Making Web Sites Accessible Without Sacrificing Aesthetics

By Simon Norris

Published: September 23, 2013

“Digital organizations typically need to demonstrate that it is possible to achieve accessibility without negatively impacting visual design—and this is often where problems begin.”

The Web Accessibility Initiative aimed to improve Web usability for those with disabilities. But fifteen years after its launch, organizations still widely ignore online accessibility. Far too often, people believe that designing for accessibility means compromising an attractive design. As a result, a myriad of misconceptions have emerged, which often prevent organizations from making a determined effort to integrate accessibility into the design of their Web sites.

Although there are a number of advantages to creating an accessible Web site, including a potential increase in audience numbers, digital organizations typically need to demonstrate that it is possible to achieve accessibility without negatively impacting visual design—and this is often where problems begin. When businesses fail to create Web sites that are both functional and accessible, while at the same time ensuring that they do not compromise visual design, they are essentially risking customer experience (CX) and, therefore, revenue.

Dispelling Prevalent Myths About Web Accessibility

“A popular myth relating to Web accessibility and user experience is that accessibility and attractive design simply do not go together.”

A popular myth relating to Web accessibility and user experience is that accessibility and attractive design simply do not go together. A significant number of the advocates of Web accessibility tend to create either content- or technology-driven Web sites that do not demonstrate that creativity can also be part of an accessible Web site user experience.

However, Web accessibility need not affect the visual design of a site in any way. All Web sites should be beautiful and easy to use, while also offering a high level of accessibility, which in turn creates an excellent user experience and a positive online journey.

A related myth is that accessible Web sites are ugly and boring. In reality, accessibility has nothing to do with how visually attractive a site may be. The misconception that Web sites have to sacrifice design for accessibility comes from the early days of the Internet, when technology restricted developers’ choices in terms of achieving both accessibility and aesthetic design. At that time, developers considered text-only Web sites that were devoid of any elements that increased the visual appeal of a site to be the only acceptable solution for accessibility. However, in today’s reality, Web designers have the freedom to design beautiful, creative, interactive, and engaging experiences that are also accessible. Those who claim otherwise may be misinterpreting accessibility requirements and thus seeing them as being more restrictive than they actually are.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) explain that Web designers can use images and videos on Web sites, as long as they ensure that this content is fully accessible by providing captions for videos and offering alternative text descriptions.

Accessible sites do not have to be text-only Web sites, with monochromatic designs and static content. After all, accessibility is a key part of user experience that all Web designers should embrace. Implementing accessibility employs a number of layout and design options that mostly happen behind the scenes and do not affect the presentation of the Web site. For example, font sizes can be large or small, as long as they are resizable, and you can use as many images as you like, as long as you also provide a detailed, alternative description to users.

The WCAG guidelines do not forbid anyone to use images, videos, or JavaScript on their Web site. However, it is important to ensure that a site’s content is still accessible if users are not able or choose not to view it. You can achieve this by providing captions and clear transcripts of videos and audio recordings, alternative text descriptions for images, and accessible mechanisms for controlling slideshows.

Today’s Web designers should consider implementing interactive features for different devices—for example, presenting information in a compelling format for modern Web browsers, as well as for assistive devices such as screen readers. This lets you improve your overall Web page design, while sustaining a Web site’s level of accessibility.

Some Common Myths About Web Accessibility

“Creating an accessible site is neither a particularly expensive nor time-consuming process—especially if developers do things in the correct way from the very beginning.”

There are a number of misconceptions about Web site accessibility that prevent people from making an effort to incorporate accessibility into their sites. Because of the range of myths surrounding Web accessibility, many businesses decide not to make their Web sites accessible. Let’s take a look at some of the most common myths about accessible Web design.

Myth 1: Web Accessibility Is Time Consuming and Expensive

The belief that Web accessibility is time consuming and expensive stems from the idea that the process of creating an accessible Web site is more complicated and very different from creating a site that is not accessible. However, developers use the same programming languages and technologies in creating accessible Web sites—though perhaps more thoughtfully and with more understanding and attention to detail in order to create sites that are in accordance with best practices.

Creating an accessible site is neither a particularly expensive nor time-consuming process—especially if developers do things in the correct way from the very beginning. In contrast, rebuilding an inaccessible site to make it accessible can often be difficult and expensive—all the more reason to incorporate accessibility into a site from the start.

Myth 2: Accessible Sites Are Exclusive

“In actuality, accessible sites are inclusive. Approximately 650 million people have a disability that affects their use of the Internet….”

Some people believe that accessible Web sites benefit only a small percentage of the population. This seems to be the main argument business owners use when they want to avoid making the effort to create an accessible Web site. They often say that people with disabilities do not use their sites. But how can they if a Web site is inaccessible to them?

However, in actuality, accessible sites are inclusive. Approximately 650 million people have a disability that affects their use of the Internet, while even more of us may have some temporary form of disability at some point—such as a broken wrist or a migraine.

Accessibility not only benefits people who have temporary or permanent health problems or physical or cognitive disabilities, but can be useful to the entire Web community. An accessible site’s clear layout, consistent navigation, and meaningful link names provide ease of use to everyone—especially those visiting a content-heavy site for the first time.

Myth 3: Automated Tools Are Sufficient for Evaluating Accessibility

“Automated evaluation tools … cannot replace manual testing. Many of the WCAG checkpoints require human judgment.”

Automated evaluation tools are particularly helpful for accessibility testing because they can reduce the time and effort that is necessary to achieve accessibility by identifying some potential issues. However, they cannot replace manual testing. Many of the WCAG checkpoints require human judgment. An automated tool can check whether an image has an alternative text description, but it cannot judge whether the description is accurate and meaningful.

Myth 4: Web Accessibility Is Required by Law

The Equality Act of 2010 makes it illegal to discriminate against those with disabilities. If someone with a disability were unable to access the information on a Web site, it could be perceived as discrimination. For example, it would be unlawful to deliberately use color contrast to make a Web site’s content inaccessible to a partially sighted service user. However, discrimination can be hard to prove.

Designing an Accessible Future

Web accessibility is … about providing an exceptional user experience to ensure universal access while maintaining a high level of creativity, aesthetic design, and functionality.

While Web accessibility was once commonly overlooked, today it is considered a fundamental objective. It is, therefore, the responsibility of UX professionals to be accountable for providing a holistic, design-orientated approach to Web accessibility. The goal should be to create a Web site that is usable by everyone to the greatest extent possible, without requiring any rework or specialized design.

Web accessibility is not just about disabled users being able to access a Web site; it is about providing an exceptional user experience to ensure universal access while maintaining a high level of creativity, aesthetic design, and functionality.

A Case in Point

Nomensa recently relaunched its Web site, Nomensa.com, to demonstrate that attractive designs can be accessible. With an in-house team of Web accessibility experts and visual designers who are familiar with accessibility best practices, we were able to develop a Web site that delivers an accessible and fully responsive experience across all popular devices. Our team took a content-first approach to the design process, with the aim of providing an informative and engaging Web experience.

Nomensa.com and the company’s blog are full of rich imagery, highlighting that an accessible Web site certainly does not have to be devoid of imagery or creativity—as long as the site also provides alternative text descriptions. The Web site features an Instagram feed on its home page, with the aim of keeping the site up to date with new content, emphasizing that an accessible site need not be static.

3 Comments

Accessibility is required by law in the US and Canada. That is not a myth. The actual risk of legal action or how severe is a separtate question.

I came across this WSJ article on recent lawsuits.

Accessibility for Web sites isn’t really a law in the US. Otherwise, every company would be accessible, whether it’s their buildings’ structure or their Web sites. There are businesses who contract for the Federal agencies that don’t follow the 508 Standards, which is required under the contract.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that all companies should be accessible, but unfortunately, they choose not to do it because they believe there are other projects that take precedence or it’s too expensive to modify the code. To me, I see it as an excuse to be lazy. I hope the ADA increases their investigations into those who don’t comply, and we’ll see how much it really costs when they consider legal fees, fines, and penalties.

Thanks, Simon, for this article, which covers a number of valid points. Sadly, the WAI and WCAG haven’t resulted in universal observance of accessibility guidelines. And if that’s the case in the UK, imagine how much worse it is in the US! ;)

Just what is the letter of the US law on this, anyway? I admit that I’m not an accessibility expert, but I know a bit about it. Enough to get tortuously confused about the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, and Section 508 requirements for “accessible Internet content and applications”—plus a plethora of state-level variations on the federal 508.

But in 2011, Abiodun Olalere and Jonathan Lazar of Towson State published a study showing that 90% of the 100 US government Web sites that they examined were in violation of Section 508 accessibility guidelines. Who’s policing these government sites?

I believe the US Dept of Justice considers Web sites to be “places of public accommodation,” and thus, subject to ADA requirements. Individuals and groups have successfully brought suit against non-governmental Web sites—for example, Target.com, UnitedAirlines.com, Netflix.com, and eBay.com—for having inaccessible Web sites.

But if it takes some brave soul’s bringing a lawsuit to effect a change, we’re still not there. As Vlad suggests, the threat of legal action hasn’t proven very effective.

I hope someone knowledgeable can shed some light on all of this, with exact references to the actual law, as it applies to the non-government Web space.

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