Ingredients for an Accessible Digital World

Beat Vollenwyder

Under what conditions are the needs of people with disabilities considered when designing digital products? Four studies provide indications.


Only when the cone of the reading lamp goes out do I realise that it has become late. Silence has settled in the reading room around me. Few people are immersed in screens and papers, as the few thousand characters of my dissertation are saved in a new file. I have just edited the last sentence, and the work is done. I step outside through the heavy wooden door of the library. It is cool; the first rain of the approaching autumn is in the air. I decide to walk the half hour home.

Behind me now lay several years of studies, thoughts, conversations, and coffee drinking. At least I can say that the chosen topic still fascinates me. I came across web accessibility in my professional work as a user experience architect. The possibilities that apps and websites open for people with sensory, motor, or cognitive impairments caught my interest. Assistive tools on smartphones and computers create entirely new ways of accessing digital media. For example, a person with a visual impairment can enlarge texts or have all the content read out by a screen reader and thus use apps and websites independently.

Such opportunities are even more important considering that we all will be affected by a limitation at some point in our lives, whether it is permanent due to a disease, temporary after an accident, or even just in a specific situation in poor light or in a noisy environment. Apps and websites must be built to make the interaction with assistive technologies work – for example, by keeping the design clearly arranged even when magnifying it or by adding a description for pictures.

On my way home, I climb a flight of stairs with a ramp next to it. For many people such measures are practical; for some they are irreplaceable to be able to move around independently. It is similar in the digital world.

Illustration of a hut on a mountain. Different paths lead up to the top via a staircase, a ramp, and a cable car.
Web accessibility means making apps and websites accessible to as many people in as many situations as possible.

Although access to apps and websites means a lot to many people, the astonishing thing is that web accessibility is still far from getting the attention it deserves. Of the one million most visited websites in the world, 96.3 per cent contain fundamental implementation errors. The aim of my doctoral thesis, which I completed as part of the Human-Computer Interaction research group at the University of Basel, was to understand why web accessibility is not considered more consistently.

The studies

Of course, I was not the first person to ask this question about the insufficient implementation of web accessibility. Together with my co-authors, we reviewed all the studies from 2008 to 2018 on this subject. The findings were then evaluated by people involved in developing websites. Three important factors emerged in this process: First, people with a disability should be given opportunities to offer their perspective in the development of apps and websites. Second, all those involved in the development of a website must take responsibility for accessibility in their professional role. Third, accessibility must be seen as beneficial for the overall product quality and thus as an advantage for all users. These results were published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

Two of the three factors – the impact on quality and the involvement of people with disabilities in the development process – were further explored in our research group. A first study shed light on how the use of language affects the perceived quality of a website. Text is an important part of the web, and simpler language can reach more people. However, it has been shown that highly simplified text forms such as easy-to-read language are not suitable in every situation and can also be irritating. In cooperation with ACH SO! and Swiss Federal Railways (i.e., Schweizer Bundesbahnen, SBB), we therefore looked for ways to present different text forms together. We were able to show that a good reading experience can be created for all users with a combined presentation of conventional with easy-to-read language. These results were published at the International Conference on Computers Helping People with Special Needs.

Another study explored the influence of accessibility guidelines on the perceived quality of a website. When designing accessible apps and websites, specifications such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2 (WCAG) play an important role. In many cases, these guidelines are used to assess how accessibility has been implemented. Whether such guidelines should be the most important criterion is a controversial topic both in research and in practice. We examined this question in more depth and invited people with and without visual impairments to test a website that either complied or did not comply with the guidelines. Our study shows that simply ticking off the WCAG requirements does not always lead to measurable improvements for users. Guidelines should be seen as an important first step, and the development process should be complemented with the involvement of users. The early drafts of WCAG 3 also contain such ideas, which are in line with our findings. These results were published in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies.

In a final study, we asked ourselves how an app or website could ideally be designed together with people with a disability. In cooperation with SBB, we carried out the complete development of an app, from the initial ideas to the finished product. People with visual impairments were involved in every step. This resulted in the app SBB Inclusive, which supports independent travel by public transport. The app has become an integral part of the services offered by SBB, was awarded with the 2020 Prix de la Canne blanche for the best innovation for the benefit of people with a visual impairment, and in 2022 became the first app in Switzerland to be certified as barrier-free. These results were published at the International Conference on Computers Helping People with Special Needs.


So what ingredients are needed to give web accessibility the attention it deserves? All four studies have shown that working with people with a disability is key to the issue. Direct involvement leads to a better understanding of needs and supports an optimal design of apps and websites. Complying with accessibility guidelines such as WCAG should therefore be a first step that is then complemented with users’ perspectives. Furthermore, it is important that accessibility is strengthened throughout the design process and is considered as early as possible. Finally, all those involved in product development should be aware that they can contribute to accessibility in every professional role.

In practice, this means:

  • Understand the basics of web accessibility by becoming familiar with the main requirements and trying out different assistive tools yourself. A good place to start is the book Accessibility for Everyone.

  • Invite people with disabilities to test your app or website as early as possible by hiring a person with a disability on your team or by contacting local associations or a service such as TestingTime.

  • Discuss with people in the same professional role how you can strengthen web accessibility. The first steps in different professional roles are summarised in this guide.

Recommendations for organisations and the public sector and possible further questions for research are described in the dissertation.

Back to my walk. In the meantime, the first rain is falling, and I have arrived at my doorstep. As I unlock my door, I think of the many questions that remain unanswered even after the completion of my dissertation. Web accessibility remains a fascinating challenge.

To the full dissertation