User testing is an essential process when introducing a new product or service — and it’s a crucial consideration when implementing a digital accessibility initiative. Web content needs to follow standards like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the world’s most frequently cited framework for digital accessibility.
Automated tools can help webmasters identify certain types of on-page barriers that affect people with disabilities. However, human testing provides insights about the actual on-page experience. People with disabilities use a wide variety of tools and habits to browse the internet; automated tools cannot always provide enough perspective on those adaptations.
That’s partially because accessibility can be subjective in certain ways. A website might be functional when accessed with a screen reader — software that converts onscreen text to audio or braille — but does it offer the best possible experience for real-life users? An experienced human tester could provide insights, but automated tools are limited to check-or-fail results. In some cases, automated tools may miss barriers that could frustrate real-life users.
The solution is to use both automated and human testing when developing your digital content. However, human testing should involve people who have disabilities; after all, the goal is to collect useful insights, and these individuals can provide plenty of perspective.
People with disabilities understand common browsing adaptations
People who don’t live with disabilities may believe that they understand the basics of how screen readers, eye-gaze monitors, or other assistive technologies function. However, it’s important to remember that regardless of their abilities, every computer user browses differently.
Some people use a mouse and keyboard, while others prefer to use a keyboard alone. Likewise, some screen reader users scan through web page headings to find the information they need — others read the entire page. Great web design should accommodate every user’s preferences.
When a person lives with a condition that changes their browsing habits, they’re more sensitive to these types of adaptations. They may also have an awareness of the ways that different tools function; the JAWS screen reader, for instance, has different capabilities than Apple’s VoiceOver, and an experienced screen reader user may be more aware of these differences than an inexperienced tester.
Testers who have disabilities can provide other important insights including:
- Language Guidance - An expert who has a disability may be able to highlight word choices that could seem insensitive or discriminatory.
- Process Remediation - If a website process isn’t accessible, the human tester can recommend a remediation that goes beyond WCAG recommendations, which can improve conversion rates and audience retention.
- Future-Proofing - The WCAG framework is regularly updated to adapt to new technologies. Human testers can anticipate some of these changes and highlight problem areas to help a website maintain conformance.
Human experts can also review automated tests for accuracy. Automated testing generates useful data, but that data needs to be interpreted with context. Expert human testing provides that context, particularly when experts have genuine experience with conditions that affect user behavior.
User tests should focus on established principles of accessibility
Conformance with WCAG is typically one of the major goals of website user testing — when your site demonstrates conformance, you can reasonably assume that you’re reaching a wider audience. Digital content that conforms with WCAG can enjoy the significant benefits of accessibility, and conformance may also help to limit the chances of accessibility-related litigation.
However, while conformance is important, it’s not the only consideration. User testing helps to ensure that every visitor has a similar experience. People with disabilities should be able to use your site in a comfortable, natural way, and WCAG’s framework is helpful here, too: The guidelines are based on established principles, and human testers who understand those principles can help you develop useful, robust content.
Testing for accessibility requires an established methodology
At the Bureau of Internet Accessibility, we use a four-point testing methodology that combines automated assessments with expert oversight. Every site is analyzed using assistive technologies, and tests are performed by people who use those technologies regularly. Subject Matter Experts review each outcome, and automated testing output is reviewed for accuracy.
This process creates two comprehensive reports that give our clients an accurate, thorough analysis of how accessibility can be improved. User tests — involving people who have real-world experience — form the basis of our strategy.
In short, every accessibility testing strategy needs human testing. If the goal is to make the site more useful for actual visitors, it makes sense to employ experts who have real-life experience with assistive technologies. Learn more about our four-point testing here.