Making websites accessible to users with vision, hearing, motor, and cognitive disabilities is a noble and financially prudent cause. If we’re serious about serving as many users as we can, let’s go beyond ad hoc improvements and find a more thoughtful approach to accessibility.
This is where website accessibility guidelines come in. They provide a structure to our accessibility efforts – helping us identify, prioritize, and solution issues that could trip up our users.
Before we dive into the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (affectionately shortened to Wuh-Cog-Too – the sound UX designers make when they sneeze), let’s review why we should even bother.
Guidelines make accessibility efforts easier
Website accessibility guidelines aren’t just rules to weigh us down. They usually include a list of the most common problems to watch out for, best-practices, and test scenarios to ensure we’re on track. They sure beat collecting and categorizing all this information ourselves.
To save even more time, we can use accessibility checkers to automate the accessibility audit process. Most, like WAVE, reference the WCAG2 compliance levels of A, AA, and AAA. Here’s a list of WCAG-related accessibility tools.
Guidelines tell us where we stand
Accessibility guidelines tell us how accessible our site is based on how well we comply to their criteria. We can see where we’re at, compare ourselves to competitors, and keep track of our progress as we make changes.
Guidelines also make accessibility efforts more tangible. Business cases can say something like, ‘With this investment, our website will meet text contrast standards at AA level to reach more of our target market’ which sounds better than, ‘well, if you give us money, stuff will be easier to see’.
Guidelines build trust
Sticking to an accessibility guideline, even if it’s our own, shows we’ve got the warm and fuzzies for our users. Our efforts to meet formal guidelines rather than fly by the seat of our pants won’t go unnoticed. Users appreciate companies that take the effort to be accessible before they have to.
And guidelines don’t just help users trust us, search engines will notice too. If you think about it, search engines access website like users without sight or hearing. Here’s what Luke McGrath has to say:
SEO and accessibility go hand in hand because search engines are a lot like disabled users. They can only read certain content, can’t listen to or watch media and don’t use a mouse. Their understanding of a website is based on very limited features and they do not have the capacity to reason.
Why the WCAG2?
WCAG2 is the most widely used set of accessibility rules out there. It’s the Triple-O burger of White Spot. Better burgers may exist, but trying that new fusion burger in town is just too risky. WCAG2 is the industry standard.
Sure, it has adamant detractors and it’s capital-B boring (an ironic accessibility issue), but it’s what all the accessibility tools and legislation (more on this below) refer to. It doesn’t speak much to usability, information architecture, or performance – which impact all users – but this doesn’t mean they don’t serve a purpose. WCAG2 is a great place to start, not end.
Guidelines may be an option now, but not for long
It might be a choice now, but accessibility standards are coming. Both the United Kingdom and United Stands have anti-discrimination laws to ensure equal access to public services including government websites.
In Ontario, as of January 1, 2014, any new or significantly refreshed public website after January 1, 2012 must meet WCAG2 Level A (which isn’t setting the bar too high). Beginning January 1, 2021, all content published after January 1, 2012 must meet WCAG2 Level AA (except, oddly, without captions for audio and video).
Let’s face it, if our websites are less accessible than government websites that have been forced to be accessible, we’ve been caught with our pants down.
In the next post of this series, we’ll dive into WCAG2, what it means for most UX designers, and practical ways to achieve at least AA level compliance.