May 5th, 1999, marked an important milestone in Internet history. This was the day when the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) [w3.org] presented the first official Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) [w3.org] recommendation. Although this new Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) [w3.org] did not spread like a wildfire, it kindled a flame which has only grown stronger since. Today, 2006, Accessibility and Usability is on everyone's lips. Certainly, February 16th, 2006, marked another important milestone by the founding of this Accessibility and Usability forum! The topic has been discussed many times [google.com] here on WebmasterWorld. Accordingly, today marked the day when an entire forum is dedicated to such an important topic as accessibility and usability. Although accessibility and usability can be seen as two very different things, they successfully go hand in hand. The two approach the issue of making a website as successful as possible, but from two different points of view.
A brief history.
May 5th, 1999, marked an important milestone in Internet history. This was the day when the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) [w3.org] presented the first official Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) [w3.org] recommendation. Although this new Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) [w3.org] did not spread like a wildfire, it kindled a flame which has only grown stronger since. Today, 2006, Accessibility and Usability is on everyone's lips.
Certainly, February 16th, 2006, marked another important milestone by the founding of this Accessibility and Usability forum! The topic has been discussed many times [google.com] here on WebmasterWorld. Accordingly, today marked the day when an entire forum is dedicated to such an important topic as accessibility and usability.
Although accessibility and usability can be seen as two very different things, they successfully go hand in hand. The two approach the issue of making a website as successful as possible, but from two different points of view.
The tides are turning.
For years, accessibility and usability have been considered optional improvements. Not anymore. Many countries across the globe are passing laws necessitating a global change in how we view accessibility and usability. Companies and websites have faced legal penalties for not making their sites accessible. The legal requirements in certain countries, or for certain types of websites, obligate many of us to not only be aware of accessibility and usability guidelines, but to actively pursue and conform to them.
We can no longer afford not to at least educate ourselves about what accessibility and usability means.
Before you read any further...
Allow me to get one common misunderstanding out of the way right off the bat: accessibility and usability applies to all websites. You cannot say that a certain type of site is excluded from being concerned about these matters.
Also, accessibility and usability is more about determination and conscious effort than it is about money. It does not have to cost a lot of money. By properly educating yourself on what accessibility and usability entails you can easily build a truly accessible and usable site without spending much (if any) more time and money!
I have witnessed examples, first hand, where both time and money has been saved by being concerned about accessibility and usability matters. I have witnessed how it has simplified addition of new content, simplified redesign, and generated more sales.
If it seems overwhelming at first, there are a few very simple changes you can make to your site which will make the difference between being 100% accessible and being the target of a lawsuit [webmasterworld.com] (pun intended).
Accessibility deals with ensuring that everyone can access your website, regardless of browser used or whether living with certain impairments or disabilities. To cite the W3C: "Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web, and that they can contribute to the Web, ... [whether suffering from] visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, [or] neurological disabilities. ... Web accessibility also benefits people without disabilities. ... A key principle of Web accessibility is designing Web sites and software that are flexible to meet different user needs, preferences, and situations ... such as people using a slow Internet connection, people with 'temporary disabilities' such as a broken arm, and people with changing abilities due to aging."
Needless to say, accessibility is much more than caring for people with disabilities. It is about lowering the barriers for everyone accessing the Internet, about caring for people's needs and preferences, along with writing the best possible content.
When making a site accessible to users with visual impairments we are dealing with a wide spectrum of visual impairments: blindness, vision affected by age, color blindness, blurred vision, etc. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) help you to identify what visual impairments and disabilities are, and how they affect the content on your website. You will become aware of how different colors and combinations thereof can be used to provide greatest possible contrast and visibility.
Are you using images to convey information? Is the same information available to those who surf with images turned off? Do you provide descriptive information about your images to assist users (and search engines) to find what they are looking for?
Learn the difference between the various HTML elements and how each affects accessibility for visually impaired visitors. Learn how to make your content stand out and be readable by everyone. You may have the best content on your website and the niftiest products to sell, but if a legally blind person cannot access your site, or if someone with color blindness cannot find the "Buy Now" button on your site -- it doesn't matter -- they will go elsewhere.
Are you using sound to convey information? Ensure that the same information is available in a textual format. Not only will this allow access to your quality content for those who suffer from auditory impairments; it will also allow those with broken (or turned off) speakers another means of accessing the information.
Another benefit from providing audio/visual content in a textual format is that it can now be spidered and indexed by search engines. It can be printed by your visitors.
Physical impairment can make it difficult for a visitor to access and navigate your site. Arthritis, a broken arm, decreased mobility; all affect a visitor's capability of clicking the right link, selecting the desired check box. Try surfing your site using your off hand (or nothing but a keyboard) and you will quickly discover what I'm talking about.
Is your content written with your target audience in mind? Do not use words like vehement when words like forceful or full of energy will convey the same meaning. If technical terms must be used, ensure that glossaries or explanations are readily available.
Visitors don't like reading a lot of text. They skim. Don't turn your content into an academic and cognitive stumbling block. Short sentences. Simple explanations. Avoid slang.
While accessibility is typically directly associated with disabilities there is so much more to consider. Accessibility means not turning anyone away, regardless of browser, internet connection speed, education, disabilities, personal preferences. So what if your visitor prefers large text and you think it will look ugly. It is their choice! So what if your buyer is using a pointer wand to make a purchase? Are you going to turn them and their money down based on a disability?
Accessibility is about empowering your visitors!
As you can see, the step over to usability is quite natural. Usability takes over where accessibility ends. If accessibility is about enabling access to your site for everyone, usability is ensuring that everyone can navigate the site in an intuitive way. Usability is about making your quality content easy to find, about ease and flexibility of navigation, about simplicity and logic.
Whether consciously or not, we have all learned valuable lessons from from years of study and research by usability guru Jakob Nielsen [useit.com]: 1) web users want to find what they're after quickly, and 2) if they don't know what they're after, they nevertheless want to browse quickly and access information they come across in a logical manner.
Usability is the answer to how you can please your users and live up to the demands of an everchanging web. Internet is no longer just about having the information people are looking for. It's about providing the easiest way of finding that information.
The same methods used to making your website accessible can typically be directly employed in making your site usable. Try navigating your site using your off hand again. Navigate your website using nothing but a keyboard. Give someone (not tech savvy) who is unfamiliar with your website the task of finding something in particular. Watch their behavior. Listen to their feedback on what worked and what did not. Then do that a thousand times more! ...or, go read some of Jakob Nielsen's articles.
If you have excellent content and quality products to sell, but not an easy way for your visitors to navigate your site or find what they are looking for, do not think they will go through the trouble of figuring out "how your site works".
I have witnessed countless examples of companies losing significant numbers of sales due to lacking usability. Sometimes even the smallest changes have made a great impact.
Simplify and enhance their experience!
Accessibility and Usability are two topics not to be ignored or taken lightly. Legislation and the steady increase in public demand for a better web is, luckily, going to impact how we view marketing, site design, and ecommerce -- forever.
Let's share each other's experiences in the quest for an accessible and usable web. Let's learn and grow together. In the end, it will benefit both us and our visitors.