Accessible web design is a way of building a website so that people who may experience difficulty accessing the information from or purchasing goods or services on a website can do so. These difficulties range from older hardware/software and slower internet connections to people for whom English (or whatever language the website is presented in) is a second langue to people living with disabilities. It is for this last group that most effort is expended when considering accessibility and where this article will primarily focus. However it is important to note that all accessibility issues are interrelated and can help a website do its job better for any potential client.
People with partial or complete visual impairment present perhaps the biggest set of challenges to the web designer. After all, the web is primarily a visual medium. The power of the web, though is that it doesn’t rely on only one way of presenting. A video can have running captions for the hearing impaired. Text can be resized for those who find it too small or colors changed for people who can read it better with different contrasts. And it can be read aloud for those who can’t see it at all.
Many blind and partially sighted internet users rely on what are known as screen readers. These are programs which act a bit like your browser except, as the name implies, they read what is on the page aloud. They allow the user to not only hear the copy but also to navigate through the website, enter information into a purchase form, and even glean data presented in graphs, maps, or other images – if the page has been designed with this in mind.
In order to explain how we need to understand a little of how a web page works. As you probably know, what you see on a webpage is what the author has chosen to show you – to accomplish that she needs to write so called code. To see what it looks like simply look at the top of your browser and find View. There find the View Source (or something similar) and click it. A page will appear which, if you don’t read HTML, looks like gibberish. This is the language of web presentation. Most of that code is there to tell your browser how to present the page. On a given page there are likely to be decorative images like navigation buttons, informative images like maps, text, and navigation. There may also be videos, embedded sounds, animations, complex forms, etc. And if the page has been designed with accessibility in mind then it also contains options so that a person with an older computer or a screen reader can still benefit from the information or services being presented. This is accomplished by including bits of HTML code which screen readers can find but which may or may not appear on a browser. For instance adding a little to the code which presents and places a picture can also include a verbal description ordinarily it is invisible but a screen reader will find it and read it aloud.
Now this article is about how making all this extra effort will increase sales to everyone. After all, going through the process of website accessibility testing , the first step, and then changing a current site accordingly can’t be free. And though it need not be expensive, true enough it isn’t free.
There are two main reasons why the investment is worthwhile – beyond the moral and legal aspects.
First, adding the bits of code, such as in the case of pictures, gives your designer the chance to add keywords, which search engines look for in a page to determine your site’s ranking. Also, by using quality accessible design techniques your page will be more attractive to search engines. Search engines use software usually called robots or spiders to read a page – visually impaired users use software screen readers to do the same. Most of the elements and techniques which make a page attractive to one are exactly what is needed to be attractive to the other.
Second, one of the things accessible design makes one think about when designing a page is how to streamline the process the page is created for. If something is for sale, discount airline tickets, for instance, then how do we make the pitch, search out the specific tickets, and take the payment information as efficiently as possible. What extras, like nifty graphics, seductive seaside sounds, or blinking headlines help us achieve our goal and which distract? The average web user decides whether to stay on a new web page in the first five seconds and they allow for one or two frustrating moments. Then they leave and find your competition. Removing obstacles and making the next step clear and easy will help everyone do business on your website.
To turn that potential client into a real, paying one you need to use all the tools available. Accessible design is one of the more powerful ones you have. It opens up a whole new potential group of clients with visual impairments or don’t read English too well who need access to internet services but it also makes making that sale to any visitor to your site that much more likely.
Nik Page Has been working in SEO, website accessibility and usability testing since the early 90's.
He is currently General Manager of Page Accessibility Labs