Great web design is an art, and in the increasingly accessible digital world, it has become ever more important to ensure that your design decisions are focused on an accessible user experience. This not only facilitates more positive engagements with a business’ audience, but is also an important step in establishing a brand’s reputation, visibility, and authority.
The principles of universal design arose from a recognition of the need to overcome obstacles to accessibility, particularly in the case of individuals with physical or cognitive difficulties. However, as the name suggests, universal design extends beyond these challenges to encompass the barriers faced by individuals in all walks of life, for myriad different reasons.
Accounting for all users’ needs is no minor feat, yet there are a few fundamental tenets to use to make your work better and transform the customer journey into an experience that is accessible and enjoyable for all.
1. Provide Choice
Customizability enables users to experience your content in the manner that suits them best. As such, providing users with options for how they would prefer the website, app, or service to function for them is a strong first step towards a universal design strategy.
The ability to control certain elements of their interactions with your brand gives customers a sense of agency, which helps them to feel more secure and familiar with your brand.
This, in turn, can increase the chances that they will share content, sign up for services, or purchase products. For e-commerce businesses, this is a particularly important part of the business’ conversion strategy and the long-term success of the brand.
2. Automate Key Features
A great UX is one that predicts the user’s needs and proactively adapts to provide the best possible experience. To accomplish this, it is helpful to include automated functions within your app and website that streamline consumer interaction and intuitively customize their experience of your brand.
Automating allows for tailoring the finer points of a given piece of content according to individual needs. Automation also is helpful for simplifying the sales process, including autocompleting sections of forms and remembering relevant details about a customer. These details help facilitate better recommendations and allow for the generation of more accurate autocomplete predictions.
3. Embrace Responsive Design
A user could be accessing content from any of a wide range of devices. It is essential for content to display correctly across all formats and devices; however, it can be time-consuming and difficult to test and adapt a design for every potential variation.
Responsive design uses a combination of style sheets, fluid grids, and flexible images to make adjustments according to the detected screen size without having to realign UI and UX for each platform.
4. Implement Color Theory
Choose text and background colors carefully, considering not only the visual appeal of those colors but how well they contrast. Colors significantly impact the readability of text on your web pages. If in doubt, you can use this contrast ratio analyzer to determine whether your choices are viable.
This is especially important for users that have a form of color blindness. Others may prefer to use dimmed screens, which may make it more difficult to distinguish between certain colors and shades.
A poorly chosen color scheme can make navigation difficult, and may quickly deter potential customers, so it is vital to make the right choices when considering this aspect of design.
5. Support Keyboard Accessibility
Not all users will have the ability to use a mouse to navigate your website. Some may have poor grip strength or struggle to move a mouse accurately. Others may not have access to a working mouse, or perhaps wish to browse your content while in a hurry, breakfast in hand.
This feature enables users to navigate and interact with a website using only their keyboard. A well-integrated keyboard interface is even operable on mobile devices, catering to users on a wide variety of platforms.
The two most important elements of keyboard accessibility are that all links must be accessible by the tab key and show a clear visual indicator of the link currently selected. With this feature implemented, you should test its functionality and explore how easily users can reach key areas of your website using this method. If clickable elements are poorly ordered or too numerous, it can be frustrating and confusing for users to navigate a site and may cause them to lose interest.
6. Multi-media must be accessible
Video, audio, and images are one of the most often overlooked elements for accessibility. The use of captioning and proper alt text is not only a legal requirement but also needed to provide a full experience for visually- and hearing-impaired users, among others.
While some users may have hearing difficulties, making video content challenging to interpret, others may simply be consuming content at a time when they do not wish to or cannot use an audible volume. Free tools like Amara make captioning easy to implement, as does YouTube.
As with video content, images and other visuals must be accessible to every user. These visuals often form an important part of the overarching design cohesion. As such, it is vital to ensure that users can still be made aware of visual elements, even if they have visual impairments, or are unable to load those features when viewing your content.
Some members of your audience may use screen readers, which convey all text on a given page, or screen by reading it aloud. Alt text should provide description, meaning, and context to visual elements.
However, it also is possible to overdo the use of alt text. While it can be helpful for users to be able to hover over an image or other visual element, to gain an understanding of what it is and what it does, it is important to avoid repeating text that is already on the page in a format that can be read by an assistive device.
As always, consider whether your alt text adds value or utility that is not otherwise achievable. This could include boosting SEO efforts, as relevant alt text will show up in searches, and can even make it easier for crawlers to index the site.
7. Test Everything
Usability lies at the heart of UX best practices. Knowing the site’s users and their specific needs will provide the knowledge needed to make design decisions that minimize or eliminate barriers to engagement with site content.
Research and testing is the key to knowing and understanding these user needs. Methods such as split-testing allow for the comparison of two design iterations, while usability testing can highlight problem areas of the design.
Refer to the Web Accessibility Initiative’s guidelines for a handy checklist of features to consider when designing for universal usability.
8. Acknowledge Errors
The best intentions and most careful designs can still go wrong sometimes, but, often it is not so much the error that effects business, but the response.
Users are inclined to blame themselves when they encounter a technical error, particularly if they are accustomed to having accessibility issues. This can be frustrating, upsetting, and even enough to deter an individual from engaging with a business in the future. Businesses should acknowledge the error, explain it as plainly as possible, and take immediate steps to amend the issue.
Providing users with the ability to get back to their task before the error helps to maintain the continuity of the user experience, and, in turn, is a powerful means of increasing retention and reinforcing user confidence in the website or app.
As with every aspect of UX design and digital marketing, understanding your audience is essential.
Planning for an experience that is accessible to every customer can benefit a business without compromising on the style, tone, or message of the brand.
Universal design considerations increasingly comprise a prudent approach to design and development for the web. Interaction designer Andrew Maier details some of the broader implications this has for user-centered designers.