Usability and Accessibility

Abstract:  To ensure that library web sites exhibit usability, Dowling delineates three categories of usability guidelines and eight steps that create accessibility.

The three categories of usability guidelines to which their creators must commit are:

  1. consistency,
  2. clarity, and
  3. confirmation (i.e. testing).

Another key criteria for library web sites is accessibility: not posing undue hindrances on users with disabilities. In the U.S., there are two main standards for accessibility (WCAG & Section 508) and, after determining which standard applies to your web site, Dowling gives four easy steps and four less easy steps that can lead to nearly complete accessibility.

The four easy steps for accessibility are:

  1. provide appropriate text alternatives for every nontext element;
  2. separate structural markup from stylesheets (which should use relative measurements) and make sure the page is readable without the stylesheet;
  3. use color to communicate information only in conjunction with textual cues; and
  4. avoid anything that blinks.

The four more difficult steps for accessibility are:

  1. provide ‘skip navigation’ options;
  2. use tables only for tabular information;
  3. make client-side script information accessible to screen readers, keyboards, and those with scripts turned off; and
  4. provide textual cues for all form inputs.

Finally, confirm the accessibility of your site using both the online validator (Bobby) and the recommended manual checks, as well.


Dowling expounds admirable principles and is correct about the need for usability and accessibility. It has been my experience, however, that user-centered design often takes a back seat to client-centered design.

Leaving aside the excellent technical recommendations he makes, the real value of this article is the first page, in which he clearly explains what usability means and why it is so important. This is often the most difficult thing to communicate to clients, that the success of their web site depends on its usability by their customers – NOT by themselves.

A key skill for information professionals is their ability to communicate and to advocate for the needs of the end-user of any interface they are designing. Usability and accessibility should be primary considerations for a truly customer service-oriented library.

Dowling, Thomas. (2003). Usability and Accessibility. Library Technology Reports, 39(1), 48. Retrieved September 14, 2008 from EBSCOHost-Academic Search Complete.