Accessibility evolves into usability

If you checked some discussion lists for Webmasters recently, you'd find the requisite questions about the Bobby Web site evaluation tool, how to fix the odd table for accessibility and what tags are supported by which screen readers. (Hint to vendors of such software: Quite a few Webmasters would find it very helpful to have a chart that lists what HTML tags are supported.)

But I have also noticed that, as a group, Webmasters have reached a higher level of Web site consciousness: There are more questions about usability.


The Only Easy Out is Steady Progress

As early as April 2000, Webmasters had a period of panic, hence the standing-room-only attendance at many Section 508 training and seminar events. Continuous discussion about the resources at hand and reassurance that retrofitting is not required seemed to help put the issue in perspective.

Still, I heard some Webmasters ask how little they could get away with and call it accessible. Fortunately, those kinds of questions were few and far between.

What has been advocated is progress, steady and deliberate. The underlying message has always been: "Fix what you can now."

To expand on that theme: Use the tools at hand to analyze the overarching errors, carefully document known problems and outline wish-list enhancements. These efforts will inform your agency's long-range plan and provide sustenance for claims of undue burden.

Obviously, this study of Web sites does not allow for slap-dash analysis.


Unintended Benefits and Consequences

Prior to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and its requirements for making Web sites accessible to people with disabilities, few Webmasters were aware of software that reads Web pages aloud, let alone the vagaries of this or that screen-reading program's foibles. In accessibility seminars, Webmasters experienced software demos and learned how a few well-placed tags or rephrased words could improve navigation and comprehension.

At the seminars, some of the questions were more about usability rather than strictly about accessibility. For example: Where should the navigation bar go? Should it be at the right side of the page? If the navigation is at the bottom of the page, must it have a link back to the top? In short, Webmasters were challenged to learn empathy for an audience they directly impacted with coding.

Learning how to use screen readers posed some problems. Some are easier to use than others, and the particularly high learning curve on one forced a colleague to rely on friendly power users in her discussion groups for help. (Another hint to vendors: usability studies.)


Usability Awareness

I mentioned raised consciousness when it comes to usability. I think some of that came from exposure to screen readers.

Over a year's time—with questions about which tags worked best and getting coding advice from the field—those who had been involved in accessibility evaluations from the start saw their questions reach higher levels of complexity. To wit:

    * If a visitor uses a screen reader or has a mobility impairment, where is the best place to put the navigation bar?

    * How can we, as Webmasters, improve the user's experience?

Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox column (www.useit.com/alertbox), the Usability.gov site, and others were touted as exemplars. And Webmasters discovered that there is a subjective element to coding for accessibility, finding that what works as "usable" on one site is not necessarily the answer for the next one.

Webmasters transitioned from basic coding to evaluating the labeling of the navigational elements. Similarly, it is a natural extension from examining the mechanics of what makes a Web page accessible to analyzing what makes the whole site usable.

I see this evolving into usability reviews of whole agency Web sites and assessments of the readability of content for "hidden" issues such as designing sites for people with cognitive impairments or limited English proficiency. I also see that because of a wider awareness of assistive technologies, usability of these tools will improve as well.

Tang is a Web designer in Fairfax, Va. Her e-mail address is tangb@ix.netcom.com.

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