Usability is sexy. Accessibility is hot. Clarity is…phwoar!


What could be more gorgeous than a website that is easy to use and accessible for all?

Fresh from Camp Digital, we’re full of tips for businesses who know that better usability helps win the hearts of your customers - but don’t know where to start. Do read our accompanying post featuring the accessibility tools we’re sweet on too.

So, what’s the difference between usability and accessibility?

Usability is making sure someone can visit your website and do the thing they need to do. This could be to book tickets to your event. Apply for a job. Find out when the bins are going to be collected.

You want to make sure they can achieve this goal as easily and efficiently as possible, from the very first time they visit your site.

Accessibility – when we’re talking about website design – is all about making sure that all users have equal access to the content, with no barriers.

And how long has this been a problem?

I’ve been working digital content since digital content became a thing. And I can’t tell you the number of conversations I’ve had where people are dismissive about usability.

I remember back in 2003 when I was at, and I was telling the sales team about all the complaints we were getting from viewers about the pop-ups. People were clicking on some ghastly car advert when all they wanted to do was find out what time Coronation Street was on.

The response? A shrug of the shoulders and a grumble about users being stupid – surely they can see these were ads! All they had to do was spot the teeny tiny ickle cross to close them down!

And what’s so wrong with that?

If people are coming to your website and find themselves unable to do the simple things they’re trying to do, it’s your fault, not theirs. We shouldn’t blame the user.

Unfortunately, the indifference to accessibility I saw in 2003 hasn’t gone away.

I regularly have conversations with people who don’t care that layering pale text over a cluttered image will make it hard to read. Or they expect people to actively enjoy filling in an online form that is 20 pages long rather than two.

We don’t spend enough time putting ourselves in the shoes of those actually using our websites, or actively trying to remove obstacles for those trying to get at our content.

But surely this doesn’t effect many people? Why do we need to bother?

Here are some facts and figures from the Disabled Living Foundation:

  • Around 1 in 5 of the UK population is disabled; that’s 13.3 million people

  • One person in 30 has sight problems (and this figure is going up)

  • One in six people has a form of hearing loss; around 10 million people

And over in the US, 48% of adults have trouble reading, explained Dana Chisnell in her Camp Digital talk Democracy is a Design Problem.

That’s 32 million people who can’t read, which is quite some figure, isn’t it?

Camp Digital 2019

Camp Digital 2019

Sue Keogh Camp Digital

What does this mean for businesses?

Well, I have good news for you. Making your websites more usable and accessible will….

Save you time. If people can find information easily and understand what you’re saying, you won’t get repeated phone calls asking for clarification of exactly the same information the last caller asked about.

Or, as Jared Spool explained in his talk Beyond the UX Tipping Point, if website content was created with the user in mind, people wouldn’t rock up at Disneyland thinking they’d booked for Disney World…5000 miles away. Oops.

Save you money. Make you money! You’re making it easier for people to buy from you. Book tickets. Sign up to a trial of your product. Join your mailing list and allow you to trouble their inbox, day after day.

Make you more attractive. Oh yes it will. You’ll earn positive sentiment from customers who are more able to find information and use your service.

Talented people will feel included, and more likely to apply to work with you. So if your diversity policy looks great on paper but hasn’t materialised into actual people on payroll, have you thought about making web content more inclusive? I have tips.

How do users feel about accessible content?

For the humble user, an accessible website suggests that…

Organisations respect you. This is particularly important in the public sector, where we’re all taxpayers paying for this service.

They respect your time, and they actively avoid trying to cause you pain or discomfort while using their service.

They are more trustworthy. Information is easy to find, not hidden away.

Pricing is a good example here. If this is tucked away, buried out of sight, then it suggests that you’re not transparent as a company.

See also 56-page long terms and conditions. Why not cut this down, pop in some clear subheadings, make it easier for everyone to understand?

So how do we design for accessibility when we don’t have the budget?

This is the case for so many organisations. Not everyone has a crack team of developers schooled in the latest trends in accessible design. Or any time or money to throw at it.

Both Curt Holst from Barclays and Sarah Richards – formerly from Government Digital Services and who now runs the excellent Content Design London – explained how you can start getting into the accessibility mindset.

It’s best summed up by this line from Microsoft’s Inclusive Design Toolkit: Solve for one, extend to many.

So if you make your accessible for people with permanent disabilities, you help those with temporary and situational issues too.

microsoft inclusive design.jpg


…What does that mean?

Think about the person with permanent hearing loss. If you add captions to your videos and transcripts below, it also helps someone with temporary hearing loss due to an ear infection. Or the person watching your video on the train.

I’m British and I hate the idea that I might disturb the passenger next to me. I mean God, how embarrassing.

Or let’s say someone has had their arm amputated after a traffic accident and is always operating devices one-handed.

If you simplify the navigation, reduce page length so there’s less scrolling, and take information out of downloadable PDFs and into a web page, it also helps someone who has their arm in a sling.

Or the mother holding a baby, looking something up on her smartphone, and doing 101 other things at the same time.

I recorded a quick video on this for Sookio School after the event.

What’s an easy way to do usability research (without doing usability research?)

The first thing I would do is ask the receptionist.

Whoever is fielding calls for your business all day will be a mine of information. There’s also the Contact page on your website. What are the queries that people ask again and again? How can you make this information more visible on your website?

So we don’t have to actually talk to users? Ugh! I mean, the very thought

Woah there, pickle. Yes you do. I like what Jared Spool said in his talk, that watching how users use your product always dramatically improves how the thing is designed and works.

But you don’t have to get together a big research group featuring a random sample of typical users.

Next time you’re round at a relative’s house, get them to look at your website. Make sure it’s on their own computer or phone. Give them a simple task to find a particular page or piece of information.

This is interesting, isn’t it? You suddenly see how they don’t spot that call to action after all, that they miss key information from the form, that they can’t navigate in the way you intended.

This feedback is like gold, and will help you make changes (pronto).

Ask yourself:

  • Are we giving clear answers to common questions?

  • How does it work on mobile?

  • What do they do ‘wrong’?

But how do I get others to care about accessibility?

I think it’s important to get everyone else fired up about accessible content too, and you should embed it into every step of the content creation process.

We talk to clients about the benefits of making their content accessible to as many potential customers as possible, and build this into the brief.

Designers and developers should be encouraged to follow the latest conventions in inclusive design and build them in by default.

Ask customers when you get the opportunity, for example a quick link at the bottom of the page.

Accessibility posters from Home Office Digital

Accessibility posters from Home Office Digital

Tell me some quick wins for the content team

  1. Let the text breathe! Being able to see the shapes around the words is really helpful to people with dyslexia. Short sentences. Line breaks. Large fonts.

  2. Break things up with clear subheadings. Transform a dense, waffly paragraph by turning it into a simple list of bullet points.

  3. Always add descriptions and alt tags to your images (in social media posts too).

  4. Add captions and transcriptions to video.

  5. Use specifics to help people with lower levels of literacy or autism - rather than jargon, idioms and abstract phrases.

  6. Download, print and frame these posters from the Accessibility team at Government Digital Services (above), and put them up round the office - like we have!

What should I do next?

Read our accompanying post with the best accessibility tools to try if you want to improve usability - but don’t know where to start.

You can also visit the Camp Digital website to find out more about the event, and catch up with our tweets from the day in our mega-thread below: