Accessibility is usability

Screenshot of Sarah Richards' article in Signals

Some organisations see accessibility as a tick-box exercise: screen readers and colour contrast. Code and design.

This is a useful and necessary part of including audiences with visual challenges but it won’t help:

  • profoundly deaf people
  • people in a hurry
  • people with a temporary motor impairment
  • people with learning disabilities

… and many, many more.

In the UK, 8% of profoundly deaf people communicate by sign language alone. They don’t read English. British sign language, like all sign languages around the world, has different vocabulary, different grammar and different structure.

Code and design are an important part of making the internet a more inclusive space, but what’s the biggest part of making your digital service accessible? Answer: your content.

You can have a perfectly coded, beautifully designed digital service that’s still inaccessible. But if people struggle through your content and take 3 times longer than they should have, if they make the wrong decision because you weren’t clear, if you caused them pain because you didn’t get to the point, you are stopping people accessing your product or service.

You are disabling them.

Number one rule of accessibility: be relevant

There is nothing worse than having to wade through content that is pointless or useless. At best, you waste time. At worst, you cause unnecessary pain.

Instead, you should:

  • know your audience
  • be where they are
  • understand their needs at every step of the journey
  • use their language
  • be useful, helpful and interesting
  • respect your audience: their time and their access needs

Struggling through content is not a success metric. People finding or acting upon the information they find the first time they look for it, is.

Start in the search results screen

Structuring your content well means people with motor impairments can get information without having to unnecessarily click or scroll, which could cause pain. For people without time, it’s the same thing. It’s faster.

So put important information in the search results. Traffic is a vanity metric, if taken alone. Coupled with conversion, satisfaction or some other human-intent-based metric, then traffic becomes relevant.

Have a search results strategy that causes less pain for people. You’ll get better search result rankings.

Headings tell a story. Use them.

We look down a page to see if we are going to get the information we want before committing time and effort to read text. So use that to tell people what they are going to get on the page with your headings alone. About 90% of people start scrolling within 14 seconds of being on a page. For usability, it’s important to tell people what they are going to get. For accessibility, same thing, but for more important reasons. And remember, screen readers can read headings without any other content.

Structuring your page

Humans are very lazy creatures really. It takes fewer eye muscles to look down than across. That’s probably why we like looking down and skimming a page, rather than reading the whole thing.

Use your first sentence to orient your audience. The first question your user will have is: am I on the right page? Am I going to get the thing I am looking for?

When we are looking through content, we often have the words we want in mind. We skim down the page looking for the phrase or term we want to make sure we are going to get the right thing.

Screen readers can’t do that.

Visually impaired people can’t do that.

Tired people don’t want to do that.

Answer the questions people have, in the order they have them, using the language they use, and you will help your search engine rankings, usability and those with visual or cognitive impairments.

Accessibility doesn’t need to be boring

Using common words doesn’t mean you don’t have to be boring. Creativity doesn’t have a literacy level. It inspires, shocks, sells. But most of all it speaks to people. It serves a need.

The most intelligent people on the planet are the most well-read. They spend time wanting to learn so that they can add that experience to their own lives. They want to make it work for whatever it is they are doing.

People want to understand. They want to act on what they learn. They don’t want to marvel at your language skills.

Einstein said: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it.”

We don’t treat people like idiots, when we make our content clear. We respect their time. We want to share. We want the widest audience possible to engage with us.

It’s not dumbing down. It’s opening up.


This is part of Signals, Summer 2019

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