Monday’s first session was with Shawn Henry, an accessibility expert and members of the Web Standards Organisation’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). The Web Standards Organisation is an international organisation that comes up with standards and guidelines for web user interface designers and browser developers to keep us all on the same page and ensure that sites work generally the same way in all browsers. The WAI is a sub-group that has created standards about accessibility. Accessibility in the virtual context is not much different in principle to accessibility in the physical world. It is easy to design for a perceived norm, harder to design in a way that makes your product available to all people regardless of physical ability, financial situation or previous knowledge. In the web context accessibility is usually used to refer to people with physical disabilities that may require them to access the web using different technologies or browser settings.
Why is this important to us? As a public service we have a responsibility to serve all our public as equally as possible. While it might not be a legal requirement (as yet only core central government departments are required to meet NZ’s accessibility standards), we should certainly be aiming to meet as many as possible, especially when designing new user experiences and especially with reference to our core services. Most of what Shawn covered I was at least aware of if not familiar with but there were two elements which were of particular note. Firstly that the WCAG 2 standards have now been released in working draft form for comment. At the last WebStock an initial draft had been released which was not being well received in some quarters. Many of the issues with that have now been addressed and unlike the first standards (WAI 1), there has been a lot more work put into making the standards testable and explaining how to achieve them. This is great because it means that we should now be able to go ahead and use them.
The second element that Shawn discussed which we really need to get on board with (and I’ll be coming back to this) is user-testing and involving users in the initial development. As Shawn said – disabled users testing is like user testing on steroids. If they can use it then it should be fine for ‘normal’ users. She also had some useful techniques for in-house pre-user-testing but she was very clear that this is no alternative for involving disabled users early on. Another thing to remember is that while blind users are an obvious disabled user group there are others which need to be involved. Low vision users may browse with extreme zoom-in, some people with cognitive difficulties may not be able to tolerate repeated movement on a page, deaf users need to be supplied with transcripts of podcasts and vidcasts should be captioned. One of her most important points was also that nearly everything that you do for accessibility also assists ‘normal’ users in terms of usability AND machine users such as search engines so accessibility = usability = findability.