What’s the right way to use web design? If you were asking this question back in 2002, you’d probably hear a shortlist of best practices focused on user experience, but there would still be a lot of flexibility. It’s true that web design and development is easier and more accessible than ever; for example, it’s possible for anyone, even someone with zero web design experience, to use a WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) editor to create a website in line with their aesthetic expectations. If you want to make a change, you can drag and drop an element or type something new and commit that change in a matter of seconds.

But unfortunately, the environment didn’t change as much as we hoped. We all want to make it easy for our site visitors to make the right choice, but our “best practices” have led us down a path filled with technical barriers and arcane workarounds. In fact, if you were to take a look at design blogs from even just a year ago, you’d find plenty of complaints about the usability of websites – especially compared to other media – and these articles would explain that limited usability is a result of lazy design patterns.

The good news is that we’re starting to fix these problems. The blogosphere, designers and developers across the internet are coming together to create a kind of “best practices 2.0” for 2015 and beyond; we’ve learned from the mistakes of the past and we’re starting to see a lot more effort in making sites understandable and usable.

What Can We Do?

If you want to make things easier for your users and prevent your website from becoming another inaccessible mess (which will only frustrate visitors), then you need to start thinking about how people use websites, what behaviors lead to success with your audience, and what techniques can be implemented to mitigate mistakes before they happen. Here are some tips to get you started.

1. Make Sure Your Site Works with the Most Popular Browsers

If you want your website to be truly accessible, then, at the very least, it must display accurately in the most popular web browsers; in particular, this means supporting Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft Internet Explorer versions 9 and higher. This is a low standard – a common rule of thumb is to support only the latest version of a web browser – but it’s important because these browsers have huge market share. In fact, as of December 2014, Google Chrome has about 40% market share , Mozilla Firefox has about 10% market share , and Microsoft Internet Explorer has about 9% market share . If you want to reach the broadest audience possible, then these are the browsers that you want to support.

2. Use Techniques that Will Help Your Site Pass WCAG 2.0 AA Compliance

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has released WCAG 2.0, a series of blind accessibility standards for web developers . The latest version, WCAG 2.0 Level AA , is the most rigorous standard for accessibility on the web today, and it’s becoming an important requirement for government contracts across North America and Europe. But what does it mean to say that your site passes WCAG 2.0? Well, if your site fails to meet these standards, then it will be more difficult for users with disabilities to navigate your site; for example, it could be very difficult for them to use buttons or links because they don’t have sufficient contrast or simply display inaccurately.

So what can you do to pass the WCAG 2.0 AA standard? The best practice is to include accessibility tools on site so that users with disabilities can easily see the whole page, perform actions on the page that are not keyboard-dependent (like click on a link), and follow the required help elements. As a general rule of thumb, you should use semantic HTML tags to show the location of content so that a screen reader can accurately read it back to a user. Also, if the content on your site requires Javascript to run, then you need to follow the Javascript WAI-ARIA Authoring Practices to ensure that these scripts are hidden from non-disabled users and provide appropriate instructions to those with disabilities.

3. Use Techniques that Will Help Your Site Pass WCAG 2.0 AAA Compliance

WCAG 2.0 Level AAA , also known as the “best practices” standard, is the highest level of accessibility your site can achieve. It’s required for government contracts and can indicate that you can provide less information, use simpler designs, or omit some content altogether. However, even though Level AAA is important for websites that are trying to get government contracts or get visitors to stick around (and it’s possible to achieve Level AAA without any technical knowledge), there are still reasons to avoid this standard; for example, if your site provides downloadable content that requires additional work on device, then you should think about using techniques that will make it accessible outside of a browser (like using its own player).

4. Use Techniques that Will Help People Read Your Site Even When They Can’t See It

Even if your site achieves Level AAA compliance, you should also consider using techniques to make it accessible beyond the browser. This may include creating an alternative experience for people with disabilities that uses accessible technologies like screen readers or braille displays, or by making it possible for people who can’t see the site to use the keyboard to navigate your site (instead of moving around with just a mouse).

5. Use Techniques that Will Help People Use Your Site Even When They’re Dizzy or Can’t Type

Disabilities are not always apparent, and sometimes people need to rely on assistive technologies that help them navigate sites even when they’re dizzy, having a seizure, drunk, or can’t type because of an amputation. These assistive technologies include things like speech recognition software and hardware keyboards. To support these users you should include accessibility tools so they can change the font size used on your site to something more readable and navigate individual page elements using only their keyboard.

6. Use Techniques that Will Help People Use Your Site Even When They’re Deaf or Hard of Hearing

If your site is for a deaf or hard of hearing audience, then there are some techniques you should avoid; for example, don’t use audio for information that can be presented in text (like captions and alt-text), and include transcripts in videos. Also, make sure you use closed captioning and transcripts in any video media (and if the transcripts are provided by the original publisher, make sure they meet the same standard as WCAG 2.0 AA ).

If you want to get government contracts and serve an audience who’s more likely to be blind, deaf, deaf-blind, hard of hearing or have other disabilities, then you should follow these techniques.

Interested in reading more about web design? Web Design Trends That Unfolded in 2021 discusses the trends in web design in 2021.

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