Why accessibility compliance should be a criterion in web design awards

If you read my recent post Usability should include accessibility, then you already know that I am struggling with our definitions of things like usability, when so many websites that are recognized as being usable are not accessible for people with disabilities. It seems like we should be replacing the word "usable" with the phrase "usable for people who can operate a mouse and have good vision." Is that last thing something to necessarily celebrate?

In my quest to make accessible web experiences that I have been on since about 2005, much of the push-back I receive is from designers who are concerned that if they follow accessibility guidelines, their layouts will not be compelling or worthy of awards. I have spent a lot of time over the past few years trying to convince designers that making beautiful interfaces that are also accessible is a worthy challenge, and that they are up to it. It is just another constraint among the many when putting content on the web.

But this morning on the way to work it occurred to me that I may be tackling this from the wrong angle. Instead of convincing the designers to create accessible experiences that are also beautiful, why not convince the organizations giving out awards that accessibility compliance should be a main criteria for award winners? That would level the playing field, and force designers to create accessible experiences in order to win the awards they crave.

Why accessibility compliance should be a criteria in web design awards:

  • Accessibility compliance is a law in 14 countries for government websites, and either mandated or encouraged in Canada, the United States, Norway, Japan, and France (see a detailed list of compliance requirements by country here) for non-government websites
  • It is unequivocally the right thing to do, no question
  • It is easy to follow the guidelines if you try (it really is. Let me know if you need help)

Do the Webby Awards really honor the best of the internet?

I will start today with the Webby Awards, whose tagline is "Honoring the best of the internet". Again we need to ask ourselves what this really means. Based on the results of some accessibility tests I did on winning entries for 2015, apparently it actually means, "Honoring the best of the internet according to people with no disabilities who can operate the websites with a mouse." It hardly seems as glamorous a prize if we tell it like it is.

Here are my findings on some winners in the "User Experience" and "User Interface" categories. Surely if a website wins an award for user experience, anyone should be able to use it, right? And if the user interface is that amazing that it wins an award, it should be operable with a keyboard, probably? No and no.

I spent about ten minutes assessing these sites. Doing this wouldn't add much to the selection process.

Some Webby Award winners, 2015

(1) Wikiwand (Winner, Best User Experience)

  • No visual focus indicator.
  • Hover state that reveals article titles is not activated by the keyboard focus, so if I am not using a screen reader I am out of luck.
  • Missing form labels.
  • Empty links.

(2) Cool Hunting (Winner, Best User Experience)

  • Keyboard navigation issue with modal that appears upon page load that doesn’t grab the keyboard focus.
  • Link labels for side navigation on homepage do not provide enough context, and have no focus indicator so hard to use with a keyboard.
  • Social icons have no text label so can’t tell what they are for with a screen reader.

(3) Dropbox Guide  (Winner, Best User Interface)

  • Keyboard functionality is mostly there, but proper cues are not provided for someone using a screen reader.
  • Link labels do not provide enough context (they need to be wrapped around a descriptive phrase, not just a word in the phrase)
  • Focus states are difficult to see (the navigational links on the bottom of the left panel)

(4) Virgin America (Winner, Best User Interface)

How are they not getting sued — the US department of justice required that airline booking sites be compliant to WCAG AA by December, 2015!

The form booking fields don’t have labels associated with the fields, so as I tab through the fields with a screen reader I just hear “Edit text blank” instead of “Guests”, “From”, and “To". I stopped the audit after this because being able to access those fields is the main point of the site.

A final consideration:

Would a building win an architectural award if it was not accessible? No, because it wouldn't be built that way in the first place. It wouldn't be allowed. We have been building buildings for a long time and now have this rule established. The web has been around for too long not to incorporate similar rules. What are we waiting for?

Look for some more posts on this topic in the coming weeks as I investigate other web award organizations. Let me know your thoughts on the definition of "best of the internet".

2 thoughts on “Why accessibility compliance should be a criterion in web design awards

  1. lsnrae

    I don't, but thanks for the feedback. I am looking to do the same kind of review of other reward sites.

  2. lsnrae

    Hi, thanks for the feedback. The accessibility sites I follow include WebAim (there really is no better resource, http://www.webaim.com), the W3c WCAG checklist, and companies like Deque. Hope this helps!


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