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Making Websites Work Well for All - Usability and Accessibility

featured / usability / user experience / voting / evaluation

This post was co-authored by Drs. Thad Hall and Sou Montazeri. Dr. Thad Hall has over 14 years of experience conducting public policy research for public sector clients and in academic settings, and works as Project Leader over FMG's Public Policy and Evaluation division. Dr. Sou Montazeri has over 10 years of experience in human-centered product design, design with intent, and user-experience thinking and research. At FMG, she is responsible for working with clients on the design, execution, and interpretation of UX research.

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it is important to remember that the population of individuals with disabilities is not small. According to the Census, approximately 34.2 million Americans aged 18 and older, 14.7% of the adult US population, has a disability. As the figure shows, the likelihood of having a disability increases with age; 5.7% of people aged 18 to 34 have a disability but half of the population 75 and older does.


For many individuals with disabilities, the Internet has proven to be an amazing tool, connecting people to other people and other experiences that were not possible before. For example, the person who has a disability that keeps them homebound benefits enormously from the way in which the Internet connects them to the outside world. The Internet can facilitate civic engagement and participation for individuals with disabilities.

The Internet and Voting

Two of the most important services that election officials offer to the disability community are the ability to vote using an absentee ballot - which is critical for people who cannot easily leave their homes - and online voter registration, which is now available in 21 states. Six more states and the District of Columbia will be implementing online voter registration systems soon. With the Internet, a person with a disability can register to vote and request an absentee ballot so that they can vote without ever having to leave their home.

Unfortunately, for many individuals with disabilities, their ability to participate is limited because the websites that allow people to vote online are not accessible. As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) discusses in their recent report Access Denied, (1) of the 20 states that had online voter registration in May 2014, 19 had online registration portals that were not accessible. The report notes many problems that individuals with disabilities face online and gives examples, including:

  • long lines of text that are hard to magnify and navigate
  • inconsistent placement of navigation items, that have to be hunted down
  • inconsistent placement of key interface elements, such as "submit" buttons placed in the far right corner or the bottom of the screen
  • images that are unlabeled and therefore unreadable by the screen reader
  • use of unnecessarily complex language; and a lack of graphics

States that adopt online voter registration are trying to make the process of registering easy for everyone. As with so many things though, the devil is in the details. When states fail to make their online voter registration portal accessible to individuals with disabilities, it is denying people with disabilities the same benefits that others get from registering online: quickness, convenience, and an accurate voter record.

Usable Accessibility

When talking about designing user-centered products, usability and accessibility are used frequently but often they refer to two distinct topics. Accessibility is used to describe accommodating the needs of a special group while usability refers to focusing on meeting the needs of the users without considering individuals with disability. Accessibility requirements are often applied in a different stage of the process as an "additive" component. Because it is not feasible to take into account the needs of all the users, usability efforts mostly focus on primary user groups with common characteristics and "typical" needs often called as "average users." According to Susan Gonzalez this approach will lead to creating an artificial and static representation of real users that generates dysfunctions. The average user-centered design can progressively decrease the usability of our products as we move away from the average user toward the real users1. Also, the product would be less usable for the users who "do not reach the average user's threshold." Now the question is how can we consider the needs of all users and create products that work for all in a viable business model?

As the opponents of the "average user" approach say, the solution lies in the extremes. In other words, if the product accommodates the needs of the users with extreme needs and limitations, it would still be usable to the larger majority of users without these limitations. That might explain why many mobile sites or apps are found to be more user-friendly than their full websites as they have to be more simplified due to the constraints of a mobile platform.

Including accessibility guidelines throughout the design process improves usability for people with and without disabilities. For example, a website that is developed so that it can be used without a mouse is good usability; and use without a mouse is an accessibility requirement because people with some physical and visual disabilities cannot use a mouse at all. Additionally, we should ensure to follow accessibility requirements that are more specific to people with disabilities; for example, ensure that websites work well with assistive technologies such as screen readers that read aloud web pages, screen magnifiers that enlarge web pages, and voice recognition software that is used to input text. Most of these requirements are technical and relate to the underlying code rather than to the visual appearance. 2

Usable Accessibility in Research and Practicing

To make the Web work well for people with disabilities, designers and developers need to understand the basics of how people with disabilities use the Web. In doing so, it is integral to include accessibility in usability research and practice. The first step is to understand accessibility in terms of both physical (visual, auditory, and motor) and cognitive (literacy, memory, attention, and learning) barriers. Including accessibility in usability research and practice can be attained by:

  • Involving people with disabilities early in design processes broadens designers' perspectives and can lead to making products work better for more people in more situations.
  • Involving participants with disabilities in evaluation can identify usability issues more easily because people with disabilities are often more sensitive to usability problems. For example, a large number of links poorly organized on a web page will be more of a problem for people with some types of cognitive, physical, or visual disabilities. 3

All corporations, government agencies, and organizations set out to make information available. Some succeed at producing accessible information for all. Fewer ensure accessibility, usability, AND enjoyable engagement. When you partner with a team like Fors Marsh Group, you can be confident UX experts, psychologists and designers are on board to help test, evaluate, and modify until the optimal experience is produced. Integrating accessibility requirements in usability research may make things more complex, but if executed properly and thoughtfully, the research can improve not just accessibility, but also lend insight to ensure a truly pleasant experience.

In the next blog post, which Dr. Sou Montazeri will author, we talk more about creating a better user experience. Stay tuned!

  1. See Figures 2-15 in Access Denied.
  3. Shawn Lawton Henry and Shadi Abou-Zahra. Contributors: participants of the WAI-AGE Task Force and the Education and Outreach Working Group (EOWG). Developed as part of the WAI-AGE Project (IST 035015) funded by the European Commission under the 6th Framework

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