The wider benefits of universally designed websites

Web accessibility is often thought of as an us-and-them proposition. If you don’t need to use alternatives to the standard monitor, mouse, keyboard, or touchscreen, then designing websites to accommodate these alternatives may seem personally irrelevant. However, this perspective doesn’t take into account many accessibility guidelines that have benefits for a far wider audience.

A more useful approach may be to think in terms of universal design or UD, defined by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University as “The design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG), which is quickly becoming an international standard, even starts by saying, “Following these guidelines will also often make your Web content more usable to users in general.”

Two levels: coding & GUI

In website development, universal design happens at both the coding and the graphical user interface (GUI) level. One major coding example is reflowing text. This is explained in success criterion 1.4.8 of the WCAG 2.0 guidance as follows: “The resizing provision ensures that visually rendered text…can be scaled successfully without requiring that the user scroll left and right to see all of the content. When the content has been authored so that this is possible, the content is said to reflow. This permits people with low vision and people with cognitive disabilities to increase the size of the text without becoming disoriented.”

When WCAG 2.0 was published in 2008, it would have been difficult to predict the explosion of phones, tablets, and other portable devices with screens much smaller than standard computer monitors. Yet mobile device users instantly notice the benefits when text reflow has been implemented; it means the difference between an automatically tidy presentation versus having to repeatedly scroll right and left on a page to see all content.

On the GUI side, success criterion 1.4.3 of WCAG covers providing “enough contrast between text and its background so that it can be read by people with moderately low vision (who do not use contrast-enhancing assistive technology).” The Colour Contrast Analyser is a free tool for Mac or Windows that makes checking for compliance with this criterion very easy. Compliance is also likely to make websites easier to read for anyone over 40 or so (the eye’s reaction to light naturally decreases with age) or anyone in an environment with too much or too little lighting.

Learn more

To learn more about universal design, please join the U-M Web Accessibility Working Group, which meets monthly and also sponsors an active listserv where questions can be posted and information shared. We look forward to talking with you.