World Usability Day: Understanding Why Web Accessibility Matters

By Sam Stemler on Dec 11, 2018

The World Usability Day Event at Michigan State University on November 8th, 2018 gave Mid-Michigan web developers, academic professionals, students, lawmakers and many more a closer look at the importance and practical application of web accessibility. The event included an array of accessibility professionals illustrating the need for an accessible web, and helping to solve the challenges that developers, web designers, bloggers and users face. They addressed planning for web design and accessibility, interdepartmental teamwork, and, ultimately, why web accessibility matters to all users.

Why Web Accessibility Matters: From W3C

Shawn Henry, computer science researcher with MIT and Outreach Coordinator with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) provided specific insight at World Usability Day into how the governing standards for accessibility, WCAG, are developed, and explained the recent updates in WCAG 2.1.

Henry described not only the technical implications of the changes, but also how these changes impact the user experience (UX) of all users, including those with disabilities and those without. Understanding the UX behind the web—not necessarily understanding the exact rules or wording of WCAG—is the first step, she said, towards understanding why accessibility matters.  

Essential to Some, Useful for All

While the literature on WCAG provides a helpful technical roadmap for web accessibility, Henry better explained the real-world implications of accessibility, not only for users with disabilities, but for all users in all situations. This is an important attribute of WCAG best explained as “essential to some, useful for all” and helps to illustrate why web accessibility matters for all users.   

The 17 new success criteria in WCAG 2.1 began with 60 new proposals, which were based on obstacles faced by people who use the web in many different ways. These new criteria provide dramatic functional benefits for many people with disabilities. They’re also beneficial for people who use the web in the traditional way, but might sometimes use it in non-traditional circumstances, such as in a difficult environment, using a new device, or working with a temporary limitation. Web developers who are conscious of accessibility can also reap the benefits of new trends and technology faster than those who are not. The UX which inspired many of the changes in WCAG 2.1, and several examples provided by Henry, help to explain this in more detail.

Traditional Use, Non-Traditional Circumstances  

The new WCAG 2.5.4 concerns motion actuation. Essentially, accessible websites which follow this guideline do not require motion to function, and any motion activation can be turned off if needed. To explain the UX behind this guideline, Henry asked developers to consider two potential users who might benefit: a user who struggles with hand tremors and therefore might accidentally activate a function without meaning to, or a user on a bumpy bus, who might do the same. Sites that incorporate WCAG 2.5.4 would be usable for both people. If your website or application serves elderly users, or users who are often on-the-go, it will be obvious why web accessibility matters in this case.  

Removing Barriers and Inconveniences

Often, the same accessibility guidelines that remove barriers for people with disabilities also remove inconveniences for other users. One example of this is WCAG 2.5.5: Target Size. This success criteria specifies that control elements, such as buttons, navigation menus and some links, should be at least 44 by 44 pixels. This makes the website easier to use for people using alternative control devices, or those who struggle with fine motor control.

This criterion also removes an inconvenience which all users are likely familiar; trying to tap a tiny button while browsing on a mobile device. When controls are large and prominent, the site is more usable for everyone. Though this criteria is rated AAA and most rules and standards only require AA compliance, it’s worthy of consideration even if it doesn’t present a legal risk.  

Adapting to New Technology First

In some cases, functions that are essential for users with some disabilities eventually become desirable functions for all users as new technology develops. One example of this is voice commands and voice search. For users who cannot use a keyboard, the use of voice commands to navigate a site are very helpful, even imperative. This is often completed through ARIA labels on buttons and links. WCAG 2.5.3: Label in Name requires the accessible label to be in the name of the element it describes.

To illustrate this from a UX standpoint, Henry described a the case of a real user who tried to submit a website form using voice commands. On screen, the button was “send,” however the label was “submit,” which the user could not know since they didn’t use a screen reader.

As the use of home assistants and other Internet of Things (IoT) devices have increased, voice searches have also increased dramatically, and will continue to do so. Many IoT devices process web pages similarly to a screen reader, and read them out to users instead of showing them. Web developers who properly label key elements of their site will already be ahead of this trend, allowing users to search their site, submit information, and perform other tasks through voice commands alone. This may be particularly important for websites or applications targeting multitaskers, such as recipe sites for parents in the kitchen, podcast sites for drivers, or fitness applications for runners. As more users rely on web searches and services while conducting other activities, voice commands will become more important.

Building a Better Web and Better UX

World Usability Day helped to bring web accessibility out of guidelines and rulebooks, and into the real world. As more web experts with interdisciplinary knowledge understand why web accessibility matters and the real world implications, we’ll continue to see a better UX across the World Wide Web.