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Understanding: Accessibility vs. Usability

Often in technology, accessibility and usability are used interchangeably as these are quality attributes of the User Interface (UI), covering whether the system is easy to learn, efficient to use, pleasant, and so forth. However, usability and accessibility are slightly different lenses. It is possible to be strong in one area and weak in the other. Using either approach alone could result in an inaccurate view of information technology (IT) systems’ user experience. Evaluating IT systems and websites with both usability and accessibility in mind gives all users the best possible user experience.


Understanding | Breaking the Ice | Assistive Technology | Creating Accessible Content

What is Accessibility?

Similar to technology, accessibility is a spectrum of innovative and creative problem solving that allows individuals to effectively access what they need. According the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), “Section 508 requires that individuals with disabilities have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to those who are not individuals with disabilities, unless an undue burden would be imposed.” The GSA Government-wide Section 508 Accessibility Program states in the article Top 10 CIO Strategies Implementing Section 508 that “Agencies unintentionally erect barriers to participation and inclusion for people with disabilities; however, a shift in perspective can fundamentally change their approach to accessibility (i.e., the staircase creates the barrier, not the wheelchair). Agencies that adopt a proactive position “actively seeking to prevent access barriers” will do much better than those who address accessibility as an accommodation they have to do.”

The Top 10 CIO Strategies Implementing Section 508 are:

1. Adopt a Social Responsibility Perspective for Accessibility
2. Manage Accessibility
3. Treat Accessibility like Security
4. Design a Plan for Accessibility
5. Procure Accessible Information and Communication Technology (ICT)

6. Impose Targeted Standards
7. Test and Validate
8. Study and Use Best Practices
9. Participate in and Join Communities of Practice
10.Employ People with Disabilities

Top 10 strategies for implementing Section 508

What is Usability?

According to the Nielsen Norman Group article Usability 101 Introduction to Usability by Jakob Nielsen on January 4, 2012, “usability is a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use. The word usability also refers to methods for improving ease-of-use during the design process.” User Experience encompasses all aspects of the end-users' interaction with the organization, its services, and its products. Generally, usability is measured against five criteria - memorability, efficiency, errors, learnability, and satisfaction (MEELS). In support of those criteria, the following should be considered when evaluating the usability of IT systems and websites:

  • What tasks are users expected to complete using the System or website?
  • How easily can someone complete those tasks?
  • What test scenarios could assess the completion of those tasks?
  • What data should be recorded and captured during assessment of those tasks?
  • How satisfied is the user with the steps needed to complete the tasks?

Bridging Usability and Accessibility

Achieving both usability and accessibility requires diversity in test subjects. When selecting test pools, testers often focus on “the average user.” However, this can come at the expense of smaller user groups such as those using assistive technologies. To access electronic information and data, some individuals with disabilities use assistive technology, which is an item, piece of equipment, or system commonly used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities. Examples include screen reading software that audibly describes screen content, special keyboards and computer mouse devices that assist with physical disabilities, voice recognition software that assists with typing and screen navigation, and a variety of other tools.

When creating business requirements, comparable access and use for individuals with disabilities is required whether or not they use assistive technology. Leaving any individuals out of usability testing creates a gap in testing methodology. For example, a new navigation menu on a website may test well and receive good scores in all the MEELS categories for some end users. However, if the color contrast is not sufficient, the menu is not tagged to work with screen readers, or the keyboard-based navigation correctly, blind and low-vision users will not be able to use it.

Rather than focusing efforts on only a section of the population, it is best to design the system to accommodate everyone. The next time an IT system is evaluated or created, keep all users in mind and help ensure that it is an equally successful experience for all.

Key Events

Timeline of key events throughout the year

Get Connected

The timeline above provides key dates, opportunities and activities to help keep the accessibility conversation going.

California Department of Technology Letters: Technology Letters (TL) are issued by the California Department of Technology to convey official communications regarding state IT policies. Please see TL 16-06, 15-05 and ITPL 10-10 for more on accessibility standards. To receive the most up to date IT policy information, please view the Technology Letters provided on the Department of Technology website.

California State University, Northridge (CSUN) Assistive Technology Conference: For over 31 years, the Center on Disabilities, through the CSUN conference has provided an inclusive setting for researchers, exhibitors, speakers and many others to share knowledge and best practices in the field of assistive technology. Go to the California State University, Northridge website to save the date for the 2018 conference.

National Association for Chief Information Officers (NASCIO): For more information regarding the NASCIO and its accessibility learning and training opportunities, please visit the NASCIO website.