What are the key techniques for building a responsive website that’s also accessible? I’ve been scouting the Web the last few days hoping to find clear answers to this question, but there’s precious little out there. You can find scads of great information about both accessible and responsive web design, but what about the intersection of the two?
The most frequent point is an important one – to wit, RWD (responsive web design) is a great entree into accessible web design. The two do have quite a bit in common. In particular, both depend heavily on adhering to standards. Related to that, RWD has emerged as the first popular venture beyond the stranglehold that desktops using Internet Explorer had on web design for over a decade. And accessibility is all about needs beyond “normal” desktop views of a websites.
I love this point. However, it’s not what I needed to know.
Rather, I was concerned that if you develop a site using standard accessibility and standard RWD, the latter would be fine, but the former might be compromised.
It turned out my concern was legit. However, it seems as if there are just a few straightforward things you need to pay attention to. For me, these boil down to the following.
1. Responsive, unlike accessible, requires all in
You can’t peicemeal responsive. If you can’t do all of the major pieces explained by Ethan Marcotte in his seminal article on RWD together, it’s better to wait — particularly if you want the site to be accessible. In other words, save responsive for a redesign or a site facelift. With accessible code, on the other hand, while it’s best to get as much done initially as you can, there’s so much to it that a partial effort is considerably better than none at all.
2. Don’t code responsive images until you have a wholly responsive site
This is actually a specific part of the first point. However, since it’s a rabbit hole I’ve gone down, I thought it worth being explicit. At the very least, rendering images responsive in a site that’s not otherwise responsive makes for deceptive desktop testing. However, my real concern is it can have accessibility ramifications that aren’t worth the time to test and untangle.
3. The viewport must permit zooming
There’s much debate in the RWD community about how best to code the viewport. However if you’re committed to an accessible site the answer is clear. Do not add parameters like “maximum-scale=1.0″ or “user-scalable=no” to the content attribute. In other words, optimal RWD code looks like this:
<meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width, initial-scale=1.0" />
The end. Period.
By the way, the reason developers add code such as “maximum-scale=1.0″ is that without it on some smart phones a switch in orientation causes the layout to go haywire. As someone with one of those phones, I hear the developer pain behind leaving this code off. But it’s simply bad accessibility ju-ju to sacrifice zooming — and hopefully over time all of the major vendors will address this issue at their end.
4. Extra credit: use em or % for layout, not pixels
I think this one may be less critical. However, George Zamfir has the best overall information I could find on accessible RWD, and he recommends it. I, in turn, recommend reviewing the slideshow from his most recent presentation: Responsive Web Design – An Accessibility Tool (The Accessibility Conference in Guelph, May 29, 2013).
5. Test carefully
Of course, right, but….
The thing is it’s not easy to figure out what to test without completely and utterly bogging down. And my hunch is this quagmire is one of the main reasons many awesome web developers shy away from accessibility. In this perfectionist bog, not only do you never get the thing finished, you never want to bother with accessible code again. But good news…. Henny Swann has created a first-rate list at Mobile accessibility tests. It hits the sweet spot someone like me needs — with a list that’s carefully crafted, but not debilitatingly exhaustive.
So that’s what the accessible RWD landscape looks like to a front end developer like me. I’d be most grateful if those who know more about this topic than I would tell me if I’ve got this right or if I’m missing something.