A personal experience of trying to make prettygoodproject.org an inclusive site and the inaccessibility of accessibility guidelines.
Read time: 5 minutes
It’s not easy, this website design malarkey. Whilst developing this site I am trying very hard to practise what I preach regarding inclusive design, but as a total newbie to building websites it’s a very steep learning curve indeed. Sometimes I feel like it is so steep I’m in danger of falling off. Making the site look good is one thing; making it work for as many people as possible is a whole different kettle of fish. Surely I can have it both ways?
Just a few of the things I’ve had to consider for an inclusively designed website include: contrast, size, alt text, headings, meaningful links, navigation by screen reader, navigation by keyboard, information architecture, flashing images, page folds, subtitles, page titles. The list feels endless. Whatsmore, it seems that fixing the site to make it more useable for one group can make life harder for another. For example, high contrast (like black text on a white background) is great for people with visual impairments, but the glare of too much white can be terrible for many people with dyslexia. As with all things in life, there is no such thing as one size fits all, so giving individual users power over the font, text size, colours and contrast appears to be the best way forward as long as the base information architecture is organised and labelled rationally. Then, of course comes the testing, testing, testing and more testing with different users at all stages. The question then becomes, ‘How do I do this effectively but with a limited budget?
It’s a fascinating experience finding out. Every minute you have to fight the urge to design for yourself and assume it’ll be OK for everyone else (the easy and increasingly appealing option!), and instead keep your focus looking outwards with your empathy and open-mindedness dial ramped up to 10. Thankfully I have some brilliant people helping me to stay on track, but with this first hand experience I am beginning to understand why designing inclusively is the exception and not the rule.
When I started building the online home for The Pretty, Good Project, I naively assumed there would be a nice simple list of things to check, something that would help me evaluate my site and provide simple tools to help make the improvements. Instead I found myself struggling to get over the first hurdle, as the guidelines of web accessibility, known as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG2) by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), proved to have some accessibility issues of their own, not least their love of obscure acronyms.
The guidelines are a phenomenally important initiative that ensure that people with disabilities can use the web and have made the lives of countless numbers of people better. However, whilst the content of WCAG2 is exceptional (and is probably a screen reader’s dream), the tone and length of the guidance is where the problem lies. It is a pretty dense and off-putting a subject to engage with, or to put it another way, it’s just not very sexy.
As someone who can’t code and is reliant on templates like Wordpress, there seems to be a lack of clear guidance about turning best practice into reality without a degree in html. Luckily for me lots of WordPress templates come ready WCAG2 compliant, which is brilliant, but somewhat confusingly it turns out a website can be accessible but not all that usable. The design choices we make around colour, contrast and positioning can undo a lot of good work if done without due consideration and testing.
Youtube ‘How to’ videos are quickly becoming my new best friends, but where is the dummie’s guide to web accessibility when you need it? I am rapidly trying to get to grips with plugins (of which there appear to be hundreds, but which to choose?) to help and tools such as Wave, but are we missing a trick - preventing lay-people who want to build better but are thwarted by the technicalities of implementation? I feel like this can’t just be me struggling with this. I hope not anyway!
I completely understand why there are User Experience (UX) experts now and why they are so important – it’s really hard to create an inclusive site and maintain high standards of web accessibility and usability – but it takes cash to employ one, and small start-ups or one-man band operations may struggle to afford the costs. So I can also understand the proliferation of websites which are excluding people, robbing them of the incredible power of the internet to open up the world and change the way in which people interact with it and with each other for the better.
I heard at a conference today that nearly three quarters of websites are breaking the law on accessibility. The Business Disability Forum has been checking the accessibility of websites since 2008 and in that time a staggering 70% of the sites reviewed were given a ‘red’ assessment because of their lack of accessibility. While this makes me feel better that at least I’m not alone in this – it also makes me feel terrible because this is a sorry state of affairs, and one which I will be adding to if I am not careful. It is something we all need to get to grips with too, and fast. More and more everyday tasks are going online from banking to job searching and we have an ageing population so usability will be paramount. It has also been proven that improved accessibility directly translates into increased wonga for companies; further motivation if they needed it.
Until this site starts making enough money so I can hire someone else to do the leg work, I am somewhat stifled by what I can and can’t do in the templates and my own lack of skills, but I am doing my best and plan to continue struggling with it for as long as it takes because it is so important. I suspect the website will change a lot over the coming months as I get to grips with this topic and as people actually start interacting with it and telling me what is good and not so good. I would love to hear from you and if anyone is willing to help, either by donating their professional or personal experience, let me know! I know I can do better.