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User Experience Impossible: The Line Between Accessibility and Usability

Internet accessibility concept

Bob goes to a popular federal government site, using his assistive technology, and starts reading a teaser for an article. Just below the teaser, there’s an embedded video on the page. He presses the tab key, trying to navigate to a link for the full article, but suddenly he’s trapped—he can’t tab past the video. He’s stuck, and he can’t access the content. Frustrated, Bob leaves the site.

Would you call this a bad user experience? I sure would, but I’d say that it’s even more than that. Let’s explore why.

People often argue whether accessibility is related to usability. I’d say that they are close. In fact, they should be married, because they complement one another, but they’re not the same thing. Some people might even say that accessibility is usability for people with disabilities, but it’s oh, so much more.

According to the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative (W3C-WAI), accessibility is the means through which “… people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web, and they can contribute to the Web.” And the International Standards Organization’s standard ISO9241 defines usability as the “… effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction with which specified users achieve specified goals in particular environments.”

Accessibility is a benchmark of the quality of our users’ experiences. The two are quite different by definition, but in practice, they’re still separate issues. Accessibility means that your audience can get to the content and message you want them to receive. It’s more than just user experience. Without accessibility, the user experience—good or bad—can’t even happen. So, as the saying goes, “usability depends on accessibility.”

Even people who don’t have disabilities can’t access digital media if there are barriers to content. What sort of barriers exist for people without disabilities? Here are two examples:

  • Our friend Bob’s brother, Todd, is waiting for his flight in Oakland, and he’s on his way to meet some new clients. He needs to research loans for this last minute meeting, and he’d like to watch a video on the Small Business Administration’s site or its YouTube channel. Unfortunately, it’s so noisy in the waiting area that he can’t hear the video, and he left his earbuds in his gym bag at home. How can he get the content from the video that he can’t hear?
  • Bob and Todd’s sister, Amanda, is somewhat distracted at the moment. While watching her kids play soccer in the park, she’s using her tablet to order a consumer information catalogue. Unfortunately, the site’s order form has placeholder text within each form field where she needs to input her name and address. In between glances at her children, when she touches each field to input her information, she forgets what the placeholders say since they disappear when she touches the fields. Over and over, Amanda touches in and out of the form fields to find what she’s supposed to input. What should have been a three-minute task progresses to 15 minutes before she gives up and decides to watch the game—not having ordered the publication.

These two examples are common occurrences. Fortunately for Todd, the Small Business Administration rightly captions their videos, so he can read the captions and access the info for his meeting. Instead of the random site she was on before, Amanda can order the Consumer Action Handbook from USA.gov where the order form has text labels outside the form fields. Amanda only has to look above each form field to determine what she needs to input in it. Accessibility for the win!

We, in government, must remember that our users are entitled to receive government information. We must do all we can to provide that information and enable people to even have a user experience. In the end, it all goes back to my favorite saying: Access for all…or as many as possible. Usability can follow afterward, and then you can measure the user experience.

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