Mark shares a cringe-worthy but illuminating example of how compliance and guidelines can get in the way of good user experience.

The Web Content Accessibility (WCAG) Guidelines have been good to me. They’ve given me a career I’m proud of. They’ve indirectly put food on my table and a roof over my family’s head. More importantly, they’ve made a huge difference to the online experience of millions of people the world over. Many of these folks may be completely unaware of the guidelines themselves, but they’re very aware of the barriers they face when accessing content online.

But does adherence to success criteria really produce a better experience for users with disabilities? The WCAG guidelines certainly address many of the major accessibility barriers faced by disabled users, but does this equate to better UX?

The tale of Katie Lally

Stepping away from the WCAG guidelines for a moment, as an accessibility consultant living and working in Scotland, I am alternately tickled and horrified by the baffling tale of Katie Lally’s wheelchair ramp—a story that brings the guidelines versus user experience problem into stark relief.

Katie is a young girl from West Dumbartonshire, Scotland who uses a wheelchair. Her mother campaigned to the local council for assistance overcoming the nine steps from the street to their front door. No problem, said the council.

The resulting wheelchair ramp made national headlines and quickly went viral. Why? The sprawling ten-level behemoth obliterated the Lally’s entire front garden and attracted skateboarding teenagers from miles around.

A ramp taking up the whole front yard, winding back and forth over ten switch-backs or levels.

Skateboarders were thrilled with the result, but the Lallys (and the mail carrier) sure weren’t.

At some point in the process, the council stopped thinking about Katie Lally’s needs and started to prioritize their internal guidelines related to building wheelchair ramps. A good user experience was sacrificed at the altar of maximum allowable gradient.

This situation isn’t limited to just offline accessibility. The same pitfalls can and do happen in the online world, as we saw in Jeff’s post last week about ARIA tabs.

Meeting guidelines alone won’t always make your product or service a good experience for disabled users. Often, organizations make something technically accessible without considering the needs of the actual people using it.

Putting people first

It’s easy to see why these issues happen. Pressure to ensure that services are accessible usually leads to organizations applying accessibility features on top of existing content and processes. There isn’t the time, budget, or in some cases appetite, to redesign services from the ground up with disabled users in mind. Nic’s post about “managing accessibility” gets into the meat of that issue.

The good news is, there’s a simple way to prioritize the people who need us ahead of the things we build. Usability testing with real users can quickly provide key insights into how people actually interact with a product or service. It’s a brilliantly efficient reminder of the real purpose behind our work.

Users don’t think in terms of guidelines. They have a task in mind that they want to complete, and their experience is defined by whether they can complete it or not.

We regularly encounter folks who can’t complete tasks online even though the interaction met technical guidelines—and there’s often no other way to identify these problems other than user testing. Testing helps you understand what people really want and why, and how someone actually engages with your site. It helps keep the user in the forefront of the team’s mind in a way that simply applying the WCAG guidelines doesn’t.

Using the experience of real people to complement the WCAG guidelines is the best way to avoid building your very own online wheelchair skateboard park. Guidelines are only part of the accessibility picture—front and centre of your focus should be your very own Katie Lally.

How do you balance the need for compliance with the need for good user experience? What helps you keep your end users top of mind?

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