London Web Standards: Inclusivity with Sandi Wassmer

Review: LWS February: Move over Web Accessibility, inclusivity is heading straight at you! at The Square Pig, 30 - 32 Procter Street, Holborn, London, WC1V 6NX 19:00 to 20:30

I'm always interested to learn more about accessibility so, after I enjoyed last month's LWS so much, this event was a must attend. As before, Jeff live-blogged the talk and I will be covering most of the same ground, but hopefully with a different enough emphasis and perspective to make this worth reading too.

Picture of the question and answer session at the end of the talk

Sandi started off here talk by discussing the need for the new term, 'inclusivity'. Accessibility has had a lot of powerful advocates in recent years but that has resulted in a somewhat negative image and a narrow approach. The need for accessible websites has been driven into people's conciousness, but not the underlying principles. Accessibility has become,"that thing you have to do to make disabled people happy." So to make people happy developers are resorting to a checklist approach which isn't actually benefiting users. Marketers fear that implementing accessibility will devalue the brand; designers fear it will limit their design options; developers worry that it will reduce functionality. In fact, accessibility, when done right, need not cause any of these issues.

Inclusivity is an effort to repackage accessibility with a more positive spin, by returning to first principles while combining with other elements of usability and remaining practical. The focus needn't be completely on screen reader users - only 3% of the UK's registered blind people are totally blind. Providing an alternate text only version of your website is not the same thing as having an accessible website, according to Sandi the aim of accessibility should be,"an unobtrusive bridge between myself and the world." Inclusive design allows people to have a choice in how they interact with your website. The pay off to taking an inclusive approach to design can be huge: there are 10.6 million registered disabled people in the UK, 19% of the working population is registered disabled and they represent approximately £80 billion in annual purchasing power.

Inclusive design is the embodiment of seven principals, it is:

  • Unbiased
  • Flexible
  • Straightforward
  • Clear
  • Sensible about errors
  • Minimises physical effort
  • Emphasises appropriate shape and size
To embrace inclusive design you also need to attack three assumptions:
  • Disabled vs Not disabled - People are people, disability is not a binary attribute, there is a range of abilities
  • Accessible vs Inaccessible - Accessibility is subjective, there is not such thing as an accessible site, sites will always be more or less accessible to different groups of users
  • Disabled people do not appreciate design - Anyone can have bad taste, this is orthogonal to their abilities in other areas

You might worry that you will never get accessibility 'right' - Sandi offers the advice,"just do your best." You just have to keep learning - accessibility is a process, not a finishing state - and you have to use that knowledge whenever you can.

Sandi then moved on to how the design process should be structured in order to take account of inclusivity:

  • The Brief should not be brief and should include a discussion of the principals of inclusivity.
  • The Plan should include user testing (with real users) and nominate an inclusivity champion.
  • The Functional Scope is where the real world will impinge, how much and what type of user testing does the budget allow?
  • The Technical Scope has everything nailed down, at this stage you just need to make sure everyone is communicating so that the overall goals are not compromised by a simple misunderstanding.
  • Learning, Designing, Testing, Tweaking and repeat as often as necessary (or you can afford).

Next Sandi discussed the relationship of inclusivity with web standards and best practices. The key misconception many people have about WCAG is that last letter - they are guidelines, not rules. The difference is that while rules are inflexible, they can only be complied with or not, guidelines are a relationship, they guide you on the way to discovering the best interface for your users.

Usability has much crossover with accessibility, though unlike accessibility there are no legal requirements to make your site usable. With usability you're asking yourself how specific users are going to accomplish specific goals in a certain context and evaluating your solution according to its effectiveness, efficiency and (user) satisfaction.

Web standards form the foundations of good accessibility, but they are just the beginning. Having your page pass the W3C validators doesn't guarantee it will be accessible.

The two most popular strategies for delivering good accessibility are progressive enhancement and graceful degradation. Sandi said that while progressive enhancement is a strategy, graceful degradation is an afterthought. Progressive enhancement is the way to go because it allows you to build your web site in layers and so make available a good experience to everyone.

Finally Sandi discussed why user testing is important, even if you have excellent market research and analytics. Consider three users: Peter, George and John. All are marketers in their mid-thirties, with 2.4 children and are demographically identical. They are all using Firefox on the same brand of computer, so are basically indistinguishable from the point of view of market demographics and browser identification data, however:

  • Peter is an internet lover, he's maxed out his browser with nearly every extension he could get his hands on
  • George is a luddite who only uses a browser because he needs it for work, he's turned Javascript off because he heard, some time ago, that it was dangerous to browse the web with it enabled
  • John is technically savvy, like Peter, but is visually impaired and so uses a screen reader

Clearly these three users have very different needs, and yet you're only going to see the difference between them if you do user testing.

After a wrap up, where Sandi re-iterated the need to always keep learning, we moved on to the question and answer session. There were a few questions which stood out for me:

  • Providing mobile access, is this accessibility, inclusivity or usability? - All of the above! Sandi's advice was to just try your best, not all content needs to be available on all devices. While the holy grail may be a site which is completely accessible on desktop and mobile, budgetary constraints will probably limit you before you get there.
  • How can we get the message of inclusivity to banks and other large and slow moving institutions? - Bring it to the mainstream, social change is hard work but it's the path to ultimate victory. Also, challenge people's stereotypes, don't let them think of a small number of completely blind people using screen readers, get them to think more broadly. One of the audience pointed out that one of the best business cases for accessibility had been at Legal & General. Also you should consider the people with the most power at these institutions tend to be older, and while they may not consider themselves disabled they are likely to suffer from impaired vision and other ailments simply due to old age making them a ready made market if you phrase things well.
  • What's the best way to develop an accessible website, where should your concentrate the effort, on semantic code? - A problem is that technology is always changing, and assistive technology doesn't always keep up, so you can't always provide the best solution now, and often the best solution now won't be the best in the future. This is why the WCAG is not about technical solutions but about guiding you to an understanding of your users.
  • Is there ever a place for exclusive design? - No, stuff is more usable when built for everyone. For instance the Mac accessibility tools built into the OS, now everyone can use them even if they don't consider themselves 'disabled'.
Another excellent event, 5 out of 5, I'll be watching out for the next one.
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