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Improving website accessibility generates better search results and usability too

Finding the balance between making a website accessible and integrating the latest web 2.0 technologies isn’t one that is mutually exclusive. The deployment of accessibility standards and technologies can bring new benefits and opportunities for business advantage. In general terms accessibility can benefit a broader audience and improve website performance for users. Improved access and usability in turn broadens your website appeal and actively improves your users’ experience online.

Agencies and designers are well versed in how to make a website accessible and through their own best practice invariably include accessibility into every website build. Creating accessible websites regardless of users’ ability or disability means that websites should provide differential levels of access to key content, goods or services.

Jan Kjellberg, Web Strategy Consultant at NetRelations says: Accessible websites improve readability and are easier to navigate; improved accessibility also increases the chance of them working across different platforms. Keeping pages to sensible length or changing the length of time a user has to book tickets online from two to twenty minutes are just a couple of examples of how to not only improve accessibility but usability too.

"Many companies are interested in the technical search engine compliance you gain through the use of web standards and building an accessible site and in many cases it will give them a higher ranking on Google and therefore many more potential visitors through more first page organic search results."

Mark Deal, Head of Interactive engineering at LBi adds, The neat thing about following the standards is that you’re not second-guessing how people might access a site. Standards-compliant code will deliver content to all devices and all browsing technologies. It’s a real enabler, and that’s a massive boon for usability.

Official guidelines

Over the past 10 years the worldwide web consortium (W3C) has issued guidelines, which describe best practices for making websites accessible, through their Web Accessibility Initiative (W3C/WAI), about how content should structured with thought to how users might actually use it, such as:

  • Zoomed to 200 percent
  • Seen in a tunnel
  • Seen without color
  • Enhanced to include alternative text for objects which are not made from text
  • Tested to ensure it can be used via a keyboard or a mouse
  • Planned to ensure interaction with it by the user will not leave a user feeling abandoned.

The concept which W3C/WAI has invested in is based on three interlocking elements — Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines; Web Content Accessibility Guidelines; and User Agent Accessibility Guidelines where an author can create content which they know can be viewed by any user on any device. They are a filtered collection of concepts which are known to help people with disabilities and inevitably enhance the usability of the site for everyone.  It is important to remember though, that following the three sets of guidelines doesn’t automatically make a site usable — the guidelines are a means to ensuring content is accessible, not necessarily usable. To ensure usability for all users, user-testing that includes disabled groups is important.

Legislative action is driving greater accessibility

Governments across the world have been making efforts to formulate new procurement standards based on these new guidelines as well as looking at Section 508 Refresh in the US, and Mandate 376 in Europe in particular. In fact many countries across the world have passed laws and directives about making websites accessible; in Europe a new directive from the EU on eInclusion (encompassing activities related to the achievement of an inclusive information society) for 2010 proposes conditions for every citizen to take part in the information society by bridging the broadband, accessibility and tackling competencies gap. Already for many public sector and not-for-profit websites, it is often a mandated requirement that their websites are accessible.

For rich online content W3C has issued the WAI-ARIA standard (the Accessible Rich Internet Applications Suite), which especially helps with dynamic content and advanced user interface controls developed with Ajax, HTML, JavaScript, and related technologies. Deal says, I think WAI-ARIA is really exciting – it’s a positive, enabling standard.

Will web 2.0 functionalities be compliant?

With users’ high expectations for feature rich and interactive websites, many web 2.0 technologies have emerged which have to be taken into consideration when making sites accessible. It’s all in the approach that a company takes to become compliant. Deal says, I don’t think accessibility and cutting edge technologies are incompatible at all. Key to our approach is the idea of progressive enhancement: you start with a simple site core, and then unobtrusively lay additional visual and interactive layers on top. It’s entirely down to the user if they use those additional layers; if they don’t, then the functional application is still there at the core.

Jan Kjellberg agrees: Accessibility isn’t a matter of all or nothing. It is certainly possible to improve the accessibility of almost any website even though it may not be 100 percent perfect.

Ted Howe, head of user interface at Fortune Cookie adds, The new version of the WCAG (released in December 2008) aims to be much more inclusive of Web 2.0 based sites. They have been written for the web as it is now, and when used in conjunction with other emerging recommendations from the W3C like WAI-ARIA, committed developers will see no reason why a Web 2.0 site can’t be made accessible.

How does EPiServer fit in?

It’s very possible to build a fully compliant site using EPiServer WCM. For example, if the templates handling HTML, CSS and Javascript are created in a failsafe way where if a visiting browser does not support unsupported techniques then no content will be blocked for any user.

Code from the editor used in EPiServer that is non usable can be filtered out to create a fully compliant site however editors have to be aware of their own responsibility in the process in keeping the content accessible.

Indeed, training and educating editors is a factor that shouldn’t be ignored or underestimated in its value. If web editors know how to create accessible content, then all the good work that was initially done on the technical side to create an accessible website will be maintained.

Ted Howe stresses how important this is: We get the developers responsible for building the accessible front end of the site to train the content editors to ensure the content is kept accessible after handover. We highlight a lot of common issues that can crop up, and show workarounds for common problems.

Accessibility recognized

The widespread acceptance that accessibility is a necessary factor to consider when building a website brings true benefits to everyone and makes the web more accessible to us all.

Mark Deal vigorously promotes accessibility to his clients: We strongly advise all our clients to meet their obligations to all web users. Where clients have made specific accessibility compliance requests, we will put in place accessibility checklists at development and quality assurance stages that map to the client’s acceptance criteria. We’ll often put user testing in place to ensure that we have feedback from users of a range of browsing technologies.

He concludes: Accessibility should been seen as providing an environment in which everyone can use the latest applications, irrespective of how they access the Internet.

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