Website Usability and Accessibility

Originally published 3/17/09 on Amandarama! LIBR240 blog

This week in LIBR 240, my web tools class, we learned about designing accessible websites. Accessibility in website design refers to whether your site can be easily used by people with disabilities, who may be using screen readers or other adaptive technology. Although accessibility is related to usability, because a website that is not accessible to users with disabilities is not usable for them, they do not mean the same thing. Usability is much broader and includes the entire user experience, including factors like:

  • how easy it is to learn how to use the site
  • how efficient it is to use
  • how satisfied users are with their experience

A website could be technically accessible (for example, using alt text for images to benefit people using screen readers) but still have poor overall usability.

It’s important to keep both accessibility and usability in mind when you design your website because you want people to have a good experience using your site. A frustrated user will (probably) not come back. What is the point of having a website if no one wants to use it? In addition to the benefits for you (repeat visitors to your site), an accessible, usable site is important for the benefits it provides for your users. As Krug says, “How many opportunities do we have to dramatically improve people’s lives just by doing our job a little better?” (Don’t Make Me Think, p.171). Accessible websites allow people with disabilities to be much more self-sufficient in gaining access to information than before the internet age. We should all make our sites accessible and usable because it is the right thing to do.

There’s no good reason not to make your website accessible. If you incorporate accessibility into your design from the start and use CSS, it is not that much more complicated than designing without thinking about it. In fact, here are three easy things you can do to increase accessibility in your web page:

  1. Add “alt” text to images. This is helpful not only for people using screen readers but also those who cannot or choose not to display images. Make sure that the alt text is descriptive for images that convey meaning and use an empty alt attribute for those that should be ignored.
  2. Add a “Skip to main content” link at the top of each page. People using screen readers do not want to hear the navigation links every time they go to a new page.
  3. Make sure all content is accessible using keyboard shortcuts. Some users may not be able to use a mouse.

I was struck by the observations about people using screen readers described by Mary Theofanos and Janice Redish in the article cited by Steve Krug. In many ways, blind users interact with the website the same way that sighted users do, from “scanning” the text to preferring concise, clear text and a simple layout. It seems true that one of the biggest things you can do to increase accessibility is to address your usability issues first.

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