When designers set out to build an inclusive website, mobile app, or digital platform, they may be tempted to start with a checklist of accessibility features. That’s not necessarily a mistake; the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the international standard on accessible web design, offered an introductory checklist for an earlier version. (As we publish, the most recent working draft of WCAG is 2.2; that checklist refers to version 2.0.)
Checklists can be helpful for learning about how your design choices affect your audience. However, it’s important to understand that people browse the web in very different ways, and certain improvements may introduce new accessibility concerns. When you hard-wire certain features into your content, you risk excluding some of your audience. Here are a few examples of digital accessibility features that can be more useful when they’re optional.
Captions for Video Content
Text alternatives to audio content are essential for sharing content with people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Accurate captions can also be beneficial for people who view content in public spaces, people who don’t speak the video’s language natively, and people who prefer to browse without sound.
WCAG 2.2 recommends captions for all live and most pre-recorded audio on the web. However, in some cases, captions can be an unwelcome distraction:
- People with neurological differences like ADHD or autism may find captions overwhelming.
- Captions may obscure portions of videos, preventing users from understanding all of the information.
- When captions are generated automatically, they may be inaccurate or misleading.
- When captions are rendered into video content (or “burned in"), screen readers and other assistive technologies may be unable to interpret the text.
To accommodate all users, don’t omit text alternatives to audio and video content; captions can be enormously helpful for some people. Instead, create a clear control function that allows the individual to remove them. Providing other ways to access the information — such as written transcripts — can further improve the reach of your content.
It’s always better to choose a font that’s clear and legible, without decoration that can distract readers. While there’s no official “accessible font,” several commonly available fonts are generally considered accessible: Arial, Calibri, Helvetica, Tahoma, and Times New Roman.
Offering options can open your content to a wider audience. Several fonts have been designed to make text more legible for people with visual impairments or dyslexia, including Read Regular, Lexie Readable, and Tiresias.
Font size also contributes to accessibility. WCAG 2.2 recommends websites provide a native ability to resize text by up to 200 percent without the use of additional assistive technologies. Design pages to prevent such resizing from damaging functionality, causing letters to overlap or crowd the page.
Apps, websites, and mobile devices often introduce dark modes as an accessibility feature. In dark mode, a page uses light-colored text against a dark background, which can help websites meet WCAG’s color contrast requirements.
Dark modes improve experiences for many users including people with photophobia (light sensitivity) and low vision. Some readers find that a color-inverted display prevents eye strain. However, other users may find dark mode to be harder to use than a standard setting.
For people who navigate websites with a keyboard rather than a mouse, highlighted focus indicators are essential. If a dark mode isn’t designed with these indicators in mind, they can disappear into the dark background. Hyperlinks may encounter a similar issue. And many dark modes default to total contrast — a pure black-and-white color scheme that interferes with reading for some people with dyslexia. In short, dark mode is a helpful feature, but it creates issues when used as a default setting.
Remember, people access your website using a variety of technologies, and browsing habits vary greatly. When in doubt, allow the individual to choose to implement them or not — and make sure that mechanism of choice is itself easy to access. Providing options to users allows them to control their own experience.