Article: “Implementing recommendations from web accessibility guidelines: Would they also provide benefits to nondisabled users?”

Citation: Schmutz, S., Sonderegger, A., & Sauer, J. (2016). Implementing recommendations from web accessibility guidelines: Would they also provide benefits to nondisabled users? Human Factors 58(4): 611-629.

This article (published online earlier this month, before its print date in June) examines whether web sites which meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0are also more usable for non-disabled users. The authors provide a brief overview of WCAG and why accessibility is important, and suggest that whether or not accessible design has “adverse effects on nondisabled users” might play an important role in encouraging adoption (p. 612), pointing to a 2012 conference presentation which showed that empirical evidence was the most successful driver of accessible design.

To measure the effects of accessible design (as defined by WCAG) on users without disabilities, the authors modified an existing web site, creating one version which did not conform to WCAG standards, one which conformed to the WCAG’s A-level standards, and one which conformed its AA-level standards, and measuring the ability of sixty-one participants without any diagnosed disability to meet a number of tasks on the modified web sites (p. 614). The authors measured both task completion time and task completion rate (p. 618), ultimately determining that users were able to complete more tasks and to complete tasks more quickly when they were WCAG-conforming (p. 619)

In their discussion of the findings, the authors note that it was likely a “combination of changes” rather than a single WCAG criterion being met which improved overall usability, despite some of the criteria presumably having no effect on non-disabled users (p. 621-622). They point out that WCAG’s accessibility requirements in often cases are the same as good design principles in general, and that “beneficial effects of accessibility on nondisabled users” are perhaps unsurprising as a result (p. 622).

Ultimately, this article shows that accessible design on web sites can improve usability for nondisabled users. As the authors point out in their conclusion, AA conformance—the second-highest possible conformance to WCAG—was necessary for the biggest gains; however, meeting this level of conformance was “rather easy”, since it is not difficult to implement designs that meet the required criteria for AA conformance (p. 623).

It’s worth reiterating that the point of accessible design is not to make web sites easier to use for non-disabled users, but to enable the use of the web by users who are otherwise unable to access it.

However, given the persistent myth that accessible web sites are “ugly” and “expensive and difficult”, research which aims to empirically prove that accessible web sites are actually more usable than non-accessible ones—and easy to implement—is a welcome development.