Heuristics and Accessibility

According to Psychology Today, "a heuristic is a mental shortcut that allows an individual to make a decision, pass judgment, or solve a problem quickly and with minimal mental effort." Heuristics are also referred to as "a rule of thumb," which is defined by Merriam-Webster as "a method of procedure based on experience and common sense."

How can we take advantage of these mental shortcuts, these rules of thumb as we design with accessibility in mind? There is a lot to remember when baking accessibility into your designs. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Success Criteria are numerous and can be difficult to decipher if you are not an expert. What we need is a set of mental shortcuts, heuristics, that takes WCAG and puts it into a series of easy to understand and remember rules to follow for accessibility.

Luckily, that has been done. Denis Boudreau, a principal Web accessibility trainer and inclusive design advocate at Deque Systems, has developed a set of 10 accessibility heuristics, largely inspired by WCAG. Take a look:

01 – Navigation and Wayfinding
Users can easily navigate, find content, and determine where they are at all times within the system.

02 – Structure and Semantics
Users can make sense of the structure of the content on each page and understand how to operate within the system.

03 – Contrast and Legibility
Text and other meaningful information can be easily distinguished and read by users of the system.

04 – Language and Readability
Content on the page can easily be read and understood by users of the system.

05 – Error Prevention and States
Interactive controls have persistent, meaningful instructions to help prevent mistakes, and provide users with clear error states which indicate what the problems are – and how to fix them – whenever errors are returned.

06 – Predictability and Consistency
The purpose of each element is predictable, and how each element relates to the system as a whole is clear and meaningful, to avoid confusion for the users.

07 – Visual and Auditory Alternatives
Purely visual or auditory content that conveys information has text-based alternatives for users who can’t see or hear.

08 – Multiple Interaction Methods
Users can efficiently interact with the system using the input method of their choosing.

09 – Time and Preservation
Users are given enough time to complete tasks and do not lose information if their time runs out.

10 – Movement and Flashing
Elements on the page that move, flash, or animate in other ways can be stopped, and do not distract or harm the users.

These "rules of thumb" are much easier to understand than WCAG Success Criteria therefore, should be easier to remember so designers can more effectively design with accessibility in mind.

There is also a set of heuristics developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) for folks that design specialized multimedia and graphics languages to help them "remember and understand the core demands for accessibility." ~ A11Y Heuristics - W3C
  1. Provide alternative equivalents.
  2. Provide means to select equivalent content.
  3. Provide user control for presentation.
  4. Provide device independent interaction.
  5. Provide semantics for structure.
  6. Provide reusable components.

See the list with full explanation here.

Heuristic Evaluations

The Interaction Design Foundation defines heuristic evaluation as "a process where experts use rules of thumb to measure the usability of user interfaces in independent walkthroughs and report issues. Evaluators use established heuristics and reveal insights that can help design teams enhance product usability from early in development."

In terms of accessibility, the goal of a heuristic evaluation is to explain the accessibility barriers and identify the quick fixes.

Evaluations conducted early in the research stage provide the perfect time to embed accessible design practices into your process and therefore into your website.

A heuristic evaluation should not be a substitute for user testing. Even though the heuristics presented in this article are based on the criteria that measure your website’s accessibility, the issues identified in a heuristic evaluation should not be considered comprehensive.

Advantages and Disadvantages to Heuristic Evaluations 

Advantages

  1. Provide quick and relatively inexpensive feedback to designers.
  2. Can be implemented early in the design process.
  3. Can be helpful in determining best corrective measures.
  4. It can be used together with usability heuristics.

Disadvantages

  • Requires knowledge and experience to apply the heuristics effectively.
  • Certified accessibility experts can be expensive.
  • The evaluation may identify more minor issues than major issues.

Steps in a Heuristic Evaluation

  • Establish an appropriate list of heuristics. The heuristics presented in this article is a very good place to start.
  • Select your evaluators. Your evaluators should not be your end users. 
  • Brief your evaluators. The briefing session should be standardized to ensure the evaluators receive the same instructions; otherwise you may bias their evaluation.
  • First evaluation phase. Evaluators should use your website freely to get a sense of scope and interactions. Evaluators should make a list of elements to be evaluated. This phase usually takes around two hours, depending on the nature and complexity of your website.
  • Second evaluation phase. In the second phase, the evaluators apply the chosen heuristics to the elements identified during the first phase. 
  • Record problems. Evaluators can document their findings themselves or have someone record those findings for the evaluator. Be sure to be as detailed and specific as possible when recording problems.
  • Debriefing session. The different evaluators come together to collate their findings to create a complete list of accessibility issues. On the basis of the heuristics used in the evaluations, a list of potential solutions can now be established.

Huestics and heuristic evaluations, when applied early in the research and design process, are a great first step in creating a clear list of accessibility issues and how they would impact your users. With this information in hand, designers can make quick and informed decisions on removing barriers and creating a more accessible experience. Heuristic evaluations along with automated tools like DubBot go a long way in helping to ensure your website is truly accessible to the widest range of users possible.

Resources

Maggie Vaughan, CPACC
~ friend of DubBot, A11Y practitioner in higher ed