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Accessibility in UX Design: Guidelines and Key Principles

Learn about the importance of accessibility in UX design. Understand the key principles involved in making designs more accessible to the target audience.

14 min read

UI/UX professionals always strive for a user-centered design. This means that the design should be created, adapted, and presented in a way that all the individuals in the target audience can interact with the design easily and accomplish their tasks. This approach, however, can prove to be challenging. The usefulness and accessibility of a design cannot be guaranteed by only making it interactive and responsive. The designers need to truly understand the audience and take care of their specific concerns to ensure that the design is easy to use and performs the way it is expected to.

This is where the concept of accessibility in UX design comes into play. The primary idea and motivation behind accessibility are to ensure that not only the design process but the actual products and services created at the end are user-centered. This means that the needs of users always take center stage so that their lives are made easier. In the field of UX design, diversity is appreciated, and a product is successful only when it sticks to this standard.

Any modern organization, including but not limited to a UI/UX design services company, must promote the concept of equal access and accessible designs. This is why many organizations are coming up with their own accessibility statement to reach a wider audience, particularly when it comes to web pages and mobile applications.

UX and Accessibility for Disabled (ImaginXP)

In this article, we introduce the concept of accessibility in UX design along with guidelines to cater to the needs of an audience group with varying abilities.

Read along and learn how to include accessibility features in your products and services without compromising the quality of your user interface.

Understanding Accessibility in UX Design

It is often thought that accessibility deals only with people who have special needs. For example, screen readers are used by individuals with visual impairments. This is not true for UX designers. When it comes to the design of a product or service, accessibility refers to all the ways in which a design can be made more useful. This can include special physical needs and also the context in which a product is being used. For example, when you’re using a navigation application while driving, the situation changes depending on whether you have any physical disabilities or not.

It is important to consider the needs of individuals with certain disabilities and to create assistive technologies so that their needs can be fulfilled in a comprehensive manner. To meet the needs of all the users, a UX designer needs a set of principles that are beneficial to all. This is what a UX team is really after when referring to accessibility in UX design.

Accessibility Problems in UX Design (Toptal)

Accessibility is not just usability

Accessibility is often confused with usability, and this can set very low standards for a design to be labeled as accessible. A design is regarded as usable if it is effective, responsive, and interactive, thus giving an overall satisfying experience to the audience. Accessibility, on the other hand, ensures that the design takes care of the users’ special needs and provides an equitable experience to all the individuals in the audience group. It is one of the UX design principles that all designers need to be considerate of.

This means that all the users are given equal importance, and the needs of all the target customers are prioritized irrespective of their physical and/or cognitive disabilities. Individuals in the target audience may have different ability levels when it comes to interacting with technology, but this should not impact the level of satisfaction a design provides.

Common accessibility concerns

It is important to take a look at common accessibility concerns when designing a new product or service. Most of these are linked to the physical abilities and disabilities of the users.

Common Accessibility Issues in UX Design (Toptal)
  • The experiences of individuals who are visually impaired can be negatively impacted by the lack of sufficient contrast.
  • The media content with audio may not be useful for hearing impaired users.
  • For forms with predefined input methods, multiple modes may be required when targeting a diverse audience.
  • When a product or service is being used on smaller, hand-held devices, it may require specific features to be responsive.
  • When the users interact with a design in different environments, such as driving a car, the mobility concerns need due consideration.
  • If a product or service has new and unique features, it may require a tutorial so the users can learn how to interact with the design.
  • To provide all this information, an accessibility statement and/or disabilities form needs to be created and made available to the audience.

Accessibility UX design principles

Given that there is a diverse range of concerns when it comes to designing for accessibility. It is important to ask how can UI/UX designers take care of all these aspects, ensuring that their products and services are representative, inclusive, usable, and useful. In other words, how can accessibility be made an essential part of any UX design strategy?

Although there are no set standards for incorporating accessibility in the design of products and services, there are certain guidelines and principles that designers can follow in this regard. Additional concerns may be considered based on the nature of the design and the design process as needed. The following guidelines or accessibility UX design principles can come in handy when working on future design projects.

Accessibility Standards in UX Design

1. Empathy

One of the essential principles of the UX design process is empathy. When it comes to accessibility in design, empathy becomes even more important. UI/UX designers need to consider the needs of the audience and understand their concerns when interacting with a product or service. This not only means talking to the users but also looking at the prototypes from the perspective of the audience. With empathy, designers can relate to the audience and then take care of their concerns.

2. User research

User research, being a necessary part of design thinking, is equally important for creating accessible designs. When working on any project, designers need to reach out to a diverse range of people, making sure that they consider individuals with varying physical and cognitive needs. The purpose of this research is to invite user agents to contribute to the design process and make their voices heard. In order to make designs accessible, designers need to step into the real world, seek the target audience with varying needs, understand their concerns, and resolve their problems with innovative and useful solutions.

3. Inclusivity

UI/UX professionals need to adopt the standards of representation and inclusivity when working on any design project. If a product is designed for a global audience, the personas and user research should represent a global audience. Additionally, the design process should also ensure that individuals with varying physical abilities are brought into the development of prototypes.

4. Control on navigation

Another important principle of accessibility in UX design is the control of navigation. This is particularly important when working on web accessibility. The products and services being used on web browsers or in the form of mobile applications can prove to be complicated for some users. It is, therefore, important to give users multiple options for navigation, ensuring that they have maximum control. If, for example, some of the users need assistive devices, then the designers need to think about how that would impact their interaction and provide options for them to control the way they interact with the design.

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Accessible Navigation for Better UX (Pixabay)

5. Context

One of the aspects that address the needs of all users, irrespective of their physical and cognitive abilities, is the context in which a design is used. For example, when users interact with a mobile application, they may do so while walking, sitting, lying down, or even driving. This adds an extra layer of complexity for designers, where they need to ensure that the design is equally responsive in all conditions and environments. For accessibility in UX design, context is one of the defining factors.

Accessibility guidelines for UX designers

Now that we’ve covered the major accessibility concerns, followed by some general principles, it is time to share some useful guidelines. When you look at certain accessible UX design examples, there are some standards that get highlighted straight away. This is because designers and researchers have spent a great deal of time and effort coming up with some general guidelines. If you’re a student of UI/UX design, these guidelines are the best way to start thinking about accessible designs.

We’ve shared some of the best guidelines that can help you improve the accessibility of your future designs. Think of these guidelines as a UX accessibility checklist that can come in handy irrespective of the nature of the project. Remember, just like any other principle in the field of design, these guidelines are not set in stone, and you can be creative with the application of these principles.

Accessibility Guidelines for UX Designers

1. Create user personas

One of the most important guidelines for accessibility in UX design is to create user personas that are representative of a diverse audience. The creation of personas may vary based on the nature of the product, but designers need to be careful while selecting the final personas. Thinking about individuals with special needs in all audience groups is always helpful.

2. Design for all platforms and devices

Along with different audiences, it is also essential to design for different devices and platforms. In today’s digital world, the users interacting with a design may use devices with various operating systems, screen sizes, and functionalities. It is important to consider the responsiveness of a design on such devices and platforms.

Accessible Designs for All Platforms (Pixabay)

3. Organize the content logically

The accessibility of your content, whether in the form of a mobile application, a website, or a physical product, is directly related to the extent of understandability. This is why it is important to organize the content in a logical manner is essential for accessibility. One way to achieve this is by creating an information architecture that can comprehensively illustrate the organization of the content, thus making it easier to address the needs of the target audience.

4. Ensure consistency in design

To make a design useful and accessible, there should be some level of consistency in the product or service. This means that the users should be able to navigate through the design with ease without coming across any unexpected and frustrating surprises. Consistent designs are also helpful to individuals with disabilities that require less effort in understanding and are more compatible with assistive devices and tools.

5. Use accessible fonts

The way your written content appears can have a huge impact on the overall accessibility of the design. It is, therefore, important to choose fonts that are easy to read and do not cause any trouble for individuals with special needs. You should always use simple, sans serif fonts for most of the content. If you have to use decorative fonts, only do so for headings and title texts, restricting their use to a minimum.

Fonts to Create Accessible Websites (Alex Chen on Medium)

6. Choose appropriate color contrast

Choosing the right colors is one of the most important and challenging tasks when it comes to accessibility. There are certain limitations, such as branding and aesthetics, that dictate the choice of colors. Here, designers must not forget that it is not easy for everyone to distinguish between all the colors. Therefore, color contrast should be selected appropriately such that it does not hinder the readability of the content.

7. Include alt-text for media content

One of the simple and highly effective ways to improve the accessibility of online content is to include alt-text with all the media content. This means that all the images, videos, and animations should be accompanied by a brief descriptive text that can be picked up by screen readers. This way, individuals with visual impairments can also understand what the image is about and what its purpose is in the design.

8. Provide transcriptions and subtitles

In addition to alt-text, transcriptions and subtitles are also strong tools for creating accessible designs. These not only help individuals with hearing and visual impairments but also cater to the needs of a global audience. This is where designers can also include the transcriptions in multiple languages so that a diverse audience can interact with the product or service.

Subtitles for Accessible Design (Clideo)

9. Avoid excessive animation

It can be tempting to include a lot of moving images in the design. This choice demands some careful consideration. It is advisable to include a mix of text and visual elements in the content so that all the users can interact with it in an equitable manner. Additionally, moving images — particularly flashing images — can be of concern to some individuals and should, therefore, be avoided.

10. Ensure meaningful anchor text

When inserting links in the content, make sure that the anchor text is meaningful. Inserting long URLs in the content can be frustrating for individuals using screen readers. Meaningful links not only improve the readability and accessibility of the content but also add to your credibility, making the content useful at the same time.

11. Use proper headings and HTML tags

Almost all the assistive technology seeks help from headings and other HTML tags to make sense of the content. Therefore, to ensure accessibility of a design, it is essential that these standards are taken into consideration when creating content, particularly when it comes to websites and mobile applications.

12. Make the design screen-reader friendly

When designing for a diverse audience with varying physical and cognitive needs, screen readers are a common tool to consider. According to accessiBe, around 7.3 million people in the US rely on screen readers to navigate the web. It will be wrong to neglect this tool when designing a product or service with any online presence. All of your online content should be accessible and readable using a screen reader.

Audio Resources for Visually Impaired Users (EBSCO)
  1. Include keyboard shortcuts Keyboard shortcuts are an excellent way to provide alternative navigation for any online content. When designing a product for the online world, make sure that your content can be accessed with the help of only the keyboard. The converse should also be true: if a user interacts only with a mouse or trackpad, the design should be equally responsive.
  2. Use accessibility tools There are a number of standards and tools to test the accessibility of your digital designs. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has a rich database which the designers can seek help from. The standards set by W3C are extremely helpful in creating accessible online content. Similarly, accessibility testing tools such as WAVE can identify major issues on a website in no time. UI/UX designers can then address these issues and make the design more responsive and accessible.
Tools for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WAVE)

15. Test with different users

In any UX design project, user research and usability testing are of prime importance. This also holds true when it comes to the creation of accessible designs. At different stages in the design process, UI/UX professionals must test the product or service with different users. The users selected should have varying physical and cognitive needs, thus making sure that the input of a diverse range of users is being incorporated into the design.

Conclusion

A design is as successful as it is useful to the target audience. UI/UX designers have a big responsibility, that of improving the lives of the users. This, however, cannot be achieved if the needs of only certain users are considered while designing a product or service. The principles of accessibility ensure that this bias is eliminated — or at least minimized.

The guidelines presented in this article can help you create better designs that are accessible to a wide range of users, thus paving the way for your success as a designer. When working on a design project, stop and think about the target audience, particularly about the users that often go neglected. This is the first step in ensuring accessibility in UX design.