Designing for Accessibility

As interaction designers on the web, we spend a lot of time looking at web sites, analyzing patterns for interaction and trends in visual design, and trying to figure out whether something is discoverable or intuitive or usable. But we take a lot for granted: that users are using a mouse or similar pointer device; that they see the content on the page and how it’s visually communicated; that they can hear audible cues; that they have images and JavaScript enabled. When we begin wireframing and prototyping and testing, we generally do so with those assumptions in mind.

The experience for users with impaired abilities is often an afterthought, in design and in development. The consequence is that accessibility is seen by development organizations as something expensive – because it is, when you have to go back and design an alternative experience, and refactor and test the code for a major feature or even a small site. But universal accessibility is possible with no technical debt for not a lot of extra effort, if attention is paid to alternative experiences up front.

This post is the first in a series about designing and developing for the web while keeping accessibility for all users in mind. Because I hope that you’ll be thinking about design before beginning development – and because it seems that there are far more resources available for accessible web development than for accessible design – I’ll start there.

Universal Design

The term “universal design” is attributed to Ron Mace, the founder and former program director for The Center of Universal Design at North Carolina State University.

Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation for specialized design.

Though Mace, who died in 1998, focused on architecture and product design, his philosophy is just as applicable to software and the web. Many of the principles of universal design map to widely held usability heuristics for user interface design. Where universal design goes further, though, is its emphasis on providing an identical experience to all users to the extent that it’s possible, and only providing equivalent experience where absolutely necessary.

There are advantages to this across the board from a software development perspective. A single, universal experience means less code to write, test, maintain and document, and reduces the likelihood that future changes will get out of sync. Even if you must provide a separate, equivalent experience for some users, understanding that and designing the experience up front enables the development team to accommodate it early on.

The more you know about how different disabilities affect a user’s experience, the easier it is to incorporate that into your design. In many cases, the difference between a universally accessible design and one that isn’t, is a small detail that could have been called out in a design deliverable.

Questions for Designers

There are several questions every designer should ask themselves when designing a universally accessible experience:

  1. How does someone who is not using a pointer device interact with this page (also part 2 and part 3)?
  2. How does someone with a visual impairment interact with this page?
  3. How does someone who has trouble hearing interact with this page?
  4. How will the page work in browser with JavaScript off?

I’d also like to acknowledge that this series wouldn’t have been possible without the efforts of Sofia Celic-Li, whose presentations on keyboard and screen reader accessibility provided me with starting points for several of the articles, and whose passion for universal access kick-started this whole thing for me.

January 2, 2011 · Tags: , ,


  • I’ve been looking more at mobile support for web apps and web sites lately, so I’m looking forward to reading this series. Some of what you will talk about will apply there nicely.

  • Sofia Celic-Li says:

    Hi Shannon,

    Great introduction to the topic! Thanks for the acknowledgment – you were an easy student! :)
    I’m looking forward to reading all of the articles.


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