Design for Everybody

Building Accessible Websites

In November, our interactive team took a field trip up to Detroit to attend The Ethics of User Experience Design – a mini-conference at the historic Argonaut Building, focused on accessibility on the web. It was a fitting World Usability Day outing for us, having recently helped the Detroit Public Library (a stone’s throw away from the event) rethink and rebuild their new website–with easy access for all users at the center of every design decision.

It was a fantastic event put on by AGIA Detroit, and we felt at home in a room full of people honing their craft and embracing the challenges that come with accessible design.

What is accessibility?

Simply put: accessibility (or its nickname a11y) means design for everybody. An easy analogy comes from considering the construction of physical spaces like buildings or parks. Things like wheelchair ramps, braille signs and automatic doors exist to provide individuals with limited mobility or impaired vision as many of the benefits of that space as possible. In the same way, websites that are carefully planned and built are welcoming and empowering to individuals with a broad range of abilities.

Why design for everybody?

For starters, it’s the law. The reason we see so many accessibility measures in physical spaces is because those features and enhancements are codified and required in most new building projects. Though less cut and dried, web accessibility works in much the same way. Especially for organizations that are publicly funded, allowing reasonable access to online resources for all people fits squarely into the same category. A public library needs to have an accessible entry for individuals using wheelchairs and it needs to have an accessible website for individuals using screen readers.

But more importantly, it’s the right thing to do. It’s the right way to design. The name of the AGIA event lays it out: The Ethics of User Experience Design. Ask any decent web designer what is at the heart of their design process and the word “user” will come up pretty quickly. User-friendly. User-oriented. User experience. User interface. But the question that accessible design asks is: “What assumptions are we making about the user?” Can they hear? Can they see? Do they have dyslexia or colorblindness? Every user is different, and following a11y standards allows each unique user to benefit from what your website has to offer.

At Madhouse, over the last several years we have come to see the important difference between “We should design for everybody” and “We get to design for everybody.” The difference between checking all the boxes, because that’s what you have to do and embracing the worthwhile challenge of creating meaningful experiences for users of all abilities.

Because–candidly–it’s hard. It takes a lot of planning and testing. It takes extra care and extra lines of code. It takes investing time into understanding compliance and standards as they change and evolve. But we believe it’s worth it. It’s an honor to be able to champion access to online content for users who are frequently marginalized or last in line and it’s our job as designers to build things that people–all people–can enjoy.