21 February 2017

Designing for Accessibility

When I first started doing web design it was the late 90’s and there weren’t too many bells and whistles besides animated gifs and the blink-tag. As web design evolved, we began creating more and more sites using technologies like flash that ended up being even worse for the user.

In the late 90’s you could pretty much assume who your (technical) user was – someone using a PC with an 800×600 resolution running Netscape or Internet Explorer with a poor connection. Fortunately technology has changed enormously over the past 20 years and so have we as designers. The advent of smartphones have brought us to think even more closely about who we are designing for and what their environment is like.

As I’ve grown and matured, I’d like to think that my vision of what good design is has too. Gone are the days of designing solely for the purpose of aesthetics and exclusivity. I’m both forced to, and driven by, finding out more about my users and what their everyday life looks like. Being more inclusive in my work is something that I’ve been focused on for the past year.

These days, most projects I do are for clients that have pretty well-defined target audiences. Whether they’re users are businesses, 15-35 year old females, hipsters or home-owners – there’s a lot of diversity, but there’s also a common ground. Recently a project of mine has caused me to look at what ISN’T common. I’ve been working with the municipality and city of Falkenberg, Sweden and designing for EVERYONE have brought my attention to topics like color blindness, web accessibility and WCAG.

One of the hardest things when designing for some of my clients is that I’m just not the end-user and, in some cases, I can’t even talk to the end-users. This leaves me to second-guessing everything. If you’re a designer, I’m pretty sure you can relate to this. This can be devastating to the final solution because my experiences are most likely nothing like the audience’s.

If your client is in the broad consumer market – chances are you’ll be better educated, have a higher literacy level, and be younger than your average user. This means you’re more likely to have better eye sight, better dexterity, and more sophisticated skills using computers and smartphones.

Designing for Accessibility

A team that has been forced to think about designing for everyone – just like I am now – is the excellent team behind gov.uk. Here’s an excerpt from their design principles:

“Accessible design is good design. Everything we build should be as inclusive, legible and readable as possible. If we have to sacrifice elegance — so be it. We’re building for needs, not audiences. We’re designing for the whole country, not just the ones who are used to using the web. The people who most need our services are often the people who find them hardest to use. Let’s think about those people from the start.”

“If we have to sacrifice elegance – so be it.”
This point is crucial. There are times where you will have to choose design or functionality. You need is to define your priorities so when you have an accessibility issue you know how to proceed.

“…not just the ones used to using the Internet”
I admit wholeheartedly that I occasionally design based on my own experiences and knowledge. If it makes sense to me, I’m guessing it’ll make sense to everyone else. However, research shows that this is far from the truth:

“Across 33 rich countries, only 5% of the population has high computer-related abilities, and only a third of people can complete medium-complexity tasks.”

Designing for Accessibility

As a reader of this blog (THANK YOU!) you most certainly fall in the top category of computer skills – level 3. In Sweden/Scandinavia, only 7% are at this level, in the US it’s only 5%. So in the future when designing products and interfaces, you need to think about the rest of the 90+% of people who surely will try to use your product.

Designing for accessibility is making sure that your design is as inclusive as it possibly can be. So whether your user suffers from bad eye sight, color blindness, or they simply aren’t used to using computers/the internet, designing to be as inclusive as possible should be your goal. Rather than asking your designer friend sitting next to you if your design makes sense, how about asking the janitor, your mum, someone’s child AND your designer friend. Aim for a broad panel of people for feedback and your designs will be more accessible.