Director at Webcredible
11 December 2006 16:19pm
Where are we now?
It's been seven years since the W3C released the first version of the web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG 1.0). Since then, accessibility has slowly but surely turned up on the radar of web managers in most large organisations.
The benefits of accessibility are pretty well known too - a quick Google search for web accessibility benefits returns over 37 million results! Because of this, more and more large profile websites have offered better and better accessibility as the years have gone by. There's still a long way to go but the progress over the past few years is highly visible and indeed positive.
Web 2.0 refers to the ‘next generation’ of websites and online applications. Websites using Web 2.0 technologies have started to spring up all over the Internet, and are likely to exponentially increase in number over the next few years. Although the term itself, Web 2.0, has become a bit of a buzzword, there's no doubt that Web 2.0 is here and is becoming more and more commonplace.
Two characteristics of Web 2.0 include AJAX and user generated content. Many websites are beginning to embrace these two concepts, causing never-before seen accessibility issues...
The Amazon diamond search, for example, showcases a great example of using AJAX to create an interactive and highly useful interface. It basically uses click-and-drag sliders to allow users to broaden and narrow a wide range of filtering criteria. The page then automatically updates to show how many results conform to the users' selected criteria.
The Amazon application offers fantastic usability for many web users. But it's totally impossible for screen reader and keyboard-only users to use, and very difficult for any screen magnifier user to use. The solution? A separate simplified accessible version, which Amazon have actually provided (ironically, this separate version hasn't been built to high levels of accessibility, although it could easily have been).
User generated content
Another concept of Web 2.0 is content generated by users. Blogs and wikis are becoming more and more commonplace, as stand-alone websites or within an organisation's website. Currently, many large organisations struggle to control the accessibility of their content due to the large number of content editors - how are they going to cope with users contributing content as well as employees of the organisation?
Websites such as Blogger, Flickr and YouTube are totally reliant on user generated content, in the form of blogs, photos and videos respectively. How can these websites control the accessibility of their content? Content is created at such a rapid speed that it wouldn't be reasonable (or even possible) for any of these websites to police that content for accessibility.
Image- and photo-driven websites, such as Flickr, could request users insert alternative descriptions, either of their own or other people's photos. Ensuring this actually happens across the site though will be difficult to impossible to achieve.
Other websites, including those of large organisations, are attempting to build up communities by allowing users to upload images, post comments and generally interact with each other and the site. Will the website owners provide a mechanism to ensure this content is produced accessibly? Can they?
The second version of the web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG) from the W3C is currently in final working draft and is soon to be released officially.
One of the main differences between version 2.0 and 1.0 of the guidelines is that WCAG 2.0 is technology-neutral. This means that the guidelines themselves are far more vague and open to interpretation than previously.
There are three major factors that will shape web accessibility in the future: AJAX, user generated content and WCAG 2.0. The increased prominence of these factors could lead to some of the following:
Trenton Moss, Webcredible
CEO at Econsultancy
12 December 2006 10:24am
I was going to be posting something along the lines of this shortly but you beat me to it!
For a while now I’ve had the uncomfortable feeling that the world of Web 2.0 and the world of accessibility were not the best aligned. Indeed, I fear that the focus on accessibility over the last few years has started to wane and drift.
Why might this be? A few observations:
1. “…for the first time usability and accessibility are coming head-to-head with each other”
Mmmm…this appears to be the unspoken truth. I’m glad you, as an accessibility expert, said this and not me. I don’t know enough about the detail to make this call but certainly my perception is that a lot of what is being considered as evolving best practice in terms of “easy to use” / “fast” / “intuitive” and so on is based on richer, more interactive interfaces using the likes of AJAX. And making these all accessible is really tough.
Earlier in the year, at our What’s New in Online Marketing event, it was great to hear from James Saunders at Serenata Flowers about how they have used AJAX on the Serenata Flowers web site to improve the customer experience and boast conversion rates without compromising the site’s accessibility. Essentially, the AJAX part was an added bonus for those who could use it but the underlying ‘default’ site was very accessible.
However, now I see interfaces, and prototypes, which are designed “AJAX-first” and then there’s the “thorny problem of accessibility” afterwards.
It was the case that usability, accessibility and, indeed, SEO, were neatly lining up to be mutually self-reinforcing activities. Now, cracks are starting to appear – even in the realm of SEO where inbound links are now so important relative to on-page content. I believe it is still possible, and sensible, to do all three well, but it is not easy.
..the WCAG 2.0
guidelines are far more vague and open to interpretation than previously…”
I’m glad I don’t have to write these guidelines! You can understand why they have to be technology-neutral, but I am concerned that you, the expert, describe the new guidelines as “more vague and open to interpretation than previously”. I don’t recall them being particularly crystal-clear the first time round?
The danger here, particularly when combined with point 1 above, is that lack of clarity leads to confusion which leads to corporate inaction. Given there is just so much for site developers to focus on (not least all this Web 2.0 stuff), if you give them even the least inkling that something is in any doubt then it will drop down the priority list. That may not be right but it is how it is.
As the focus has swung so sharply recently onto Web 2.0 type initiatives (a lot of them misguided I might add) it is really hard to maintain focus on accessibility which is still seen largely as a burden rather than an opportunity.
Furthermore, if the guidelines are more vague, what does this mean for the legal side of things? Is there any way that a lawyer, or judge or jury, could reasonably be expected to pass judgment based on these guidelines? Are they even expected to form the basis of any judgment? Again, further lack of clarity here only serves to lessen the threat of the legal ‘stick’ which some corporates have used as a justification to invest in accessibility.
3. “User generated content is likely to offer poor accessibility”
I’m not sure I entirely agree with this. Certainly video content, and mobile devices, may well pose accessibility challenges. In these cases I hope that technology will help e.g. automatic transcribing of audio to text.
Most user-generated content is still text. And the very nature of user-generated content demands a simple means of publishing, usually via web forms of some sort. So at least the nature and structure of the content is simple and consistent. You cannot enforce various forms of metadata (e.g. alt tags for pictures) but you do have a structure and content which you should be able to provide intuitive and accessible forms of navigation around.
I expect we will see a rise in “meta-editing” – partly through automated technologies and partly through ‘humanware’ – in order to help give content improved meaning and categorisation to allow machines and humans to interact with it more efficiently. This should help with accessibility.
4. And finally…
Whilst bemoaning the possible retrograde steps in accessibility, it is still the case that no-one I’ve talked in the U.S. (where most of what we all look to in the world of the web still emanates from) has the first notion about accessibility – it really just isn’t on their radar at all.
I was interested that the Best Website award at the BIMAs recently went to the Coca-Cola website. Whilst it is no doubt cutting edge on many fronts, it doesn’t strike me as reeking of accessibility. So it would seem that accessibility is not a fundamental requirement for a site to win a ‘best website’ award.
That seems to me to be a bit of a shame. Certainly it seems to reflect the sad fact that perhaps accessibility isn’t as much of a focus for many as it was?
Director at WebEnergy
12 December 2006 16:30pm
This is an excellent article which offers a pragmatic view to current, and future, website accessibility. One of my challenges in working in this area is that the current guidelines are more about what not to do, rather than guidance on what to do. It is little wonder that non-experts are confused, and that many sites fail to achieve best practice.
With reference to Trenton's point about accessibilty experts becoming more and more important for organisations in interpreting WACG 2.0 guidelines correctly, my concern is who is the expert? I personally feel comfortable with my generalist knowledge of website accessibility and usability issues, however I'm not a technologist and can't really see myself being in a position to offer advice on AJAX and other technology advances. Trenton highlights the increasing complexity of accessibility, and possibly only multi-skilled agencies will be able to offer companies the range of skills and knowledge necessary? Alternatively, these larger agencies could be jack-of-all trades, and don't have the in-depth knowledge of the independent expert?
One final thought. In a similar vein to the Amazon example, this is a completely 'non-accessible' Flash interface that I came across at a previous e-consultancy conference and thought it was one of the best pieces of design I had seen. It is Vodaphone's German site and if you can manage the German language labels you should get the drift. Selecting the ideal mobile phone isn't the easiest task, however by selecting the elements that you want (battery life, camera, MP3 player, etc) the choice of phones is reduced to leave only content (phones) that match your criteria. Go to http://www.vodafone.de/start.vhtml and select Handy Finder which is to the right of the Search function.
Econsultancy's Global Technology Adoption Statistics document is one of 11 individual downloads that make up Econsultancy’s Global Internet Statistics Compendium, a comprehensive compilation of worldwide statistics and online market research with data, facts, charts and figures that are essential to understanding the marketplace as a whole.
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