Testing Beyond Screen Readers: Creating Truly Inclusive Web Experiences

Testing with screen readers is a start, but true accessibility means considering voice control, switch devices, and braille displays. Design with empathy to build experiences that work for everyone!

A braille display on a desk in front of a keyboard with two hands resting on on either side.
Photo by Sigmund / Unsplash
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As developers, it's natural to slip into the mindset of assuming everyone interacts with the web the same way we do. But the reality is vastly different. A screen reader, while indispensable for accessibility, offers just one sliver of perspective. In pursuit of building truly inclusive digital spaces, we must broaden our understanding of assistive technology and actively test our sites through a variety of lenses.

Understanding Assistive Technology Diversity

Let's delve into the most common types of assistive technologies beyond screen readers and explore specific challenges and opportunities for web designers.

  • Voice Control Software: Individuals using voice control navigate by dictating commands. Inaccurate speech recognition, especially with convoluted phrasing or unclear prompts, becomes a real roadblock. On the flip side, designing your site with natural language parsing in mind empowers these users to easily explore its functionality. For example, a straightforward “Add to Cart” command works better than a site-specific term like “Bag the Item.”
  • Switch Devices: People with limited motor control often rely on switch devices, sending simple button commands to interact with a page. If interactive elements require elaborate mouse movements, like dragging, dropping, or hovering, switch devices alone are ineffective. The remedy? Ensuring every mouse-focused action has a keyboard-centric alternative while designing interfaces with clear visual highlighting of the focused element.
  • Braille Displays: Relying on a device that outputs a single line of braille requires developers to prioritize clarity and organization. Avoid overwhelming walls of text; use concise wording, meaningful headings, and well-structured lists. Semantic HTML also proves crucial, adding a navigational layer accessible through braille display readings.

Empathy as a Design Principle

The most impactful change comes when we try to imagine our sites as the primary interface for someone utilizing various assistive technologies. Would we understand how to find essential information? Does content structure feel logical? This approach forces us to elevate usability for everyone, not just those with abilities mirroring our own.

Test, Test...and Test Some More

Theoretical approaches to accessibility only take us so far. Here are some ways to implement diverse testing techniques:

  • Voice Control Simulations: Browser extensions let you convert typed commands into actions a voice control user would execute. Test navigating key features like login, checkout, or product catalogs solely through simulated voice. Include textual hints with your commands to guide real voice-control users.
  • Keyboard-Only Navigation: Relying solely on the Tab key reveals your site's keyboard accessibility strengths and weaknesses. Keep an eye out for elements that never gain focus and unclear focus states. Implement robust tabindex values and strong visuals to highlight the currently focused element, supporting all users but especially those dependent on keyboard navigation.
  • Collaboration with Diverse Users: No substitute exists for direct feedback from actual users of assistive technologies. Seek partnerships with advocacy groups to organize targeted testing sessions. The most profound "Aha!" moments will come from seeing your site navigated in these sessions, revealing real-world problems you might never have predicted.

Design for Enhanced Experiences

  • Clear Visual Hierarchy: Avoid subtle cues relying purely on font size or spacing, ensuring assistive technologies have strong structural references in the underlying code. Employ heading tags in a nested hierarchy (<h1>, <h2>, etc.) and use lists (<ul> for unordered, <ol> for ordered) where appropriate. This creates an intrinsic map for diverse technologies to follow.
  • Alternative Interactions: Never lock features behind hover effects alone. Include visible buttons or text that achieve the same action. Similarly, for drag-and-drop elements, provide keyboard shortcuts or clearly labeled buttons.
  • Progressive Enhancement: Build from a solid HTML foundation, prioritizing functionality even without fancy design flourishes. Layer enhancements like complex animations or elaborate interactions gracefully, ensuring if these advanced features falter, core tasks remain accessible.

Real-World Example

A poorly designed photo gallery site might load thumbnails without descriptive alt text, relying on hover menus and scroll-triggered zooming. In contrast, an accessible counterpart includes proper alt text, sorting options within dropdown menus, and keyboard-based zoom controls.

Never Stop Learning and Improving

Involving users with a range of assistive technologies provides unique and invaluable insights. Iterate, improve, and seek further feedback every step of the way! This isn't about checking boxes; it's about getting real-world validation of your work.

Closing Thoughts

Prioritizing a screen reader experience is a commendable starting point, but genuine inclusivity demands wider considerations. Embrace this chance to expand your knowledge, incorporate broader testing, and make the web a welcoming space for everyone.

Additional Resources