A short guide to a useable and accessible website

MyCustomer.com

Nottingham-based e-Government Standards Body consultant on website accessibility of EIBS, Matt Gemmell, provides some useful tips for establishing best practices in this area in his presentation, 'Guidelines for creating attractive, accessible and useable websites'. He also provides some pointers into local government websites, and perhaps others within the commercial sector, can be both accessible and usable.

He comments: "Attractive, accessible and useable websites combine three key elements; Design, Technology and Content. Technology refers to the underlying code such as XHTML, CSS and metadata, and SiteMorse enables organisations to automatically ensure this element is fully compliant and accessible.”

"Authors are then freed to focus on Design and Content, the more subjective and time consuming areas of building great websites. An automated testing tool like SiteMorse should always be part of the effective website manager's toolkit, and it's worth noting that the more issues SiteMorse identifies the more useful it is being."

First of all he sets out the priorities for local authorities, which include:

  • Delivering online services that encourage new visitors, enticing them to return again;
  • The need for website to be visually appealing and more interactive;
  • The need, with consideration to the Disability Discrimination Act, to attract and retain the widest possible audience;
  • The need to meet the wide variety of guidelines for using the latest technologies and for achieving, at least, the minimum if not the highest level of website accessibility compliance;
  • The need to manage limited resources and conflicting priorities.

Matt believes there are quite a few misconceptions about how you can design both a useable and fully accessible website. He suggests that many people do not think it is possible to achieve AAA compliance; that they think that accessible websites have to be dull and boring, and that they believe you can’t implement a wide variety of technologies that provide a greater level of interactivity and multimedia content. Thankfully, you can have multimedia content, be more interactive, use JavaScript and DHTML; that is so long as you provide and alternative to the website user. So your site can look good without being dulled down.

In that case, you may ask, what entails good website design? Firstly, it will meet your audiences usability and accessibility requirements; secondly, the interface will be simple and intuitive; thirdly, you need to maintain a level of consistency; fourthly, you need to manage the site effectively to encourage new and repeated visits; fifthly, you should make mundane tasks more pleasant and improve the communication with your audience.

The design criteria will include:

  • Corporate branding guidelines;
  • Audience (usability) and access devices
  • Aesthetic appeal;
  • Building block in terms of shape, colour and features.

The site layout should consider how the users will scan each web page, whether tables will be used or cascading style sheets (CSS), the positioning and the spacing of the each item, resizing and reshaping factors, and how you can make the navigation of the site easy to use. There in fact needs to be a balance between the users and the website owners in terms of structure and the types of content.

Matt suggests that you should use large blocks for information, ensure that there are clear labels and that colour schemes are used effectively. Colours should be limited, for example, and they should provide a good level of contrast. He advises that colour shouldn’t be mixed within the same block, and it isn’t necessary to use colours to differentiate between information zones.

There must also be some consideration about how you present text within a website: the use of font types, the sizing and resizing of fonts and headers. Links should be consistent in terms of their look at feel. Colours can be used, but they shouldn’t be used in a confusing manner. While photographic content should be used sparingly and in a small size, in order to avoid slowing download times.

Automated testing, like that offered by SiteMorse – the leading website testing and monitoring company, can speed up the website accessibility testing process; saving organisations time and money. Matt is right when he says that it is your duty to provide, at the very least, a basic level of website accessibility. Yet until the web accessibility guidelines become legally enforced and clear standards, the whole area is still open to some sort of interpretation.

By Graham Jarvis for SiteMorse

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