At Outlandish we aim to work on projects with high positive impact and low negative impact. If you want to work on tech “for good”, digital access is essential. Our clients increasingly ask us for help to make their websites more accessible via accessibility reviews and sharing knowledge on accessible design.

As our designated accessibility lead, I want to share some key pointers about how to get started with accessible web design.

It’s about people

Digital accessibility usually refers to the extent that people with disabilities can access a tech product. Taking some time to understand the difference that accessibility changes can make to human experiences can firm up your resolve to making more accessible tech. Here are some common situations that require more accessible approaches to web design:

  • Someone with a learning disability, or who has after-effects of a stroke, may experience impacts on how they process information, or their level of focus. Clear content and simple navigational structure can help these folks to better access web materials.
  • Blind or visually impaired users often use screen readers, and accessible products are coded to work with them.
  • Someone who has colour vision deficiency or someone experiencing visual degeneration may want to manually change the zoom level or colour settings, and an accessible website still works when these are applied.
  • Someone who has a disability affecting their arms or hand muscles and movements, including if they have had an accident or amputation, may navigate websites using a keyboard instead of a mouse or trackpad. Accessible sites make keyboard navigation easy and seamless.

These are just a few examples – there are definitely more! 

It’s also worth remembering that accessibility can be relevant for everyone. The demands of daily life and societal pressures can create access challenges for all of us at different times, whether that’s being in recovery from an illness, not having energy to read a computer screen, or being a parent with only one hand free to hold a device.

Accessibility doesn’t mean ugly design

This is a quick but important point.

It is a misconception that accessibility improvements have to compromise design or quality of user experience.

In fact, if you do it right, they are likely to make your site more usable for everyone by making it more simple and easier to get around. There’s plenty of evidence that accessible design can improve overall user experience and satisfaction. 

For example, we worked on implementing accessibility recommendations to key pages of the Prospect Union site. We think the design is still attractive, engaging and highly usable – as well as being drastically more accessible.

The Prospect Union website search box is zoomed in at a scale of 300%. The search box, logo and menu is still visible.
Prospect Union is a site we’ve worked on to improve accessibility on key pages.

Accessibility work can feel big and scary

I’ve not actually met someone who said that they don’t care about making their product or website accessible! All Outlandish clients have been interested when we’ve discussed it.

But making sure that the web is accessible requires technologies working together, and it involves code, structure and markup, design and text content. 

Many of the Web Accessibility requirements that bring these elements together aren’t actually that difficult to implement, but there are definitely quite a few things to consider. 

Many people are put off by the extensive scope of technical accessibility standards and it can feel overwhelming for folks who are getting started. 

Here are a couple of ideas to get through the overwhelm stage:

  • Don’t put it off! If you are just starting on your product journey, try to consider accessibility requirements as early as possible with folks who can help you. When recruiting designers, developers or an agency, make sure you ask them if they are familiar with building and testing to web accessibility standards (and ask for examples)! 
  • Get a steer. If you already have a digital product, consider commissioning a simple web accessibility audit. This involves reviewing your product against an agreed accessibility level, and giving you a clear list of issues to resolve in priority order. 
  • Invest the time: if you have time for internal resource, then carve out some space for a team member to do a preliminary exploration through the many online web accessibility guidance tools, and feedback what they’ve learned. There’s some really good stuff out there, even for non-techhies! One good place to start is the Web Accessibility Initiative website.

It’s not all or nothing

Lots of digital product creators do not have time, capacity, team headspace, or the money to take a really comprehensive approach to accessibility. The good news is, there is still progress you can make!

Some simple smaller steps can still make a big difference to users with disabilities. For example:

  • Know your goal. If you’re vague you create a barrier to doing anything meaningful. So, be clear what you mean when you say you want to be “more accessible”. What would you like to achieve?
  • Take a piecemeal approach. Identify the most important sections or pages of your digital product for users, and look at accessibility needs on them first.
  • Take a DIY approach and check your website. There are some simple web guides out there that provide a starting point even for non-technical people to check products for accessibility (such as Sa11y), and for those who have the time but not the budget for external support, this can be a great place to start. 
  • Do a quick user survey with a focus on accessibility. This can be helpful to get the data you might need to get funding for further access work (make sure you pick an accessible survey tool!)
  • Write a statement about what your intentions and actions are around accessibility and put it in a prominent place on your website. This can help you to hold yourself accountable.
  • Invite users to contact you about access issues (check your contact route is accessible first!)

At the very least, start the conversation with the people who are building tech for good products about their understanding of accessibility, and stress its importance for being good allies to D/deaf and D/disabled people.

Photo credit to Joshua Coleman