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Accessible and engaging - is it possible?

Web accessibility is a legal requirement for public bodies when launching digital services, but it can come at the cost of interesting and visually engaging design. We explore how to balance design with accessibility when launching a public participation platform.

Web accessibility is about creating websites that allow people with a range of different cognitive abilities to provide and access information in the same, or a similar, way. In practice, public sector organisations in the UK are asked to follow W3C 2.1 Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and, where they don't, set out in an accessibility statement where they don't comply, what steps they're taking to reach compliance and where they can't comply for legitimate reasons.

There are many aspects to web accessibility, but some of the key considerations that Participatr looks at, when creating digital public participation platforms, are:

  • Text content: making sure text is machine readable, rather than embedded in images, so that it can be interpreted by screen reader software for those with visual impairments
  • Colour contrast: making sure text is legible on its background by using colours with sufficiently different contrasts (i.e. using a high colour contrast ratio)
  • Descriptive links: creating hyperlinks that describe the page they link to (e.g. 'project summary') rather than simply indicating that it is a link (e.g. 'click here')

Accessibility considerations are of utmost importance, but being led by web accessibility on its own can result in losing features which make the website engaging and interesting, such as images, branding, soft visual features and maps, which is a big consideration for public participation platforms.

Here are five things that you can do to to balance accessibility with being interesting and engaging:

Use images as illustrations rather than the primary source of information

You don't need to sacrifice images for text in order to maintain accessibility. 'Hero' and banner images can be used without the need for descriptive text (by specifying them as background images), so long as they aren't providing information. They can help add visual interest without creating a confusing layout for those with visual impairments or those using screen reader software.

Use interactive maps rather than static maps

Maps and plans are naturally a common feature in public participation on built environment projects, but they're often static images with lots of labels and text-based information that can't be read by screen reader software. Overlaying the plan on an interactive map can help overcome this issue, making labels and 'flags' navigable and machine readable for those with visual impairments.

Use 'alt text' effectively

'Alt text' is used to provide a text label for images, where users can't see or interpret the image itself. Whilst they aren't intended to describe all of the features of an image, they can be used creatively to signpost people to more detailed information about what an image is trying to convey e.g. by referencing the title of a section of text on the same web page.

Use dynamic timelines and flowcharts

For many projects, it is important to set the current engagement process within its wider context. A good way to do this is to include a timeline or project flowchart, but these quite often come in the form of static images that are pulled from PDF documents, and therefore inaccessible for those using screen reader software. However, timelines can be visually interpreted using HTML code in visually engaging ways, which use text alongside colour-coded shapes and points to create something that is more interesting than plain text but still 'machine-readable'.

Use an accessibility checker

When building your web platform, you can test accessibility as you go using accessibility checking software online. Useful tools include WAVE Accessibility Checker and aXe DevTools.