Experience Design

POUR: Designing for Accessibility With Understandable in Mind

The W3C organization developed four core principles to help designers and developers ensure websites, mobile apps, and all interactive media would be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust (POUR) to as many digital users as possible. These four principles are as relevant today as they were when Tim Berners-Lee founded the W3C in 1994.

In an earlier post about POUR, I covered how designing to be perceivable means the digital content should be presented in different ways without losing its essential meaning. Designing multi-modal allows users to use different modes, such as sight and hearing, to access digital information. I also covered the second principle operable in a separate post regarding how user interface (UI) components and navigation should work independently of the device the person is using.

Now we’re going to cover understandable, the third principle of POUR.

Why Your Designs Should be Understandable

Even prior to COVID-19 we were consuming information and carrying out significant activities of daily life on digital devices such as video calls with doctors, paying our energy bill, and purchasing goods and services. To accomplish these tasks successfully, we need to:

  1. Easily understand information without asking for help
  2. Understand how to interact with information on whichever device we’re using at that moment

Designing understandable experiences requires thinking about people living with cognitive (learning) and psychological limitations, whether those are permanent, temporary, or situational. Cognitive limitations include difficulty concentrating, remembering, and making decisions, and are the most common disability in younger adults.

The purpose of designing for understandability is to make certain both the information and the operation of the UI enable all users to discern the information as well as the operation of the user interface. This principle strives to ensure the content or operation cannot be beyond someone’s understanding. Secondly, this principle requires that a person’s background or language shouldn’t be a barrier to understanding how to use a website and act on that site’s content.

Another way to think about designing accessible and understandable user experiences for your target audience and the average user is to ask yourself a series of questions like these:

  • Are the UI components presented consistently?
  • Does content appear in predictable ways?
  • Is content short, clear, and simple for web users and web crawlers?
  • Are jargon and unfamiliar and unique terms removed or rewritten?
  • Are transcripts offered with all video content?
  • Do users have enough time to respond to an action, like password authentication?

How to Create Understandable Experiences

Here is a brief breakdown of the key guidelines and success criteria comprising the third principle “Understandable.” Please note this is my condensed interpretation. You can find the “how-to” guidance by checking out the W3C site, or Webaim’s breakdown.

3.1 Make text content readable and understandable. The Hemingway app is a great resource for this.

  • Language used on the page is indicated (in the code).
  • Unusual, unclear, and unfamiliar words (or usage) are explained.
  • The meaning of an unfamiliar abbreviation is provided.
  • Make clear any confusing or potentially confusing content.
  • Show how to pronounce words if it is key to its interpretation.

3.2 Make Web pages appear and operate in predictable ways.

  • When a page element receives “focus” that element doesn’t cause a big change to the page.
  • Taking an action on a page (ex: adding info to a form) doesn’t cause confusion.
  • Links used to navigate throughout the site do not change order.
  • Functionality across Web pages is used consistently.
  • Give users control of any changes to a page, or to disable them.

3.3 Help users avoid and correct mistakes.

  • Clearly label “required” form fields. Users can easily fix form errors.
  • Provide proper labels or instructions for “required” interactive elements.
  • Give users suggestions to fix input errors in an accessible/quick way.
  • Users can undo submitted information.
  • Completing and submitting a form comes with in-context help.

Now We Know Understandable, So What Comes Next?

Designing to be understandable helps your users to have a clear and concise understanding of the information and UI presented to them. For further information on how to make your design understandable to your audience, contact our experience design experts, check out our Accessibility IQ for your website, download our guide, Digitally Accessible Experiences: Why It Matters and How to Create Them, read more from our UX for Accessible Design series, and stay tuned for the next installment to discuss the final principle of POUR: Robust.

About the Author

I'm a Senior Manager User Insights & Research out of the Atlanta office.

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