How to make your wireframes more accessible in five easy steps

Most websites in North America and Europe now need to meet accessibility requirements. These include requirements described by Section 508 of the American Disabilities Act (ADA). They also refer to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0).

Follow these five easy steps to make your wireframes more accessible:

  • One: Document the heading structure.
  • Two: Document hidden way-finding cues.
  • Three: Document focus order information and specify the visible focus state.
  • Four: Provide clear link labels.
  • Five: Design simple, usable forms.

One: Document the heading structure

Remember the last time you wrote an essay? You probably had a series of sections in your essay that each had a heading. Most likely you had a table of contents that listed all your headings. If someone read your table of contents, they would have had a good idea of what your essay was about.

This is what headings are for on a website. They should describe the page they are on. Assistive devices like screen readers allow users to navigate web pages by headings. This is one way that a non-sighted person can "scan" a webpage, by choosing to hear all the headings on the page. Listening to the headings allows them to assess if the page is useful for them. If the headings are not developed and written in a clear and proper way, they will not be helpful to this audience.

A primary heading that asks the question, Should I be a primary heading?

The experience designer or copywriter should decide the heading structure. The wireframe or content matrix should include an annotation that describes the heading structure. A developer should not decide the heading structure by herself (in absence of documentation).

Two: Document hidden way-finding cues

Screen reader users benefit from additional way-finding cues to help them navigate a webpage. These include:

  • "Bypass block links": These allow screen reader users to skip over repeated blocks of content.  Without them, screen reader users would have to tab through repetitive blocks of content from page to page. They are most often used to skip over navigation menus. Other candidates for bypassing include filter menus or carousels with many panels.
  • Bypass block links can be hidden by default, but should appear on keyboard focus. They should allow the user to skip past the content block to the content immediately after. It's important to test these with your keyboard once they are implemented. Make sure that you can tab once into the content area, and tab again into the next interactive element in the content area.

Three: Document focus order information and specify the visible focus state

Focus order

Focus order is an important concept for keyboard accessibility. It refers to the order that elements on the page receive keyboard focus. The usual focus order for the Western world is from top to bottom, left to right, the same way we read.

For keyboard users, a common way to access a website is to move through the content by pressing the tab key. The tab key moves the focus state to links or form elements. Screen reader users can have their device begin reading the page at any point.

Usually experiences benefit from implementing a default focus order. There are instances where the focus order should be changed. This is best determined by an experience designer.

The following flow illustrates a situation where the default tabbing order should be overridden:

  • User clicks on a link to log in to a website, and the log in link leads to a different page.
  • By default, the first focused area on the page would probably be in the top left-most link or form field. But in this instance, the user is definitely there to log in. It makes sense here to put the focus state on the first field in the sign in form.

Again, this cannot be decided by a developer in absence of documentation. It must be annotated in the wireframe.

Visible focus state

The visible focus state is the visual indicator that an element has focus. It is common for designers to create a hover state for mouse users. Usually the focus state should match the hover state.

For developers to handle this state in their implementations, it must be defined in the wireframe. Additionally, the design of each element's focus state must be described in the style guide. Each browser has its own default focus state. Either allow this to be used, or have the designer create a new one that matches your client's branding.

Many clients do not understand the value of the visible focus state. When it is described in the style guide, the client has an opportunity to see it up front and ask questions about it.

What is a visible focus state?

Try it out on my website: Press your tab key now and try to see what the current focused element is on the site. You will see that my navigation links along the top of the site get underlines, and other links change color and have an outline. This is so keyboard users can see where the focus is.

Four: Provide clear link labels

For users who navigate with a screen reader, many of them will only hear link labels. They will not have any context on surrounding information. That's why it is important to make sure the link itself (or the form field label) is meaningful.

Do this: Learn more about our services

Don't do this: Learn more

Do this: Edit my account settings

Don't do this: Edit

Sometimes the context is clear to a sighted user based on surrounding content. In this case, indicate in the wireframe that the developer should hide the additional content from sighted users. This way, a sighted user who can gain context from the surrounding content will see "Learn more". A non-sighted user will hear, "Learn more about our services".

Five: Design simple, usable forms

Usable form design

I often ask designers if they plan to enter their form design into the coveted Form Design Awards. Usually they stare back at me blankly. Sometimes they perk up and ask for more information about these awards.

There are no Form Design Awards. Isn't it great? We can put our aesthetic goals aside and focus on making the form usable. Trust me: forms are meant to be filled out. They don't need to be flashy. It's okay if they aren't ultra clean and sleek.

Here are some form design best practices that also make the form more accessible:

  • Place the label above the form field, not beside it.
  • Put a "required field" indicator inside the field's label. It's also helpful to put "(optional)" within optional field's labels.
  • Do not replace proper form fields with placeholder text. Users of all ages and abilities complain about this. Placeholder text disappears when a user clicks into the field and begins to type. It can be hard to remember what content the field needed (e.g. Email address vs. username).
  • If fields do not have a visible label (e.g. search fields), provide the annotation for a hidden label. Indicate the label text. All form fields must have labels.

Form field labels should be placed above the field, not beside it.

See this article: The definitive guide to form label positioning/

Do not replace labels with placeholder text.

From the Nielsen Norman Group article: httpsForm design placeholders/

Accessible form error messaging

Screen readers automatically read out form field labels when the field has focus. The form error messaging flow should work like this:

  • User fills out a field the wrong way.
  • User attempts to submit form.
  • The first form field that has an error message should automatically gain keyboard focus.
  • The form field error message should be programmatically appended to the field's label.

In this way, the screen reader will read out the form field followed by the error message text. Example: "Email address. Email address is a required field." The user can then fix this issue, then tab through the rest of the form and hear any other error messages along the way.

WebAIM has a great article about accessible form development that I encourage everyone to read.

You might be interested in these other articles related to accessible user experience:

Let me know in the comments section what accessibility features you add to your wireframes.

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