What does an accessible website look like? That’s completely up to you — but adopting the best practices of web accessibility certainly won’t ruin the way your content looks. Contrary to popular misconception, content does not need to be minimalistic or “ugly" to be useful for people with disabilities.
The goal of website accessibility is to create content that functions in a predictable and understandable way for every user, regardless of the methods they use to browse the web. That doesn’t mean restricting your site to a black-and-white color scheme or avoiding the use of images and videos — it simply means considering the experiences of your users and accommodating their differences.
Here’s the good news: There’s a rulebook. Developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the consensus standard for digital accessibility. While WCAG places several limitations on designers, those limitations aren’t overly restrictive, and they’re easy to follow while bringing your vision into reality.
Let’s take a look at what accessibility looks like — and how your team can begin designing a visually engaging website that meets the needs of real-life users.
Most accessibility improvements won’t change your website’s aesthetic
WCAG is organized into three levels of conformance: Level A (least strict), Level AA, and Level AAA (most strict). Websites that conform with WCAG Level AA and Level A guidelines are considered reasonably accessible for most people. Most WCAG Level A and Level AA success criteria can be followed without changing your site’s appearance — and when design changes are necessary, they’re minor.
Here’s a look at how some Level A/AA guidelines can improve your site’s functionality without affecting your designs:
- Non-text content should have a text alternative. For example, images should have accurate alternative text (also called alt text) describing the purpose of the media.
- All pages should have unique, logical title tags.
- Forms should have proper labels and clear controls.
- Users should be able to navigate the website with a keyboard alone.
Other WCAG criteria may affect your designs, but in modest ways. For example, WCAG requires sites to maintain a minimum color contrast ratio (the difference in light between text and background elements). Changing colors will affect your website’s appearance, but there are plenty of gorgeous color combinations that meet WCAG contrast requirements.
And by following the requirements, you’ll ensure that your text is readable for people with color-deficient vision, low vision, and other disabilities (along with users who access your site in bright environments or with low-contrast computer screens).
Tips for Designing a Beautiful (and Accessible) Website
Accessibility has enormous benefits for every type of website. Whether your goal is to attract a larger audience, increase conversions, or reduce the long-term costs of development, you need to start thinking about accessibility as early as possible — particularly when designing your content. Here are a few tips to help you get started.
- Adopt a universal design philosophy. Think about the experiences of users with disabilities when designing your content. Remember, building for accessibility is easier than fixing issues after-the-fact.
- Pay close attention to how your site uses color. Avoid using color alone to convey information and follow WCAG contrast ratio requirements. The Bureau of Internet Accessibility offers a free contrast analysis tool, which can be useful when planning your designs or evaluating a published website.
- Avoid using images that contain embedded text. Use CSS instead. If you must use images with text, make sure to include that text in image alt tags.
- Test your designs for WCAG conformance. Don’t rely on automated testing alone; if possible, involve people with disabilities in your testing process.
- Don’t forget about third-party content. Widgets and plugins can introduce accessibility issues, so review your options carefully before installing third-party content.
So, will following accessibility guidelines make your site ugly? No — if anything, your content will look better, and it will certainly be more useful for your audience.