Usability, accessibility closely related

Designing government Web sites has surfaced as the issue du jour in light of the recent release of the final standards for complying with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

The Access Board published the Section 508 standards Dec. 21, guiding agencies on making federal Web sites accessible to people with disabilities.

It will be interesting to see if guides will be developed to write HTML code in accordance with the new accessibility regulations. At the press event and subsequent training sessions I've attended, actual examples of implementation have been deftly skirted.

Regrettably, the practice of accessibility — and its sister, usability — may not be the primary concern of organizations and agencies in the rush to make Web sites active. Whether through ignorance or anxiousness, intuitive navigation has taken a backseat to show-offy, bandwidth-draining pages.

Quite a few agencies came online only within the past couple of years, so it would seem that the final Section 508 regulations are just in time in one respect: I recently read that it takes about three years before an organization becomes concerned with "higher level" interests such as usability.

I've seen instances where user testing was "saved" until the last two weeks or so before a site was to go live. In those instances, the testing was really more to check for misspellings and broken links than for such higher-order concerns as intuitive navigation and appropriate naming of navigation elements.

We can learn a lot about Web site usability and accessibility from the comments of others. A lively interchange took place recently among the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative discussion group. The General Services Administration has presented 13 rules for accessible Web pages. And further explanations and examples can be found in "Designing More Usable Web Sites," from the Trace Research and Development Center, part of the College of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"How Should Government Web Sites Be Designed?" is a topic tackled in a thread at the Slashdot Web site. The threaded discussion yielded some good tips, which I've excerpted and extrapolated:

  • Manage presentation and layout with style sheets. You'll never be able to control how your Web page looks in your users' browsers. The best you can do is to make sure you test in the standard browser types and versions and make sure that the site is equally good (not the same) in all formats.
  • Do not use color to guide users through information.
  • If specifying font size, do so only relatively (for example, size="2").
  • Expand upon acronyms as they first appear on a page.
  • Provide more than one way to display content, mixing text files, Portable Document Format files, audio files with transcripts, and video with closed-captioning and/or a transcript.
  • Limit use of nested tables and omit the use of blank images in tables.
  • Use alt tags to describe an image, and if the image is a link, use the alt tag to describe what the link does.
  • Consider people who have difficulty reading. Use plain English and use images in a way that will help point users to the information they are looking for. Remember that text-only format can be a barrier for people with cognitive disabilities.
  • Some more tips I've encountered:
  • Path names and file names should make sense.
  • Give thought to well-written title tags. When your site is bookmarked, users should be able to figure out what your site is without having to edit their bookmarks.

Further "higher level" suggestions for government Web sites can be found in Steven Clift's article, "Top Ten E-Democracy 'To Do List' for Governments Around the World." Clift emphasizes consideration of the user, remarking that "most citizens simply want better, more efficient access to service transactions and information ... your agency produces."

Tang is a Web designer in the Information Technology Group at Caliber Associates, Fairfax, Va. Her e-mail address is tangb@ix.netcom.com.

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