Accessibility Vs Aesthetics

As the Internet and websites evolve, web designers and developers need to become increasingly aware of the role that accessible web design plays in the lives of end users – particularly those with visual impairments.

Guidelines

Web Accessibility is a term that is becoming increasingly prominent as the web becomes more widely used. Web developers use the guidelines set out by the W3C to help them meet the criterion outlined here.

If these guidelines are followed properly, a visual disability or even blindness will not stop an end user using the internet and browsing websites providing they use the the correct hardware or software.

Does that mean that the end users without visual problems will loose out on the interactive web experience?  Not necessarily – we should try to remember that if a website is there to provide information then it’s first job is exactly that and not to entertain. With this in mind we should build the site with the focus on providing information first.  Web developers can then work around the design and look/feel using CSS to create something visually appealing to the rest of us.  If the main focus is on aesthetics (which is the case for the vast majority of websites) there is a risk of making accessibility difficult to solve later on, so it must be highlighted throughout the design and development process.

Of course if the purpose of your website is to entertain visually, there is not much that can be done to make it accessible to everyone. Even so you can still pay attention to document structure to enable a visually impaired user to gain access.  Maybe a visually impaired user is more I.T. competent than a non-impaired friend or family member and the site is being visited on their behalf.

Who is responsible?

It is a relatively safe assumption that a graphic designer commissioned to design a website will not have been briefed on accessibility guidelines. Furthermore the client may sign off a design based purely on aesthetics.  Subsequently accessibility is considered after a design has been signed off and work has begun.  At this point dealing with accessibility can be problematic as the signed off design conflicts with guidelines, resulting in extra work needed which was not within the budget of the project.

A possible way forward could be to involve the graphic designer in the website specification process, discussing at every point what is to be expected as a user browses a web page.  At the same time the graphic designer could use the resources of the web developer to point out any issues with parts of a design.  This is not only beneficial from an accessibility point of view but from a web point of view in general.

Some clients may not have heard of such guidelines or their importance.  The Disability Rights Commission started in April 2004, changed to the Equality and Human Rights Commission in October 2007, goes into a little more detail regarding the importance of web accessibility here.

Local authorities tend to be well versed in the requirements of web accessibility and over the years Strawberrysoup have built many local authority websites. As you can imagine the accessibility criterion for this type of website is at the highest level.  Due to the success of our first local authority website (WSSEN) we have been referred several times back to other projects within the local authority.

In the case where a client is not aware of the importance of the guidelines to which we must adhere, we should make them part of the design process; walk them through the website site map before it is signed off, involve the graphic designer so he/she is also clear on what can and can’t be done.

Summary

It is easy to become focused on a small part of a website (particularly for developers) if it is large or complex or both however, it is key for at least one member of the design & development team (perhaps the project manager) to keep in mind the big picture.  Having a site with many separate parts performing very well is great, but do all these parts work well together?

All of us – graphic designers, web developers and project managers need to pay attention to these guidelines but it will never be possible to meet the needs of every individual for example, these guidelines do not take into account people with cognitive disabilities.  Having said this using a well thought out process of design, from concept to launch, can make the difference between a smooth running project and one that has many hurdles.