Understanding Manual and Automatic Accessibility Testing

Published November 13, 2023

To accommodate the 26% of US adults with some form of disability, companies need to ensure the digital accessibility of their websites and online platforms. 

According to Georgetown Law, digital accessibility is “the inclusive practice of removing barriers that prevent interaction with, or access to websites, digital tools, and technologies, by people with disabilities.”

In other words, digital accessibility ensures that individuals of all ability types can easily use digital platforms and interact with web-based content.

Designers and site owners have several resources at their disposal for how to adhere to accessibility laws. The most well-known is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). WCAG provides step-by-step criteria to help measure the accessibility of digital products and content.

Having gone about following the steps in the guidelines, companies then need to put their accessibility to the test. This is done through a process called, you guessed it, accessibility testing. Much like accessibility itself, accessibility testing continues to evolve in response to the development of technology and digital information. 

In this piece, we will provide an overview of the different types of accessibility testing and give our take on the most effective method.

To start, let’s review the basics…

What is accessibility testing?

Accessibility testing is the process of evaluating how something adheres to accessibility standards. Within digital accessibility, tests are conducted on products, apps, app features, platforms, and even websites.

There are two common types of accessibility testing. One of them is automated testing. This refers to the process of using specialized software to run an accessibility test on a digital product or platform. Automated testing is often cost-effective and relatively inexpensive. 

The other kind of testing is manual testing. This involves having a team of subject matter experts use a product or platform. These experts can then give an accessibility assessment based on their firsthand experience.

Now, let’s dive a little deeper into each kind of accessibility testing.

Benefits of automated testing

Automated testing is generally considered to be an efficient means of evaluating a website’s accessibility. For one thing, it’s usually quicker than manual testing.

According to a blog post on Linkedin, “Automated testing can identify issues faster than the amount of time it takes a human manual tester to file a single bug.” 

Automated testing also has the potential to be more cost-effective. Companies can use testing software like axe,Wave, and Lighthouse for free with options for paid service tiers. Other services charge fees on a monthly or annual basis. Accessible, for instance, has a standard plan of $490 per year. 

Furthermore, automated testing can be useful in a product's design and development stages. According to the software company, Perforce, automated testing makes it easier to “identify accessibility defects when they’re less expensive to fix. Once an accessibility defect is in production, the cost to fix it can be 100x higher than when it’s addressed in the design.”

How to use automated testing

Both kinds of accessibility testing rely on an organization-wide understanding of the importance of accessibility and any relevant project goals.

To reiterate the blog post by Peforce, companies should use automated testing software right from the beginning of any project or initiative. 

By running checks from the start, designers and project managers can decrease the chance of accessibility deficiencies being present in a product after its deployment. This is because automated testing software evaluates webpages based on the success criteria outlined by WCAG.

A vast array of automated testing options are at a company’s disposal. To better understand the automated testing tools on the market, check out this list compiled by The QA Lead.

Limits of Automated Testing

Despite their efficiency, automated tests still need their shortcomings. 

With automated testing, it’s important to remember that passing a test doesn’t always mean that a site is usable. According to Level Access, “Automated scans can flag approximately 30% of WCAG success criteria.” This is partly because automated tests lack the kind of user perspective that a real person can offer. A real person will have a nuanced experience of interacting with a site that software won’t be able to reflect in its evaluation. 

For example, according to Level Access and The University of Minnesota Duluth, only manual testing can accurately evaluate whether a site is compatible with keyboard-only navigation. This is important as some users with disabilities use keyboard interfaces to interact with websites.

Benefits of Manual Testing

In contrast to automated testing, manual testing uses real people to test a site’s accessibility. This allows designers and project managers to get firsthand feedback on the accessibility of a product or platform.

With manual testing, designers can hear from a wide array of perspectives courtesy of subject matter experts. Subject matter experts are individuals from a variety of fields who have in-depth professional and/or personal experience with accessibility issues.

Subject matter experts can be accessibility consultants, specialized web developers, or UX designers with accessibility expertise. Subject matter experts can also be individuals with disabilities.

Having the perspective of users with disabilities can be incredibly useful for ensuring website accessibility. They can help designers and developers put a face to the standards and understand why they ought to pursue accessibility.  They can also personally verify whether compliance with accessibility guidelines is enough to ensure usability. 

How to find manual testers

There are a few ways to recruit manual testers. Enlisting the help of accessibility consultants requires some quick internet research on firms in a company’s price point. Clutch.co has a list of the best consulting firms to use in 2023.

To find testers with disabilities, services such as Accessworks and WeCo recruit and train testers with disabilities for such purposes.

Limits of manual testing

As mentioned, manual testing is much more time-consuming than its automated counterpart. It takes time to enlist the help of manual testers, and the testing process itself can take a while.

The use of testing with the help of people with disabilities can also have its limitations. The most important of these is that any subsequent evaluation can only reflect the experience of that (or those) tester(s). While it is invaluable to have in the design process, one should always consider the experience of some to be indicative of the whole.

Which one to go with?

At Accessibility.com, we believe that any choice made on the path to accessibility is right. Weighing the costs and benefits of either kind of testing depends on the nature and situation of your business. 

For our part, we’d recommend that, if possible, a company try to engage in both types of testing. For instance, a company may use free automated testing software in a project's design and development stages. Before officially deploying the project, the company might then use manual testing with the help of a designer, consultant team, or (ideally) testers with disabilities.

While it may become another thing to consider in your budget, the benefits of investing in accessibility testing far outweigh the costs.


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