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Robert L. Todd
Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access
Georgia Institute of Technology
490 10th Street
Atlanta, Georgia 30332-0156
Phone: (404) 894-9865
Fax: (404) 894-9320
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and other accessibility laws and policies have created a rising interest in accessible web design (1). These policies, coupled with an understanding of the increased market share that can be reached by accessible design efforts, have led individuals, businesses, government agencies and educational institutions to pursue accessible web design in unheard of numbers.
Unfortunately, accessible web design initiatives have also created many unanswered questions and anxieties for would-be developers. Which standards apply? How far must I go with accessibility? Can I make a site accessible and still have it look good? These questions are all legitimate and must be answered for a design to succeed.
In their single-minded concern to conform to technical standards of accessibility, web developers often create unsuccessful sites by ignoring critical issues of usability (2) and aesthetics. "Usability" in design refers to all those things that make web pages efficient and easy to use. It includes design for fast-loading pages, easily-grasped site architecture, easy-to-use navigation, and similar principles. "Aesthetics" refers to graphical enrichment and artistic design to create visual themes and metaphors, with the goal of enriching the user's web experience.
Accessible web design is, in reality, nothing more than the logical extension of principles of usability (3). It is design for usability that includes concern for more people in more situations (4). Developers who consider the effectiveness of human interaction (i.e., usability) along with the technical standards of accessibility can succeed in both areas.
And while a focus on aesthetics and rich visual design could be problematic for accessibility and usability, this need not be the case. In fact, visual design can solve communication problems in a way that is at once functionally effective and aesthetically pleasing (5). In other words, graphics and page layout can not only look "pretty" but can be a powerful tool for conveying important information and guiding the user's actions throughout the site (6). Through attention to principles such as elegance and simplicity, scale, contrast, and proportion, graphic design can be a handmaiden to effective usability.
Accessibility, usability, and aesthetic design - all three are important to a well-rounded web site. While it is true that people needing alternative access may appreciate and even require accessibility features, it is also true that good usability principles can benefit anyone using the web (7). Additionally, for the majority who view the web with graphical browsers, the skillful use of graphics can be helpful and informative, not to mention pleasing and even exciting (8). Sites designed with only one or two of the three approaches are bound to ignore the needs of some users.
"Constructing an Accessible Web Experience: Equity and Enhancement through Design" is a one-half day instructional seminar designed to provide web developers, IT managers and other web development team members the fundamentals of web site design and development in order to create usable, accessible and aesthetically appealing web sites with Section 508 compliance. This course places special emphasis on seamless integration of visually sophisticated design and currently accepted web accessibility techniques. Targeting tensions between simplicity and enrichment, the main focus of the course is clarification of accessible web design techniques and proving that good design and accessible content can exist contiguously. The course relies heavily upon exploring real-world examples from the web to engage students in critical thinking and discussion of best practices.
Furthermore, the course teaches students a process of accessible web design that equips them with the knowledge necessary to make informed, strategic decisions from site conception through evaluation and maintenance. Through an emphasis on identification of the target population and creation of a thorough site analysis, students learn to anticipate and design for the end-user experience.
The course is divided into four one-hour sections. The first hour addresses:
A Brief History of Accessible Web Design - provides students with a perspective on current practices;
Web Accessibility Laws - addresses policy issues and the applicability of laws to web sites; helps students understand when and how they must comply; examines the legal ramifications of non-compliance;
Web Accessibility Guidelines - students learn about Section 508 and W3C guidelines, with an emphasis on when and how to apply each standard.
Course demonstrations reinforce "best-practices" behaviors for techniques utilizing 508 and W3C guidelines for compliant web content.
The second hour focuses specifically on the integration of accessibility, usability and aesthetic enrichment. The instruction includes the application of widely accepted design techniques for generating accessible content. The topics are reinforced by instructor examples and by open-forum critique sessions with students. Hour two:
Simplicity versus Enrichment - how far to go with accessibility versus aesthetic design; knowing the audience and site goals; letting the content drive the accessibility efforts;
The Designer's Challenge - six principles for universal design; visual and experiential appeal for all abilities; elimination or reduction of Rich Content Delivery; maintaining privacy and security;
Information Architecture - learning the end-user experience and designing for ease of use and customizability; essential methods to combine accessibility, usability and aesthetics; creation of a site analysis.
The third course hour introduces students to specific disability-related issues of web use, along with forms of assistive technology (AT) used to address these issues on the web. This material will build on the previous hour by addressing how designing for AT effects decisions of simplicity versus enrichment. Hour three:
Types of Disabilities - how different forms of disabilities can effect web use; case studies of each type of disability; how to design to accommodate each type of disability;
Types of Assistive Technology - AT to address the needs of users on the web; built-in accessibility features versus third-party AT; how to design sites to take advantage of AT.
In the fourth hour, students learn how to validate web pages for accessibility through automated and manual methods. To consolidate their learning, they also examine and critique web sites per the Section 508 guidelines. Hour four:
Validating Web Pages - using existing validation software (Bobby, WAVE, etc.); manual verification; using alternative browsers to assist verification; testing with users with disabilities;
Review of Course Material - how to use this course material as a coherent web design plan; Section 508 case studies - successes and failures.
"Constructing an Accessible Web Experience: Equity and Enhancement through Design" takes a holistic approach to accessible web design. Students are taught to think of all aspects of site effectiveness and never lose track of site goals and the end-user experience. As in all types of design, "form follows function." Web developers who can design for user functions in the broad context of accessibility, usability and good aesthetics can provide us all with an enduring legacy of accessible webs that will become a model for designers to come.
6,8 Badre, A. (2002) Shaping Web Usability: Interaction Design in Context Boston: Addison-Wesley
5 Mullet, K. & Sano, D. (1995) Designing Visual Interfaces: Communication Oriented Techniques Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall
3 Nielsen, J. (2000) Designing Web Usability Indianapolis, IN: New Riders
1,2,4 Thatcher, J., et al. (2002) Constructing Accessible Web Sites Birmingham, UK: Glasshaus
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