ArticleMay 19, 2022 · 5 min read time
Do you find it hard to make out what the text says on the webpage, or do you struggle to hit those tiny buttons in a mobile app? If this sounds familiar, don't take it personally. It's not you; most likely, the accessibility of service and its design haven't been given enough attention.
Accessibility, in simple terms, means that digital services are designed to serve all users. In practice, the service is designed and implemented so that people with visual or hearing impairments, cognitive challenges or motor disorders are able to use it.
"Accessibility ensures that everyone can use the service with no major challenges. While accessibility aims to serve those who have specific needs with regard to digital services, paying attention to accessibility actually means better design and service for all users," Nitor Principal Designer Tuomas Lilja says.
Accessibility can help in everyday situations. A text on a webpage is easier to read in bright sunlight when the colour contrast, text size, and font legibility are right. Placing an order online while holding onto your baby with one hand is easier when the touch areas of links and buttons are large enough. A subtitled video means that you can watch the video in situations where you can't keep the sound on.
Tuomas Lilja has a long career in user interface design. The consulting world has been his backyard for almost two decades; the last two and a half years have been with Nitor.
"I studied at Helsinki University of Technology, now Aalto University, and dreamed of a career as a hospital physicist. However, at that time, I found out that I was fascinated by usability and found it to be the right field for me. My approach to user interface design is user-centred and usability-oriented, so accessibility is a natural part of my work."
Accessibility is a matter of equality
In the EU, 80 million people have a disability or limitation that makes it difficult to use digital services So in practice, around one in five people would benefit from more accessible digital services. This is why accessibility is also regulated via an EU level directive.
This directive, known as the Web Accessibility Directive, lays down minimum levels of accessibility for online public services and the means to monitor their achievement. The Web Accessibility Directive aims to promote equal opportunities for all in the digital society.
"Many people know to expect age-related vision changes but few know that ageing brings difficulties in perceiving blue tones, for example. Accessible design takes this into account so that we can continue to benefit from digital services as we age. Digital services are crucial in today's society, and access to them determines whether you can participate in society independently and on an equal footing," says Lilja.
Accessibility requirements are mandatory for public administration, like ministries and other government offices, as well as many non-governmental organisations and some businesses. In the near future, the scope of the requirements will widen to cover more businesses, such as all web shops in the EU region. For others, accessibility is an important design principle.
"There was a time when the support for mobile devices was something new and wonderful. Today, many services are designed mobile-first and support for mobile devices is expected as a standard. I believe that accessibility will gradually become an issue that will no longer need to be mentioned. Instead, it will become the starting point for all design."
In practice, an accessible service needs to consider, among other things, the choice of colours from a variety of perspectives. For example, almost 10 per cent of men are colour blind, making certain colours and colour combinations impossible to detect. In turn, impaired vision requires adequate colour contrast and font size. Visually impaired people use the web with the help of a screen reader, which needs to be supported at the code level.
"There are many viewpoints to consider: for example, older people, people with reading difficulties, or issues with motor skills, memory or other cognitive abilities. Age starts to have an impact already as we reach midlife. Accessibility is also important for less experienced computer users," Lilja reminds.
Accessibility must be addressed from the start
At Nitor, accessibility has long been one of the focus areas, for example, in the Core projects that support the development of professional skills of Nitoreans. We have organised several internal training sessions on accessibility, both by external lecturers and in-house staff.
"We are passionate about promoting equality and making the world a better place where ever and whenever we can. One such way is by designing accessible services. For example, I used my training budget to complete the Web Accessibility Specialist (WAS) Credential, a higher level accessibility certification," Lilja says.
Accessibility is measured through the so-called WCAG criteria. WCAG stands for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. However, following the criteria does not automatically mean that the service becomes accessible. The author must understand what the criteria mean for the user.
"It's a bit like if I read the building regulations and started to build a house – the end product probably wouldn't be very good, or at least I would face many pitfalls along the way," says Lilja.
In IT projects, accessibility should be kept in mind from the start. A professional partner company knows what needs to be considered in terms of accessibility, but it is also important that the customer is committed to providing an accessible service.
"Accessibility is not something you can stick on a product at the end of a project. Keeping the requirements in mind from the start will result in the best and most cost-effective solution." Lilja says.
What does accessibility look like in practice? Read more about the accessibility of the Helsinki Metropolitan Area Service Map, which Nitor has been involved in developing.