Every interface has a subset of users that make up the majority and minority. The majority of users usually have normal vision, while the minority have some form of visual impairment.
There’s a big difference between what normal-visioned users see versus what color blind and low vision users see. These users tend to experience blurry text and faint elements when text sizes and color contrasts are too low.
The goal of accessibility is to meet the needs of the minority because they’re often forgotten. But what happens when meeting the needs of the minority ends up failing the needs of the majority? This issue occurs when the interface is made too accessible and isn’t balanced with aesthetics.
Aesthetic vs. Accessible
In general, the more accessible an interface is, the less aesthetic appeal it will have. Highly accessible interfaces are easier on the eyes of the visually impaired, but harsher on the eyes of the normal-visioned. On the flip side, highly aesthetic interfaces are easier on the eyes of the normal-visioned, but harsher on the eyes of the visually impaired.
This aesthetic-accessibility paradox is what designers struggle with when they design interfaces. The challenge is to meet the needs of both the majority and the minority. However, if you veer too far into one extreme, you’ll alienate a subset of your users. Most people don’t want to alienate the minority. But alienating the majority of your users is just as bad as alienating the minority.
Below are two forms that illustrate this concept. One form is AAA compliant and accessible to all visually impaired users. The other is not accessible at all but appeals to normal-visioned users.
For the normal-visioned, the aesthetic form is easy on the eyes, while the accessible form is harsh. However, for the visually impaired, the accessible form is easier on the eyes, while the aesthetic form is harsher. Which form should you use?
The correct answer is neither because neither form respects the aesthetic-accessibility paradox. They are designed toward opposite ends of the continuum, which will either alienate the majority or minority.
A truly accessible and aesthetic interface falls somewhere in the middle. Below is the form that respects the aesthetic-accessibility paradox. The color hues, contrasts, font sizes, and weights are balanced with AA compliance and meet the needs of both the majority and minority. The result is an interface that’s easy on the eyes for the maximum number of users. On top of that, complying with AA also follows the legalities of Section 508.
The Majority of the Minority
An interface that’s balanced with aesthetics and accessibility isn’t necessarily easy on the eyes for every user. Within the subset of the minority, there’s another majority and minority. The majority of the minority are users who don’t have extreme visual impairments and will be able to use a balanced design. But the minority of the minority who have extreme visual impairments will still have issues.
Designing for the smallest minority will make your design accessible to users with extreme visual impairments. However, your design will alienate normal-visioned users who make up the majority of your base. For this reason, the best design is a balanced one that satisfies the largest minority.
What about the needs of the smallest minority? Most users with extreme visual impairments use assistive technologies that provide high contrast modes. These modes allow them to read low contrast interfaces by inverting the screen colors. As you can see, users with extreme visual impairments need a drastically different presentation than others.
Local High Contrast Mode
Sometimes a highly aesthetic or highly accessible interface is required based on the nature of a project. There’s a way you can provide users with these presentations without alienating any of your audience.
If you want to maintain a highly aesthetic design, provide a local high contrast mode on your interface. A local high contrast mode is a toggle button on the page that allows users to enhance the contrast of text and elements to AA compliance. On the other hand, if you want to offer users a highly accessible design, your high contrast mode would display an AAA version.
The challenge is getting users to notice and use the high contrast mode. Make sure it’s visually prominent, or they’ll overlook it. The example below shows a button for high contrast mode, but it’s in an obscure location and hard to notice. If you decide to implement a local high contrast mode, follow these guidelines.
The Importance of Aesthetics
There are accessibility extremists who tend to discount aesthetics. They believe an interface should be as accessible as possible for the minority without considering how it hurts the average user. These extremists need to understand the aesthetic-accessibility paradox before demanding the highest degree of accessibility.
Aesthetics isn’t a subjective and trivial attribute used for ornamentation. It serves an important purpose in the user experience. It determines whether users trust your app, perceive it as valuable, and are satisfied using it. In other words, aesthetics affects user engagement and conversion rate. Discounting it is not only bad for users, but bad for business.
Striking a Balance
Balancing aesthetics and accessibility isn’t easy, but it’s necessary for a great user experience. The cross-section of the aesthetic-accessibility paradox is the balance point for designing interfaces that satisfy the most users. Avoid designing at the extreme ends of the continuum and respect both aesthetics and accessibility.
Being mindful of this paradox will help you make design choices that include the visually impaired, without excluding the normal-visioned. When you’re designing for a wide range of people, extremism toward either an aesthetic or accessible direction is not the best approach. Finding the middle ground is the best way to reach and satisfy as many users as possible.