The false paradox — accessibility and aesthetics

Accessibility icon (depicting a person in a wheelchair) with an arrow depicting forward movement

This week I have seen two very contrasting views on the supposed conflict between accessibility and aesthetics in design.

UX Movement describes it as a paradox. But this article is a house of cards, made up of assertions that aren’t backed up and misunderstandings that aren’t recognised.

Here, he draws a “highly accessible” interface described as “easy on the eyes for the visually impaired; harsh on the eyes for normal visioned”. He compares this unfavourably to a “highly aesthetic” version which he describes as “easy on the eyes for the normal visioned; harsh on the eyes for the visually impaired”.

Beyond the questionable use of the description “normal visioned”, there is a key flaw in this comparison that reveals the problem in focusing on aesthetics. Because to my eyes, the “highly accessible” version is actually the better looking. I have always been drawn to bold designs, and this is a good example. Aesthetics are in the eye of the beholder.

On top of this, he describes the AAA compliant version as being “accessible to all visually impaired users”. This is just straightforwardly incorrect, and reveals an astonishing ignorance of accessibility. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 explicitly state:

Note that even content that conforms at the highest level (AAA) will not be accessible to individuals with all types, degrees, or combinations of disability, particularly in the cognitive language and learning areas.

The article goes on to advocate “respect[ing] the aesthetic–accessibility paradox”, claiming that a “balance” of aiming for AA compliance instead of AAA compliance will “meet the needs of both user groups”. Aside from the wrong-headed approach of dividing your users into two binary camps, zero evidence is provided for the assertion that AA compliance better meets the need of “nearly everyone”.

It later describes accessibility advocates as “extremists”. But they are not the ones advocating excluding human beings from being able to use designs.

For a better take, see Accessibility drives aesthetics, written by Alex Chen for UX Collective. This article demonstrates how a focus on accessibility has often led to superior designs that are better for everyone.

It highlights Oxo kitchen tools. Their first product was a potato peeler for people with arthritis. Neither Alex nor I have arthritis, but we use the Oxo vegetable peeler because it is so much easier and quicker to use than a regular potato peeler. We’re also a huge fan of their salad spinner, where you simply push on a plunger instead of having to grapple with a hard-to-use handle.

It’s not just physical products that improve with a focus on accessibility. Alex Chen’s article also highlights websites, including Gov.UK, which was a vast improvement on previous cluttered and unclear government websites.

But the most important point Alex Chen makes is that the so-called “needs” around aesthetics are simply not as important as those surrounding accessibility. Even if you decide (wrongly) that you need to choose between designing a readable poster against one that looks nice, you should be designing the readable one.

If you can’t make your poster both readable and good looking, you might not be a good designer.

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