Making the Web Accessible to All (Book Review)

cover-Horton-Quesenbery-web-for-everyone-150A review of
A Web for Everyone: Designing Accessible User Experiences
by Sarah Horton and Whitney Quesenbery
Rosenfeld Media, 2014

What if everyone could use the web with equal ease? A student with reading challenges, a blind professional, a shopper using an iPad, a patient whose only device is a smartphone?

Two of the leading authorities on UX and accessibility have considered this topic and this book is the result of their collaboration. The insights and observations in this book give all of us hope, and for those of us in the business of creating websites, they provide specific guidelines and reasons for “doing the right thing.”

As all UX endeavors should, this book starts with people. Chapter 1 sets the stage, drawing our attention to the value of diversity. The authors then help us remember that every aspect of web design is important and needed. Even if it’s easy to use, if there isn’t anything that you would want to use, then the site will fail. If it’s beautiful but users cannot find the navigation, again, it will fail. If it’s “invisible” to some users, again, failure. As the authors point out, the responsibility for making the web work rests with all of us who design for the web:

no matter what your roles or skills are, it’s important that you—that all of us—own the term “design” because it comes with incumbent responsibilities which we need to own as well. Design has the capacity to improve lives. When we wield such a powerful tool, we need to appreciate its power so we are able to use it for good.

Chapter 2 defines the needy. Who are the people who need access to the web and can’t get it? The chapter introduces eight personas who appear elsewhere in the book. We meet a bright autistic teenager, a college student with cerebral palsy, a deaf graphic artist, a grandmother with macular degeneration, a Hispanic social worker with clients whose web access is often phone-based, as well as several others. They all have unique needs that can be met through flexibility in design and coding, and that don’t require the creation of separate “unequal” sites.

The following chapters in the book consider the challenge from different angles:

  • Purpose and goals of the website
  • Structure and use of standards
  • Easy interaction
  • Wayfinding
  • Clean presentation
  • Conversation with the reader
  • Accessibility of media
  • Creating delight for the users

Each chapter includes real-world examples of good design (such as OXO kitchen tools, a before/after image of a label on a pill bottle, a Medicare coverage summary, the layout for a Wikipedia article), profiles of industry leaders in all aspects of web design, and a summary that will be a useful as a refresher. I especially appreciated the use of personas describing a challenge in their own words. For example, the autistic teen explains that even though he enjoys figuring things out when he plays an online game, he needs better navigation cues when he is using the web. The social worker explains how websites with information her clients need to read will make the list or not based on use of plain English and readability on the phones they use to access the web.

A few final words from the book:

“Web standards are like curb cuts. They have value beyond their original purpose. Curb cuts were originally created for people who used wheelchairs, but helped people with carts, strollers, bicycles, and luggage. Similarly, both responsive design and accessibility rely on strong standards for the broad benefits they create.

“The commitment to accessibility can’t stop there, however. Don’t consider a site or app done until everyone can use it. It is unfortunate when a small, basic accessibility bug keeps some people from using a site, particularly when the problem could easily be prevented.”

Quesenbery and Horton finish with a chapter on their vision of a future in which everyone can access and use the web with equal ease and understanding, followed by a rich selection of resources as appendices and references for more reading. It’s all great, and we should all inhale it.

But even more than “just” the UX community, consider the rest of your team. Have you been in situations where some members of your web team didn’t get it? I have had coders tell me, “We don’t have to care about those people.” When this happens to you, ask them to order something from their favorite retailer on their tablet. Or to navigate on their phone to information about just about any subject they are interested in, then read it, print it, and share it with a friend. If they say, “It’s getting easier,” then just answer “Great!” Then ask them to go and do likewise. It might be helpful to leave this book open where they can see it.

Preston, A. (2014). Making the Web Accessible to All (Book Review). User Experience Magazine, 14(1).
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