Accessibility and the Best Possible Experience for All

Harris Lapiroff

Little Weaver is a web design and development agency driven by its principles. Each of the six sentences that make up our mission statement was selected to express one of those guiding principles. I’ve been spending time lately thinking about this one, in particular:

"We aim to provide the best possible experience to all users, on various devices and with varying abilities."

There are a lot of different implications embedded in this sentence. I break it down into three basic concepts: designing for different screen sizes, designing for different network connections and devices, and designing for accessibility. I’m going to cover the first two concepts briefly. While there is a lot to be written on those subjects, in my experience web developers understand and embrace them much faster than the third one, which is the meat of what I want to discuss: accessibility.

Designing for Different Screen Sizes

We build websites with different devices – phones, tablets, computers – in mind. We make responsive design (that is, designs which respond to the size of your screen) a first-class aspect of our design process. This takes a little more time than designing a website that has just one size, but if you make it a priority it’s not hard and there are numerous quality articles and books about how to do it.

Designing for Different Connections and Devices

We develop with an awareness that not all of our visitors have access to the same technology that we do. Over the past few years, mobile devices accessing the internet have quietly overtaken computers worldwide, making concerns about website bandwidth and performance newly relevant and with significant implications. Furthermore, while we’re fortunate to live and work in cities with fast computers and access to high-speed unlimited data broadband connections, many users – everywhere, but especially in rural locations or outside of the world’s wealthiest countries – are working on slower connections, cellular connections, and pay-per-byte connections.

We pay close attention to the bandwidth and processor performance requirements of our websites to ensure that they are usable by the widest possible audience.

Designing for A11y

Many people have disabilities which affect their experience of the web. Designing for accessibility is a fairly popular concept in web development and there’s even a web developer shorthand for it: a11y (generally pronounced “A eleven Y,” with 11 standing for the eleven letters of “accessibility” between A and Y). A common misconception about a11y is that you won't need it because you don't have any blind users. This is both self-fulfilling and an incomplete understanding of disability. Needs that should be considered in web design include anything from being completely blind to being color blind to “needs reading glasses” to “is in a dark room right now.” Once you start pushing beyond visual disability, you encounter things like motion sensitivity and manual dexterity issues. We strive to provide a usable and enjoyable experience to all these users.

Not only will thinking about accessibility improve the experience for users with various disabilities, but it can improve the experience for all of your users. This is sometimes called the Curb Cut Effect, referring to those miniature ramps on street corners. Curb cuts were originally designed to benefit people in wheelchairs, but, in practice, they also benefit parents with strollers, delivery people wheeling carts, skateboarders, bicyclists, and numerous other groups.

Photo of a curb cut, by Samuel Zeller, from Unsplash.com

You can find a similar effect in electronic media. Adding captions to videos makes them accessible to the deaf, but also improves the experience for people in noisy bars, people in libraries, people trying to search videos for particular content, and people scrolling through their Facebook feed who don’t want surprise audio. Keeping underlines beneath links helps color blind people identify them, but it will also help people who are not expert users of the web and have trouble identifying what elements are and aren’t clickable. All of these fall under designing for accessibility, but they are also broader user experience improvements.

Designing for accessibility is also one of the most challenging concepts to implement with a whole host of questions and complications that don’t have easy answers.Unlike building responsive websites or measuring website performance and bandwidth usage, because of the expansive nature of accessibility, there are not clear metrics or comprehensive checklists for building accessible websites. Yes, there are checklists out there and many of them are great, but none account for every possible scenario and none can tell you which things you must do. For Little Weaver (and other similar agencies) not having anyone on staff directly impacted by these sorts of disabilities means that treating them with the necessary attention and respect requires a lot of self-education and vigilance.

I set out early in Little Weaver’s history to ensure that our knowledge on accessibility was thorough and cutting-edge – that we live up to our mission statement. The result of that research was a growing list of readings and resources that have informed our knowledge of accessibility. You can see that list as a Google document. Feel free to suggest additions or make comments. We know we have room to learn more.

Of those resources, I want to bring special attention to the A11y Project. It provides more immediate how-to guides and explanations than some of the other readings and tools on our list. This is the website I wish I had when I first started learning about accessibility. It’s thorough and clear. It’s chock full of how-tos and contains a solid list of resources and tools. I’d even recommend it over our own list.

Go forth and make the web accessible. If you want our help, get in touch.

Harris Lapiroff

Harris is a versatile full-stack web developer based in Washington, DC. He is comfortable designing user interfaces as well as the Python/Django backends to drive them. He has been doing web development professionally for ten years.