Skip the WCAG! User test with people with disabilities instead

If you’re trying to make your website or app accessible, you’ve probably stumbled over the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). But don’t waste your energy trying to understand them. Just don’t.

Laptop with notepad and pen beside it. Photo.

Get out and test with actual people

I know it’s a bold statement. But the WCAG will confuse you. And probably scare you away. It’s really, really, really long and difficult to wrap your head around.

How long? Well, I took the WCAG, pasted it into Microsoft Word and zoomed all the way out. Voilà, here are the 98 pages:

Zoomed out of 98 pages, can only see tiny text. Screenshot.

On top of that, there are the actual techniques for succeeding – the blue links on the latter half of the pages above lead to those techniques. Probably another 1 000 pages or so.

So instead of diving into WCAG, if there’s one thing you should do to improve the accessibility of your website or app it’s to let people with disabilities test it.

I’ve done this a lot in my role as an interaction designer at accessibility focused companies. And there is no doubt in my mind: testing with users with disabilities will help you improve accessibility far more than reading any checklist or standard ever could. Period.

“Normal” users are not good enough

Testing with users with disabilities will also help you improve your usability far better than testing with your “regular” test subjects. Why?

Well, for instance, a person with cognitive impairment like autism will react to the same things that another user will. But they go further. They are much better at spotting inconsistencies in design, problems with navigation and unnecessarily difficult content.

Things that other users will find annoying but work their way around without mentioning. In a similar way, a person with low vision will react to small text or low contrast, which will make reading difficult for anyone out in the sun with a smartphone.

If you want to test with people with disabilities, I’ve put together a list of tips to get you going in another article:

Seven tips for user testing with people with disabilities

And if you feel it sounds a bit scary, we can hold your hand and help you with recruiting users and carrying out the tests.

Don’t hang me…

And finally, I turn to the awesome people of the accessibility community: Please don’t hang me for suggesting people to skip the WCAG. The fact is, I love the WCAG! It’s probably one of the most important documents around, all categories. But it should be used by people who’ve matured further in their accessibility career or mindset.

First, you have to witness people in action, otherwise you’ll not understand how to use the WCAG, why it’s around and it’s strengths and limitations. Hope you get what I mean!

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