Web Accessibility Guidelines for Usability

In a quest to further improve the compatibility of the internet as a platform for software, entertainment and communications infrastructure, and to make a number of somewhat obtuse devices all play nicely by the same standards, people have clamored to establish some mutually-accepted web accessibility guidelines.

Now, as we’ve said in the past, accessibility pertains to more than just accommodating those with disabilities or impairments, to include the art and science of making the entire interface easy to work with in a number of scenarios and environments. So, establishing a solid set of web accessibility guidelines is indeed very important. Can we come to an agreement, as a community of designers and developers, on what these may be? Well, I can’t speak for anyone else, but as someone with a lot of experience in design, development and use of a host of technologies over the years, I can at least impart my advice on this topic, drawing on all that experience.

The first thing I want to touch on has to do with touch screen technologies, and specifically, the on screen keyboard. Now, as a web designer or SaaS designer, you have no bearing on the design or behavior of that system keyboard directly, but you can actually break it by being flippant with your forms. Let me explain.

On Android, whenever any text-receptive form element is highlighted, the keyboard pops right up. This is entirely due to the design of Android and the way their control virtualization works. However, other systems like Windows 8 and iOS don’t do this. When form elements aren’t properly mapped to tell mobile devices “hey, get the keyboard up”, the keyboard doesn’t come up. On Windows 8, where browsers tend to open away from the desktop in the most unintuitive design concept since … ever, the lack of the taskbar (to manually summon that keyboard) means that you’re stuck unable to enter data into web forms. Map your form elements to prevent this! Please!

On another note for mobile, the common practice at the moment is to design mobile-specific pages to run in parallel with PC-friendly page layouts. This is all well and good, but in cases where the developers didn’t feel like taking the effort to make the mobile pages, they often scale poorly. This makes other devices hard to use on those web designs.

So, if you’re not going to make a mobile-specific design, then I suggest designing your site with easy mobile scalability in mind. This makes it so much easier to use on devices with obtuse interfaces, and also makes it easy for those with special needs.

As far as PC accessibility goes, it’s good, once more, to map your form elements well, so those who need special input devices (or voice guidance) can easily navigate through and interact with the interface elements.

So, aside from IEEE, W3C and ISO standards for interfaces, web accessibility standards are primarily just about flexibility and good partitioning of your interface for additional services or interface methods to easily work with it, as well as being scalable with design. However, a lot of designers who write about the practice forget to go over these aspects, and they really do matter.

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Jessica Miller
Jessica is the Lead Author & Editor of UsabilityLab Blog. Jessica writes for the UsabilityLab blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to usability.
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