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Accessibility in web design is sometimes thought of as an “add on” or “extra” by designers and organizations as opposed to a necessity, and consequently only partially implemented if at all. Through his presentations on accessibility at conferences such as the HOW Interactive Design Conference and HTML5 DevConf to his involvement with the standardization process of the Web and being a contributing member of the W3C Accessibility Group accessibility champion Rajesh Lal, Senior Web Engineer at Nokia Emerging Platforms is working to change that.

In our interview with Lal, he responds to some of the key questions regarding what accessibility is, why it’s important and how designers can educate/persuade clients of its value socially as well as to the bottom line.

1. For readers that may be unfamiliar with accessibility and/or its importance can you talk a bit about why it’s important and how it ties in with usability and design?

accessibledesign_slide4.jpgAccessibility is a term that has come to digital design from the real world, where it implies a number of physical and mental handicaps and is represented by a wheelchair icon. There are four major categories of disability: blind and visual impairment, deaf and hard of hearing, mobility, and cognitive learning problems. The solutions are accessible parking slots, multiple elevator buttons, and accessible entrances and exits. In the digital world, it means a lot more than that. Not only does it include these people with disabilities, but also parents and senior folks who are not such tech savvy users, temporary conditions, or even limited technology like old browsers or computers, which require accessible solutions. Making an accessible design is about keeping everyone in mind and going forward together.

In the digital world, accessibility means making things easy for everyone to use. It’s very important because nowadays, the success of a product depends on user adoption in multiple devices, and an accessible solution that accommodates all types of users and devices. On the surface, it looks similar to usability and good design principles, but there is a subtle difference. Accessibility accommodates everyone. In the design world, you have the freedom to design per your audience. An artistic analog clock may not have numbers/indicators. Ambiguity can be part of the great design, but an accessible artistic clock will have clear distinctions between numbers and will show the time precisely. Accessibility does not have any place for ambiguity. In the digital world where your target audience is everyone, accessibility is always a precursor for good design.

2. Do you have any suggestions for how designers can balance pushing creative boundaries with creating an accessible design?

Graphic designers can argue that accessible designs limit the choices you can make for an accessible design, and I think that’s a valid point to some extent. Accessible design does recommend a certain amount of contrast between foreground and background, it asks you to use creative typography sparingly, and to use san serif font types for most of the content. But the core idea of accessibility is clarity in conveying your message.

If you understand this fact, then accessible solution is actually helping you by giving you clear guidelines on what is more clear and easily understandable by most people. A simple example is logo design. Companies seek a logo that can also print well in black and white so that even shades of grey will look great, but most of the popular logos have clear contrasting colors. So, if you want more people to appreciate your design, concentrate on clarity first and go for an accessible solution.

3. Do you have any suggestions for how designers can educate clients about the importance of incorporating accessibility into their projects?

There are three main business reasons: senior folks are among the main beneficiaries of an accessible solution. The population of seniors in the United States exceeds 100 million, and the have spending power of around two trillion dollars. The second reason is section 508, a U.S. law that requires all government entities to not discriminate between users. The third important reason, which mainly benefits web design, is search engine optimization. If your website is accessible it is much more search friendly and so will get more search engine traffic than others.

4. Are there any live sites that you consider good examples of “dos” and/or “don’ts”?

For Web related design, W3C (World Wide Web Consortium, an organization responsible for developing standards for the Web) has a comprehensive set of guidelines for making your website accessible. Also check out my article, Accessible Design with HTML5 at MSDN magazine.

5. Anything else you would like to add?

digital_design_essentials.jpgI do want to add that accessible design is not only our social responsibility but is also something we are doing for ourselves. In 20 years, we might need some of these accessible solutions. Do you want to design something that you yourself might not be able to use properly in future?

If you’d like to read more from Raj Lal, his upcoming book, Digital Design Essentials: 100 ways to design better desktop, web and mobile interfaces (Rockport Publishers) will be out May 2013 and is available on Rockport and Amazon. It shows interface design for 100 different software applications ranging from desktop, web, mobile and tablet to TVs. You can also connect with him on Facebook: Facebook.com/iRajLal and Twitter: @iRajLal.