The Observatory

Five tips for an accessible website

The background

Rapt to be working again with Vision 2020 Australia for the design of their new brand website, we did pause for a second when we learnt that the new website would conform to the accessibility criteria of WCAG 2.0, rather than WCAG 1.0.

WCAG (the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) cover a wide range of recommendations for making web content more accessible to people with disabilities such as blindness, hearing loss and cognitive limitations. Compared with WCAG 1.0, the scope has been broadened to incorporate newer and more advanced web technologies, the criteria can be tested more precisely, and from our perspective conformance has become more difficult – there’s nowhere to hide with WCAG 2.0!

The question of web accessibility has leapt onto the agenda with the Australian government endorsing WCAG 2.0, and requiring all federal (and most state) websites to be AA compliant by the end of 2014.

We consider the Vision 2020 Australia website to be a roaring success, it attains WCAG 2.0 AA accessibility, with AAA criteria met where they relate to vision impairment.

Based on our experience we’ve put together our top 5 tips to consider when embarking on an accessible web project.

Tip 1: Define your goals – just how accessible is “accessible”?

Bring it up in the first meeting that you have about your project. All parties need to agree on a common definition of accessibility, and it should be included in project documentation from the get-go.

A critical decision is the level of accessibility that you’re aiming for – which of the criteria are mandatory to your web project, and which are ‘nice-to-haves’?

Tip 2: Be open to collaboration

On the Vision 2020 Australia website development we were lucky enough to partner with Lisa and the team from Scenario Seven – web accessibility and usability consultants.

Ongoing communication between all three parties was the key to achieving our accessibility goals. Constant contact allowed for effective feedback loops at each stage of design, development, content integration and testing.

We regarded the guys at Scenario Seven not as ‘accessibility police’, but rather as a safety net to catch us if we strayed from the requirements, and potentially identify areas for improvement. Some of the more ambiguous requirements of WCAG 2.0 may prove challenging to interpret, and the final solution can be an unexpected one – so it’s essential to keep an open mind!

Tip 3: Design is not a second-class citizen

In the past we’ve seen a tug of war between great design and conformance to accessibility principles, and where requirements are hard and fast the design starts to suffer.

We relished the challenge to achieve the best possible looking site that we could while remaining compliant with the WCAG 2.0 AA standards, and we were committed to serving up the best possible experience for all users visiting the site.

We were rigorous about checking creative and content against accessibility requirements at every step of the way. Using new techniques such as web fonts meant fewer restrictions in typography and design. We built in features to facilitate control for vision impaired users including access keys, text sizing, colour contrast, and a text-only version of the entire site optimised for screen readers. These tools are housed elegantly in a fly-out, and available from every page of the site.

Tip 4: Test, test and test again!

Beyond the standard QA that we undertake as part of the development process, this project involved a period of user acceptance testing with Vision 2020 Australia, followed by a final stage of accessibility testing and compliance carried out by Scenario Seven.

They used a combination of validation and human evaluation to check the site against each of the WCAG 2.0 success criteria, and provided us with a detailed report highlighting issues with compliance and suggestions for improvement. Because we had worked collaboratively throughout the duration of the project, this final phase ran very smoothly – even if occasionally there was lively debate about “decorative” vs. “non-decorative” page elements.

Tip 5: You’re only as accessible as your latest content

Maintaining an accessible site post-launch can be the biggest challenge of all. An active web presence can be updated every day, so it’s important to supply website administrators with adequate knowledge and tools to maintain accessibility standards.

Often this involved instructions and prompts built into the admin interface, and where appropriate we’ve incorporated tool tips and validation into Vision 2020 Australia’s CMS (Content Management System) where uploaded content may have an impact on the site’s standard of accessibility.

Web accessibility is not just relevant to people with disabilities – older demographics are getting online, and the WCAG 2.0 guidelines are broadly aimed at making web content easier to use by people in general. As web developers, we want to accommodate as broad as possible an audience and provide them with a valuable and engaging experience.

This was a very successful project for all involved and the result showcases Vision 2020 Australia’s commitment to providing accessible information and resources to all Australians.