Article: Implementing Recommendations From Web Accessibility Guidelines.

Citation: Schmutz, S., Sonderegger, A., & Sauer, J. (2016). Implementing Recommendations From Web Accessibility Guidelines. Human Factors: The Journal of Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, 58(4), 611-629. DOI 10.1177/0018720816640962

This article explores whether implementing web accessibility guideline recommendations can make a website less usable or less pleasant for non-disabled users (spoiler: it doesn’t).

Noting a lack of research into the effects of disability guidelines on non-disabled users (no longer true, incidentally, since I’ve reviewed at least one other recent article on the topic and have read several others), the authors carried out a study on sixty-one “nondisabled” university students, requiring them to access three web sites, one of which conformed to WCAG 2.0 at the AA level, one at the A level, and one at the NA level (pp. 614-615).

The study measured the amount of time it took the students to complete a number of tasks, and additionally asked them to rate each of the three web sites in the areas of usability, aesthetics, trustworthiness, and perceived workload. Findings were, perhaps unsurprisingly, that “the AA Web site showed advantages over the two other Web sites with regard to performance and subjective evaluations” (p. 620). Sites that just passed the A level of WCAG seemed to confer no benefit, however.

The authors conclude that what causes the AA level web sites to be more usable and effective for users with no obvious disability is “a combined effect” of the various criteria at that level such as structure, text alignment, clear labeling of forms, etcetera.

My only complaint is that, presumably because the article focuses on the experiences of “nondisabled” users, the authors sometimes appear to conflate the purpose of WCAG and other accessibility guidelines with making sites accessible to those with vision problems and nothing else. There are also a few times where it sounds like the authors are saying that WCAG’s recommendations on tabbing order are irrelevant to all users, even though they are talking only of those with no disabilities.

Despite this minor flaw, this article is yet another nail in the coffin of the old “accessible websites are ugly and unusable for the rest of us” myth. As the authors put it, their study helps show that WCAG can be “a helpful tool for designing more usable web sites” regardless of the ability level of the end user (p. 623).