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Designing Accessible Digital Products: Complying with ADA and WCAG Standards

Ensuring your websites and digital products are accessible to those with disabilities is both a legal and ethical imperative. By meeting established accessibility standards, you allow more customers to use your offerings effectively.

This comprehensive guide covers designing accessible, inclusive experiences compliant with ADA regulations and WCAG criteria. We’ll explore specific techniques for improving accessibility across websites, apps, documents, multimedia, forms, navigation, colors, interactive elements, and reading experiences.

Let’s help you open your products to all!

Why Digital Accessibility Matters

Beyond being the right thing to do, prioritizing accessibility offers advantages:

  • Opens offerings to more customers – Disabled users represent an underserved market
  • Enhances SEO – Optimal markup aids search engine crawling
  • Lowers legal risk – Lack of accessibility prompts lawsuits and fines
  • Improves inclusive reputation – Shows you care about equitable access
  • Allows assistive tech compatibility – Screen readers, Braille devices etc. depend on it
  • Simplifies usage for everyone – Enhanced clarity and flexibility benefits all users
  • Shares your message widely – Deaf users appreciate closed captioned video content

Accessibility should be core to your brand, not an afterthought. Integrating standards upfront costs less than refactoring later. Prioritize inclusiveness from day one.

Overview of Relevant Laws and Standards

Familiarity with core regulations and guidelines prevents violations:

ADA Accessibility Requirements

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination based on disability. Title III covers private business digital accessibility obligations.

WCAG Criteria

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines detail standards for accessible web content like minimum color contrast ratios. WCAG 2.1 is the current version most widely adopted by ADA.

Section 508 of Rehabilitation Act

Mandates accessibility for federal agency digital tools and documents. Related to ADA but specific to government.

EN 301 549 / WCAG 2.1 Alignment

The European standard EN 301 549 references and adopts Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 criteria.

Following established criteria reduces compliance risks while making offerings more usable.

Conducting Accessibility Audits

Audit existing or in-progress sites and apps to catch issues proactively:

Automated Testing

Use auditing tools like SiteImprove, Axe, or WAVE to programmatically flag errors like missing labels.

Manual Review

Physically verify compliant UI behavior, logical focus order, semantics, and interactions.

Screen Reader Testing

Install tools like JAWS or NVDA to ensure screen reader compatibility and fluent reading. Listen to page reads.

Browser Validation

Modern browsers contain built-in accessibility validators to check issues like color contrast.

Third-Party Auditors

Hire third party accessibility consultants to audit beyond compliance to best practices.

Continuous testing throughout development prevents major remediation efforts down the line. Prioritize accessibility from day one.

Designing Accessible Websites

Optimize websites for disabled users through inclusive design:

Add Skip Navigation Links

Enable bypassing repetitive elements like headers with “Skip to Main Content” links.

Ensure Logical Focus Order

Structure tab flows in logical sequence so users navigate easily using keyboard only.

Label Forms/Buttons

Every interactive element requires an associated, readable label. Relying solely on placeholders is insufficient.

Include Aria Attributes

Augment elements with descriptive aria tags like aria-label conveying non-visible behaviors for screen readers.

Transcribe/Caption Video

Provide transcripts of audio content and captions of spoken words in videos.

Describe Images

Use descriptive alt text to explain photos and visuals to blind users. Avoid unhelpful “image58282” lacking context.

Support Text Resizing

Allow users to scale text larger without breaking layout using relative units like REMs.

Ensure Sufficient Color Contrast

Maintain at least 4.5:1 contrast between text and backgrounds. Avoid color combinations failing WCAG standards.

Continuously validate compliance using automated tools to avoid basic issues degrading access.

Building Accessible Web Forms

Forms present common pain points if inaccessible. Ensure:

Logical Tab Order

Tab flow moves top to bottom through related sections without large jumps.

Field Label Associations

Visually connect labels to corresponding fields. Grouping helps. Don’t orphan labels.

Input Instructions

Provide clear instructions describing requested info above fields to avoid confusion.

Error Messaging

Use specifics error messages associated with inputs over generic alerts to assist correction.

Accessible Form Controls

Standard inputs like radio buttons, sliders with aria tags for behaviors. Avoid custom widgets lacking accessibility.

Review Required Fields

Minimize required inputs. Screen readers will notify users of mandatory fields.

Confirmation on Submit

Provide confirmation messages on successful form submission to reassure completion.

Streamlined, annotated forms minimize completion hurdles for disabled users.

Designing Accessible PDFs

Optimize PDF accessibility to support screen readers:

Add Logical Reading Order

Use Adobe Acrobat’s Make Accessible action to designate reading sequence and confirm tag structure.

Verify Tagged Content

Apply tags to non-text elements like headings and images describing their purpose and relationship in the structure.

Confirm Color Contrast

Ensure combinations meet minimums. Can be validated within Acrobat.

Include Alt Text Descriptions

Add alternative text elaborating on charts, diagrams, and figures unreadable by machines.

Structure with Headings

Use heading tags to mark sections and hierarchy similar to websites. Don’t just make text bold or large.

Enable Reflow

Confirm documents reflow logically when zoomed without odd text or element displacement destroying context.

Add Links for Navigation

Include in-doc links to sections and chapters to ease navigation without scrolling and searching.

Thoughtful PDF authoring prevents excluding audiences relying on assistive technologies. Build accessibility in from creation.

Designing Accessible Apps

Mobile app accessibility depends on proper native element usage and attributes:

Native Accessible Controls

Use built-in native UI components that automatically include proper attributes and behaviors unlike custom non-compliant widgets. Let the OS handle accessibility.

Element Role Tags

Clarify ambiguous elements like horizontal rule dividers using role tags like <div role=separator>. Avoid confusing screen readers expecting interactive behaviors.

Review Tab Order

Set logical navigation flow through all content as if using arrow keys rather than tapping.

Label All Interactive Elements

Ensure buttons, toggles, and other tappable elements have associated text labels.

Descriptive ButtonCopying

Use action-oriented button labels like “Get Started” instead of ambiguous “Tap Here”. Describe results.

Caption or Transcribe Multimedia

Include text alternatives for video and audio content.

Leverage native human interface elements and modifiers. Custom non-accessible widgets fail users.

Designing Accessible Data Visualizations

Graphs, maps, diagrams and charts pose challenges for assistive technologies. Help users:

Provideaccessible Data Tables

Include primary source data behind visualizations in tables with proper headers and schema for screen reader interpretation.

Write Descriptive Long & Short Text

Use detailed alt text to fully describe visuals. Minimal shorthand captions supplement longer descriptions.

Choose Appropriate Chart Types

Some chart types like pie charts prove very difficult to interpret non-visually. Default to accessible options like bar charts when possible.

Offer Multiple Representations

Where feasible, provide both tables and accompanying visualizations presenting data differently.

Note Vocalization Challenges

Alert users that certain unavoidably complex charts may be difficult for screen reader interpretation to set expectations.

With thought, even complex datasets can be represented accessibly. Strive to make information accessible to all.

Designing Accessible multimedia

Video, audio, and animated content requires additional considerations:

Include Audio Descriptions

Narrations detailing key visual details benefit low vision users. Extend standard video captions.

Transcribe/Caption Media

Transcripts of audio and closed captions of video provide essential aid to deaf users.

Allow Playback Control

Give granular playback control over time-based media like pause, stop, rewind, and volume.

Avoid Flashing Content

Quick luminance changes or strobing effects can induce seizures. Follow best practice thresholds.

Provide Sign Language Interpretation

Incorporate inset videos of sign language translations expanding access.

Transcribe/Summarize Social Feeds

Describe embedded social posts, tweets, comments etc. for context without reading all content verbatim which is overwhelming.

Dynamic content requires additional supplemental text alternatives tailored to disabilities. Strive for inclusion.

Designing Accessible Text Content

Optimizing reading and comprehension aids disabled users:

Use Proper HTML Semantic Tags

Mark up content with tags like <header>, <nav>, <article> for structure accessible technologies understand. Don’t just use <div>.

Include Alt Text for Images/Videos

Describe embedded visual media concisely in surrounding text. ~90 characters maximum.

Structure Text with Headings

Properly tag headings <h1-6> to establish hierarchy. Don’t just make text bold.

Write Concise, Simple Language

Use plain language with clear wording to ease comprehension. Avoid unneeded complex vocabulary.

Don’t Rely Solely on Color Cues

Call out important sections/text with underline or italics in addition to color.

Use Lists for Scannability

Break up dense paragraphs with bulleted or numbered lists when possible. White space improves reading ease.

Link to Definitions of Terms

Hyperlink jargon or uncommon concepts to a definitions section for reference. Reduce confusion.

Readable, structured text ensures disabled users understand content. Consult the dyslexic community on publishing best practices within your subject domains.

Testing Assistive Tech Compatibility

Review experiences across technologies disabled users rely on:

Screen Readers

Keyboard navigate and listen to pages read aloud via NVDA, JAWS, VoiceOver to identify gaps.

Zoom Text

Set monitors at 200% zoom or higher and validate usability without scrolling or reflow issues.

Mobile Screen Readers

Validate mobile experience using VoiceOver and TalkBack on iOS and Android.

Braille Readers

Translate samples to Braille and proof structure maintenance.

Speech Input

Dictate text content instead of typing and monitor accuracy.

Directly sampling assistive technologies builds empathy and catches compatibility issues. Strive to offer the same usability enjoyed by all.

Accessibility Training and Standards Familiarity

Educate teams on standards to instill access-first thinking:

Accessibility 101 Training

Cover disability types, assistive tech, basic patterns and tools to get ramped up.

Screen Reader Testing

Require designers and devs to regularly navigate sites blindfolded using readers to gain empathy.

Accessibility Standards Overviews

Share WCAG criteria, PDF, mobile, and document remediation guides as references.

Accessible Component Libraries

Establish reusable accessible UI pattern libraries and widgets for efficiency and consistency.

Accessibility Checklist

Create project checklist assessing status of criteria like color contrast, headings, captions, ARIA tags, etc.

Accessibility SMEs

Appoint internal accessibility specialists guiding teams and providing quality assurance.

Accessibility improves when built-in upfront. Arm every team member with knowledge to identify issues quickly.

Prioritizing Accessibility Remediations

With audits complete, create action plans:

Focus on Quick Wins First

Address simpler fixes like adding alt text before more complex rearchitecting. Build momentum.

Prioritize by Usage/Traffic

Improve popular high-traffic pages first to maximize universal visibility.

Schedule Gradual Scope Expansion

Phasing allows systematic accessibility growth from key sections to full reach.

Start New Projects Accessibly

Integrate standards into all new work immediately to prevent future rework.

Dedicate Ongoing Resources

Plan for regular audits, fixes, and user testing as changes roll out over time. Accessibility never ends.

While achieving “perfect” accessibility proves elusive, demonstrate earnest, measurable improvement over time.

Key Takeaways for Accessible Design

Here are core principles to guide your accessibility journey:

  • Continuously audit sites, apps, documents and multimedia for WCAG criteria using automated scanners, code reviews, and assistive tech testing.
  • Arm designers and devs with accessibility training on standards, assistive devices, testing tools, and inclusive components.
  • Follow guidelines for structuring accessible web experiences with semantics, color, focus order, labels and ARIA attributes.
  • Design enjoyable, unhindered workflows complying with ADA regulations.
  • Ensure forms, videos, PDFs, charts and other elements offer full accessibility through captions, transcripts, and annotations.
  • Adopt inclusive best practices, from content style guides to technical protocols, as defaults improving all user experiences.
  • Prioritize quick wins and high-traffic areas first. Grow accessibility coverage methodically over time.

While achieving perfectly seamless inclusion remains difficult, demonstrating progress towards this vision ensures more users can effectively access your offerings.

Reviewing experiences through the lens of disabilities builds empathy and advocacy internally. With education and understanding, inclusive design becomes second nature rather than an afterthought.

So tap your team’s compassion – and ingenuity – to open opportunities for every customer to use your digital products rewarding, however they engage with technology.

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By Dani Davis

Dani Davis is the pen name of the writer of this blog with more 15 years of constant experience in Content marketing and informatics product, e-commerce niche.

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