Mastering Web Accessibility: Manual vs. Automated Testing Explained

The foundation of quality web design is to create a functional and visually impressive website – and data is crucial for the user experience design process. Throughout a project, this information is utilized to ensure that your design is constructed in a manner that achieves your objectives.

When it comes to UX (user experience), web accessibility is important for website design and development to ensure that all users, including those with disabilities, can effectively access and use digital content. The two main methods of testing for accessibility are manual and automated testing, each with its advantages and disadvantages. These methods can be used in different situations or combined for a comprehensive testing strategy.

  • Manual accessibility testing involves individuals manually reviewing a website to assess its accessibility. This involves using screen reading software (like JAWS, NVDA, or VoiceOver) to verify that the site's content can be understood when read out loud by the software and providing insights into the user experience of people with disabilities. Manual accessibility testing is advantageous for areas requiring human judgment and contextual understanding, such as evaluating screen reader usability, the relevance of image alt texts, and the overall user experience. The importance of human involvement in manual testing cannot be overstated. It allows for a subjective evaluation and a deep understanding of a website's content and structure, particularly from the perspective of users with disabilities. This human touch is crucial in identifying issues that automated tools may overlook, especially when it comes to intricate interactions.
  • Automated accessibility testing tools include software programs that scan web pages for potential issues, ensuring that all users can navigate a website with ease. From pinpointing problems to crawling entire sites, these tools follow set rules to identify and address accessibility concerns. They are particularly effective in discovering and addressing issues like color contrast, missing alt texts, and empty headings. These powerful tools utilize targeted test cases to swiftly scan vast areas of a website. Automated tools have limitations as they can only identify specific, measurable problems and cannot assess subjective factors such as user-friendliness or content coherence. Additionally, these tools may produce false positives by incorrectly flagging non-issues or false negatives by overlooking actual problems.
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Why is Accessibility Important?

Digital accessibility is a vital aspect of digital design and development. The law requires that all websites should be accessible to users who need assistive technologies, as per the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508, which covers government information accessibility. The number of ADA-related website lawsuits has been increasing the last few years, demonstrating the Department of Justice's growing focus on web accessibility.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 provides a comprehensive set of recommendations for making web content more accessible, with WCAG 2.2 offering further considerations to enhance digital accessibility. Therefore, prioritizing web accessibility is both a legal requirement and an ethical obligation that ultimately benefits all website users.

Automated Testing in Accessibility

Automated testing tools play a critical role in identifying web accessibility issues, providing a quick and efficient way to evaluate compliance with standards like WCAG. Some of the more popular tools provide visual feedback about the accessibility of the web content by injecting icons and indicators into the page. AXE is a robust tool that checks HTML source code against predefined accessibility standards, and Lighthouse is an open-source tool from Google that audits performance, SEO, and more, including accessibility.

There are also some free accessibility testing extensions like Wave, Accessibility Insights, and IBM Accessibility. Although impressive, these tools do have limitations. They are great at identifying technical issues such as missing alt text or incorrect semantic HTML usage, but struggle to evaluate subjective elements such as whether the alt text is meaningful or if the site navigation is logically structured. While automated testing tools are important for basic compliance checks, they should be complemented with manual testing and user testing to ensure comprehensive accessibility.

The Limitations of Automated Tools

As mentioned, automated testing tools are very useful but they do have limitations. Real-life examples include the following: an ecommerce website may pass automated tests for accessibility standards, but human users could still have difficulty navigating the site due to poor color contrast or confusing layout, issues that automated tools might not catch.

Similarly, a news website may score well on automated SEO audits, but actual readers might find the headlines misleading or the content difficult to understand, indicating a gap that the automated tests couldn't discover. These examples underscore the necessity of human involvement in evaluating and interpreting test results. Human testers can understand context, interpret subjective elements, and provide insights based on actual experiences. While automated testing provides a solid foundation, it's the human element that ensures a comprehensive, user-friendly, and accessible digital experience.

The Importance of Manual Testing

Manual testing plays an irreplaceable role in web accessibility because it identifies complex issues that automated tools can overlook. For example, only a human tester can effectively evaluate if the website's content is logically ordered and easy to understand, or if interactive elements, such as forms and dropdown menus, are user-friendly and accessible to all users regardless of their abilities. Similarly, manual testing is important for assessing the meaningfulness of alt text for images or the clarity of instructions provided on the site. These aspects often require human judgment and an understanding of real-life user behavior that automated tests cannot copy.

The value of manual testing extends to interpreting accessibility guidelines, which may require nuanced understanding and context-specific application. Human experience and expertise play a significant role in maintaining the spirit of these guidelines, going beyond just following them strictly by the “letter of the law”.

Practical Insights from Manual Testing

Manual web accessibility testing offers practical insights and play a crucial role in enhancing the overall user experience (UX) on digital platforms. It provides a nuanced understanding of how different types of users interact with a website, helping uncover issues that may not be apparent through automated checks. For example, a case study by Codemantra demonstrated how manual testing helped improve the user experience by evaluating interactivity and offering feedback to ensure digital platforms catered to all the needs of users. This underscores the critical need for manual testing in various scenarios, showcasing its value in creating an inclusive user experience.

Implementing a Hybrid Approach to Accessibility Testing

A truly a comprehensive view of a website's accessibility can be gained by implementing a hybrid approach to web accessibility testing that combines the best of both worlds – automated and manual testing. Automated testing tools can quickly scan a site for common accessibility issues, such as missing alt text or incorrect use of headings, providing a baseline evaluation of the site's compliance with accessibility standards.

These tools, however, cannot fully understand the user experience or interpret subjective elements like the meaningfulness of alt text or logical content order. That's where manual testing comes in. Human testers can navigate the site as actual users would, identifying usability issues that might not be apparent through automated checks. They can interpret context, evaluate subjective elements, and provide insights based on actual experiences. By combining these two methods, a hybrid approach ensures a thorough, robust evaluation of a website's accessibility, enhancing the overall user experience and ensuring compliance with all aspects of accessibility.

Getting Started with Accessibility Testing

Getting started with web accessibility testing involves several key steps which should be integrated into your digital processes and strategies from the outset. First, it's important to understand the legal requirements regarding web accessibility in your region, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the U.S. or the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) internationally. Set realistic and legally compliant accessibility goals based on these standards.

Next, create a clear accessibility statement that outlines your commitment to making your digital platform accessible to all users, including the steps you're taking to achieve this. For those new to digital accessibility, start with basic testing methods like using automated testing tools to identify common issues and manual testing for a more nuanced understanding of user experience. Consider factors such as color contrast, keyboard navigation, text alternatives for non-text content, and whether your site is compatible with assistive technologies.

Remember, accessibility testing isn't a one-time process, but an ongoing commitment to inclusivity and user-friendliness, requiring regular reviews and updates as your site evolves.

Advancing Your Accessibility Testing Approach

Advancing your web accessibility testing approach involves progressing to more sophisticated testing techniques and tools. You can incorporate tools that simulate various disabilities, allowing you to see how your site functions for users with different needs. Assistive technologies play a crucial role in advanced testing methods. Screen readers, magnification software, speech recognition tools, and other assistive technologies should be used to test your site's compatibility and ensure a seamless user experience. However, the most valuable insights often come from actual users. Incorporating user feedback is essential to refine and improve accessibility features. Encourage users to provide feedback on their experiences and use that information to identify areas for improvement. Regularly updating your testing methods and strategies based on user feedback ensures your site remains accessible and user-friendly, offering an inclusive experience for all visitors.

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Accessibility is not just a legal issue, but also a crucial aspect of business. Optimizing websites for accessibility not only reduces legal risk, but also improves SEO. Consistently optimizing for accessibility also enhances user experiences, leading to improved customer retention and loyalty.

Make your website accessible to everyone with help from the web accessibility experts at We offer consulting, training, assessments, and remediation services to help brands advance web accessibility and inclusivity for their business. Our team specializes in manual and automated accessibility testing, providing tailored solutions to meet your specific needs. For even more insights on web accessibility, you can download our free eaglevision issue that details all you need to know about this important aspect of web design and development.

Don't let accessibility challenges hold back your site's potential. Contact today for expert guidance on creating a welcoming website for all users. 

About Author

Shawn Griffin
Shawn has been with since 1999 in a variety of roles. Currently, Shawn is part of our digital marketing and content team. In addition to editing and producing written company pieces, he produces copy for clients and he also helps to produce our radio and TV spots. He wants to make sure everybody knows that it’s truly a collaborative effort – between many, including the people he’s worked for during the past 20+ years!

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