In our last article on website accessibility, we shared what web accessibility is and why it’s important. It included accessible website examples and how to make your website accessible using our checklist.
In this guide, we dive into web accessibility best practices and share practical accessibility tips to design websites for users with disabilities.
Accessible design: what disabilities are covered?
People develop and experience varying degrees of disabilities. They have them for different reasons, ranging from birth, illness, accidents, or age. Some people have one disability, while others have multiple.
The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) groups most disabilities into five categories:
Keep reading to find eight actionable tips to improve usability based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines.
Accessibility best practices
- Provide enough color contrast
- Use larger text and simpler fonts
- Differentiate links and buttons explicitly
- Create keyboard-accessible navigation
- Adaptation and responsiveness
- Use image alt text
- Organize content structure with headings
- Make dynamic content accessible
1. Provide enough color contrast
Addresses: users with cognitive and visual disabilities, especially those with color vision deficiency (CVD or ‘color blindness’) and low vision.
An accessibility tip for designing websites for users with visual impairments is to consider designs that don’t rely heavily on color. Users with low vision may struggle to distinguish differences with similar colors, so be conscious of color ratios and contrast.
The WCAG 2.1 suggests a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1 for normal text and 3:1 for large text.
Black text on a white background has a high color contrast of 21:1, but using pure black (#000000) against pure white (#FFFFFF) isn’t recommended.
That’s because extreme contrast at a single pixel distance increases eye strain for users, especially those with light sensitivity and cognitive disabilities like dyslexia.
- Use color contrast testing tools like the WebAIM Contrast Checker or Stark plugin to test text color and background color combinations while taking text size into .
If you use Google Chrome, you can also use the Chrome DevTools accessibility checker to test contrast anywhere online.
To do so, open DevTools and use the ‘Select an Element’ tool to click on the element you’d like to check.
In the example below, we used the Twitter Analytics page, where positive results are shown in green on white.
Here we’ve highlighted the tool you need in the top left:
Then, go to Styles and click on the color box. If there isn’t enough contrast, it will have a red notification next to it.
Clicking on this notification will show you a useful color chart, which shows the good contrast (AA) and the best contrast (AAA), represented by two lines. You can see this above.
In the example, we could move the white circle down – making it darker – to get to the color it needs to be for best contrast. You can then make changes in your code.
- Avoid using red and green. CVD affects approximately 300 million people worldwide, and red-green color blindness is the most common type.
- Color alone shouldn’t be used to convey important information (e.g., ‘click the blue button’). Secondary indicators such as icons, underlined words, or contrast changes help differentiate elements.
- Add texture or patterns when using graphs and charts to differentiate various data points.
For example, use a line graph or pie chart that shows different patterns so users can distinguish between them easily, like we did for the Web Designer Survey results above.
2. Use larger text and simpler fonts
Addresses: Users with visual and cognitive disabilities.
Most online interactions are text-based, so website accessibility tip number two is to optimize text for different readers.
People with visual and cognitive disabilities might find it difficult to read small text and non-standard fonts, so make your website accessible by considering font size and style.
- Use sans-serif fonts. These fonts are easy to read in both small and large font sizes. Examples include Tahoma, Calibri, Helvetica, Arial, and Verdana.
- Keep default font sizes at least 9pt (or 12px). WCAG Guidelines say that users should be able to read the text even when zoomed to 200%
- Enable users to manually select font sizes, like the Wall Street Journal below.
- Make sure text is left-aligned and each line doesn’t exceed 70–80 characters. Left-aligned text maintains consistent character and word spacing, unlike justified blocks of text, which people with cognitive disabilities can find hard to read.
3. Differentiate links and buttons explicitly
Addresses: users with visual disabilities.
Users have established expectations about digital elements, and links are one of the things that have worked the same way for years. For example, linked text is often underlined and a different color from the rest of the body text.
Users with visual impairments often use assistive technology (AT) like screen readers, which provide a separate list of links to make page navigation more accessible. So using vague labels for anchor text like ‘click here’ doesn’t give users context.
- Make links and buttons descriptive. Screen readers provide a separate list of links to make page navigation easier, so vague labels for anchor text like ‘click here’ don’t give users context. Descriptive links and buttons also have a SEO advantage.
- Incorporate other elements to convey gravity. For example, the caution (⚠️) icon indicates warning or danger, while a checkmark (✔️) icon means success, and a cross (❌) can indicate failure.
- For buttons and links, ensure their appearances change for every action. Distinguish between hover, focus, and click for buttons.
4. Create keyboard-accessible navigation
Addresses: users with physical and visual disabilities.
Users with physical disabilities may need special equipment to access the internet, such as:
- Ergonomic keyboards or mice
- Pointers and other tools to aid with typing
- Hands-free tools such as foot- or shoulder-operated switches
They rely on keyboards primarily, using the Tab key to move forward and Shift+Tab to go back, for example.
Keyboard-accessible navigation helps users with motor skill disabilities. They can use screen readers to access links, menus, and buttons using keyboard shortcuts.
- Avoid using elements that break keyboard navigation, like dropdown menus. On dropdown menus, the top menu items are accessible, but the submenu items often aren’t. Instead, assign shortcuts or access key capabilities. For example, pressing ‘1’ will take you to the homepage, ‘2’ to the About page, and so on.
- Limit the number of links you include on a page. Links are a form of navigation. Users know they’ll need to go to another page when they see them, so having too many of them will make navigation more difficult.
- Add a ‘Skip Navigation’ link. That’s an anchored link on the page that lets users jump down the page to a specified location when they click enter with a keyboard.
For example, pressing the tab key twice on the BBC website reveals a ‘Skip to content’ option so users can avoid navigation on the page header.
- Use a breadcrumb trail. Those help users visualize site architecture. It helps them identify the page’s current location and navigate back to previous webpages.
Separate the items in the breadcrumb menu with a visible separator, like ‘>‘ or ‘/‘.
5. Adaptation and responsiveness
Related to navigation, you should always ensure that your website can be viewed on any device, by anyone.
- The website should not require a particular orientation. You should be able to rotate the site to any orientation, and there shouldn’t be horizontal scrolling.
- It should also be adaptable for most screen sizes and pixel densities.
6. Use image alt text
Addresses: users with visual disabilities.
Screen readers can’t process certain types of content, like images, tables, and graphics. Instead, they rely on alternative (or alt) text, which is a written description of an image’s appearance and function.
Screen readers will read the description aloud to the user. If the image doesn’t have alt text, the screen reader skips it entirely.
- All relevant images are accompanied by alt text.
Alternative text is only helpful for relevant images on the page.
Decorative images or elements that don’t add value can have empty alt text.
That’s because screen readers read code and not just text, so some elements can be annoying for visually-impaired users trying to access the content.
- Ensure that alt text is descriptive. If the image is a link, the alt text should explain what will happen if the user selects that image.
Screen readers will mention that it’s an image, so you don’t have to include ‘This is an image of…’ when writing your alt text.
You can insert target keywords in your alt text as part of your SEO strategy, but don’t overstuff them.
Keep it short and relevant. In general, no alt text is better than irrelevant alt text.
7. Organize content structure with headings
Addresses: users with cognitive and visual disabilities.
Organizing your content structure actually improves readability for all users.
Most people these days skim content instead of reading it word for word. That’s why you should use headings (such as <h1> and <h2>) when structuring content to help readers skip directly to the parts they want to read.
Users with cognitive disabilities may have difficulty understanding complex sentences and long passages of text. That’s why you should also break large chunks of text into more readable parts.
Organizing content also helps screen reader users with visual disabilities to navigate pages. When users land on a page, screen readers read the title first and ask if they want to skip to the different headings. Headers help screen readers determine each section’s context.
If those aren’t reasons enough, organizing your content with headers can also help search engines decide what’s important, leading to better search engine performance.
- Establish text hierarchy through headings that describe the section’s content
- Like with headings, use descriptive titles that state a page’s topic or purpose
8. Make dynamic content accessible
Addresses: users with cognitive, auditory, visual, and physical disabilities.
An accessibility best practise when you have multimedia content on your website is to include text options like captions and transcripts. They’re critical for people who are deaf or mute, and those who can’t play media in public places.
They also aid users with cognitive disabilities who can’t keep up with audio or video content.
- Include a transcript for audio content. W3C gives plenty of suggestions to make audio and video more accessible.
- Embed closed captions into your videos so users can read them no matter what platform they’re using.
- Multimedia content shouldn’t start automatically when the webpage opens. If it must, there should be controls to pause, stop, or turn down the volume.
- Use subtle animations. Make sure they don’t flash too much, as those could trigger people with epilepsy.
- Ensure that there is sufficient time before content times out. Give users ample time on web apps before timeouts, and inform them of potential data loss should they need to reauthenticate it. Configure the program to allow data recovery in case of a timeout.
Final thoughts: web accessibility best practices
Web design that doesn’t consider the needs of users with disabilities is a form of exclusion.
It’s a lose-lose situation for both visitors and your business. Users will avoid your website when they can’t get the information they need from it. In turn, you lose a potential client or customer.
If you’re new to accessibility, follow these eight tips to design an accessible website, and use our web accessibility checklist to keep track of your work. Eventually, these best practices will become second nature, and both your users and the websites you create will benefit from them.
Header photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force photo/Nan Wylie.