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What Are Accessibility Heuristics?

To ensure web content usability, it’s necessary to start planning for it early in the user experience (UX) design process.

The user experience design process refers to a phase in the web content creation in which designers conduct research to gain a deeper understanding of their users’ needs, values, abilities, and limitations.

If you start considering the issues of usability early in the UX design phase, you can avoid the last-minute stresses and expenses of fixing usability issues during the QA or the final testing phase. This is where usability heuristics come in handy.

What Are Usability Heuristics?

Usability heuristics refer to a set of general principles or guidelines that can simply and efficiently help designers evaluate and/or enhance user interfaces. Essentially, these guidelines represent a method that can identify design problems in any user interface, e.g., physical product, prototype, virtual reality, game, voice interface, etc.

The ideal time to conduct a heuristic evaluation is as early in the design process as possible. Using heuristic evaluations can help you develop strong UX instincts and catch common issues regarding usability.

What Are Nielsen’s Heuristics?

Created by Jakob Nielsen in 1994 based on his work with Rolf Molich, usability heuristics (also known as Nielsen’s Heuristics) were intended to help designers create better user interfaces based on the understanding of psychology, human behaviour, and information processing.

They are as follows:

  1. Visibility of system status — informing users about what is happening in your product (e.g., loading, processing, or completing processes) within a reasonable time.
  2. Match between the system and the real world — using concepts, symbols, words, and formats that are familiar to the user and making information appear in a natural and logical order.
  3. User control and freedom — allowing the user to abort a process as quickly and easily as possible (i.e., enabling redo, undo, cancel, and stop functions).
  4. Consistency and standards — making sure your product follows consistent and standard industry conventions, rules, or patterns within a single product or a family of products.
  5. Error prevention — minimising or eliminating the occurrence of errors or problems in your product and presenting users with a confirmation option before they commit to an action.
  6. Recognition rather than recall — ensuring that elements, actions, and options are always visible and that the user never has to remember relevant information across multiple interactions.
  7. Flexibility and efficiency of use — allowing users to tailor the system to their own specific needs, and use their own preferred tools, shortcuts, and other actions.
  8. Aesthetic and minimalist design — including only essential information in your interfaces' content and visual design and avoiding irrelevant or rarely needed information.
  9. Help users recognise, diagnose, and recover from errors — using error messages that are expressed in plain language rather than codes or technical jargon and offering clear solutions to immediately solve the problem.
  10. Help and documentation — offering easy-to-search and concise documentation to help users complete their tasks through a list of concrete steps to be carried out.

Even though Nielsen and Molich’s heuristics continue to be most commonly used to this day, depending on your specific content’s needs and requirements, you can also use additional domains or types of usability assessments.

So, let’s address applying specific heuristics that are highly useful when it comes to the issues of accessibility.

What Are Accessibility Heuristics?

Accessibility heuristics are used to integrate heuristics related to accessibility issues into the design process.

The accessibility heuristics were designed in 2001 by Marja-Riitta Koivunen and Charles McCathieNevile based on the principles of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0, which set the first international global standard for website accessibility.

Their goal was to help web content creators, particularly multimedia and graphics-related language designers, keep accessibility goals and requirements in mind when designing a user interface.

They came up with the following six accessibility heuristics:

Provide Alternative Requirements

In order to make all multimedia content accessible, web content creators must provide alternative equivalents to all content that includes images, video and audio-only presentations. In practical terms, that means providing text-based and other alternatives for vision and/or hearing-impaired users.

For example, according to WCAG guidelines, images not used for purely decorative purposes should have ALT-text that describes them; video content should include captions, transcripts, and audio descriptions; audio-only content should include transcripts, etc.

This is not only important to people with visual, auditory or cognitive disabilities, but also to people in loud or quiet environments, people who prefer information in a text rather than audio form, people learning a second language, etc.

Provide Means to Select Equivalent Content  

Different users have different needs regarding how they interact with web content. That’s why it’s necessary not only to ensure all users have access to alternative and equivalent content but also to provide easy means for them to access it.

These means should be as flexible as possible so that users with disabilities can choose an option or a combination of options most suitable to their specific needs. Even if there are default settings, nothing should prevent flexible user control in the content design.

Usually, these means can be provided through user agents, i.e., any software that retrieves, renders, and facilitates end-user interaction with web content.

Provide User Control for Presentation

Users should be given tools that will allow them to control the ways in which the information is presented so that they can adapt it to meet the needs that are specific to each user.

For example, a user should be able to stop or pause moving, flashing, or animated elements on the page (e.g., auto-playing content), resize text up to 200%, extend the time needed to complete their tasks, and so on.  

That also means that text and other important information can be easily distinguished and read by all users. One of the ways web designers can ensure that is by having sufficient colour contrasts between the text (such as captions) and background, and not using colour alone to convey any important information.

Provide Device-Independent Interaction

Users should be able to choose their interaction methods and modalities. In other words, all users should be able to use whatever method of input they choose to quickly and efficiently interact with the system.

That means that web designers should provide functionalities for users with limited mobility and motor disabilities who rely on the keyboard. The same goes for individuals who use assistive technology tools such as screen-reading software that helps people who are blind or otherwise visually impaired understand essential information.

Provide Semantics for Structure

Providing semantics for structure means providing alternative ways for user navigation and orientation and the ability to control alternative equivalents and presentations. For example, users should be able to view website content in any screen size and either portrait or landscape screen orientation.

Practically, all users should be able to easily navigate and find the content they are searching for. They should also understand where they are at all times, how to operate within a particular system, and how to make sense of the content structure on each page. For example, that includes the ability to click on a link that allows users to skip a website intro to reach the main menu, etc.

There should be a certain predictability and consistency in how the system is designed so that it is clear how each element relates to each other and the system as a whole.

Provide Reusable Components

Reusable components are certain elements that web designers can reuse across various applications or other digital systems. They are beneficial to users with disabilities as they can help them save time and make their user experience more efficient.

For example, a user with visual impairments may need more time to read the information on a page sequentially and skip some parts of the content compared to a user without visual impairments. But when reusable components are provided, a user with disabilities can save a considerable amount of time by remembering a component after exploring it only once.

In addition to usability heuristics, keeping accessibility heuristics in mind from the earliest phases of the design process can help web designers create content that will be less expensive and more efficient in the long run, while avoiding plenty of stress in the final stages of design.  

Including scenarios that consider users with disabilities and users with assistive technology tools throughout the UX design process will make the system easier and more satisfying to use for everyone, leading to a better overall user experience and a more inclusive audience.

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