The dividing line between web accessibility and web usability is often blurred and difficult to distinguish. Whilst there is no doubt that the two topics do overlap to a significant degree, it is important to differentiate between them. Unlike web accessibility which impacts directly upon disabled users, web usability affects all users, and can be defined as a measure of how easy it is for a generic site visitor to carry out a task such as finding a given piece of information or buying a certain product. However, there are accessibility benefits to be gained from applying web usability principles to your designs. So let’s take a few simply usability concepts, look at why they are important and see what effect they may have on overall accessibility.
Take any prolonged discussion on web accessibility and there will come a point when someone mutters the phrase
“That’s not an accessibility problem. That’s a usability issue.”
As was demonstrated by The Great Accessibility Camp-Out, even very experienced developers have different ideas as to where accessibility stops and usability begins. But where do we draw the line? And can incorporating a few usability principles improve a site’s overall accessibility?
For a start, I think we need to understand, once and for all, that usability is not the same thing as accessibility.Web usability affects all users and , generally speaking, can be sub-divided into five core components:
- How easy it is for visitors to find their way around the site during their first visit?
- How quickly and easily can they perform tasks?
- When visitors return to the site after a period of time, how quickly do they recall how to use the site?
- How many errors do visitors make, how severe are those errors and how easily do they adjust?
- How pleasant is the site to use?
So how do we turn these components into something practical we can use?
Rule 1: Don’t Make Me Think
This rule is discussed in Steve Krug’s book of the same name. If you haven’t already read this book, I’d seriously recommend adding it to your reading list as soon as possible. Much of this common sense approach to web usability can be boiled down to the following points:
Short Is Sweet
Developers and site owners often spend hours crafting perfect copy for each and every web page. Yet - once you’ve gone beyond adding those all important keywords for the search engines, the sad fact is that very few visitors are ever going to actually it sit back and read it. Users don’t read. They scan text and glance at headings looking for keywords.
It therefore follows that, if you can keep text short, concise and structured, you’ll get better visitor response per unit of copywriting effort. So every time you draft copy, try and reduce your first draft by 50%. Then try and halve it again. With luck, you’ll now be left with enough solid content to grab hold your visitor’s attention for a few seconds before they hit that mouse button again. From an accessibility perspective, the clearer and more concise your content, the easier it may be for users with learning difficulties to understand and absorb it.
Don’t Make Users Think
Your site visitors will not study each menu item carefully before making a considered choice as to which link to select. If you’re really lucky, they might glance down the site menu but, more likely, they’ll just hit the first link that looks about right. Generally speaking, users prefer to make a “best guess” than actually stop and work out what page to view next. So, if you make your link texts concise, accurate and unambigious, you’ll increase the chance that their “best guess” will turn out to be the “right choice” and that they will be left with a favourable impression of your site. Again, this approach will favour anyone who might otherwise have problems reading complex menus or understanding obscure phrases.
The “3 Click Rule” Isn’t A Rule
Frankly, I’ve no idea where this apparent “rule” sprang from but watch any web surfer for a short period of time and it will become apparent that this rule simply doesn’t work in reality. Users will happily click away if they feel that, with each click, they’re continuing to move in the right direction. Whilst excessively deep site architectures should be avoided, you can reinforce user motivation well beyond three clicks by ensuring that the topic of each page they hit is clearly outlined within the first few lines of content (sometimes referred to as “front loading”), that headers are used to sub-divide pages into easily digestible “chunks” and that links are clearly identified. Is it me or are we developing a theme here that favours anyone who might have a language or cognitive problem?
Web Surfers? Web Ditherers!
Most visitors don’t ’surf’ the Web. They muddle their way around it and dither every time they move from page to page. Try to make sure that any choices they do have are as clear and unambigious as possible. Users also panic easily, so provide a Home link on every page at the very least. Even better, try to make sure that they can jump from point C to point Y without having to pass through every point inbetween. Those that don’t panic will be impatient. Don’t make them jump through hoops or have to backtrack if you can avoid it.
Our accessibility net was just thrown a little wider. Now, not only are we trying to make thing easier for those with language difficulties but we’re also assisting those who may become easily lost or disorientated (cognitive problems); users who may have to rely on a mental model of a page (visually-impaired screen reader users) or those who may find complex navigation systems (such as flyout menus) difficult or impossible to use (sighted keyboard navigators).
Rule 2: Don’t Assume
Do not assume that your site visitors:
- Can use a mouse
- Can see
- Use a keyboard to navigate because they cannot see
- Can read
- Want to absorb great swathes of text even if they can read
- Are experienced web users
- Are novice web users
- Know how to use their software
- Haven’t customised their software extensively
- Know what they want
- Know where they are going
In short, don’t assume anything about your users if you can possibly help it. But also bear in mind that you, the developer, do not have to resolve every single problem. Web users are extremely adaptable and may have developed highly individualised approaches to deal with their own needs. The developer’s job is to provide the basic framework within which these approaches could be used as effectively as possible.
Rule 3: The Shop Analogy
Finally, imagine that you’ve been dropped, blindfolded, into a large store on a busy high street. On removing the blindfold, your first questions would probably be:
- What is this shop?
- What does it sell/offer?
- What department am I in?
- What are in the other departments?
- What floor am I on?
- Where can I go from here?
- How can I get help?
Substitute “site” for “shop” and “web page” for “department” and you’ve encapsulated the mindset of visitors who arrives at an inner page of a web site via Google or another search engine. If you can develop an approach that answers these questions easily and effectively, you’re well on your way to developing a site that works with your visitors (rather than against them) and offers the most enjoyable and satisfying experience for everyone — irrespective of any special needs they may, or may not, have.
Whilst it is true that usability isn’t the same as accessibility, it isn’t rocket science either. And paying attention to the usability aspects of your site will almost certainly improve its overall accessibility at the same time.
It’s a win-win situation.