EU accessibility regulations and adaptive web design

For more information about adaptive web design please refer to:

Disability affects 1 out of 6 Europeans. EC mandatory accessibility rules for public and government sector websites are expected to be applied in the EU by June 2014.  What will be the impact of emerging technology such as  “Adaptive web design” in shaping Europeans standards?

Article by Nathalie Raux-Copin, Senior UX

some facts about accessibility in Europe

My brother being suddenly affected by a disability made me realize even more how much we all live in an inaccessible environment. And when it comes to user interfaces, it surprises me to note how far we are from being inclusive.

The reality is that less than 10% of all websites in the EU are fully accessible according to Monitoring e-Accessibility in Europe. To counter this disaster, the European Commission is working on a new set of mandatory accessibility rules for public sector and government websites – the European Commission Mandate 376 which could be available in 2014. The rules are based on the Success Criteria and Conformance Requirements Level AA in version 2.0 of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The proposition will go to the EU’s Council of Ministers and the European Parliament for adoption and it is expected that European Union member states put national rules and regulations in application by June 30, 2014.

Let’s hope these new regulations will translate in a better web within the Eurozone but will this help shifting our mindsets in regards to the accessibility matter?

I observed that we, user experience specialists, designers, developers and other web professionals often make the mistake to approach accessibility too simplistically by considering two categories of users either fully disabled or not at all and we tend to either dumb interfaces down to make them accessible to the ‘disabled’ or ignore all standards depending on the kind of project we’re working on (e.g. government websites versus FMCG websites).

Instead of this binary approach, shouldn’t we adopt a holistic design approach by accepting and supporting the various levels of cognitive skills or expertise? Disabled or not, users shouldn’t be expected to spend time making an interface usable to them by playing with the settings or by using assistive technologies. Web user interfaces should be ‘adaptable’ just as some games are designed and change how each user needs it without compromising neither the needs of ‘advanced users’ (e.g. more controls and features) nor the needs of users with some kind of disability.


Fortunately such approach has already been adopted: it is called ‘adaptive web design’, as coined by Aaron Gustafson, and it's rapidly gaining popularity in our industry.

Adaptive web design is about “creating interfaces that adapt to the user’s capabilities (in terms of both form and function) and takes into account varying levels of markup, CSS, JavaScript and assistive technology support” (A. Gustafson). It goes beyond responsive web design and is based around five principles:

  • Ubiquity – the power of the web lies in its capacity of being everywhere
  • Flexibility – what we create should be device-agnostic
  • Performance – let’s not forget users expect a fast loading experience, performance is design
  • Enhancement – progressive enhancement is helping laying down a solid foundation
  • Future friendly – acknowledge and embrace the unpredictable because 'the more compatible a website is with today’s landscape, the better chance it has to work in tomorrow’s landscape' as said by Josh Clark

So let's focus more on being inclusive and innovative at the same time by overcoming design challenges holistically through web accessibility standards, responsive web design and adaptive web principles for a more accessible web in the Eurozone.

For more information about adaptive web design please refer to:


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About the author

Nathalie Raux-Copin
Nathalie Raux-Copin

User Experience Specialist / Designer at Blue-Infinity, Geneva