Designing Web pages for accessibility

There's the stick and there's the carrot, but so far neither is enough to get most Web designers to produce accessible Web sites, design guru Jakob Nielsen said.

So Nielsen is trying a third way: "Make it easier for people to do the right thing and you will increase the probability that they will."

That's the idea behind new software Nielsen of Nielsen Norman Group has created with accessibility experts at UsableNet.

Nielsen, who urged government Web designers not to build Web sites around a picture of the agency secretary, but instead to concentrate on making agency information and transactions easy for people to find and use, now wants designers to focus on designing pages everyone can use, even people with disabilities.

The stick is Section 508, a law that has required federal agency Web sites to be fully accessible since June 2001. The carrot is the idea that making Web sites accessible to everyone is the right thing to do and could win loyal users.

But neither law nor virtue has proven an adequate motivator. "Section 508 is not catching on as fast as it should," Nielsen said.

"You could beat people with a bigger stick," he said. "Instead we are trying to lower the barrier" by making it easier to design accessible Web sites.

To achieve that, Nielsen and UsableNet have created LIFT-Nielsen Norman Group edition, a new version of UsableNet's Web designing LIFT software. The software is an extension to Macromedia Inc.'s Dreamweaver.

The new software incorporates accessibility into Web page design so that as designers are creating pages, the software reminds them of accessibility rules, alerts them to accessibility mistakes and offers suggestions for making corrections.

"There's a large number of things you've got to remember" when creating an accessible Web page, Nielsen said. The new version of LIFT does the remembering for the designer.

The software also makes it possible to automatically correct accessibility errors that may have been repeated, such as improper coding in a table or chart, Nielsen said.

Still, this is not a fully automated solution, according to the Nielsen Norman Group. Only humans can judge whether a design has a usability problem, the company says on its Web site. Nielsen's entry into the accessibility arena is encouraging, said Doug Wakefield, access specialist and an Internet expert for the U.S. Access Board, which oversees accessibility.

Although Section 508's accessibility requirements apply only to federal executive branch agencies, Nielsen's usability work has had a much broader impact.

Nielsen's involvement could help push accessibility into the mainstream, said Beth Archibald, a Web usability expert.

"He's an icon in Web design," she said of Nielsen. "When you've got a big name involved, it brings issues to the forefront."

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