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Introduction to Accessibility and Usability

Accessibility

Buildings and legal requirements

Many buildings have ramps next to steps, wheelchair lifts or elevators near flights of stairs, and electronic doors. Many receptions areas, theatres and cinemas have hearing aid induction loops, so that deaf people can hear more easily.

It is true that the recent upgrading of buildings to include these features has in many cases come about because of legal requirements, such as those of the Disability Discrimination Act. Hopefully some organisations also converted their buildings for ethical reasons, to ensure that nobody visiting is at a disadvantage compared with the able-bodied.

In simple business terms, it makes sense to ensure that no potential customer is left outside a building or encounters difficulties on entering. The same is true with web sites.

Web site failures

Too many people are blasé about web site design because:

  1. it is a popular course at schools, colleges and universities;
  2. it is fun and quite easy to publish your own material on the web;
  3. everyday software saves standard documents as web pages.

Unfortunately:

  1. web design is often poorly taught, and seldom includes worthwhile tuition on accessible design;
  2. the openness of the web means anyone can publish, rather like taking your own magazines into W.H. Smith and putting them onto a shelf yourself;
  3. very little web software saves files in an appropriate format, and those that do still require an expert user to ensure accessibility.

Without wishing to sound snobbish or to decry the wonderful openness of the Internet, that facility to put your own magazine on the shelf has resulted in a lack of professionalism in the world of web design. Sadly there are also many people who feel that catering for disabled people is an unnecessary distraction or a hindrance to their artistic integrity. Some web design companies, now realizing that accessibility is a marketing necessity, claim that their work is accessible even when it is not.

Issues are not clear for a company wishing to ensure that its own site is accessible. For many years, publications and initiatives on web accessibility have been clearly aimed at the web designer. Now there is help available to help web site buyers.

Usability

What is "usability"? It sounds obvious.

This is really all about designing a web site in a way that makes sense to the user. Research indicates that people are very fickle when visiting a web site, and will often allow a new web site less than 10 seconds to make an impression on them. So bad news to arty designers of web multimedia that fills screens with animation and speakers with music: the answer is not to slap an fast-moving multimedia on the opening page that takes over 30 seconds to load.

Easy to use

While appearance is clearly important to the success of a web site, so are content and structure. Your organisation's management structure may seem hugely logical and the perfect starting point for your web site, but does that make sense to a novice user?

I worked at a college that for many years would place a new area of work into the department of whoever was currently in favour. Odd combinations were produced, such as hairdressing and brickwork, or food and languages. People working in the organisation get used to these combinations and learn to associate them with the people now working together. To those outside the organisation, the links are illogical and therefore should not be reflected in a web site or text-based material where possible.

A few usability questions and hints

These questions can be tried by both web designers and their customers.

  1. What products, service and/or information do you want to tell people about?
  2. How can we split up this information? Think of chapters if it helps.
  3. Do we have lists of information people may wish to search?
  4. Who is the site aimed at? Customers? Agents?
  5. How do we entice a new user to be a returning user?

Why bother?

  1. More people can use your web site without hindrance.
  2. You will attract more customers.
  3. Your web site will work on mobile technology: phones and PDA's.
  4. You can feel proud making the effort.
  5. It is actually the law, though hopefully the other reasons will attract you more than this final point.

Where can I get advice?

The British Standards Institute has produced a document aimed to assist purchasers of web sites. There are also organisations of accessible web designers whose members have been vetted to ensure they can deliver what they profess.

Sources of help for accessible web sites | Accessibility index | Main index