person working on a laptop
PHOTO: Sergey Zolkin

The US might have accessibility standards and guidelines, but as it currently stands, companies (outside of government websites) aren’t legally bound by specific web accessibility laws. Consequently, a growing number of lawsuits are making their way through the courts against organizations whose websites don’t meet accessibility standards. Since 2015, the number of lawsuits filed targeting web accessibility has increased over 660%, with the retail sector being hit hardest. Major brands including Target, Netflix and even Beyoncé have found themselves in court facing large fines (Target settled its class action lawsuit with the National Federation of the Blind for $6 million). 

Why is this happening? Why isn’t accessibility at the forefront of web design?

Moving to 'Accessible by Design'

Many still believe accessibility places too many restrictions on the look and feel of a website, that it ruins the design. This is a myth. While there might be ugly accessible websites out there, there are many websites that are both ugly and inaccessible. 

How do we change mindsets and prepare teams for the next design mantra of "accessible by design"? 

As UX and UI designers, when undertaking a new digital design project, we obsess over understanding our audiences’ motivations, feelings and perceptions. We strive to create experiences that are frictionless, and, at the same time, visually appealing and enjoyable to interact with. 

Before adding any pixels to the screen, it’s worth researching users and spending time understanding their needs to ensure you create personas and user stories that capture users’ motivations and key tasks. But, how many times have you seen a persona where the user has a disability? 

Related Article: Web Accessibility Serves Everyone: Here's How to Get Started

Getting Started With Web Accessibility 

Accessibility isn’t a topic most design teams get excited about. When designing a new experience, we’d rather spend hours obsessing over each feature, typeface, color nuance and line of micro-copy rather than considering accessibility requirements. However, if design, by its essence, is meant to help empower users to complete tasks, creating an experience that is frictionless for all should be the desired end goal.

Firstly, teams need to understand what accessibility actually means and the spectrum of disabilities, from color blindness to autism, permanent disabilities to temporary ones. The whole team needs to be aware of the guidelines and understand conformance levels and penalties.  

The best way to do this is to nominate a team member to take the lead, to be your internal accessibility advocate. When undertaking internal design critiques, add a section for an accessibility review. These conversations help to up-skill the whole team on conformance guidelines. You can also decorate the office with educational snippets; the GDS team here at Dept UK have produced some great posters about accessibility that you can download for free.

Secondly, we need to create empathy within our UXD teams. In design, it can be hard for people to grasp the importance of accessibility if they have no personal experience, whether directly or indirectly. Invite people with disabilities into your design process so they can educate the team on the challenges they face with your creations. This real world experience will stick in the team’s mind much longer than statistics ever will, and its impact will be much more profound.  

Finally, we need to add accessibility testing into our user testing process. This can be done internally using color contrast analyzers and screen readers such as Chrome Vox or Voice Over, as well as using accessibility checking tools such as Chrome Lighthouse or Site Improve. It can also be done externally by recruiting participants with disabilities for user testing studies. 

Related Article: We Need to Build Accessibility Into Our Digital Workplaces

UX Designers Can Make a Difference

In a world where we strive for inclusivity, UX designers are empowered to make a positive difference. Accessible websites don’t need to be dull or boring. In fact, a well-considered, cleverly designed accessible site can empower and inspire — and there’s nothing ugly about that.