If your site isn’t visually accessible, you’re really missing the mark as a quality web developer…
Considering the Majority
Web accessibility for all can be broken down into several groups for which accommodations are considered and made if needed: accessibility to the blind; accessibility to text-browsers; sans-image accessibility; sans-script accessibility; and many others. One accommodation — a highly critical one I might add — is, of course, accessibility to the most prevalent user-group as defined above. To accommodate the needs of this group one needs to see the page as they do: visually. This will be an easy one for most of you. You probably fit the common-user profile, right?
You might say visual accessibility is actually just design or usability and if you did I wouldn’t say you’re incorrect. But then again, design, to include usability, plays a role in all aspects of web development as far as I’m concerned. It’s not just pretty pictures and colors. Though pretty pictures and colors do play a big role in visual accessibility. As does the type-face, font-size, padding, margin, layout, organization, interactive elements, animations, various media, and more. But here and now I will give visual accessibility a life of its own.
Understanding the Concept
I guess “visual accessibility” is a term I just coined (at least in this context), but if anything fully captures the concept of visual accessibility, it’d have to be a combination of layout, readability, organization, usability, style, and content-clarity design considerations. This, at least to me, is important enough to warrant having its own nomenclature. When you view a web page in the traditional sense, as most do, are you able to find stuff quickly and is what you’re seeking exist? User expectations should be met. Take for instance a contact option (I think every site should have one): Is it easy to find the a contact option link assuming one exists? As another example, can you negotiate the main text content, or is it too small, crowded, or faint to make out? These are examples of design considerations that need to be made in regard to what I’m calling visual accessibility.
Delving More Deeply
Do understand that many sites which are perfect in regards to visual accessibility are not actually accessible sites and can’t claim to be. Conversely, not all sites that claim to be and actually are accessible exemplify good visual accessibility. These sites are great for blind users, text-browser users, and all sorts of minority users, for example, but they may be crowded, cluttered and confusing, visually. And as a result it may be difficult to find stuff or enjoy the content on these sites. I applaud these folks for producing accessible sites, but I’m a Camp One kind of guy so if the site in question forgets the needs of the most common user-group, then there’s something critically wrong with the picture.
It’s akin to web developers who make web sites for Internet Explorer and disregard Firefox, Opera, Safari, and other browsers. They might not like these other browsers or they may think the user-numbers are insignificant, but to disregard them and not accommodate the users of these browsers is not wise. Not wise at all. It’s foolish and arrogant, in fact. The same applies to not accommodating the common need for visual accessibility. Not a wise move.
A Study of Contrasts
I’ve had this blog theme for a long time — without feeling a need to “reboot” — and there’s a reason for that: I’m happy with this theme. Even as the owner, I still appreciate being able to locate stuff and read the content. I like the sheer simplicity of it. A couple have folks have expressed concern over the type-face used, because of Trebuchet letter-spacing issues, but the vast majority of feedback has been quite positive, from both the traditional “design” and “usability” standpoints. Most people can find what they are looking for and they can read the content with relative ease.
If my site was like the Major League Baseball site (MLB.com) — which I visited recently because I was trying to locate information about a pitcher for my kick-ass Red Sox — I’d consider it a disaster. I’d be very unhappy about it indeed. Granted, their site has a ton of content, maybe thousands of pages, but must every pixel be occupied? It’s difficult to find things on that site in my opinion. It’s, you know, like ten pounds of stuff in a five-pound bag. I feel it has terrible visual accessibility (it has terrible accessibility of many levels but that’s another matter altogether).
A Possible Solution
So what you do about a site like that to improve it visually? In my opinion it’s as easy as opening it up spatially and reducing the content-per-page by leading the user down a greater number of avenues organized in a greater number of layers so as to limit the number of avenues per layer. Think river delta. It’s what they do already, it’s what most developers do, but that site offers way too much in one shot on any given page — the river delta concept needs to be broadened and expanded considerably. This improvement suggestion will mean the page count will probably double, at least, and the number of page requests will also double, but bandwidth consumption shouldn’t fully double and most users would have an easier time with the site. It’d be more usable, better organized, and the content would be clearer. There’d be more “white space” and it would be easier on the eyes. I feel it’d have better visual accessibility. A fair trade-off in my opinion.
What You Can Do
You should start with an accessible and semantic build, then enhance it carefully and progressively taking visual accessibility into consideration as you would with any other aspect of the science and art of web accessibility. If you’re not starting at the beginning, though, grab your mouse, fire up the latest version of your favorite browser, and with both eyes wide open look at your site trying your best to empathize with the first-time visitor. How’s it fare? If you’re good to go, if it’s highly accessible in the visual sense, then you can check out its accessibility to your minority users by experimentally degrading the experience for yourself in various ways. If your site isn’t visually accessible, you’re really missing the mark as a quality web developer who wants to produce a usable, well-designed site. As much so as you would if you failed to make your site accessible to any group.
I think visual accessibility is pretty important. What are your thoughts?