Joe Clark, the Canadian web accessibility expert, has said that he believes we now live in a post-guideline era.
What might Joe mean by this?
To date, talk about making websites usable by disabled people has usually featured the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative Web Accessibility Guidelines as a key aspect. This is absolutely appropriate and remains the crucial foundation of every website.
However research, such as that undertaken by the Disability Rights Commission in 2004, has suggested that even those organisations that believe they have applied accessibility guidelines when designing their sites are not always producing websites that disabled people can use with sufficient degrees of success.
This would seem to point to a gap in understanding between web developers and the guidelines. It may be that developers fully understand the technical aspects of the guidelines but are failing to address disabled people’s user experiences. An accessible website that is unusable is of little help to disabled people, so in order to create web experiences that are meaningful for disabled people perhaps it’s time we began to think beyond technical guidelines and put stronger focus on usability for disabled people.
It is crucial to understand that thinking around web usability for disabled people is maturing year by year. Technology improves and our understanding of how disabled people use the web improves.
In the past, accessibility advocates have promoted the ‘design for all’ and ‘one size fits all’ approaches to web design, where a single version of the site is designed to be accessible to everyone, regardless of ability or disability. However, personalisation is now a very common web design practice where everyone who visits a site (be they disabled or not) is served a version of the content and design that is optimised according to their individual needs and preferences.
In the ‘real’ world we are naturally opposed to alternative entrances to buildings or different levels of service provision for disabled people, as ‘alternative’ and ‘different’ in this context often means ‘segregated’ and ‘poorer quality’. However, online personalisation really means ‘better quality’ with web experiences optimised to better suit every individual.
This does not mean text-only versions of sites for disabled people. But it can mean optimised content that is easier and quicker to navigate if you are using a screenreader (for example).
I cite as an example Tesco.com. Tesco has – after extensive user testing with screenreader users – created an optimised version of its e-grocery service to give screenreader users a better quality, faster shopping experience with access to its full product range. Some screenreader users feel this is unacceptable, believing one version of the site should cater for everyone’s needs, while others are happier to use a site that is optimised for screenreader use.
A few years ago I would have agreed that creating an ‘alternative’ version of a website is not acceptable. But today, with everyone receiving an online experience that is virtually tailored for them individually, the optimised approach seems to offer greater benefits. The UK’s Disability Discrimination Act requires equality of service provision. Does this mean blind people should use the same version of a website even if it greatly slows them down, or is an optimised version that allows a faster, better quality user experience preferable, so long as the standard of service is equal to that received by people who are not disabled? If you think in terms of excellent user experiences for disabled people, optimisation and personalisation would seem to have more to offer.
We need to keep our eyes on web trends and recognise trends that actually help to improve disabled people’s experience of the web. Arguably, personalisation is a trend that actually helps as its focus is on sites’ best possible performance for every user and is a great deal more effective that the ‘one site for all’ approach.
Guidance is changing. Watch out for version 2.0 of WCAG, which should be published in 2009, and the new British Standard for web accessibility (BS8878) that should appear next April. There is a shift of emphasis towards including user testing by disabled people that encourages web developers to be mindful of disabled people’s online experiences.
The new approach will also appeal to businesses and this is also very good news for disabled web users. The aim of any website is to convert its visitors into customers. Businesses are now investing a good deal more time and money into optimising ‘user journeys’ to ensure that the people using their sites find the route to making a purchase (or finding the information they are looking for) as quick, easy and enjoyable as possible.
I think of this as a pyramid. Web accessibility is the foundation. Usability by disabled people is the next layer. And both of these underpin the ultimate goal: excellent user experiences by disabled people (and everyone).
If we really want equality on the web, it strikes me that we must adopt the language that businesses are using when they talk about creating websites that maximise profit. Right now, businesses are really interested in how the web can quickly deliver return on investment through increased sales. They are looking to web usability techniques to achieve the creation of excellent user experiences for everyone because they know this leads to increased sales. We need to make sure that businesses understand that disabled people have a right to excellent user experiences too and to view disabled people as simply another target audience. If we can do this, our goal of online inclusion and equality really could become reality.
NOTE: Julie Howell delivered the keynote speech at this year’s E- Access ’08 conference, hosted by E-Access Bulletin (www.headstar-events.com/eaccess08). Julie is Director of Accessibility at Fortune Cookie and chairs the British Standards Institution’s committee on web accessibility (see also News in brief, this issue).