Most of us who build user experiences have thought about accessibility before. Surely, many UX designers and developers have attended presentations, read blogs, and scanned through WCAG guidelines countless times. These talks and articles often resemble each other. They offer brief introductions that explain why designers and developers should care about accessibility, usually citing some statistics about how many users and how much money we would miss out on if we forget about accessibility. After this introduction often comes the meat of the discussion in the form of a checklist. This checklist provides short descriptions of minor tweaks developers can make to a website in order to better serve disabled users.
Accessibility is more than a checklist
Don’t get me wrong, everyone in UX should absolutely care about accessibility and these checklists are extremely helpful when trying to improve a website. That said, one thing that I’ve always felt was lacking in these types of talks is empathy. When we are working on the accessibility of a site, it’s often because our client has requested that we meet specified WCAG standards as part of the contract. Accessibility is often an afterthought that only gets included if deadlines and priorities allow for it. Under those kinds of circumstances, it makes sense that accessibility translates into nothing more than a simple checklist that gets tacked onto the bottom of a Jira ticket.
However, true accessibility in the context of user experience happens when we lead the discussions away from basic checklists and to instead focus on empathy for the users who deal with impairments and disability on a daily basis. The best experiences emerge when designers and developers are able to step into the shoes of those who are unable to navigate the digital world as we expect.
Focusing on visually impaired users is a good place to start
Disability takes many different forms. Since so much of a designer's work is visual, a great place to start is by focusing specifically on visual impairments. The best way to spark a useful, empathy-driven exploration is to see for ourselves how visually impaired users navigate the web. If designers put more focus on understanding these users at a deeper level, then accessibility could become a more integrated part of the design process, regardless of whether accessibility is explicitly mentioned in the project’s contract.
In the United States alone, there are about 7.7 million people that have some form of visual impairment. While this may only be 2.4% of the US population, the prevalence of visual impaired people should not be overlooked. As UX designers, we have a duty to create positive digital experiences for every single person who interacts with our products. It is critical that we serve visually impaired users just as fully as we serve every other user.
Building empathy through exploration
All of us at some point have experienced a frustrating digital experience. However, only a few of us have ever experienced the difficulties and frustrations that a visually impaired user must overcome in order to do basic tasks on the web. One excellent activity that focuses on empathy for these users is to apply different visual filters to your designs. When applied to a screen design, blur effects and color distortions can closely emulate the view for users with a specific type of visual impairment. See the following for examples:
Peripheral blocked vision (e.g glaucoma)
Large spots of blocked vision (diabetic retinopathy)
Loss of Acuity (Blurred Vision)
Tritanopia Color Blindness
Color blindness is the most common form of visual impairment. Another empathy exercise to use is a color blindness simulator that demonstrates how digital images appear to people with different forms of color blindness.
A third empathy-building activity is observation. One of the best ways to understand the struggles of visually impaired users is to watch those users go through the steps to accomplish a task. Since screen readers are commonly used, these user tests should involve users who rely on screen readers to navigate the web. Of course, a live user test with visually impaired users is ideal. However, if you lack the resources to set up such a test, I highly recommend watching recorded videos of these types of user tests.
Finally, perhaps the best way to build empathy for any user is through conversation. Human connection is our greatest advantage over technology. By tapping into the emotional side and really listening to peoples’ experiences, designers uncover what users truly need.
How can designers better accommodate the visually impaired?
By prioritizing empathy for the people we serve over simply checking boxes, digital products tend to be far more accessible. However, this does not mean that checklists are useless. There are many simple changes a designer can make that quickly increase accessibility. Below are some practical tips for improving the usability of a digital product to better serve people with visual disabilities.
- Provide proper page structure, using relevant semantic tags such as headers, paragraphs, lists, and footers
- Order elements in a way such that screen readers will describe sections in logical order
- Provide alternative text for all images and for any graphical elements that are essential for understanding
- Avoid using just color to convey information
- Use pattern or texture along with color
- Use monochromatic color schemes
- Maintain proper contrast ratios (at least 4.5:1) for text
Empathy-based accessibility needs to be baked into projects as early as possible and revisited at every stage of product development. Tools such as Color Oracle and Contrast allow designers and developers to simulate color blindness and to check color contrast according to WCAG standards.