Designing an Accessible Website – Part 1

While designing and building a website to look as appealing, interesting and informative as possible it is easy to lose sight of the full spectrum of users, each with varying levels of ability, who may be attempting to access your content. Not only may you be risking the missed opportunity to connect with a wider audience who have some form of impairment, but you could even be construed as discriminating against the less able if your site is not designed or built with a healthy awareness of accessibility at all times.

Many of the techniques and considerations that are important for an accessible website are particularly pertinent when actually coding the site, but in order to ensure their implementation can be successful at this stage, accessibility principles should be prominent throughout the process, from the planning and designing, to the final testing of the new site.

Objectives & Audience

The idea of accessibility in website development is to allow as many users as possible with varying abilities to use your site with no loss of content of function. When considering the accessibility levels you wish to achieve on a new website you should always keep a clear perspective on who you are trying to open your site up to and therefore what abilities you may need to cater for.

The disabilities that you will need to consider can include visual, auditory, vocal, movement and cognitive impairments and many permutations therein. It is ultimately impossible to build a website to be accessible by every single potential user but there are basic and achievable steps which can be taken to ensure that your site is accessible for the vast majority. Ultimately the extent to which you make your site accessible may be limited, or at least impacted, by the original purpose of the website and in some cases the purpose of your site may actually conflict intrinsically with some accessibility requirements. It is therefore the balance between purpose and accessibility that you need to establish when designing your site. As an example, a piece of functionality which has the sole purpose of testing a user’s ability to recognise images in a limited time frame will by definition, and understandably, fall short of certain accessibility criteria because the user is unable to pause the content to allow themselves adequate time to fully perceive the images.

It is also vital to remember that many less able users will rely on assistive technologies such as screen readers to help them access online content and one of your aims will often be to ensure that the site is compatible with these programs to provide the full experience.

Defining the size and extent of the audience that could be reached by an accessible site is very tricky because it is not simply a case of defining and differentiating between the conventional tags of ‘able’ and ‘disabled’ users. Doing so would be drawing a line in the sand and there are many users who a) may be classed as being disabled but have no impairments when online (e.g., a user who has lost the use of their legs can still be fully ‘able’ on a computer), or b) would not be classed as disabled but may have conditions such as colour blindness which limit their ability to use certain sites to their full potential.

Furthermore accessibility issues may also be encountered by users who are elderly and beginning to suffer from perceptual or cognitive impairments, young children, non-native language speakers, mobile device users and people using legacy technologies. Research by Microsoft has hinted that the proportion of the population who experience some factor which inhibits their use of the internet could be as high as 57%.

The second part of this article highlights the advantages of making your website accessible to these audiences and outlines the principles you will need to follow in order to do so.