Making compromises for accessibility

June 24, 2009

Topics: Accessibility.

The United Kingdom-based Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) recently produced a nice mini-site entitled “10 Things You Should Know About Web Accessibility.” For the most part, it’s excellent — a friendly voice, a casual approach, elegant presentation, and good information.

It does, however, intimate one of my pet peeves in documents promoting web accessibility:

Hey good lookin’

“But accessibility always compromises the design, doesn’t it?”

Wrong. Your site can still look beautiful.

This doesn’t precisely say that compromise is not required for accessibility; but it’s certainly implied by the language chosen.

To suggest that compromise is not required is simply a mis-representation of the truth about accessible web design: you do have to make compromises. Whether they’re compromises concerning how information is presented, the color contrast between elements, the specific uses of language or technology, you have to make compromises.

The perception seems to be that making compromises for accessibility means that you create an unattractive web site or otherwise decrease the aesthetic value of your web creation. This is not true: but it’s inaccurate to say that you don’t make compromises.

Truth: Effective accessible design has requirements which will require compromise in many areas.

It’s important to educate all participants in a web design project on accessibility before any serious work is done, to help prevent problems. If the designer knows to check contrast levels before proposing a design, they’ll start by creating an aesthetically elegant design with the color palette available. If they aren’t aware of these problems, you’ll end up making compromises on colors — and, without extensive modifications, it is entirely possible that these compromises could have a damaging effect on the aesthetics of the site.

Compromise shouldn’t damage aesthetics or accessibility: but poor planning almost certainly will.

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8 Comments on “Making compromises for accessibility”

  1. What are web accessibility trade-offs then?

  2. Good creativity leads to a better web design..!

  3. In my opinion, designing a website that is accesible for everybody does not necessarily mean having a plain black and white straight site in the end. As somebody has already said, design is far much more than just the aesthetic part: it implies the way the information is laid out and hyerarchized, the colours you use, the typos you use and so on. A well designed website, therefore, will be error free, clear, user-friendly and will make you feel comfortable surfing it.

  4. Thanks for your comments, Steve and Melanie!

    That’s a classic quote from Mark Boulton — understanding the sense that design is an all-encompassing element of functionality and appearance is crucial to working your way through a project.


  5. Great post — I noticed that wording in the “10 Things….” article as well, when I first read it.

    That quote from Mark Boulton does resonate. I’ve encountered numerous people in my career who attribute design as pure aesthetics. The worst of those people calling what designers do “eye candy” or “making it pretty”.

    But true web design encompasses so many things. I wouldn’t call a person who simply makes beautiful PSDs a great designer, if they can’t: produce semantically clean code; be mindful of presenting a strong user experience every step of the way; follow fundamental accessibility guidelines, etc

    So, in effect, good design IS all about compromises, sacrifices, trade-offs, etc. The world’s most beautiful, eye-catching PhotoShop rendering may make an awful web site.

    But yet, there is no reason at all that a fully accessible web site can’t be stunning and, yes, “eye candy”.

  6. I understand your point. It is important for designers of all environments–web, buildings, devices–to think more broadly in the planning stages and to consider usability from the perspective of a diverse user base. It takes commitment, time and effort to think differently about the design process. In all that we design, we need to think about usability as a part of the design, not an add-on. If we do that, then we will not think of it as compromising, we will just think of it as good design. Boulton’s quote expresses this well:

    “I think design covers so much more than the aesthetic. Design is fundamentally more. Design is usability. It is Information Architecture. It is Accessibility. This is all design.”

    — Mark Boulton

  7. I think it is a compromise, and that sacrifice is always involved, because I’m trying to look at it from a broad base of practical perspectives. I know from experience working with designers that they definitely have considered the more limiting color palette to be a sacrifice; I may think of it as simply the nature of working with contrast, but to them it’s an unfortunate sacrifice in design flexibility.

    “Compromise” can be a pretty flexible word – the difference in use between compromise and trade-off is extremely subtle, and I’m not sure I’d agree that compromise requires loss and trade-off doesn’t

  8. I don’t know that I’d call most of these issues compromises. I’d call them trade-offs. You don’t compromise your favorite design colors – you trade-off those colors you’d like with colors that will not hurt accessibility. ‘Compromise’ suggests that you only lose something. A trade-off means you give up something to gain something else. In this case, you give up some design ideas to gain better accessibility.

    With that said, some of these trade-offs are pretty expensive. Visible “skip” links, for example, have a significant impact on design while providing only some users a benefit.