What does it mean to develop an accessible web experience? Does it mean complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act? Legal compliance (with the ADA) is a low bar — frankly, too low — though it’s one that most governmental and business entities must clear.
Does it mean taking a “regular” website and bolting on some accommodations for people with disabilities? That wouldn’t be a bad thing to do.
But after helping some clients with ADA remediation efforts and consulting proactively with others on best practices for accessibility, my team has posed a bolder question: “How do we design and build websites that work better for everyone?”
It’s a question previously answered for the built environment by architect Ronald Mace. He advocated a paradigm of universal design, which he defined as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”
I’ve noticed a similar paradigm shift underway in website design. We’re not accommodating disabilities with ad hoc fixes to a web experience designed with only one kind of person in mind. Instead, we’re designing from the beginning for web experiences that are “usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible.”
It’s the right thing to do. (That’s the best reason to do it.) But there are also other benefits. I believe universal design is making the modern web better for everyone, and better for business too.
Worth The Work
Some best practices for universal web design — as explained brilliantly by Laura Kalbag in her book, Accessibility for Everyone — are simply a shift in how we do things from the beginning. But designing for accessibility does come with some added work. You can expect to spend more to build a fully accessible website, but it’s well worth the investment.
Universal web design better delivers on the promise of the web to connect us all to the information, services, support and communities we seek, no matter who we are or where in the world we may be. Accessible websites create more benefits for more people. They’re an investment in the greater good that will also help your business grow.
Here are four ways that designing for accessibility is worth the work.
1. Growing Your Customer Base
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four U.S. adults has some form of disability. That’s 61 million Americans. Does your website welcome and serve them well?
Accessible websites remove barriers to participation for people with disabilities. And that can grow your customer base.
• Ensure there’s sufficient contrast between text and background colors for users with low contrast sensitivity.
• Use colors to enhance content, not convey critical information, for users with color blindness.
• Make content easy to navigate using a keyboard for those who are unable to use a mouse, trackpad or touchscreen.
2. Enhancing SEO
A site that’s easy to navigate and understand is not only better for all users — it also helps search engine web crawlers understand your site, which can mean higher rankings in relevant search results.
• Avoid presenting text content as images.
• Provide descriptive text alternatives for content presented in images, buttons and other non-text elements.
• Provide transcripts and closed captions for video content.
3. Streamlining The User Journey
Accessible design streamlines the user journey for everyone who comes to your site. It’s how you help visitors find what they’re looking for, guide them to where you want them to go and ensure they have a good experience along the way.
• Design information architecture with a clear, logical structure. This makes it easier for people using screen readers, keyboard navigation and other assistive technologies to explore your site.
• Use wayfinding clues like breadcrumbs or arrows for intuitive navigation to make it more likely that anyone who comes to your site will find what they’re looking for or what you want them to find.
• Include descriptive displayed text content and markup for links, explaining what will happen if a user follows the link.
4. Getting More Conversions
You’ve welcomed the largest possible potential audience, helped them find you with better SEO and helped them navigate to what they’re looking for. But if you now present visitors with an overly complicated form to fill out or a laborious checkout process, you could still lose them. This is true for people with and without disabilities.
When your conversion process is simple and straightforward, interested clients and customers will have an easier time completing it. You’ll likely get more conversions from people with disabilities and from everyone else as well.
• Optimize the number of form fields — generally, fewer is better — and give all fields descriptive labels.
• Limit the number of steps in your checkout process, and give clear instructions for each step.
• If your conversion process includes a session timeout, make it long enough for a person using assistive technologies to complete it.
We’ve been here before. Over the last two decades, web design shifted from desktop-first to mobile-first. This shift was a response to the rise of the smartphone and the increasing percentage of website traffic coming from mobile devices, which surpassed 50% in 2017.
But designing for mobile-first enforced some discipline on cluttered design, excessive content and wandering navigation. Websites, whatever devices they were viewed on, became clearer and simpler for everyone to use.
Today, the question is no longer, “How do we adapt ‘regular’ websites to work better for people with disabilities?” Instead, we’re asking, “How do we use universal design to build accessible web experiences that serve everyone well?”
My team and I believe that this approach makes for a better web that serves all people well. And we think it’s the best way for a website to help your business grow.