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Web Site Accessibility

and Design Issues

Updated 16/9/13

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A briefings style page, in IT for voluntary sector section.

Accessibility Issues

"The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect." Quote from Tim Berner-Lees, inventor of World Wide Web and W3C Director. However, some features of HTML (the language used to put together web pages) can create difficulties for text-to-speech software used by the visually impaired etc. There are other issues around use of colours, background contrast, and inappropriate text formats.

RNIB (Royal National Institute for the Blind) may still be campaigning on Access to Digita) (for the blind/partially sighted).

E-access Bulletin is a free, independent monthly e-mail newsletter on information technology issues for people with visual impairment and blindness. Sponsored by RNIB.

AbilityNet A charity concerned with bringing the benefits of computer technology to adults and children with disabilities. Has a number of regional centres offering a comprehensive range of services to disabled people, professionals, employers and statutory bodies. Free information and advice on any aspect of the use of a computer by someone with a disability, individual assessment of technology needs, adapted computer equipment with full training and technical support, a programme of awareness education, and consultancy for employers on system and workstation adaptations. Contact Abilitynet Warwick, PO Box 94, Warwick, Warwickshire, CV34 5WS, phone 01926 312 847 or 0800 269 545.

Making E-communication Accessible is a downloadable publication (various formats) outlining best practice for websites, email and electronic documents (a supplement to the SAIF Standards for Disability Information and Advice Provision in Scotland). It is aimed at the voluntary/public sector and has an 'easy to digest' non-technical approach.

Making Connections Unit no longer operates, but has some useful information on its web site. One of the people behind it, Jim Byrne, has his own web consultancy, and sends out a weekly accessible web design tip.

User Experience Professionals' Association (UK Chapter); Scottish Usability Professionals' Association.

Designing for Access

Bobby was the original popular accessibility checker, orginally a project of CAST (Centre for Applied Special Technology), taken over by Watchfire. Taken offline Feb 2008 and incorporated into IBM's Rational Policy Tester.

In the United States, Section 508 is often quoted as the standard. It imposes a duty on all Federal government connected web sites to be accessible to people with disabilities. Legal proceedings have also been taken against companies providing services via the web after failing to ensure that their web sites were accessible. The Fed Gov's own Section 508 site is also worth a look.

Bobby also suggests

VolResource suggests

Some rough and ready pointers: Be aware of navigation issues. Make sure graphics have labels, there are separators in link tables other than HTML tags. The text of links should makes sense out of context - don't use 'click here' and the like. Don't rely purely on colour to convey meaning, and remember ordinary design rules of adequate contrast, legibility. Be aware that users may need to set their default font size or style outside the 'norm' - use relative font and table sizes rather than absolutes. Style Sheets are a good approach now that most browser software handles these OK. Access keys (which we have implemented on VolResource) aren't highly rated by all - probably can be ignored at the moment until there is more a recognised standard. Our previous comment that accessibility software or hardware doesn't keep up with the latest web technology is beginning to look dated.

See some useful information from a web designer's perspective, with an emphasis on style sheets (CSS) as a preferred solution. A reworking of VolResource template design was inspired by this presentation: Why tables for layout is stupid. Originally for a seminar, it works quite well on the web, but you'll need some experience of html coding to follow it. If you want to see what Style sheets can do, try CSS ZenGarden, where you can switch layout design with just a click.

Connected items

Braille facility and other access technology - see TechTips

Flash, the all-singing and dancing graphics format from Adobe, has had accessibility features added to it since version MX, allowing viewing by screen readers.


Usability is more than being able to access. Understanding what works for the intended user/audience and giving it to them is not easy to do perfectly, but is something to aspire to. Jakob Nielsen is the best known 'guru' who tries to practice what he preaches - see his Alertbox articles etc.

Resources from Information & Design, an Australian usability consultancy, have been recommended on Charity Web Forum.

Gerry McGovern focuses on web content management - getting this right also helps usability! His email newsletter is often a good read.

Microsoft Developers Network has published a 3 pager, Critical Thinking in Web and Interface Design, which web developers ought to read, and others can take note of the questions which ought to be asked, which are below:

When researching the problems you need to solve, keep the following questions in mind:

  • Who are our customers? What skills and knowledge do they have?
  • What different sources of data can we use to understand their experience?
  • What goals and tasks will they use our product or Web site to complete?
  • What assumptions are we making and how can we verify them?
  • What sources of data do we have? (Usability studies and heuristic evaluations are good places to start.)

If you work on a team, create a short document that lists all of the problems, and include the supporting information with each one.

Example problem statements:

  • It is difficult to navigate from one section of the Web site to another.
  • Users have to wait too long for the software to load.
  • Our security error messages are difficult to understand.
  • The registration page has too many questions, and users often abandon it.
  • Finding a specific product on the site index is too hard to complete.

Note: There is a fine line between a user problem and a functional bug. Suggested characteristics: A problem is a bug if 1) the problem represents a failure of the code to function as it was intended; 2) there is an obvious, simple solution. For example: The failure of a dropdown to list all 50 states is a bug, the inability of users to find the dropdown, or use it to complete a task, is a problem.

( 2001 Microsoft Corporation.)