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Accommodating Difference with Good Design

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
January 7, 2013 Deadline
February 2013 Issue

Accommodating Difference with Good Design

Websites and software should be accessible to as many people as possible, including individuals with physical and neurological differences.

Developers sometimes forget the various challenges people experience when visiting websites or using software. Failing to test interfaces for accessibility leaves barriers in place that exclude readers and users, the last thing any good organization or company wants to do.

In the physical world, we notice the obstacles others encounter. Most of us try to help when we notice steep steps, heavy doors, high shelves or small print frustrating another person. Whether out of empathy, compassion or a sense of obligation, we don’t need laws to tell us that helping other people is the right thing to do.

Of course, there are laws such as the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), amended in 2008, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004. These laws and the associated regulatory mandates give businesses and organizations guidelines to follow, ideally reducing barriers for those with physical and neurological challenges.

While we can see people needing assistance in an office or store, we cannot see the struggles of people when they are surfing the Web from home. Disabilities advocates want businesses to remember that as online interactions increase, we cannot exclude anyone from our virtual stores and offices.

ADA guidelines and other regulations mandating accessibility for those with disabilities apply to virtual spaces with the same legal implications as physical spaces of business. If your organization has a website, accessibility isn’t simply a good idea: it is the law.

Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, revised in 1990, explain the mandated accommodations. Within Section 508, there is a list of design considerations mandated by federal usability regulations. User interface experts refer to “504/508 standards” when discussing website and software design practices. Legal compliance with these standards has to be part of the design process.

In 2006, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) sued the retail giant Target Corporation in California. The lawsuit alleged that the retailer’s website at the time “contain[ed] thousands of access barriers that [made] it difficult, if not impossible, for blind customers to use.” Resolving the lawsuit cost Target approximately $10 million, including legal fees.

Redesigning the Target website required more than a year, with extensive usability testing. In effect, Target paid three times for their online efforts: the original design, the legal settlement and the costs for a redesign. Whether you run Target or a small shop on Main Street, you don’t want to waste money on a bad website design.

My technical communication students read about the Target lawsuit because aspiring designers must appreciate the potential costs of not planning ahead when creating websites. A professional interface designer has to consider not only how attractive a design is, but also how usable it is for the greatest number of people. I tell students, “Make it beautiful while making it compliant.”

Small businesses and organizations cannot afford tens of thousands of dollars to plan, design and test websites. They also cannot afford fines or lawsuits. What can a business owner do to accommodate differences among users while controlling costs?

First, design with accommodation and legal compliance in mind from the beginning. By starting with compliance as a top priority, you can avoid costly and time-consuming missteps. Whether you hire an outside consultant or have staff design a website, make sure your design team understands that compliance matters to you and your customers.

Ask your design team what they know about usability and accessibility compliance. If your designers aren’t familiar with 504/508 standards, you should be concerned. No matter how beautiful his or her portfolio might be, I won’t hire a designer unable to demonstrate awareness of legal and regulatory design requirements.

If you cannot hire a designer with compliance expertise, you’ll need to insist that the design team learn the basic requirements and testing tools. Ignoring the legal mandates leaves you vulnerable to the potentially expensive consequences of poor design.

Second, design with an eye towards simplicity. Complexity increases the work necessary to ensure accessibility throughout a website. A benefit to simplicity is that a website easier to navigate for people with special needs is easier for all users. My design philosophy reflects a preference for minimalism: each element on a Web page should serve a purpose.

Avoid complex tables, nested menus and unnecessary multimedia content. A cluttered design forces people to search for information, while a minimalist design focuses attention on what you want to share with visitors.

Simply because broadband speeds allow designers to include clutter, such as unnecessary images and other media, doesn’t mean websites should resemble bad music videos. Use graphics, photos, video and audio content wisely, and provide alternatives for people with special needs. Don’t include background music or videos that play automatically. Let users decide if and when they want to watch a demonstration of your product or listen to an online commercial.

Finally, test your website for basic Web standards compliance and user accessibility. Free tools exist to validate Web page coding and to test accessibility. Most leading website design applications also include code validation features.

Web Accessibility in Mind is a project of Utah State University. The WebAIM site ( features detailed guides and software tools for Web designers seeking to improve website usability and accessibility. My favorite WebAIM utility is the Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool. WAVE is available for Adobe Dreamweaver and Mozilla Firefox.

Another great resource is the Web Accessibility Initiative ( The WAI website offers extensive information on compliance and website design. WAI is a committee of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the organization that sets most Web standards. WAI guidelines extend the Section 508 requirements, adding suggestions based on new features of HTML5 and other Web technologies.

Viewing accessibility as nothing but a legal nuisance ignores the potential benefits of an inclusive approach to Web design. Designing with accessibility in mind opens a website to more potential visitors, which means more potential clients for any business or organization. Accessible designs also tend to be easier to use and more productive for all visitors.


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