The Practicalities of Accessible, Commercial Web Design

    September 28, 2006

I have read with interest recent articles containing hints and tips for cutting corners when it comes to making your site accessible to all.

However, many of these suggestions do not accommodate the practicalities of commercial web design; where cut corners often result in limited accessibility. With this in mind I have attempted to unravel some of these hints/tips/advice/fallacies below.

I think that it’s pretty well-established now that any agency promising complete site DDA compliance’ is to be avoided. PAS 78, the guide to good practice in commissioning accessible websites, points out that legal compliance with DDA is a nonsense, citing a lack of case law as the reason. PAS 78 is now freely available and I would urge all site commissioners and web developers to read it.

Building a website that follows guidelines and standards is simple, providing of course that the site is simple. In situations where technology and content do not permit such simplicity, for example, a corporate website running a multi-million pound Content Management System (CMS), significant expertise is required to bring it into line with acceptable levels of accessibility. There are few companies in the world that attempt this kind of technical achievement and even fewer who have actually accomplished it. This is a reality check: most corporate websites are deeply entrenched in such technologies which cannot be discarded or set aside on a whim.

I read a recent recommendation that suggested getting a visually impaired person to come in to test drive the site’. This concerns me greatly. Accessible design is a far wider issue than catering for a single disability. As a visually impaired person myself, I am well aware of the difficulties we face, but unquestionably the needs of hearing, cognitive and physically impaired people should not be dismissed as a consequence.

What further concerns me is the ease with which amateur user-testing can be invalidated. Without taking into account factors of experience, technical ability and environment, the results of amateur user testing are notoriously inaccurate and misguiding. Especially at a time when many testing facilities still believe that a two way mirror is an acceptable method of hiding viewers from testing participants. Amateur testing is simply foolhardy and a waste of time and money.

Finally, I come onto the use of automated tools as a means of checking how accessible your site is. Some are free to use. Excellent; isn’t it? Well let’s think about this: of the 65 checkpoints within Web Content Accessibility Guide 1.0 (WCAG 1.0), only 5 can actually be checked fully using an automated tool such as WebXact, for example, and only 8 more can be partially checked. That means that barely 8% of WCAG 1.0 checkpoints can be tested by an automated tool with complete accuracy.

As an indicator of underlying problems automated testing can be a useful tool. But only as part of a range of applications and methodologies that contribute towards accessible web design. They should not however be relied upon as part of a testing strategy and I would hesitate to recommend that anyone who does not understand how the guidelines work relies on it at all.

Good designers should, and hopefully do, build accessibility in as standard at no extra cost. However maintaining accessibility levels post development cannot be sustained without investment. Accessibility can be upheld by either training an in-house team or bringing in outside expertise for ongoing quality assurance, although both require financial investment, either directly or indirectly. Achieving accessibility is one thing, keeping it is quite another.

If you are serious about making your website accessible to all; you need to get an accredited designer or agency on board. There are many out there, so do shop around. Once you have a designer or agency in your sights see if you can speak to some of its existing clients. This will enable you to gain a first hand appreciation of how they do business. Independent affirmation of web accessibility can be difficult to come by, particularly if accessible design is not your field of expertise.

In short, DDA compliance is nonsense, watch for agencies that claim they can deliver it. Accessibility should be built in as standard, but thought needs to be given to sustaining it. User testing is extremely useful, but only if it’s conducted properly and the results interpreted accurately. Automated tools are unreliable and largely unhelpful, so be sure that you understand the results you’re looking at, and read PAS 78 to get an understanding of accessible web design.


Add to | Digg | Yahoo! My Web | Furl

Bookmark WebProNews:

Lonie is the head of accessibility at Nomensa.

Established in 2001, Nomensa is the digital agency specialising in perfecting online user experience. It combines usability, accessibility and strong web development skills to help public and private sector clients develop online strategies, be more inclusive and accountable.

Nomensa has a research based methodology that put people at the centre of its activities. Everything it does focuses on understanding the experience people have when using technology.