controls must be present.
  • Understandable: Perceptibility and operability don’t necessarily imply understanding. Websites should use clear, concise language and interfaces that encourage comprehension.
  • Robust: Websites should operate and behave similarly across all major browsers and devices.

You can think of the WCAG like a city building code — only instead of ensuring that homeowners and commercial developers build safely and adhere to health and civil standards, the WCAG makes sure web content is accessible to the most users possible.

The latest WCAG 2.2 working draft covers practical application of POUR principles in great detail. It also defines four levels of conformance, from non-conformant through A, AA, to AAA. The definitions are clear and codified, making it straightforward for a web accessibility specialist to assess conformance of any website (much like a building inspector) — or guide a design and development team towards achieving conformance.

Making interfaces clear through a variety of mediums and usable through a variety of interaction styles produces a far more inclusive experience and reaches a much wider audience. In practice this means implementing POUR principles in such a way that websites can effectively use screen readers, braille displays, screen zooming, keyboard navigation, or other assistive technologies.

The benefits of robust, accessible content go way beyond inclusion. According to multisensory learning theories based on a large body of scientific studies (for example: Benefits of multisensory learning and The bond effect of haptic exploration), people interacting with subject matter in multiple ways improve their comprehension and information retention. Even users without specific sensory limitations may have a more impressionable overall experience by reading captions while watching a video or keyboard navigating while reading an article, for example. Accessible websites are better for everyone.

Web accessibility is more than a checklist

There are a number of automated tools that can check websites for some important accessibility benchmarks like the presence of alternate text for images or appropriate levels of design contrast. The Website Accessibility Evaluation Tool (WAVE), for example, can quickly indicate problem areas for any website and provide a starting point for accessibility evaluation — but automated tools just expose the tip of the iceberg.

There are more than 70 success criteria outlined in WCAG 2.1 which are used to determine accessibility conformance, and the majority of them require a person to properly evaluate. A person is necessary because many of the WCAG specifications deal with the content’s intelligibility — whether assistive technologies are implemented in a way that is actually helpful to users. A website could easily include alternate text for its images, for example, but only a person can evaluate whether that text would actually help a visually impaired user understand the content.

Examples of good and bad alternative text

It’s important to remember that the whole point of web accessibility is to make website content accessible to everyone. If people with sensory impairments can’t use your website, it’s not accessible.

At Aten we work to integrate assistive technologies and accessible design right from the inception of every project. From discovery and planning through design, development, and quality assurance, we work to implement POUR principles and consider users taking advantage of a variety of assistive technologies.

Web accessibility is a moving target. Not only are the WCAG updated every couple of years to reflect the latest advancements in accessible technology, but web content itself is far too fluid to approach with a “set it and forget it” mentality. Ongoing training, assessment, and improvement are a must if web technology can aspire to meet users where they are. Aten’s accessibility and usability experts care about one thing: the humans using the technology.

Humans, together

Our approach to accessibility is human-first. We understand that complying with the very latest in accessibility standards is just a necessary first step in delivering real-life positive experiences to users. That’s why we consistently come back to the humans using the technology — whether that’s through our inspiring partnership with assistive technology users at the Blind Institute of Technology, or our ongoing focus on robust, face-to-face client training aimed at producing content that’s accessible to everyone.

Are you excited about building a better internet for humans, too? Let’s work together.