Usability & Accessibility: A Look At Why These Matter for Designers & Developers

Usability and accessibility are often overlooked when it comes to design and development. However, these two factors play a critical role in how well users can interact with your site or app. And there’s an increasing moral imperative to prioritize these factors when approaching new design and development projects as well. To put it simply, good usability means that users can find what they need quickly and easily. It also takes into account things like readability, legibility, and overall navigability. Meanwhile, accessibility is all about making sure that your site or app can be used by people with disabilities. This includes providing alternate methods of navigation and content consumption, as well as ensuring that your interface can be easily understood by screen readers and other assistive technologies.

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Both usability and accessibility are important considerations for any designer or developer. By taking the time to understand and implement these concepts, you can create a better experience for all users. And that’s precisely our aim here today. We’ll be breaking down the differences between usability and accessibility, offer several examples of each, then discuss why they’re important to prioritize. Lastly, we’ll describe how you can integrate usability and accessibility into your design or development workflow. So let’s get started!

What is Usability?

Usability refers to how easy it is for users to find what they need and use it effectively. A site or app with good usability is intuitive and easy to navigate. Everything is where users expect it to be, and the overall experience is smooth and streamlined. 

Several factors contribute to good usability, including:

  • Readability: This is the ability of users to read and understand the text on your site or app. Good readability takes into account things like font size, line height, and color contrast.
  • Legibility: This is similar to readability, but specifically refers to the ability of users to read and understand the text on your site or app when it’s presented in a foreign language.
  • Navigability: As you might expect, this refers to the ability of users to move around your site or app with ease. Good navigability means that users can easily find what they’re looking for, even if they don’t know exactly where it is.
a woman in a black jacket and black and white top sits in a white office chair and types on her cellphone.

Why is Usability Important?

There are several reasons why usability is so important. For one, it directly impacts the user experience. If users can’t find what they need or have trouble using your site or app, they’re likely to get frustrated and give up.

In addition, usability is also important for SEO purposes. If your site or app is difficult to use, users are likely to bounce, which tells search engines that your content isn’t relevant to what they’re looking for. This can hurt your ranking and make it harder for users to find you in the first place.

Finally, good usability can also increase conversions. If users can easily find what they need and use your site or app with no hassle, they’re more likely to make a purchase or sign up for a service.

What is Accessibility?

Accessibility refers to the ability of people with disabilities to use your site or app. This includes things like providing alternate methods of navigation and content consumption, as well as ensuring that your interface can be easily understood by screen readers and other assistive technologies.

Factors that contribute to good accessibility include:

  • Screen Reader Compatibility: This is the ability of screen reading software to interpret the text on your site or app. Screen reader compatibility is important for people who are blind or have low vision.
  • Keyboard Navigation: This is the ability of users to navigate your site or app using only a keyboard. Keyboard navigation is important for people who are unable to use a mouse.
  • Alternative Information: Information on your website is presented in multiple ways to suit the needs of all people, not just those with typical capabilities. 

Why is Accessibility Important?

First and foremost, making your site accessible is the right thing to do. Everyone deserves to be able to use your site or app, regardless of ability.

In addition, accessibility is important for legal reasons. In many countries, including the United States, some laws require companies to make their websites and apps accessible to people with disabilities.

Likewise, accessibility is also important for business reasons. Making your site or app accessible can help you reach a wider audience and tap into a new market. And accessible content is often more usable for everyone, which can improve the overall user experience and create a generally more positive site browsing experience

And to put it plainly, there’s no doubt accessibility as an end goal has increased in both awareness and practice. Google even provides dedicated guides for building more accessible websites. 

Google guide for making websites and mobile applications more accessible.

How to Improve Usability in Design and Development

There are several things that designers and developers can do to improve the usability of their site or app. Let’s review a few of them now.

Keep It Simple

Don’t try to cram too much into one page or interface. Keep things clean and streamlined so that users can easily find what they’re looking for.

Use Clear and Concise Language

Avoid jargon and technical terms. Use simple, easy-to-understand language that everyone can follow. 

Use Visual Hierarchy

Use things like font size and color to create a visual hierarchy. This will help users see the most important information first and guide them through your content. It helps to create the sort of easy user experience we’re discussing here.

Provide Ample White Space

White space is important for both usability and aesthetics. It helps to break up your content and make it more readable. It also makes your site or app look more attractive and inviting and can help to guide the user’s eye to important information and/or menus.

The website for the Harvard Art Museums offers a good example of white space done right.

A screenshot of Harvard Art Museum's website shows an image of their building's interior and an abstract drawing

Use Visual Cues

Help users understand your interface with visual cues like icons and buttons. Make sure these are placed in logical locations so that users can find them easily. And stick to common designs for these items as well.

Use Familiar Designs

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Use familiar design patterns that users will be able to understand and use easily. You want to make designs that are easy to memorize. So even if users haven’t been to your site in a while, they’ll be able to remember where specific menu options are.

Make Things Self-Explanatory

Wherever possible, design your interface so that users don’t need instructions to use it. It should be easy to navigate even at a glance and even if a user has never been to your website before.

Test Early and Often

Use testing and feedback to improve the usability of your site or app. Get feedback from users at every stage of the design and development process. This will help you catch problems early and make sure that your final product is as user-friendly as possible.

How to Improve Accessibility in Design and Development

Designers and developers can do quite a few things to improve the accessibility of their site or app as well. 

Consider Accessibility From the Start

When designing and developing your site or app, keep accessibility in mind. This will make it easier to add features later on. Likewise, it’s easier to design and develop an accessible site or app from the start than it is to go back and try to make an existing site or app accessible.

Test with Screen Readers

Use screen reading software to test your site or app. This will help you identify any areas that need improvement and make sure that your content can be accessed by people with visual impairments.  

A screenshot of NV Access's website which shows their navigation bar and an image of a person typing on a keyboard.

Popular screen readers include: 

Add Closed Captions for Videos

If you have videos on your site or app, make sure to add closed captions. This way, people who are deaf or hard of hearing can still enjoy your content.

Use Alternative Methods

In addition to using screen readers, test your site or app with other assistive technologies. This will help you reach a wider audience. A few examples of other assistive technologies to optimize for include:

  • Screen magnifiers
  • Switch control devices
  • Speech recognition software
  • Onscreen keyboards
  • Gesture navigation

Add Alt Text

Add alt text to all images on your site or app. This will help people who are blind or have low vision understand the content of your images. This is considered a good SEO practice anyway, but the even more important reason to include alt text is to ensure all visitors to your site understand what your images portray.

Use Color Carefully

Avoid using color as the only way to convey information. This can make your site or app inaccessible to people who are colorblind. So, you’ll want to stick to high-contrast color schemes and use other cues, like shapes and icons, to convey information.

Make Sure Links Make Sense Out of Context

When adding links to your content, make sure they make sense when taken out of context. This is especially important if you’re using abbreviations or acronyms. People who are using screen readers will only be able to hear the text of the link, so they must understand what the link is for.

Use Headings and Labels

Properly label all headings and form elements. This will help people who are using screen readers navigate your site or app more easily. Again, proper headings are a top SEO requirement anyway, but they improve accessibility as well.

Choose Fonts Carefully

A screenshot of the Dyslexie website that offers dyslexia-friendly font options

Use clear, easy-to-read fonts. Avoid using small or decorative fonts, as these can be difficult to read for people with disabilities. There are fonts you can use for specific disabilities as well, including the recently developed Dyslexie, which was created for those with dyslexia.

Add ARIA Roles

ARIA roles help screen readers understand the purpose of elements on a page. This can improve the accessibility of your site or app. To do this, you’ll need to add role=” to the HTML code for each element.

Use Keyboard-Accessible Controls

Make sure that all of the controls on your site or app can be operated with a keyboard. This will help people who can’t use a mouse. There are several ways to accomplish this, but a top method is to use the WAI-ARIA Authoring Practices. Then, test out your site design and interact with it solely with your keyboard to ensure your changes have been effective.

Avoid Animated Graphics

Animated graphics, though fun on occasion, can be distracting and difficult to see for people with disabilities. Try to avoid using them whenever possible. Or, at the very least, avoid them in places that provide necessary information or navigation. 

Make Sure Everything is Labeled

Label all buttons, menus, and other controls. This will help users understand your interface without needing instructions. You can add labels to your content by using the HTML label element.

Provide Audio/Video Transcripts

If you have audio or video content on your site, make sure to provide transcripts. This way, people who are deaf or hard of hearing can still enjoy your content. There are several tools you can use to generate transcripts, though they should always be edited for clarity and accuracy. 

a screenshot of the HappyScribe website which offers transcription and subtitle services

A few examples include:

Test with Different Browsers and Operating Systems

Make sure that your site or app looks and works the same in different browsers and operating systems. This will help people with disabilities access your content.  

A screenshot of Browser Stack which offers app and browser testing services

You can use several different tools to test your site, including:

Usability and Accessibility Are Vital for an Equitable Web Experience

It is important to consider all of the different ways people access your content to make sure that everyone has an enjoyable and easy experience. Taking into account the points above will help you design a site or app that is both accessible and usable for everyone.

And besides making for a more equitable web experience for all, prioritizing these factors stands to increase your customer base, too.