Accessible User Experience and W3C-WAI

Building an optimally accessible web site involves creating a technical platform that is as robust as possible under different browsing situations, including diverse assistive technology/browser combinations. Following the technical guidelines published by the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) is an important part of this process. However, the ultimate focus of people with disabilities, like any other member of your target audience, is not simply to visit a technically accessible web site but to successfully use the site to reach a desired goal – which might be to complete a task, or achieve a particular experience (even if it is just to pass some time!).

It is often assumed this aspect of a site’s quality, commonly referred to as user experience (UX), is out of scope of the material produced by WAI, which is dominated by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Debates on the relationship of UX to measuring accessibility show there are different perspectives on this issue. But let’s look a bit closer to see where WAI does encourage a focus on UX in designing accessible web sites, and how that can help guide you in decision-making throughout the design and development process.

WCAG conformance and user experience

WCAG conformance focuses primarily on the web page as a unit of conformance. So to claim a certain level of accessibility conformance, a page must meet all WCAG Success Criteria up to and including that level. However, conformance also covers the concept of processes:

When a Web page is one of a series of Web pages presenting a process (i.e., a sequence of steps that need to be completed in order to accomplish an activity), all Web pages in the process conform at the specified level or better.

This acknowledges the importance of task completion in evaluating accessibility – but leaves you, as an author, with the responsibility of deciding and defining which processes need to be supported. If you substitute the concept of “processes” with “goal success”, you can see how this approach can make a connection between technical conformance and accessible user experience.

Designing for inclusion

Good UX design requires that you understand your target audience and their context of use. The Designing for Inclusion section of the WAI web site provides a range of very useful resources helping you appreciate more about how people with disabilities use the web. Good use is made of user stories to help you to explore the diverse characteristics of disability, the different ways in which people with disabilities use the web, and the range of assistive technologies available. A page on web accessibility and older people covers the overlap between the experiences and challenges of older Web users and the challenges for people with disabilities. The overlap between designing accessible web sites and sites that work well on mobile devices is covered in the mobile accessibility section.

Effective involvement of people with disabilities in the design process

Good UX design requires regular consideration of users throughout the design lifecycle. WAI’s Planning and Implementing section provides some resources which can help you plan to involve people with disabilities as much as possible from as early as possible. In particular, the resource on involving users in web projects for better, easier accessibility provides some valuable advice on how to effectively recruit and work with people with diverse disabilities early and throughout your project:

Early on, learn about general issues related to what you are developing, e.g., websites, web tools, standards, or other products. Ask people to show you websites or related products that work well for them. Then, ask them to show you problems in products that do not work well. Ask lots of questions to help you understand the accessibility issues. Throughout your design and development, ask users to review prototypes. Give them specific tasks to complete and see how the different aspects of the design and coding could be improved. Ask lots of questions.

These are activities that are fundamental to designing a quality user experience; involving people with disabilities helps ensure this quality experience is also inclusive.

Involving users in evaluation

Good UX design recognises that improvement comes from planned evaluation, reflection and iteration. Aside from conformance-driven technical evaluation, WAI provides some useful advice on how to effectively involve people with disabilities during evaluation activties. While this page focuses on accessibility evaluation rather than UX evaluation, the results of accessibility evaluation will nevertheless be helpful in enhancing the user experience. WAI’s advice includes guidance on how to use the results of each evaluation appropriately, recognising there can be limitations in the data gathered from one individual:

A person with a disability does not necessarily know how other people with the same disability interact with the web, nor know enough about other disabilities to provide valid guidance on other accessibility issues.

But the value of involving people with disabilities in helping to improve the user experience for everyone is made clear:

In addition to finding accessibility problems, evaluating with users with disabilities usually reveals general usability problems that impact all users, including those without disabilities.

While WAI’s focus is fundamentally on web accessibility, these and other WAI resources can help you integrate accessibility into user experience design processes, to design more inclusive online user experiences.

NB Some of the WAI resources referenced in this article are currently in draft, and so might have changed since this article was written.

Categories: Development, User Experience (UX)

About David Sloan

David Sloan is a Principal Accessibility Engineer and Strategy and Research Lead at TPGi. He joined the company in 2013, after nearly 14 years as an accessibility researcher, consultant and instructor at the University of Dundee in Scotland.


Matt says:

Hey David, I like your article. A lot of sites simply explain the issue and or implementation with words. It’s important that people use assistive technologies or emulators to understand why developing accessible sites is important. I also truly believe that in a lot of cases, issues uncovered during testing with people having disabilities are issues for everyone. Typically, a good accessible site is a site that’s easily used by everyone…this also doesn’t mean the site has to be boring. I’ve dedicated a portion of a sandbox site I’m working on to demonstrate these points..