How the Web Became Unreadable

I thought my eyesight was beginning to go. It turns out, I’m suffering from design.

It’s been getting harder for me to read things on my phone and my laptop. I’ve caught myself squinting and holding the screen closer to my face. I’ve worried that my eyesight is starting to go.

These hurdles have made me grumpier over time, but what pushed me over the edge was when Google’s App Engine console — a page that, as a developer, I use daily — changed its text from legible to illegible. Text that was once crisp and dark was suddenly lightened to a pallid gray. Though age has indeed taken its toll on my eyesight, it turns out that I was suffering from a design trend.

There’s a widespread movement in design circles to reduce the contrast between text and background, making type harder to read. Apple is guilty. Google is, too. So is Twitter.

Typography may not seem like a crucial design element, but it is. One of the reasons the web has become the default way that we access information is that it makes that information broadly available to everyone. “The power of the Web is in its universality,” wrote Tim Berners-Lee, director of the World Wide Web consortium. “Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”

But if the web is relayed through text that’s difficult to read, it curtails that open access by excluding large swaths of people, such as the elderly, the visually impaired, or those retrieving websites through low-quality screens. And, as we rely on computers not only to retrieve information but also to access and build services that are crucial to our lives, making sure that everyone can see what’s happening becomes increasingly important.

We should be able to build a baseline structure of text in a way that works for most users, regardless of their eyesight. So, as a physicist by training, I started looking for something measurable.

Google’s App Engine console before — old-fashioned but clear
Google’s App Engine console after — modern, tiny, and pallid

It wasn’t hard to isolate the biggest obstacle to legible text: contrast, the difference between the foreground and background colors on a page. In 2008, the Web Accessibility Initiative, a group that works to produce guidelines for web developers, introduced a widely accepted ratio for creating easy-to-read webpages.

To translate contrast, it uses a numerical model. If the text and background of a website are the same color, the ratio is 1:1. For black text on white background (or vice versa), the ratio is 21:1. The Initiative set 4.5:1 as the minimum ratio for clear type, while recommending a contrast of at least 7:1, to aid readers with impaired vision. The recommendation was designed as a suggested minimum contrast to designate the boundaries of legibility. Still, designers tend to treat it as as a starting point.

Contrast as modeled in 2008

For example: Apple’s typography guidelines suggest that developers aim for a 7:1 contrast ratio. But what ratio, you might ask, is the text used to state the guideline? It’s 5.5:1.

Apple’s guidelines for developers.

Google’s guidelines suggest an identical preferred ratio of 7:1. But then they recommend 54 percent opacity for display and caption type, a style guideline that translates to a ratio of 4.6:1.

The typography choices of companies like Apple and Google set the default design of the web. And these two drivers of design are already dancing on the boundaries of legibility.

It wasn’t always like this. At first, text on the web was designed to be clear. The original web browser, built by Berners-Lee in 1989, used crisp black typeon a white background, with links in a deep blue. That style became the default settings on the NeXT machine. And though the Mosaic browser launched in 1993 with muddy black-on-gray type, by the time it popularized across the web, Mosaic had flipped to clear black text over white.

When HTML 3.2 launched in 1996, it broadened the options for web design by creating a formal set of colors for a page’s text and background. Yet browser recommendations advised limiting fonts to a group of 216 “web-safe” colors, the most that 8-bit screens could transmit legibly. As 24-bit screens became common, designers moved past the garish recommended colors of the ’90s to make more subtle design choices. Pastel backgrounds and delicate text were now a possibility.

Yet computers were still limited by the narrow choice of fonts already installed on the device. Most of these fonts were solid and easily readable. Because the standard font was crisp, designers began choosing lighter colors for text. By 2009, the floodgates had opened: designers could now download fonts to add to web pages, decreasing dependency on the small set of “web-safe” fonts.

As LCD technology advanced and screens achieved higher resolutions, a fashion for slender letterforms took hold. Apple led the trend when it designated Helvetica Neue Ultralight as its system font in 2013. (Eventually, Apple backed away from the trim font by adding a bold text option.)

As screens have advanced, designers have taken advantage of their increasing resolution by using lighter typeface, lower contrast, and thinner fonts. However, as more of us switch to laptops, mobile phones, and tablets as our main displays, the ideal desktop conditions from design studios are increasingly uncommon in life.

So why are designers resorting to lighter and lighter text? When I asked designers why gray type has become so popular, many pointed me to the Typography Handbook, a reference guide to web design. The handbook warns against too much contrast. It recommends developers build using a very dark gray (#333) instead of pitch black (#000).

The theory espoused by designers is that black text on a white background can strain the eyes. Opting for a softer shade of black text, instead, makes a page more comfortable to read. Adam Schwartz, author of “The Magic of CSS,” reiterates the argument:

The sharp contrast of black on white can create visual artifacts or increase eye strain. (The opposite is also true. This is fairly subjective, but still worth noting.)

Let me call out the shibboleth here: Schwartz himself admits the conclusion is subjective.

Another common justification is that people with dyslexia may find contrast confusing, though studies recommend dimming the background color insteadof lightening the type .

Several designers pointed me to Ian Storm Taylor’s article, “Design Tip: Never Use Black.” In it, Taylor argues that pure black is more concept than color. “We see dark things and assume they are black things,” he writes. “When, in reality, it’s very hard to find something that is pure black. Roads aren’t black. Your office chair isn’t black. The sidebar in Sparrow isn’t black. Words on web pages aren’t black.”

Taylor uses the variability of color to argue for subtlety in web design, not increasingly faint text. But Taylor’s point does apply — between ambient light and backlight leakage, by the time a color makes it to a screen, not even plain black (#000) is pure; instead it has become a grayer shade. White coloring is even more variable because operating systems, especially on mobile, constantly shift their brightness and color depending on the time of day and lighting.

This brings us closer to the underlying issue. As Adam Schwartz points out:

A color is a color isn’t a color…
…not to computers…and not to the human eye.

What you see when you fire up a device is dependent on a variety of factors: what browser you use, whether you’re on a mobile phone or a laptop, the quality of your display, the lighting conditions, and, especially, your vision.

When you build a site and ignore what happens afterwards — when the values entered in code are translated into brightness and contrast depending on the settings of a physical screen — you’re avoiding the experience that you create. And when you design in perfect settings, with big, contrast-rich monitors, you blind yourself to users. To arbitrarily throw away contrast based on a fashion that “looks good on my perfect screen in my perfectly lit office” is abdicating designers’ responsibilities to the very people for whom they are designing.

My plea to designers and software engineers: Ignore the fads and go back to the typographic principles of print — keep your type black, and vary weight and font instead of grayness. You’ll be making things better for people who read on smaller, dimmer screens, even if their eyes aren’t aging like mine. It may not be trendy, but it’s time to consider who is being left out by the web’s aesthetic.

 

Reposted from
Kevin Marks
http://kevinmarks.com

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Business Websites Need to Be ADA Compliant or Risk Being Sued

If your business website is not in compliance with the American Disabilities Act (ADA), it needs to be – soon!

Businesses across the country are being sued for millions of dollars for not having websites that meet the minimum compliance requirements set forth by the ADA Law of 1990 and the Department of Justice technical memorandum addressing website accessibility.

Just recently, a group of law firms has begun suing businesses that are not in compliance with the ADA Law and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG, which outlines enforceable regulations.

Companies like:

  • Target,
  • Bath & Body Works LLC,
  • Giant Food Stores LLC,
  • Build-A-Bear Workshop Inc.,
  • Express Inc.,
  • Office Depot Inc.,
  • DSW Inc.,
  • American Eagle Outfitters Inc., and
  • JC Penny

have all been served.

In Target’s case, the settlement was for $6,000,000 and $20,000 was paid to a non-profit corporation dedicated to helping the blind.

But it’s not just blind consumers that businesses need to consider. The ADA Law and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines have regulations in place that calls for websites to accommodate individuals who are deaf, visually and/or audibly impaired. All of these individuals have specific requirements that need to be met when they engage with your website online and it better be accessible or else you may find yourself on the other end of a lawsuit.

Believe it or not, your business website needs to be built with specific features so individuals with various disabilities are able to access it and navigate through it like anyone else. If not, you’re placing your business in jeopardy.

What Does a Business Website Need to be ADA Compliant?

Businesses need to ensure they are providing the same information to whoever comes upon their websites. When it comes to visitors with disabilities, they should be able to engage in the same types of transactions that are available to the average public consumer.

Website compliance, in terms of the ADA Law and WCAG, is based on the needs of individuals who are blind, deaf, visually and/or audibly impaired.  Each of these groups has specific needs and, in most instances, these needs are unique to that group.

Part of the settlement in the Target case called for the company to ensure “that blind guests using screen-reader software may acquire the same information and engage in the same transactions as are available to sighted guests with substantially equivalent ease of use.”

A screen reader is one of two specific mechanical devices that are used to support disability groups under the law. The other is a braille reader.  Constructing a website that works with these devices is an absolute requirement.  Additionally, there are other nuances, like colors, screen size adjustment, and fonts, all of which must be addressed.

Other Key Website Requirements to Protect Your Business

There are hundreds of features that need to be evaluated on business websites to ensure compliance. Five primary areas that need to be evaluated to determine whether or not a website meets ADA requirements include:

  1. Text Tags: Do your images include Alt. text tags? These are needed so screen readers and braille readers can interpret the image.
  2. PDF Files: If your website includes PDF files for reading or downloading, is there an HTML or Rich Text Format alternative? Since PDF’s are basically images, they need to have text equivalents so readers are able to interpret them.
  3. Web Browser Adjustments: Does your website allow the images, colors, and fonts to be adjusted by the web browser being used by the viewer? Being able to adjust these three elements of your website is important for visually impaired viewers who may need different contrasts and sizes to see what’s on your website.
  4. Size Adjustments: Does your website allow size adjustment of its content? Often impaired viewers cannot take in the entire screen and need to focus on a specific area by expanding it to interpret the information.
  5. Text Captions: Do your web pages have text captions, i.e. title tags, meta descriptions, and H1-H5 tags that summarize the pages, images, and paragraphs of the website? This is required to make videos and audio tracks understandable to those individuals who may have visual or auditory challenges.

How to Get Started?

The first step you need to take to protect your business is to have your website analyzed for ADA compliance.

We know what to look for and how to add or fix what’s required to keep your business safe.