Cutting the curb: how accessibility improves UX for all

Published by Chris Limb on

Cutting the curb: how accessibility improves UX for all

I first attended a course about the web and accessibility in 2003 when I’d been building web pages for just eight years. Twenty years later I’ve just completed a similar course. On the one hand it’s encouraging to see that in two decades the tools and standards available to build, maintain and measure accessibility have increased remarkably — but on the other it is a little disheartening to note that the resistance to implementation is as strong as ever. While accessibility roadblocks such as Adobe Flash are no longer a problem, other issues persist.

 One of the insidious obstacles isn’t a technology at all, it’s a mindset.

The idea that accessibility is an added extra and furthermore that its implementation will inevitably prevent aesthetic design, inhibit ingenious functionality, and complicate process resulting in a substandard user experience is widespread — and completely wrong.

An aside — this school of thought reminds me of the two camps in the early days of web development during the late 90s. The Coders were convinced that if a website was graphically attractive it must ipso facto be constructed badly whereas the Graphic Designers believed that a semantically correct page was by definition ugly. As someone who was both a graphic designer and a coder I was very keen to prove that the web could be both well-formed and aesthetically pleasing.

Similarly, I am now eager to demonstrate that accessible web design is a bonus not a hindrance.

The accessibility course I attended back in 2003 was subtitled “Design for All”. Despite its simplicity this three-word phrase can be thought of as a mission statement when it comes to accessible design. Could it be that designing from the ground up with accessibility in mind actually improves the User Experience for everyone?

I believe so. This phenomenon even has a name: The Curb Cut Effect.

A Curb Cut is a subtle ramp in the pavement usually located at a street corner or pedestrian crossing. These were originally built to help wheelchair users and other people experiencing mobility issues cross the road. However, this simple inexpensive modification ended up having an impact far beyond its originally intended purpose. Curb cuts also made life easier for those using pushchairs and prams as well as those with wheeled shopping bags and luggage not to mention cyclists and skateboarders.

Effectively the urban environment’s UI was dramatically improved by the implementation of accessibility. This is a clear illustration of the idea that inclusive design not only enhances accessibility for the original individuals for whom it was conceived but also promotes greater convenience and equality for everyone.

Design for All.

Another example is the way that the user base for closed captions on TV and video services has ended up far larger than the original audience for who they were designed. You may switch them on if viewing a video on your phone in a noisy public space — or indeed at home when watching an episode of a TV drama where the sound designer has gone for gritty, realistic and mumbling. 

Similarly, the implementation of accessible user-friendly best practice to a web site or app can vastly improve the interaction for everyone.

When you design well for accessibility, you design well for everyone.

An important feature of accessible design is that it prioritises semantic construction, clarity, simplicity, and linear content which makes pages far easier to navigate. This benefits all users, particularly if they’re skimming the content for important points or searching for a specific piece of information they need. Furthermore, one of the keystones of semantic construction is consistency which ensures users can predict where they’re most likely to find the content or functionality they’re after.

Accessibly constructed pages result in an intuitive, friction free user experience for all.

Optimisation for performance is another important accessibility principle as it takes users with slower connections and older devices into account. It’s also one which results in many advantages for both end users and site owners. There can be nothing more off-putting than arriving on a slow to load page. Short attention spans when browsing mean that a user is far more likely to back out and try somewhere else if what they’re after doesn’t appear in a second or two which will give the page a higher bounce rate. Fast loading pages increase engagement and conversion.

Taken together, the accessibility principles of semantic construction and performance optimisation not only increase usability they enhance SEO.

Sometimes visual elements of a site design can throw up accessibility issues and erect barriers for certain users.

Low contrast text can be hard to read; and the use of certain colour combinations can make elements hard to distinguish or stand out from each other if the user is colour blind.  However rather than thinking this as a restriction, it can be seen as a benefit, encouraging the use of bold and striking design.

Unnecessary decorative flourishes — which make it hard for some users to find what they’re looking for — can also make a design look cluttered. Avoiding these design elements can also result in a clean, streamlined look for the interface which many users will find aesthetically pleasing.

Accessible web design isn’t a restriction at all. It benefits all users, whether they have disabilities or not, by providing a more intuitive, faster, and engaging experience. An accessible website or course can lead to higher user satisfaction, increased user engagement, and better outcomes for everyone.

Categories: Best Practice