The Aesthetic-Accessibility Paradox

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

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

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.

Local High Contrast Mode

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

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

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.

Originally published at on November 14, 2019.

There’s a good and bad way to design user interfaces. Our publication shows you which way gives the best user experience.

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