May 6, 2021 | Evan MacLeod | Brianna Schretlen

Designing for Digital Accessibility

In the last few years, more focus than ever has been placed on increasing accessibility of spaces, both physical and digital, for all people. In the case of physical spaces, many of the accommodations made are ones that non-disabled people rarely think about, such as lever handles on sinks, or automatic sensors that open doors. Similarly, digital accessibility is something we can incorporate in ways that most will never ever notice, but that can make a huge difference for those who need it.

Digital accessibility is the practice of building digital content that considers the needs of users who may have visual, cognitive, motor, auditory, or speech impairments. If you’re thinking that your farm customers don’t have these types of impairments, think again. At the very least, age-related vision loss starts for many people in their early to mid-40s – 10-15 years earlier than the average age of a North American farmer. In addition, many farmers face short-term injuries or disabilities that suddenly requires them to use assistive technology.

These individuals often use tools that enable their access to digital content, including screen readers, screen magnifiers, and speech recognition tools, though not always. Designing for accessibility includes not only implementing design that works with these tools but overall considerations for design that everyone can interact with.

Another case for accessible design is that accessible websites are better for SEO, have better search results, enjoy faster download times (a key consideration when your site users have limited Internet access in rural areas), and provide a better user experience. How much time would you spend trying to engage with a website that was difficult to read or was taking too long to load?

3 Ways You Can Make Your Website More Accessible Right Now

While some adjustments will take time, here are three basic steps that can improve the accessibility of a site quickly and with relative ease:

  • Check Your Forms All form fields should be clearly labelled. Avoid using placeholder text (the text that appears inside a form field). It is typically light grey and doesn’t provide enough contrast to be seen easily. Labels (the name of a field that appears immediately above or to the left of the input field) can be read by screen readers. If a form field requires a certain type of input, clearly indicate the expectation with explainer copy. 
  • Provide Alternatives to Images and Media Subtitles and easily located transcripts ensure that individuals can engage with video or audio media. Carefully written alt tags on images are also important. Ensure that alt text provides enough information to describe the image, especially if the image is conveying important information. 
  • Consider Your Text Text size, placement, and the fonts you choose all have an impact on how accessible your site is. Doublecheck that text and design remain legible even when viewed at 200% magnification, or in narrow formats, such as on a mobile phone. Decorative or cursive text are generally more difficult to read. Lastly, ensure that all important information is conveyed in plain text, not within an image.

Other Changes To Plan For

These adjustments are the ones you’ll need to plan for, as they may be a bigger undertaking. 

  • Colour Choices Matter High contrast between background and foreground elements will make them easier to see. Additionally, avoid using colour alone to convey information. One way to test whether you are relying too heavily on colour to convey meaning is to consider what would happen if all the colour was removed from your site. Would it still tell the story you want it to tell?
  • Group Content With Headers and Spaces Screen readers use headers and subheads to read text hierarchically. A person using a screen reader can have the software read only the headings to decide where in the text they wish to start. If your pages have no headers, or inconsistent headers, trying to navigate the site is confusing – even for those who aren’t using tools. Lack of spaces or clear headings are simply difficult to read. 
  • Tidy Up Your Navigation Confusing menus, too many options, or icons or buttons that are placed too closely together can all impact how easily users can navigate your site. Take a high level look at your navigation, and consider providing a site map or tagging content to make it more accessible through your on-page search function. 

Making Your Digital Content Accessible to All

Whether you’re working with an external agency or your in-house team handles your website, implementing accessibility features into your digital content can feel like a big undertaking. It is generally easier to start from scratch than to retrofit an existing site, though that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother if your website is already complete. 

In much the same way that you might be tackling SEO optimization on your website, this is a task that calls for regular, routine maintenance. Start with the basics, work in phases, take a continuous approach, and soon you’ll find that your site – and your users – are enjoying all of the benefits that come with accessibility features.

Evan MacLeod

Evan Macleod is the Associate Creative Director at WS. Split hairs over the difference between interactivity and functionality with him by connecting on LinkedIn.

Brianna Schretlen

Brianna has over 18 years of creative experience in branding, advertising, digital media and experiential design. You can debate the finer points of font selection on LinkedIn.