What is accessibility and usability?

The difference between accessibility and usability is easily confused, not obviously clear and seems to overlap, however, we are here to help!

What is accessibility?

Accessibility is mainly to do with what types of people can or cannot access communication, products, services or buildings. And what devices, software or products they may use to help them. For example, the following types of people: with vision impairments, ageing, with dyslexia, or who have physical disabilities, have certain needs and specific requirements, to be able to access things as easily as everyone else. There are also things called access structures (Waller, 1979), which are not to do with different people‚Äôs needs, however, they allow better and more customisable access to communication, products, services and buildings.

A guide dog for the blind sitting in the middle of an American bus isle. The owner is on the left with a strap from hand to dog. A young person sits on the right looking at the dog

Examples of accessibility

An accessible website

Websites can have extra description, like to describe the content of photographs, and extra tags put into the code of website to better describe the content and allow screenreaders (software that reads-out webpages in an audio form for people with vision impairments), to help them better understand the webpage. If the person’s vision impairment is not great, they may not be able to depict and decipher a photograph, so how would they be able to read the photograph? Alt tags can be used to describe the image in a text form, which can then be read-out in audio form, using screenreader software.

Access structures

In the area of graphic communication design, things like: a search option on a website, or an index in the back of a book, or a contents page at the front of a publication, allow better access to the information. Even simple heading levels like heading 1, heading 2 and heading 3, allow much better access into information. Imagine if the information was one large block of text with no indents, headings, punctuation or paragraph spaces, how easy would it be to use then…

Yes access structures increase and improve usability, however, they are more directed at allowing better access to information.

Accessibility and laws

Since 2010, there have been great improvements, interest and new laws introduced around accessibility issues. Here are 2 links to more information about accessibility and new laws:

  • Law and requirements webpage by The Plain Language Action and Information Network. The Plain Writing Act of 2010 in America, was signed on 13 October 2010 and requires federal agencies use clear government communication that the public can understand and use.
  • Web accessibility laws and policies webpage by the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). The webpage lists accessibility laws throughout the world.

Personal experiences of bad accessibility

An example that you may have experienced personally, is better access to public buildings through wider entrances, lifts and larger open-door buttons at waist height, so if people are using a wheelchair, or have a physical disability, or are using a vision impairment stick, they can do what they need to, just like anyone else. Just because some people might be less able than what is typical, does not mean they have to suffer…

What is usability?

Usability is the actual using and interaction with the communication, product, service, or building. It is more to do with whether people can or cannot do what they need to, or accomplish tasks. More specifically, usability experts and usability testers make a note of and analyse usability errors, and then fix them, to remove barriers and difficulties, to improve usability.

Woman in a wheelchair who has just come through a door behind her, she is wheeling herself to the desk on the right, with a laptop on the table in a room

Examples of usability

The graphic communication design of a webpage

A typical example is that you could be presented with a webpage which has loads of information in a text form, with very little leading (space between the lines of text), and which is also set in a very small typeface, also possibly with advertisements which you do not care for. And an issue that is increasingly encountered is cookie policy accept/deny warning boxes popping-up when you 1st visit a webpage, which completely distract and block your natural use of the webpage. All of this creates a hard to use and over-demanding graphic communication. Say goodbye to your users and customers in less than 3 seconds.

Not being able to find typically needed and basic information

Maybe you were using a webpage or reading a monthly utility bill, and could not find a telephone number or email address that you need to clear-up a question you had? Or it could be that you cannot find an option to change a setting on your smartphone, because you are lost in submenus, and subsequently cannot do what you intended to do.

How important are accessibility and usability, and what are their effects?

Accessibility and usability are as important as every other aspect of your communications, products, services, or buildings, even aesthetics (beauty) which gets the most time and attention in design projects. If different types of people cannot access your communication, products, services, or buildings, they will probably reject it and turn away, and then your communication has excluded them. Those people may even be potential customers or services users… which makes customers who are not using you, and creates lost sales.

A woolly glove has been placed in the middle of 3 spikes on metal railings, so people can spot it and find it quicker

Usability is the whole bowls of design and communication, if something looks good, but you cannot read it or understand it, then what? Small subtle not obvious changes in layout, colours, text, wording and technical aspects, have a huge impact on accessibility and usability.

Then there is the issue of increased time and stress for people, if things are not accessible and usable, it wastes people’s time and increases stress, and damages the user’s experience of your service or brand.

Accessibility has received great interest on the web by website designers, and in buildings for regular public use, and in general since 2010. The web is a very open medium and everyone should be able to enjoy it, it is what the internet is, and to exclude and create barriers to web content, goes against what it is, at its core. Accessibility and usability are critical factors that make-up what good design is.

Would you like to know more about accessibility and usability?

In almost all of the projects on this website, we have improved accessibility and usability issues and problems, improving the client’s communication massively. If you have a browse around our website, in the yellow navigation menu at the top of webpages, see the Book design, Journal design, Information design, Publication design, and Redrawing sections, and some of the projects have a before our redesign image, and after our redesign image.

Photo of a crowd of people in a city street showing their heads

Find out more about accessibility

Find out more about usability

  • Usability.gov a leading resource for user experience (UX) best practices and guidelines, serving practitioners and students in the government and private sectors. Content for this site is managed by the Digital.gov team in the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) Technology Transformation Service.
  • Information Design Journal is a peer-reviewed international journal that bridges the gap between research and practice in information design. Started in 1979 it publishes world-class academic papers, interviews and other pieces on information design issues.
  • Nielsen Norman Group research-based user experience, they write articles, conduct studies, present before and after case studies, and arrange worldwide conferences, showing usability problems and improvements.

Connected terminologies and areas around accessibility and usability

  • Design for all (the design of products, services and systems by as many people as possible, without the need for adaptation).
  • Ergonomics (reduce human error, increase productivity, and enhance safety and comfort with a specific focus on the interaction between the human and the thing of interest).
  • Inclusive design (aims to remove the barriers that create undue effort and separation. Things are designed to enable everyone to participate equally, confidently and independently in everyday activities).
  • Plain English and clear language (clear and easy-to-understand writing and information).
  • Universal design (the design of buildings, products or environments to make them accessible to all people, regardless of age, disability or other factors).
  • User-centred design (an iterative design process in which designers focus on the users and their needs in each phase of the design process).
  • User experience (how a user interacts with and experiences a product, system or service).

Concluding observations

Accessibility and usability issues are critical to your communications. Their importance has been gaining massive wide-spread value and momentum, especially in the last 10 years. You can only go so far using your own understanding, you need access to experts like us, and to test with users (the people you are actually designing for). You are not the only one using the communication, product, service or building. We can help you substantially decrease accessibility and usability issues. Do not be scared… talk to us!