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As an e-learning developer, you want to create content that engages learners and delivers on the learning objectives you worked hard to define. But what if that engagement and learning can't happen because of issues with accessibility or usability? In this article, you'll find out what accessibility and usability are and how you can apply the principles behind them to design courses that work better for all learners. Then, you'll get tips on reviewing and testing your courses to ensure they meet those standards. Let's get started!

Understanding Accessibility

Accessibility—also known as a11y—is the practice of making experiences work for everyone, regardless of their ability.

In e-learning, accessible content means it's been designed for all learners to access—including those with auditory, visual, mobility, cognitive, or other disabilities. For example, using sufficient color contrast helps learners with low vision or color vision deficiency. Offering textual explanations for visual content is another common accessibility best practice.

Focusing on web accessibility allows everyone to perceive, navigate, and interact with content. Guidelines—such as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)—and laws—like Section 508 (United States)—provide guidance and ensure all learners can access online materials equally.

Understanding Usability

Usability in e-learning measures how easy content is to use and examines how users experience it. Content should be user-friendly, intuitive, efficient, and effective. For example, if learners must complete a quiz, they should be able to test their knowledge without encountering confusing errors or getting stuck and feeling frustrated with the process.

The Nielsen Norman Group is a firm focused on improving the everyday experience of using technology. They've defined five key components of usability that can also be applied when creating e-learning courses:

  • Learnability. Accomplishing basic tasks should be easy, even the first time a learner encounters a course.
  • Efficiency. Barriers that prevent learners from completing courses efficiently should be removed.
  • Memorability. Learners who revisit content shouldn't have to start from scratch.
  • Errors. Encountering errors—and recovering from them—shouldn't derail learning.
  • Satisfaction. Engaging with the content should be enjoyable and pleasant for learners.

Benefits of Combining Accessibility and Usability

Accessible content enhances everyone's experience. For example, closed captions and transcripts for accessibility not only help learners who are deaf or hard of hearing. They also allow those in a loud environment where audio can't be heard or in a public space that requires silence to access content. Captions and transcripts improve understanding for foreign-language learners as well.

However, ensuring that your e-learning content conforms to accessibility guidelines like captioning and transcripts doesn't mean your course automatically provides a usable learning experience for all. Conversely, while usability centers user experiences, usable content isn't necessarily accessible to people with disabilities. For example, a visually stunning course might be engaging for some learners. However, if it uses colors and other visuals alone to convey information or move the learner through, the content won't be accessible to those with low vision or color vision deficiency. To ensure truly equal access to digital content, apply accessibility and usability practices in tandem during the course development process.

Testing for Accessibility and Usability

The best way to find out if the content you're creating is accessible and usable is to test it. If you're new to this process, you might feel intimidated. But don't worry! We'll introduce you to some trusted accessibility testing tools and give you tips for usability testing to get you started in the next section.

Accessibility Testing

Accessibility testing can be done with automated tools or manually—both of which have advantages and disadvantages. For the most optimal results, combine both types of accessibility testing.

Automated Testing

Automated accessibility testing tools scan content for accessibility issues. They're easy to run and don't require in-depth accessibility knowledge to detect minor problems. Examples of automated accessibility testing tools include:

While automated accessibility testing tools boost speed and efficiency, they don't catch all accessibility issues. They also sometimes report false positives or misunderstand accessibility requirements. Additionally, your results might vary depending on the testing tool.

Manual Testing

Given the limitations described above, automated testing can be a practical place to start but usually won't finish the job. Manually reviewing your published course one slide at a time offers the most complete results. If that sounds overwhelming, don't panic. We've got you covered! Here's a checklist of universal design basics for text, multimedia, images, and interactivity elements in e-learning: Accessible E-Learning Checklist. Examples include:

  • Check the accuracy of automated tests.
  • Ensure learners can easily navigate content—such as hyperlinks, alternative text (alt text), menus, and closed captions—with a keyboard and screen reader.
  • Make sure your course has plain and inclusive language appropriate for your audience and provides accessibility instructions wherever user input is required.

While manual testing requires you to learn about accessibility requirements and standards, it's the best way to ensure everyone can access your content. Here are multiple resources to support you on your accessibility learning journey:

Usability Testing

Usability testing is conducted by real people who scan content for usability problems. You can improve your usability testing and boost accessibility at the same time by including people with disabilities and those who use assistive devices and technology when you recruit and engage usability test participants. For example, organizations like Fable connect digital teams with people with disabilities to do usability testing.

Wrap-Up

We hope this article inspires you to provide accessible and usable e-learning experiences for all learners. What did you find most interesting? Is there anything we missed? Let's discuss! Share your thoughts in the comments below.

For more help creating accessible courses, check out these helpful resources: 

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