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Accessibility vs. Visual Design: An Interview with Tim Wright and Steve Hickey


When I first started at the AUX program here at Fresh Tilled Soil, I heard the word “accessibility”. It was a new word to me so it sparked my interest. I started to drill down into this topic, and decided to interview the two gurus (Tim Wright and Steve Hickey) at Fresh Tilled Soil to see what more I could learn.

The best Accessibility definition I found is from w3c’s website:

“Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can use the Web. More specifically, Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web, and that they can contribute to the Web. Web accessibility also benefits others, including older people with changing abilities due to aging.

Web accessibility encompasses all disabilities that affect access to the Web, including visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, and neurological disabilities.”

The issue with accessibility

Unless a company is a non-profit or government funded (or otherwise subject to Section 508 compliance), there are no incentives for companies (especially startup companies who often adopt the Minimum Viable Product approach) to put accessibility on the top of their agenda. Tim and Steve believe that designing accessibility into a product early on makes for a better product, a better world, and gives all users a better experience — while saving time and money in the long run.

Interview with Tim and Steve

Is 508 compliance the same as accessibility?

Tim: Section 508 is a government regulation to get the baseline level accessibility on the web. It is a way to enforce  accessibility, but it’s very lacking and very low baseline accessibility. They did recently update it to include media and the video captioning, among other improvements. You only have to be 508 compliant if you are related to government or receiving government funding. A backlash of not being compliant was evident in Target lawsuit several years ago, they refused to put alt text on their images and lost millions of dollars in that lawsuit.

Steve: My wife’s company is a non-profit and they receive government funding. The IT department has come back to her several times to ask for things to be updated for 508 compliance. The things they are looking for are either of very low importance or there are usually much better ways to do them, and the 508 guidelines do not match that reality. However, they must comply with 508 in order to keep getting government funding, even when the guidelines conflict with a more sensible way of doing something.

Do you think it is better to have separate interfaces for people with disabilities, or lower your standards of visual design in order to accommodate everyone’s needs?

Tim: No you don’t have to have a separate interface at all. There is a concept called “Universal Design”, which means one design works for all people. The most popular example is the sidewalk ramp on most street corners. It might be initially geared toward people who use wheel chairs, but many people use it, like mothers with carriages and people with shopping carts. You definitely don’t have to have a new interface to cater to disabled people. You can actually significantly enhance your experience by exposing accessibility features.

Steve: Specifically related to vision-impaired users, I find that many designers will use subtle, low contrast colors in their visual design, which are difficult for some people to distinguish. Many also forget that about 10% of the male population has color-blindness, usually involving red and green. Designers don’t think about that upfront, and end up using just color to create important relationships (like between negative and positive alerts). What I usually suggest is to design in black and white first for very high contrast. If it works in black and white then it will usually still work as you apply color to your work. Thinking that way is a very useful way to start a project.

Tim: We do user testing to find out. Building a separate interface for disabled users can be just as damaging as separating desktop and mobile.

Steve: I think that what is good for impaired users is good for most users.

As a design firm, we are at the beginning of the product chain. Have we asked the end user how they use the product after they receive the final product?

Steve: We care about the experience after a project leaves our hands, however our ability to manage that part of the process depends on our relationship with the client. I try to design things in a way that is very visually accessible and consistent across the product so that our client’s developers don’t have to worry about making decisions that can degrade the experience.

Tim: If we do the development then we can control it. If we don’t do the development then we need to educate them.

Do you think we should involve users with disabilities early on in projects?

Tim: I think “yes”, if we can get users to be involved. It does not have to be disabled users. But if we can get a disabled user, that’s even better.

Can you give some examples here at Fresh Tilled Soil of where you have sacrificed visual design in order to support accessibility?

Tim: Yes, the select menu. It’s also a UX thing. We used to use a JavaScript plugin for custom-designing select menus, but ran into accessibility problems in Firefox (and UX problems on mobile) so we stopped using it.

Steve: Designers frequently change the default elements because we like to have a more consistent design across the entire interface. However, it is a better experience for the end user when we stick to defaults because it meets their expectations. It works better for everyone, even if we have to sacrifice a small amount of visual aesthetics.

Tim: We universally use the default select menu now. The design isn’t as good but it is generally a better experience. Visual design does not equal experience.

Do you think Fresh Tilled Soil sufficiently emphasizes accessibility?

Tim: No, we don’t. I don’t think anyone does, but I will say that I think we are a lot more focused on it than most place.

Steve: I think having Tim to be here has been the most helpful thing to improve that though. Tim is very focused on accessibility. For many of the people I’ve worked with at other jobs, it is definitely an afterthought. I’ve seen people put an empty alt=”” attribute in order to get their code to validate, even though the image needed a description. It drives me crazy to see things like that. What’s the point of going to that effort only to do something wrong? Accessibility should not be an after-thought, but for a lot of designers and developers, it is.

Tim: Accessibility should be a natural thing to do. The way you can convey an image is to use alt text to describe something. Things like “ARIA” for Ajax, putting “role” for elements, you just do it.

Knowing how to implement an accessible element is even more important. There are rare case when you leave an alt attribute empty. For example, when the caption of the image already says something, you can leave alt text empty so that the screen reader won’t read it twice, which is annoying for disabled people. You can’t leave the attribute off entirely though, because in that case a screen reader will try and describe the image by reading the source URL.

All Apple products are very aesthetically pleasing, and they have great UX design. Do you think Apple’s product design emphasizes accessibility?

Steve: After the iPhone came out, I heard of cases of many disabled people saying this is the first mobile phone they could actually use with a fair amount of ease. The accessibility of their products is really well done compared to other products. They also have a lot of accessibility-focused APIs available to developers, but many are not using them to make accessible apps.

Tim: Sometimes they just learn by being bitched at by users.

Steve: Mac’s VoiceOver utility does not automatically turn on, but it’s available. I think the things that Apple learned while adapting VoiceOver to the iPhone may have resulted in a better overall experience. The first AUX students designed a form and tried to navigate it using VoiceOver and it blew their minds. They all sat down and redid their forms immediately.

Tim: I usually open Apple’s VoiceOver at least once a year and try to navigate the Web just to remind myself how important it is to stay vigilant with accessibility.

Visual aesthetic enhances user experience in the context of web. Does this hold true for accessibility?

Tim: Depends on what kind of accessibility. If it is someone without hands, then the visual aesthetic would be fine for them. I’ve seen people without hands using their wrists to touch the device. If you can see, then the answer is ‘yes’, if they cannot see, then I guess ‘NOT’.

Steve: You have to be careful using color as a distinguishing feature in your UI, again since around 10% of male users have some form of color blindness. If you rely on colors, such as using red and green to indicate good or bad, many users will be missing out on vital information and cannot use your product.

Do you think it is harder to balance between accessibility vs. visual design on web than on a physical tangible object where you can add texture or other aids?

Steve: I think it is easier on the web because you can go back to fix mistakes later, whereas it is harder to fix a mistake when you have shipped a physical product, because then it’s done. Once they are out in the world, they are what they are.

Tim: It’s probably easier on the Web, but in building an actual product there are much firmer regulations with consequences for not being accessible. Accessibility on the Web is often (unfortunately) an afterthought, and that really doesn’t happen with a tangible item where you have more powerful governing bodies looking over the process.

Steve: One of the other things that keeps bothering me is that because it is easer to fix things later on the web, people have started to use that as a justification to do some lousy work. I think that in many cases people use the term MVP (Minimum Viable Product) as just a buzz word, or an excuse for not doing a good job. That is often a case where accessibility suffers.

That concludes all my questions. Do you guys have anything to add?

Steve: One thing to remember is that a lot of designers focus on visually impaired people. There are still a lot of other situations that need attention such as mental impairment, short-term memory loss, ADHD and focus-related disorders, etc. I’d like to see designers work to improve design in these situations.

Tim: Being accessible to all people can go far beyond dealing with the disabled, it can also mean being accessible to those on a constrained bandwidth, or being accessible to customers in a support setting.

Steve: A lot of times, non-English language sites are also an after-thought. Localizing a site goes far beyond just translating the language, and has some accessibility ramifications.


Author Kana Eiref

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