In Accessibility, Consistency is King

Olly Anthony

The alarm clock goes off and you struggle to open your eyes. Morning is here and you need a coffee to help deal with that fact. You get up and go to the kitchen like you do every morning. You open the cupboard to take out a cup, but to your surprise, you pull out a shoe! That’s not where the shoes are kept. The cups have always been in that cupboard. You know because you do this same thing every morning. Why has it changed? Where are the cups?


Alright, I am adding a bit of artistic flare to demonstrate my point, but this is the kind of experience assistive technology users have on a disappointingly regular basis when faced with updated versions of applications and websites which they have been using for years. Element types have changed. The location of objects has changed. The terminology used has changed. Unexpected change is really my key point here.

There are three sides to consistency in the digital world: being consistent within an individual application, being consistent when updating or upgrading an application, and being consistent with the rest of the world.

Consistency within an Application

When designing a website or application, consistency should always be at the forefront of your mind. It can relate to the location of objects, the types of elements, or the order of actions, to name just a few. Here are a few specific examples and how they can affect users.

 Magnification users cannot see the whole screen at once and will rely on remembering where elements appear and so consistency in layouts is crucial. If you sometimes put error messages under the field they relate to, and other times list those errors at the top of the screen then it means the user may be looking in the wrong place, and if a process isn’t working but you cannot find an error message it can quickly become extremely frustrating.

Those with cognitive disabilities may struggle to understand a text if different terms are repeatedly used to refer to one thing. Simplifying text by consistently using terminology can make it far easier to read and understand the content.

Screen reader users can make use of all sorts of different elements to assist with efficient navigation. Headings are an extremely common example of this kind of navigation. If you have a programmatic heading (remember, just because something looks like a heading, doesn’t mean it is from a programmatic point of view) at the top of the main working area of a page, but fail to put one in the same location on other similar pages, it makes that type of navigation less useful as the user then has to remember where they can use it and where they can’t.

Consistency when Updating/Upgrading

When you are creating an upgrade to your application or a new version, of course, you want to include a new, updated look and features, but you shouldn’t be making a totally new application that isn’t recognisable as this makes it far more difficult for all users to adjust to.

Recently, I had a training session with a screen reader user (we will call her Jane) who had requested some help with a new version of a web application that she had been using for years. Jane had never had any trouble before, but they had introduced a new version and she could no longer find anything she needed. During the session, we didn’t find a single accessibility or even usability issue with the application, quite the opposite, it was extremely well made; but because they had changed how it worked, where the search was located, and added new filters (amongst other things), Jane had really struggled when using it on her own.

Another example would be changes to things such as built-in keyboard commands. I love it when a company builds in some keyboard shortcuts to make certain actions easier, but if they do not stay consistent, it ends up being a bugbear. Let’s say for example you use a softphone which has a keyboard command to answer an incoming call. When the new version is released, as a user, you would expect the same command to work, no? It is still a softphone produced by the same company with the same name and the same functionality for incoming calls is still there, so if the keyboard command is different, it is going to be an issue for a multitude of users, leave them confused or wondering if their machine has frozen.

Consistency with the World

Consistency goes far beyond the confines of your application or website alone. Your product should be consistent with the vast array of others in the world. This is a whole topic in itself, but a simple example would be if most of us saw a red button with a white X in the top right corner of a window (or some iteration of it), we would instinctively know that it was to close the window, because it is consistent across so many other applications.

A different side to this type of consistency is using elements for their correct function. Buttons are used to trigger actions while links are used to take you to a different location and you should ensure that you are using the right element for its prescribed function. One thing that often throws assistive technology users is when a link has been used to perform an action. If nothing else, when someone is helping direct a screen reader user and tells them to look for the Submit button, but that “button” is in fact a link which has been styled as a button, it will just make it all the more difficult to find.

The Take Away

Consistency is key for all of us, whether it is knowing where you keep the cups in your kitchen, or how to carry out a basic task in an application at work, but consistency plays an even more critical role when it comes to people with disabilities and assistive technology users. It can be the difference between someone being able to carry out a process or do their job or not.