One site fits all

Companies find Web sites that comply with accessibility guidelines mean more customers

Companies, governments and educational institutions are continually moving more of their activities online as a way to improve service and productivity while cutting costs. But that approach works only if customers and employees can access the online data and services. Barriers to access can slash productivity and slam the door on potential customers.

"There is a large group of people who we would like to have as our customers [who have disabilities], and we would like to be able to interact with them electronically through our Web site," says Thomas S. Tullis, senior vice president of human interface design at Fidelity Investments in Boston.

And the ramifications of Web inaccessibility go beyond lost revenues. JoAngela Morin, team leader at Verizon Communications Inc.'s Center for Customers with Disabilities in Marlboro, Mass., says that when some members of a group are unable to access the same information or fully participate in an activity, it affects everyone involved. "A team that is driven to achieve results will be unable to meet its objectives if some members lack the same access to information that their counterparts do," she says.

This doesn't apply to only those who are traditionally considered disabled. With a significant portion of the U.S. population creeping toward Social Security age, a growing number of your employees and customers are likely to have gradually declining vision, hearing and manual dexterity. And many of those aging customers tend to be at a point in their lives when they can afford to make substantial purchases.

"A significant market is eliminated if a business has inaccessible Web presence," says Harvey Bingham, who has worked in the IT field since the 1950s and now consults on accessibility issues. "Many Web-savvy elders who have significant spending power are most comfortable shopping on the Web from home."

By incorporating accessibility standards into internal and external Web sites, companies can make it easier for those with and without disabilities to access company information and services.

The Law and the Bottom Line

There are other reasons why an organization should improve Web site accessibility. First, there's Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires all federal agencies and companies doing business with the government to comply with certain Web site accessibility guidelines. Then there's the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar laws.

In 2002, a federal judge in Florida rejected a lawsuit contending that Southwest Airlines Co.'s Web site violated the ADA , but New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer last year extracted settlements from Ramada.com and Priceline.com Inc. More such cases are likely to follow.

This trend toward making sites more accessible isn't limited to the U.S. Peter Quon, test lead at The Eclipse Group, a Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu subsidiary in Australia that specializes in Web design, reports that his firm was seeing a large increase in demand for more-accessible sites over the past few years and that demand was adding 5% to 10% to the time spent on design and development. To help streamline matters, Eclipse brought in Andrew Arch, a member of the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) and an employee of the National Information Library Service in Kooyong, Australia.

"Accessibility guidelines can seem confusing. But once you break them down, it shouldn't be that difficult," Quon says. "After the initial learning curve, a confident level of accessibility compliance can be achieved with little or no impact on the project budget or timelines."

The W3C has created a customizable kit that people can use to create a business case for improving site accessibility (www.w3.org/wai/bcase/benefits.html). It includes tips for doing things like saving bandwidth and increasing market share. But Judy Brewer, domain leader for the WAI, says that those issues are not necessarily what companies are interested in.

"When talking to representatives of major corporations, we expected them to be interested in bottom-line issues, but it was leadership and community responsibility that they were most concerned with," she says. That's not to say that companies have suddenly embraced altruism -- they also see the financial benefits involved, says Brewer.

Raising the Standard

The WAI is leading the way on the standards front. For eight years, it has worked to raise public awareness and create new standards to keep up with rapidly evolving technologies.

"Accessibility of the Web is a moving target," says Brewer. "In 1997, the Web was much simpler. Now there has been a great proliferation of rich media and different content formats."

The WAI offers the following accessibility guidelines:

Web Accessibility Content Guidelines 1.0 governs the creation of Web content so it can be accessed and understood by people with different types of disabilities. The 14 guidelines address topics such as the use of color, alternatives to pictures or audio information, navigation and style sheets. A subset of these guidelines forms the basis of the Section 508 Web accessibility regulations and similar regulations in other countries. Version 2.0 of these guidelines, which is scheduled for release later this year, is expected to be easier to understand and apply and will deal with the more advanced technologies now in use.

Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 contains six guidelines addressing two areas. The first is the inclusion of features within authoring tools to make it easy to create content that conforms with accessibility standards. The other is making the authoring tools themselves usable by people with disabilities. These guidelines are also being revised.

User Agent Guidelines 1.0 addresses the software people use to access Web content, such as browsers and media players. The 12 guidelines cover the ways users can be allowed to customize the Web experience to meet individual needs, understand the page layout and navigate through it, enable device independence, and make documentation and help functions accessible.

The WAI site also offers a free tool called Validator that developers can use to evaluate Web pages against W3C standards. "It's like using a spell checker," says Brewer. "You can get an answer in 10 seconds." The WAI lists dozens of other tools, both commercial and free, at www.w3.org/wai/er/existingtools.html.

Using Tools

Validator checks just one page at a time, but other tools can scan an entire Web site for common problems, which is critical for maintaining large sites. The University of Texas at Austin, for example, has over 2 million pages on 500 servers, with hundreds of individuals creating content.

"At a place this size with this much content, relying on a manual review of individual sites and pages won't do the job," says John Slatin, director of the school's Accessibility Institute and co-author of Maximum Accessibility: Making Your Web Site More Usable for Everyone (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2002).

To simplify the job, Slatin uses the WebXM suite from Watchfire Corp. in Waltham, Mass. WebXM goes beyond simply scanning to assess accessibility; it also checks for things like spelling errors, missing graphics, broken links and violations of privacy policies. Using this tool to identify common problems helps personnel decide which problems to address first, he says.

"If it shows you have 200 URLs, all of which have the same accessibility problem at the same line in the code, you have a template problem," says Slatin. "You can spend a lot of time fixing a single page no one ever visits or spend a relatively small amount of time fixing a template used by hundreds of thousands of pages."

Although automated tools make the job easier, there are still human aspects to usability and accessibility that can't be detected in a scan of HTML. Tullis uses Watchfire's Bobby and the federal government's STEP508 tool to analyze Fidelity's sites. He says those tools are useful but don't do enough.

"I have learned that those tools don't always show you an accurate picture," he explains. "It is very enlightening when you watch someone who actually has those problems use the site."

At Fidelity's Center for Applied Technology, Tullis and his colleagues have been conducting tests with people who have low vision. He says that Web site accessibility research has concentrated on the needs of people who are blind or use assistive technologies. But there are far more people who have low vision, and their needs have not been adequately researched, says Tullis.

His team's findings are incorporated into Fidelity's Web sites. The company is conducting user tests with reverse contrast on screens, and it has a prototype site that supports font scaling over a wider range than normal. In addition to the obvious items like improving readability, Tullis' team has discovered other ways to enhance the user experience.

"One thing we found was that older adults were reluctant to click on a link unless they can predict what will occur," he says. "If we put in more action words -- go to accounts instead of just accounts --- they are more likely to click on them."

BMC Software Inc. in Houston had similar experiences when Web-enabling its Remedy help desk software. Remedy can be used with screen readers for people who are completely blind and with high-contrast and large-font screens for people with low vision. It can also be used with a keyboard instead of a mouse. BMC turned to San Francisco-based SSB Technologies Inc. for help setting up tests with blind users. One thing the tests revealed was that certain forms needed to be redesigned for faster use in areas such as high-volume call centers.

"It's the subtle things that will get you," said Rick Fitz, director of product management at BMC. "You can't just read the 508 specification and build a useful site off it."

But the payoff is there. As the U.S. population continues to age, the only way to remain competitive is to ensure that older people can continue to access your online workspace or storefront.

Robb is a Computerworld contributing writer in Los Angeles. Contact him at drewrobb@attbi.com.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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