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Can Accessibility and Usability Live in Harmony?

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Accessibility and usability are often discussed in the same breath, and many webmasters usually devise and implement strategies for each around the same stage of a site’s development.

Since usability has taken a more integral role in the design of many of the websites with which we are most familiar, it’s no surprise that this can present an unintended problem from an accessibility standpoint. Before we can determine whether a website can be 100% accessible and 100% usable simultaneously, we must first define each.

Accessibility: “Will every visitor have access to all of my content every time?”

There is more to making a site accessible than simply making sure it looks the same in every browser. As a designer, it is very important to determine what features are absolutely necessary to the site, and which are extras that might be nice.

Usability: “Will every visitor be able to find exactly what they are looking for without difficulty?”

Since there is not yet the technology to read a visitor’s mind and deliver what they seek immediately upon arrival, navigation should be self explanatory and easy to use. The information that any given visitor seeks should never be more than 2 clicks away from the homepage.

On the surface, these don’t look to be conflicting forces. In a small, informational-oriented site, both of these goals are very easily obtained and the implementation of the strategies complement each other. In larger sites, or those that feature complex scripting to achieve the end product, however, quite the opposite is true.

Let’s say we are in the process of designing a site to compete in a field full of high-tech sites. While usability may be our primary objective, we must be sure that we’re not eliminating visitors by creating a site that won’t display at all in a particular browser on a particular platform. In this case, we are obviously going to want as much of the calculation as possible to be done with scripting on the backend, as opposed to placing the burden on the end user’s hardware.

Some usability features are simply not going to be completely accessible. If, for example, you had a Flash-based mp3 player embedded into your site which allowed users to choose which songs to play, you could easily output the values contained in the ID3 information tag for each mp3 to the screen reader for a blind visitor, but you could not easily write a piece of code that would transcribe the lyrics for you automatically. The absence of this feature would certainly not, however, automatically render your site inaccessible.

With this in mind, we can now come up with a general rule for moving forward. While we have determined that some usability features can restrict your site’s accessibility, we can ascertain that any steps taken towards accessibility should never restrict usability. For a site to be completely accessible, it has to be viewable from any browser in any operating system. But it doesn’t stop there. If you’re using animations that require a plugin, you must provide a version for folks who haven’t installed the proper plugins. Most big sites also offer versions for users on the go, visiting on their mobile phones or PDAs.

It’s not always possible to get all these variations of your site to look or feel the same, but it is very important that visitors can find the content they’re looking for regardless of which variation they’re navigating.

Jim is a designer and a staff writer for iEntry. He is also the editor of the FlashNewz newsletter.

Can Accessibility and Usability Live in Harmony?
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