Usability Testing for Website Accessibility: Why it Matters and How to Do It

Web Accessibility Knowledgebase

Ty Littlefield, Co-Director of Usability Testing at accessiBe, guides us through how to perform basic usability testing for blind users on your website.

Ty Littlefield

My name is Ty; I am a software developer and the Co-Director of Usability Testing at accessiBe. I’m also a totally blind assistive technology user, and I hope to explain the importance of usability testing for your accessible website in this article. 

Usability testing is the process of evaluating a website's functionality and user experience from the perspective of a user with disabilities, like myself. It's a crucial step in optimizing your website for all users, increasing organic traffic, and improving SEO. I will guide you through how to perform a very basic usability test for blind users on your website. As a sighted person, you won’t ever be able to experience your website as if you were blind, but you can test your website’s usability with keyboard navigation and its compatibility with a screen reader.

This is a great step to catch issues and bugs before you ask a blind user to check it out.

The low down on screen-readers 

Before you can test your website for blind user accessibility, I’ll first give you a basic overview of screen readers. A screen reader is an assistive technology that reads onscreen text aloud to people who are blind or visually impaired. It also reads the alt text for images, allowing the user to perceive visual website content in an audio format. Some popular screen readers are JAWS and NVDA from NVAccess, which both work on Windows.

Users utilize keyboard navigation to move through a website and “read” the information using a screen reader. Certain operating systems, like Windows, include keyboard commands that you may be familiar with, such as alt-tab, and a screen reader augments these commands with many more geared toward reading and consuming the content on screen. Other systems require a screen reader to be activated before providing these basic commands. Users can interact with a website by relying on arrows to move through page headings and other site elements. The tab key can also be used to focus on controls such as links, form fields, and buttons. 

laptop with code on its screen and hands typing

Let’s Get Testing

Here are some ways that you can get started with a rudimentary manual usability test and uncover common accessibility issues that might need your attention:

Shut the screen off

Turn off your computer monitor after entering the website you want to test. This prevents you from being able to look at the screen and simulates a more authentic experience for a blind user, allowing you to find the issues in your page structure by using keyboard commands without the visual component.

Put the mouse away

As a tester, using a mouse can limit your ability to encounter accessibility issues connected to keyboard navigation. It’s more beneficial to use keyboard commands so that you can make sure a user with a screen reader can navigate your website without a problem. If you can’t access links, locate the alt text embedded in images, or even scroll through a page, some issues need to be resolved.

Rely on your ears

To gain as much information as possible, use your ears to hear the information being read to you from the website. Ask yourself if the sentence or information makes sense when heard via speech. If it doesn’t make sense when read aloud by the screen reader, there is something incorrect with the page or the copy.

Inspect graphics for clear and concise context

Many graphics are either unlabeled or consist of a jumble of numbers and letters. Ask yourself if the alt-text is valuable for a screen reader user to hear. The graphic needs to add value to the user’s experience which means alt text or image descriptions should be clear, concise, and accurate, while also providing information or a description about the graphic.

Look for missing labels on form fields, links, and other controls

If you're tabbing around or looking through controls during your testing session, and there is no label provided, then a user who is blind doesn't know what action the control performs. Ask yourself if the controls clearly and accurately state their purposes. 

Take your time

Usability testing doesn’t make you an expert overnight. When testing a product or website, you need to remember that your experience, no matter how authentic in simulation, will never truly match that of a user who is blind or visually impaired. That’s why a combination of AI and usability testing is the best way to optimize your web accessibility

Using automated and manual testing tools, like accessScan can help find the accessibility gaps that a user might have missed. Automated accessibility solutions will find accessibility issues and automatically remediate them, thanks to AI.

Use these tools to uncover issues that you weren’t able to identify and take advantage of their analysis to get an understanding of where improvements can be made to your website. The goal here is to, ultimately, use every tool that’s available on the market so you can get a comprehensive overview of your website’s accessibility level and take sustainable action. The use of both manual testing and AI tools on the market is the best way to ensure a seamless user experience for people with disabilities.

blind person using a laptop and wearing headphones

Gain a basic understanding… and then some 

When it comes to usability and design, one of the biggest focuses should be on meeting the usability standards of people who don't have technical skills. Someone new to a smartphone might not know what icons are or what they mean, just as in the same way, a user who becomes blind later in life won't be savvy with assistive technology. Learning a new way to consume content is an experience for many, so if your website is clear to them then it will likely work for everybody else, too. 

The goal, ultimately, is to provide a cleaner user experience to users who are using assistive technology so your website can truly be inclusive. Unlocking your website to people who are blind or have low vision is more than checking a box for compliance. It’s about creating an inclusive online environment that your business can be proud of because everyone deserves equitable access to products and services in an accessible way. 

I hope you now have a better understanding of how usability testing is a great way for you to confirm that your website is accessible and that you can implement this important step manually. The outcome of usability testing is a better and more inclusive website.