Accessibility in digital products is often referred to as the practice of designing products that can be used by a wide range of people, including individuals who have visual, motor, auditory, speech, or cognitive disabilities.

In this article, I want to share some simple steps on how to make your design more accessible. But before that, it’s important to reveal a few common myths about accessibility.

Common myths about accessibility in design

Some designers think that accessibility is all about improving usability for people with disabilities. That’s not true. Imagine you open a website on your mobile phone, and you see the tiny text on your screen. What makes things worse is that the text is displayed on the low-contrasting background, so the letters are barely visible. Even if you’re a person with a perfect vision, you will have trouble reading such text. That’s why improving accessibility is such an important task. Good accessibility will create a better user experience for all groups of users.

Another myth about accessibility is that accessible design is expensive. That’s also not true. When accessibility is baked in product design right from the start, it doesn’t cost any extra money.

Guide for creating accessible web design

To address the need for accessible website design, the World Wide Web Consortium created accessibility standards, also known as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). WCAG is based on five main principles:

  • Perceivable
  • Operable
  • Understandable
  • Robust
  • Conformance

Each of these different principles has a success rating of either A, AA, or AAA. An A rating is the minimum requirement for having an accessible site.

Text

Line length

Line length has a direct impact on text readability. Well-selected line length creates a rhythm that guides the reader’s eye as they read the copy. The WCAG recommends keeping a line of text’s character count below 80 characters.

Color contrast

The color contrast between a text’s foreground color and background color can make a huge impact on the legibility of your site. People who have low vision could find it difficult to read the low-contrasting text. It is critical to consider creating enough contrast between text and background.

A range of different contrast text from low to high
Low contrast text is something that can often break the usability of many products.

The color contrast is typically checked in the form of a color ratio. The WCAG recommends that your text should have at least a 4:5:1 contrast ratio to achieve an AA rating and a 7:1 contrast ratio to achieve a AAA rating. The ratios become more forgiving as you make the font larger and heavier (simply because larger/heavier font is easier to read at lower contrast).

Can you read it grey scale test
Grey scale test

Here are a few typical UI elements that suffer from bad color contrast:

  • Placeholder labels. They usually are designed in gray low-contrast color.
  • Button labels. Watch labels for ghost buttons. Ghost buttons are generally bordered by a very thin line, while the internal section consists of plain text.
  • Icons. Icons or other critical interactive elements should also use the recommended contrast ratios.

You can use special tools for measuring color contrast ratio. One of them is WebAIM color contrast checker which helps you calculate the score for both regular and larger text sizes.

Images

Write meaningful alt text

Many web designers skip the alt-text on images because they think that the image should speak for itself. However, the image speaks only for those who can see it. Visually impaired users rely on screen readers to get the meaning of the page. Screen readers tend to use alt-text to ‘visualize’ the image to those users. That’s why if you want to design an accessible website, you should always add meaningful alt-texts.

Avoid creating images with text

The text in images can become unmanageable. It will be hard to quickly adjust the text size, font style, or any other visual property of the text. Instead, it’s better to use text positioned over the image using CSS style property.

Interaction Design

Write clear labels

Use appropriate labels for buttons and other UI controls to accommodate users who experience a text-only version of your app.

Don’t use color alone to convey the meaning

Designers often use red and green colors to communicate the status of the operation. For example, when users provide incorrect data in a web form, they see a border of a field colored in red.

Information form field with red border around missing e-mail address
The red border will be invisible for color blind users.

This design decision will cause a lot of problems for people with low vision or color blindness because they won’t see the status update. That’s why when you need to communicate the meaning and convey the status, don’t use color as the only visual cue. Add other visual elements such as icons or labels.

Email form field with red border around missing e-mail address
The form field displays an icon on error.

Also, be careful with elements like charts and graphs. Such elements often use color to distinguish the data. Trello found an interesting solution for this problem – they introduced visual patterns to distinguish different content. You can turn a Color-Blind Friendly mode and see that labels have textures.

Labels in different colors, textures, and patterns
Labels in different colors, textures, and patterns.

Support keyboard navigation

Keyboard accessibility is one of the most critical aspects of web accessibility. When you work on a website, you should support keyboard navigation but also test your site only using a keyboard. Use Tab to see whether the keyboard navigation is logical (check the order) and use the Enter key to select an element (verify that all the interactive components are predictable).

Be careful with the size of your navigation. Tabbing through long menus may be demanding for some users with motor disabilities.

Create a clear hierarchy using HTML

Type hierarchy for your site is very important — good hierarchy makes it easy for users to comprehend information. When designing a web page, you should start with <h1> for the top-level headings and use <h2>,<h3> and <h4> for each subsequent headings.

Why? Because screen readers navigate web pages by heading structure hierarchically. The clear hierarchy will give people who use screen readers an opportunity to listen to a list of all the headings first and then jump the content by types of titles. Alternatively, they can navigate directly to top-level headings such as an <h1>.

Design focused states

Have you noticed the blue outlines that sometimes show up around the links on the websites? These outlines are called focus indicators. Many designers remove focus indicators because the indicators don’t match the site’s aesthetics. But by doing that they break UX for a particular group of people.

Some people cannot use a mouse or trackpad to navigate your site. People with motor disabilities navigate sites by tabbing on the keyboard. And they rely on a focus state to understand where they are in UI right now. Input fields, buttons, and other interactive elements on your site should have clearly defined focus states.

Polish error-states

All error states in your product should be designed in a way that provides contextual information that informs a user what went wrong and what they can do to fix it.

Make form instructions visible all the time

It is especially important for web forms. Hiding input field placeholders on input is one of the biggest mistakes when designing a form. Remember that a person who interacts with your product should never lose context. When you hide instructions, you increase the chance for incorrect input.

Avoid flashing animation/banners

Flashing animation can be disturbing for regular users, but for people with disabilities, they can be dangerous. Flashing animation can cause motion sickness or even seizures. That’s why it’s recommended to avoid using flashing animations in your design.

Beyond the rules

Making your design accessible requires a lot of work, and this work should be done on a regular basis:

  • Conduct an Accessibility Audit. It’s always a good idea to conduct an audit to understand how many accessibility issues you have right now. The audit shouldn’t be a long or painful process. You can use a tool like  AXE Chrome Extension to find areas that require improvement.
  • Invite people with disabilities to usability testing sessions. Seeing is believing. When you see how real users with disabilities interact with your product and what problems they face, it will motivate you to design better products for them.

Conclusion

By focusing on improving accessibility, you make your design more inclusive. But accessibility is not just a one-person mission. It’s a team mission. To create an accessible product, everyone must work together and create with these guidelines in mind.

Recommended resources

  • W3C: Web accessibility guidelines
  • WebAIM: Articles and resources on web accessibility.
  • AXE Google Chrome Extension: Extension for Chrome that allows you to test any site for accessibility violations
  • NoCoffee Vision Simulator. NoCoffee can be helpful for understanding the problems faced by people with slight to extreme vision problems, such as low contrast sensitivity or color blindness.
  • A11y: Easy accessibility audits powered by the Chrome Accessibility Tools