3 things I’ve learned about accessibility in design

Written by - December 5, 2019

This post aims to introduce, reinforce and advocate accessible design standards within digital design. My name’s Alex and I’m a designer here at Wholegrain Digital, where it’s my job to ensure that every design I create is as accessible as possible, for as many people as possible. Being relatively able-bodied, accessible design wasn’t always something that I’d adhere to, or indeed know much about. Since learning more about how the digital space can become truly universal, it is now clear that accessible design is fundamental to all good design. Here are my main learnings:

1. Accessibility is not boring

I’m sure many can sympathise with this enticement – accessibility can be seen as boring! One doesn’t necessarily immediately put accessibility and aesthetics together – but from a closer and more in-depth look, these two can work hand-in-hand. One example is that humans like, and need, strong colour contrast between text elements and not only is a strong contrast more accessible, it’s also no doubt more visually pleasing. Art and design that uses high contrast colours is more likely to stand out.

2. Universal design = universal benefit

There’s a misconception that people with disabilities don’t use the internet all that often – of course this is wrong. Also, accessibility doesn’t just benefit people with specific disabilities, it improves the usability of a website for everyone. I’ve learnt, and am continuing to learn, that universal design benefits all users. Designing universally is not a special requirement for the benefit of a minority of the population. It is actually a fundamental condition of good design. If an environment or atmosphere is accessible, usable, convenient and a pleasure to use, everyone benefits. The following quote from the National Disability Authority is a strong reminder that universal design wins.
“By considering the diverse needs and abilities of all throughout the design process, universal design creates products, services and environments that meet peoples’ needs. Simply put, universal design is good design.”

3. A few small changes can make a big difference

It’s likely not just me who thought “there’s too much to learn” when it came to understanding accessibility as a requirement of good design. After having designed a few websites that meet very high standards of accessibility, it’s fair to say that a few small changes can make a very big difference. Here’s a shortlist of design fundamentals in order to make your website more accessible:
“Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.”
– Steve Jobs, former CEO, Apple

Users can easily navigate, find content, and determine where they are

Unsurprisingly, well-organised content helps users to orient themselves and to navigate effectively. This takes me to the UX law, Jakob’s Law, which states “Users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know.” It’s important that content operates in ways users understand.

Content does not cause a physical reaction or seizures

Whilst glitzy, flashy sites may be exciting, they can also be highly inaccessible – so the challenge is to design and make websites that create a smooth and even soothing experience.

Text is readable and understandable

This one goes without saying. In some ways, I have always been cautious about making the text on websites too large, as this can mean the site loses its subtlety. However, as Gov.UK says in its recent accessibility communication guidelines, 16pt is a good starting point for accessible type. It’s also paramount that the text appears on backgrounds with high colour contrast ratios. For example, black on white, and dark grey on white will be highly contrasted. Light blue on dark blue may not be. You can check your colour contrast levels using this handy checker at WebAIM.

Users have enough time to read and use the content

Website pages shouldn’t have an automatic scroll, and users should have total control of their experience. Another no-no is the use of overwhelming and content-covering pop-ups.

Accessible design is better for everyone

So in summary, it’s worth mentioning that I know and understand how easy it is to not see accessibility as fun, exciting or important, but actually it is a huge opportunity to grow as a designer and create genuine solutions that are fundamentally better for everyone. Whether or not your industry is legally bound to observe accessibility regulations, I recommend familiarising yourself with web accessibility guidelines and best practices and seeing how your designs and products can benefit from them.

Some useful links for more information on web accessibility: