The relationship between accessibility and UX design

By: Verbit Editorial

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Despite the fact that more than 1 billion people worldwide are affected by significant physical and mental disabilities, the vast majority of the world’s top websites still contain UX (user experience) components that are not compliant with accessibility standards such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). There are many possible explanations for these oversights and shortcomings, but one reason commonly cited by industry experts is a pervasive misconception that implementing accessible UX principles requires web designers to sacrifice the overall aesthetic and mass-appeal of a website or landing page.

Contrary to popular opinion, prioritizing accessibility during the web development process can actually improve user experience across the board for digital visitors of all backgrounds and abilities. Let’s explore some of the most crucial considerations for accessible web design and discuss how following these accessible design principles can improve user experience while supporting critical accessibility guidelines like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and WCAG.

The foundations of UX design

Before diving into the intersections of user experience and accessibility, it’s important that we understand some of the basic principles of UX design and their impact on users’ online interactions. The three primary considerations of UX designers are:

  • Consistency: Ensuring that information and design follow a consistent pattern throughout the website.
  • Learnability: Making it easy for users to navigate and remember where to find information.
  • Efficiency: Helping users achieve their goals with minimal effort and in as few clicks as possible.

These areas of consideration are paramount for ensuring more positive user experiences for all digital visitors, but how do these principles square with accessibility guidelines and the shifting expectations of the public? While consistency, learnability and efficiency constitute a solid foundation for positive user experiences, many digital visitors require additional tools, resources and support to engage equitably in virtual spaces.

close up on hands using a keyboard at an open laptop.

The symbiosis of UX design and accessibility

Accessibility in web design is a must-have, not a “nice-to-have.” Given the rapidly evolving nature of accessibility standards and guidelines, it’s more important than ever for business leaders and web developers to consider the accessibility and inclusivity of their digital content and communications.

There are four key tenets of web accessibility that UX designers must keep in mind during the web development process, according to the WCAG. These concepts are easy to remember using the acronym P.O.U.R:

Perceivable

Operational

Understandable

Robust

Centering your web design around these accessibility principles isn’t just a matter of compliance, it’s a matter of meeting the expectations and complex needs of diverse populations. To that end, it’s important to understand that even people without disabilities and specific learning needs can benefit substantially from accessibility tools and accessible design features.

Here are a few examples of areas in which web developers can put accessible design principles into practice to improve user experience for all community members:

Simplified website layouts

Everyone benefits from a straightforward, user-friendly layout, regardless of disability status. UX designers want to make sure all visitors can easily find the information they need without getting overwhelmed or needing to spend additional time searching through complex tabs, menus or other website components. Subsequently, streamlining and simplifying your website layout is crucial for both accessibility and UX purposes.

Website simplicity is also critical for those digital visitors with physical disabilities and specific learning needs. Simple websites are more screen-reader friendly, for example, which makes them more accessible to individuals who are blind or have low vision. Clean, organized design principles can also help users with certain neurodivergent conditions navigate online spaces more intuitively, leading to a smoother and more enjoyable experience overall.

view of a computer screen with an open art/video program showing levels of color contrast in an image

High color contrast

Avoiding aesthetic elements that limit color contrast is another way to improve both accessibility and UX. While providing adequate color contrast certainly supports users with color blindness and other kinds of vision and eye disorders, other digital visitors benefit substantially from easy-to-read, high-contrast visuals. Many people may not self-identify as having vision loss or some type of visual disability, but recent estimates suggest that as many as 7 million people are living with uncorrectable visual acuity loss in the US alone.

As populations age, so do the rates of blindness and vision loss, so utilizing high color contrast in your content is a great tool for supporting online community members of different ages and generations. In addition to ensuring your content is readable and engaging, employing high color contrast has also been shown to reduce and prevent eye strain for readers, thus delivering more comfortable and enjoyable user experiences on every level.

Controlled media playback

If you spend a lot of time online, you have likely encountered your fair share of auto-play video content. Many web developers are surprised to learn that disabling auto-play for video content is a crucial accessibility consideration. Auto-play can be problematic and even dangerous for individuals with seizure disorders, sensory sensitivities and other cognitive disabilities. By letting users choose when to engage with multimedia content, you provide a more respectful and personalized experience that prioritizes viewers’ comfort and safety.

This approach also gives all users more control over their browsing experience, allowing them to interact with your site more efficiently and without unnecessary distractions. Consider, for example, the discomfort that may arise for someone if a video auto-plays at full volume while they are in a quiet public space. An unwanted experience like that can easily give viewers a negative impression of your brand or product and reduce their likelihood to engage with your content in the future. 

Two women look at the screen of a laptop. One of the women is wearing a black rimmed hat

Additional tools for accessible user design

In addition to adhering to established formatting and design guidelines, business leaders and their digital development teams can take advantage of various assistive technology solutions to further boost accessibility and improve user experience.

Closed captioning

If you regularly share video content on your website or social media page, it’s important that you provide accurate captions for viewers who need them. Captioning provides a real-time, on-screen version of a video’s dialogue and makes it easier for individuals with certain disabilities to engage with audio and video content. Captions are a tried-and-true solution for supporting audience members who are Deaf or hard of hearing as well as those with ADHD and autism spectrum disorder.

Most accessibility standards establish specific requirements for incorporating captioning into your content, so investing in high-quality, accurate captioning solutions is one of the most effective means of supporting accessibility guidelines. However, the benefits of closed captioning are not limited to the accessibility sector. In fact, research suggests that creators who add captions to their video content enjoy higher rates of engagement, increased conversions and longer average watch times.

This is likely because many digital audience members consume content on mobile devices and in public spaces where they may need or prefer to view video content with the sound off. If your video features accurate captions, viewers can still engage equitably with the content and messaging of your video, even when the audio is muted. 

Transcription

Transcription functions similar to captioning in that it provides a textual rendition of information originally shared via audio or video. The difference, however, is that transcripts are provided as a supplement to an audio or video file, and the text of a transcript does not appear in-sync with a video’s audio track. Some platforms, like YouTube, allow users to view a transcript on the same page as their video of choice, but the transcript text appears as a solid block of information rather than bite-sized captions within the viewing window proper.

Providing written transcripts of audio and video content is another effective means of supporting audience members who are Deaf, but transcripts are also an excellent tool for anyone who needs or prefers to engage with information in a written format. Additionally, posting transcripts of your audio and video content can make your web page more easily discoverable by search engines, thus boosting your overall SEO ranking. By making your content more accessible and searchable, transcription can help you expand your reach and communicate more effectively with audience members of diverse backgrounds and abilities.

Audio description

We’ve already discussed some of the best assistive technology solutions for supporting audience members with hearing loss, but what about audience members with vision loss? Audio description is the solution of choice for many creators looking to improve user experience and accessibility for individuals who are blind or have low vision.

Audio description refers to an assistive technology solution that provides auditory narrations of visual elements in digital media content. Audio description providers create scripts that describe critical on-screen images. These scripts are read and recorded by professional voice-over actors and – in most cases – are mixed and edited to fit seamlessly into a video’s existing audio track.

Audio description provides more equitable content experiences to those audience members who are affected by blindness or vision loss by ensuring that these individuals have all the context they need to follow along with a video’s plot or overall messaging. Audio description can also be beneficial for audience members with dyslexia or other specific learning needs because audio description tracks will include audible read-outs of on-screen text that might otherwise have been overlooked or misunderstood. Additionally, audio description has been known to deliver more equitable experiences to individuals with autism spectrum disorder because audio description tracks narrate and describe subtle non-verbal cues that some viewers with ASD may need help interpreting.

An over-the-shoulder view of a woman working at both a laptop and desktop computer

Looking for user-friendly accessibility solutions?

Verbit is a proud provider of easy-to-use, affordable accessibility tools like captioning, transcription and audio description. Verbit’s platform utilizes highly advanced, proprietary AI software to provide assistive technology solutions that achieve the level of accuracy mandated by accessibility standards and guidelines. Verbit’s sophisticated platform is intuitive, sophisticated and fully integrable, making it a comprehensive solution for supporting a wide variety of digital content offerings.

Interested in learning more about accessible UX design or want more information about how Verbit’s technology solutions can help web developers proactively deliver more inclusive, engaging online experiences? Reach out today to speak to a member of our team.