August 16, 2022

Moving Beyond Accessibility Guidelines

Patrick Connors, Principal Front-End Developer, and Jessamyn Wallace, Senior User Experience Designer, looked at how inclusivity in web design can be achieved and accelerated without strict adherence to a rulebook. 


The History of Inclusive Web Design 

For a long time, designing for everyone was a radical idea, especially on the web. People viewed disabilities as outliers; stigma against disabled people ran rampant. As the tides began to turn in the US with Section 508 and the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA], web accessibility was still seen as optional. But in the past few years, web accessibility has seen a steady rise in popularity across markets and countries. 

The U.S. created new, clear guidelines in 2022, while the EU, the UK, and Canada have all made accessibility a legal requirement. In order to define a law, and put parameters around its scope, these countries have to rely on a definitive set of rules and objectives that can make a digital experience accessible. That comes in the form of the World Wide Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG. But what happens when guidelines fall short?


The Problem with Checklists 

Real life isn’t standardized. People (and life itself) are multifaceted, three-dimensional, ever-changing, and diverse. Guidelines and rules can kickstart how you evaluate and improve digital experiences, but they can’t tell the full story. 

If your site checks off every box in WCAG 2.1 AA compliance, it’s likely that you won’t be sued. But is that the goal towards which we should be striving? A lack of legal recourse? 

When we think about UX as an overall concept, we acknowledge that “bad UX” is often still usable. It’s not easy, and users often quit or get confused on those pathways, but some users can and do still complete “bad” user flows. That doesn’t stop us from wanting to improve those experiences, and make it easier, more efficient, and more enjoyable to use those sites. You could have a list of “usability guidelines,” and you’d find that they’d likely not encompass all of your use cases. So UX professionals don’t use a checklist to build experiences – they think about the experience as a whole, and test with real users, to determine the best, not the fastest or cheapest, solution. But unfortunately, businesses, clients, and agencies choose the checklist approach for accessibility, over and over.


Thinking Outside of the Guidelines 

Going beyond accessibility means thinking about inclusivity. What could your products look like if you considered all users as integral, important, and valued? What if you designed and considered how websites function, look, and behave for everyone? 

Accessibility is not a side note, or a last minute overlay, or a one-and-done checklist; accessibility is an integral part of usability and user experience.  

We know from inclusive design studies that products created for people with disabilities have benefits that extrapolate past the original intention. Bendy straws, for example, were created as an accessible solution for the inventor’s small daughter – now, they’re useful for people with motor disabilities, or broken arms, or neurological conditions, or just because they’re fun and easy to operate. 

Inclusive digital design, likewise, has collateral benefits. Videos with captions can help Deaf users and those who are in a crowded space. Descriptive, thoughtful alt text can provide context for an interested person who wants to know more, or for a blind user who wants to know what the picture really represents. 

When you design for everyone, not the assumed “average,” you end up with better results, happier users, and products that move everyone forward. 

By starting with inclusive design, you can not only check off the legal accessibility requirements, but enhance the site experience for all individuals. You’ll see better engagement, more positive interactions, and increased organic search traffic. Designing inclusively sets you (and your users) up for success.


If you can’t tell, we’re passionate about inclusivity. Want to talk more? Need some help with your site? We’d love to hear from you.