The Usability Principles, Accessibility Style

I recently did a usability analysis (also known as a heuristic review) on an application for a project at work.

To the uninitiated, this involves combing through the application, screen by screen, and calling out what is working well and what isn’t. There are various methods, but what I did was point these out on screenshots, then list them in a table with severity assigned and suggestions for improvement. Putting on the hat of the user (not literally — that’d be kind of gross), I used as a guideline Jakob Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics.

Though they are pushing 20 years old and their wording feels a bit mechanical and unfriendly at times, these principles still hold up as logical guidelines to evaluate whatever it is you’re looking at, be it software or a web site.

Because user experience and accessibility are so intertwined, I thought it’d be interesting to recap the 10 principles, and make an accessibility comment about each of them. We’ll start with the first 3 in this post, then tackle the other 7 down the road.

All blockquotes are from the Ten Usability Heuristics.

1. Visibility of system status

The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.

This one boils down to never leaving to guesswork where the users are, what they are doing, or what’s happening.

Some examples:

  • Gustave is buying fancy shoes on the Web. While he’s in the checkout system, the site lets him know what step he is on, from start to finish.
  • On her trusty banking site, Jo-Jo just filled out a bunch of tax information. She hits submit, and it’s going to take the site several seconds to process. The site displays a screen that says, “Please be patient while we process your info,” so that she knows she successfully hit Submit and something is going on.
  • Ace wants to join the mailing list for his favorite muscle car magazine. He fills out a form on their website with his particulars, then hits Submit. The site fires back with a reassuring, “Thank you — you’re all signed up!” message.

Expedia wait screen while searching for flights
An indicator on Expedia.com that shows the system is searching for flights based on the selections you made.

The Accessibility Slant
Making it clear where the user is benefits everyone, whether disabled or not. Proper use of titles, headings and sub-headings help those using assistive technology devices such as screen readers, which provide easy methods of calling out what those headers are. Clear-cut way finders in extensive processes are particularly useful for those with cognitive disabilities, keeping them focused on what they are seeing.

When you use a wait screen, make sure that page or overlay is accessible too! Expedia’s has text and images with alt tags that a screen reader should have no trouble parlaying. Some wait screens employ Flash or a similar technology, which have methods to ensure accessibility but are often forgotten or overlooked.


2. Match between system and the real world

The system should speak the users’ language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.

One of my most trafficked posts is The Inaccessibility of Jargon. Use the language of your users! A site selling winter hats shouldn’t read like an engineer’s technical manual or play corporate world catchphrase bingo with made-up words.

The Accessibility Slant
Keeping your content clean, clear and in the user’s language again benefits everyone. A user with cognitive challenges doesn’t need their experience compromised by content that is hard to understand. And once again, avoid abbreviations and acronyms! You never know how people are coming to a page — those acronyms may be completely out of context even if you define them up front.


3. User control and freedom

Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked “emergency exit” to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo.

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Don’t set your users down paths they can’t easily get out of. If they get themselves stuck in some location or process they didn’t mean to, make it really easy to climb out and back on their way.

Going back to the shoe-shopping above — say that Gustave has a pair of shoes picked out and is up to the step where he is entering his credit card information and address. Then he realizes he picked out the wrong size! A good commerce will let him easily go back to a step where he can modify that size, without having to struggle to figure out how. Maybe it’s a Modify This Order option; maybe it’s links in the Step 5 of Step 5 way finder.


If you commit a typo (or perceived typo) when entering search words, Google will offer an alternative by asking “Did you mean…”.

The Accessibility Slant
Once again, a good experience minimizes users getting lost in a maze. Like the other 2 principles we’ve talked about, this is particularly important for those with cognitive disabilities. Clear links and ways back also make screen reader navigation easier — the technology provides means for disabled users to more easily hop from link to link, or heading to heading.


In Short…
Clear paths and clear content benefit everyone. The drum we keep beating is that accessibility makes things easier for everyone, regardless of whether they are disabled or not. These first three principles certainly reaffirm that. Whether you’re a person with cognitive challenges, a visually-impaired person relying on screen readers, or none of the above — you want and need to be able to see where you are in an interactive experience, where you’ve been and where you need to go.

Next time, we’ll tackle a few more usability principles.


The Usability Principles Series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

5 thoughts on “The Usability Principles, Accessibility Style

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