In defense of the color-blind user

I write this post in defense of the color-blind users of the world. First, click let me give you some background.

I worked previously for a company that produced language learning software. A writer was added to my team, recipe and after a couple of weeks of using the software, approved he complained that while doing a specific activity, he couldn’t tell that he had matched the items incorrectly. He asked me how he was to know that it was wrong. I explained that the big red “X” next to the item showed him that it was wrong. He indicated that he couldn’t see a red “X”, but that it was probably because he is colorblind.

Since then I’ve been much more aware of color-blind issues as I work with computer software and as I design documentation. Thus, when a question arose recently on the Techwr-L list regarding document design and color, I decided to chime in with my own response.

In case you didn’t read the threads, here is a summary. The original poster was talking about document design in Framemaker, and wondered if there are people that use blue text to indicate a link in their Frame documents. A couple of people responded to the thread and said that they do use blue text to indicate links. I thought it prudent to point out that for good document design you shouldn’t just use color to indicate that a span of text is a link. Problems include that users who are colorblind may not be able to differentiate the link, and users who print the documentation on a black and white printer won’t be able to tell that the text was a link.

My response was challenged by one of the users on the list who wanted to know why I care how a link is shown in a printed doc. After all, he asked, “Is there a way of clicking a link from a printed page?”

Besides thinking that the question was stupid, I was annoyed that my attempt to point out a principle of good design had been brushed off as if I were to dumb to contribute to the conversation. I decided to explain my comments further, which I did.

Here was my response:

Well, obviously they aren’t going to click a link from a printed page. Give me a little bit of credit here. As you can see from my answer, I was giving a general warning about using color; I wasn’t giving a specific response to obair81’s original question.

And in my own defense, the advice I gave is good general advice from a design perspective.

When you use only color to indicate that something is different about a particular string of text, then you run the risk of alienating part of your user audience. My first example dealt in general with the area of accessibility. Of particular concern are colorblind users who may have difficulty differentiating the color from the rest of the body of text. My second example dealt with the inherent inconsistencies in the way end users access our documentation. Some use it online and can follow links while others print the documentation to use as a reference.

If the user of the printed document can’t differentiate the subtle color shift to indicate that there is a link in the on-line version of the document, then your user will not benefit from the knowledge that additional information is readily available via a link in the electronic copy.

So in reference to your question, John, no I don’t expect a user to click on a link from a printed page. But I do think that I have a responsibility as a designer and writer to provide documentation via a method that doesn’t inherently alienate users who either have accessibility issues, or choose not to read the documentation on the screen.

In general, this is good advice. You’ll have to adapt it for your users based on what you know about them. If you know that you have non-colorblind users who will never print the documentation for any reason, then by all means, use color alone for your links. If you can’t guarantee this scenario, then you should at least be aware that your choices are limiting your documents usefulness to potential users.

I stand by my comments. When you are designing documentation, you should never use color as the sole indicator of some additional information without first considering the risks involved in alienating some portions of your audience.

After all, somebody has to stand up for our color blind friends out there!

(You’re welcome, Dave.)

2 responses to “In defense of the color-blind user”

  1. As the person mentioned in Paul’s example with the red “X,” I have to say a profound “Well done!”

    Most people have no idea how complex and frustrating the world can be when color is not taken into consideration. So many design decisions are based without consideration of color. For example (and this is my personal pet-peeve), I cannot tell the difference between the red and green squiglies in Word to save my life. There are the EXACT same color to me. And that’s just the beginning.

    So, thanks for the defense, Paul.

    Oh, one more thing to consider, estimates put the population of color-blind users at between 8 and 20% of the male population. I go with the generally standard 12%. That means that more than 1 out of every 10 male users will have problems with the colors of your designs. Is that really a population you want to alienate? Yeah, didn’t think so.

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