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Improving Accessibility for Users with Reading Difficulties

Designing more accessible content for individuals with reading difficulties can be a challenging and emotive process. It can also be extremely rewarding. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the challenges that this demographic are faced with whilst browsing the web and as UX designers, it’s a problem we encounter quite often.

Dyslexia is one of the most common causes of reading difficulties in children and young adults. There is an estimated 46.8 million people globally that are living with some form of cognitive disorder with dyslexic users ranging from 15% to 20% of this global make-up.

Problems with accessibility are centred typically around the way in which individuals’ access, navigate and process the information they see on screen. Making content more suitable for dyslexic users, particularly children and young adults – should be a top priority. However, this is something that is still surprisingly overlooked by many designers.

The Responsibility of the Designer

The International Dyslexia Association suggest that the effects of dyslexia may vary from person to person, depending on their level of cognitive function and the amount of support that is offered to them. This is something that is particularly important for designers – because as the designer, we are effectively responsible for supporting these people on the web. It is our responsibility to make our products as accessible for them as we possibly can – instead of falling into that old trap of sacrificing accessibility for really pleasing (but not necessarily usable) aesthetic.

Style Guides

When designing accessible products, focal areas should be on textual presentation, copy readability and the usability of navigation. Style guides such as the British Dyslexia Association‘s style guide aim to assist designers in the creation of more accessible content both digitally and in print. It highlights the importance of readable fonts, colours and spacing, and suggests how more sharply defined typefaces should be used to provide a more comfortable reading experience. It offers suitable point sizing recommendations, contrast information and highlights the importance of clear and concise writing styles.

User-Centred Design

In order to ensure that design projects are rooted in the needs of our users, it’s important to first identify and implement a framework that is grounded in product usability. User-centred design practices are adopted by UX professionals in order to obtain a better understanding into how a human user interprets and interacts with our products. It’s a framework that ensures a design process is retaining its focus on the user, that it understands their challenges and that we’re identifying the right solutions. (This is the part where we mention how much we love our very user-centred workshops and design sprints!)

There are a number of key user-centred design principals defined within the ISO 9241-210 usability standard. Most of them go hand-in-hand in designing with reading difficulties in mind. When broken down, they include:

  • Simplified navigation
  • Clean and consistent interface elements
  • Reducing cognitive overload or mental effort
  • Presenting content clearly, legibly and free of error

Does It Really Work?

Studies by web usability guru Jacob Nielsen have shown how lower-literacy users have very different experiences with web content than users with higher reading levels. In one of his studies he tests regular websites along with versions that had been optimised specifically for users with reading disorders.

Some of the ways in which the sites were optimised include: information prioritisation and condensing, avoiding text that moves and changes unexpectedly, creating a more streamlined page structure, simplifying site navigation and optimising the search functionality to make it more tolerant of misspellings – essentially, following the guidance outlined in ISO 9241.

He was able to conclude that the websites optimised for reading disorder offered dramatically better accessibility for all users. Interestingly, the optimised websites were actually preferred by those individuals with higher-level abilities, over the regular versions aimed at users with no history of reading disorder at all.

The aim here was to prove that all users benefit from more inclusive design practises and that we can make something more accessible, without having to sacrifice great aesthetic or innovation. The research is out there, and we believe designers should be making a more conscious effort to integrate it into their design efforts.

A Web for All

At PixelTree, we’re passionate about this idea of creating a web for everyone. This means that accessibility and user-centred design, for us; are a top priority. We’ve found that by making relatively simple changes and following basic accessibility guidance, we’re able to make our products suitable for a wider range of individuals, irrespective of their reading level, sensory processing abilities or any other problems that could prevent them from using a product to its full potential.

If we can help in anyway – if you need more insights or information, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. Let’s be passionate about this, together!