Web accessibility myths 2011 – a call for accessibility advocates to be more business-minded
It’s the time of year when web accessibility advocates tend to produce accessibility myths blogs…
As nothing stays still on the web, and many of these blogs are rather old (other than Ian Pouncey’s great blog earlier this year), it’s important that our understanding of accessibility myths moves on too…
So, for Christmas 2011, and to hook-in with the user-research blogs in my series on implementing BS8878, here’s Part One of some accessibility myths I’d like to expose to clear out the cobwebs before 2012, based mostly on my experience and user-research from my time at the BBC.
And, yes, I’m going to be provocative. This isn’t for cheap effect, but aims to challenge some of the accepted assumptions many accessibility advocates hold which I believe are really not serving us, or the disabled and elderly people we are trying to help, well at all.
New: get it in pictures…
1. What disabled and elderly people need is accessibility
No, they don’t.
That’s kind of like saying what you need to get from A to B is a great engine. An engine is certainly necessary, but it’s not sufficient. What people want is a form of transport powered by an engine. A good engine will help them get there, but it isn’t enough: they need seats, wheels, a way of driving which is optimised to their physical abilities. And most people don’t really want to have to think about the engine of the car they’re driving, they just want to drive.
Similarly websites fundamentally need to be usable. It’s the whole package that needs to work for disabled and elderly users. And that whole package is better termed as usability (or even user-experience). After all that’s what organisations aim at for every other audience of their websites, as that’s what brings them reach and profits.
2. What website creators need is WCAG 2.0
Similarly, for people creating websites, accessibility guidelines are often too technical, especially as so few organisations actually create engines themselves (ie. code websites) any more – to give a quick example: 69 million websites use WordPress as of Dec 2011.
So, while WCAG is essential to help those creating engines (to continue the metaphor) to make them accessible, what most organisations need is something to help them select from the engines out there (ie. procuring a content management system), fill it with a chasis and seats (ie. the information architecture of their site), put them in a beautiful outer shell (ie. the visual design), and then try and make sure they don’t dent the car when they drive it (ie. adding content to the site over time – okay maybe that’s stretching the metaphor a bit).
What they need are procurement guidelines, information and visual design guidelines, and content guidelines. And, where these are included in WCAG, they are too difficult to find (although Binary Blue’s Accessibility Wizard which breaks down WCAG by job roles is a good start for letting designs and content producers know what WCAG requires them to do).
There’s a reason why accessibility advocates who rename their accessibility talks as ‘inclusive design’ get a bigger audience. Just ask Sandi Wassmer, or the Engineering Design Centre, or the Helen Hamlyn Centre…
So advocates need a way of talking about accessibility that is less about technical accessibility and more about the whole process of how you create, test and maintain web sites and apps. Because the important thing for website owners is whether people can use their site to achieve their goals, not whether or not it complies with a set of guidelines, whatever they are. And, while AA conformance levels are useful, they don’t guarantee this. Whereas task-based testing, especially task-based user-testing, has more chance of doing this.
WCAG on its own isn’t enough. Look into how BS8878 places accessibility thinking within the inclusive design process and you’ll be more effective.
3. The best business case for accessibility is the Law
This may have been the case in the past, but it doesn’t really motivate organisations, and doesn’t help disabled people very much. Accessibility motivated by the law is lobbyist-led, tick-box-based, risk-aversion. From a website owner’s perspective, it’s an insurance policy you don’t know if you need. And so it’s one that you’ll spend as little money on as possible if you can get away with it. Your real reasons for doing it are to cover yourself against people who shout loud. And to do the minimum necessary for them to shut up. In the long term, while that might do something to help that one disabled group, it often doesn’t bring benefits to the wider body of disabled people, and sometimes doesn’t really bring any real benefits to the company creating the products either.
In a time of recession, more and more pressure is being put on the business case for accessibility. Legal arguments, other than for public sector and huge companies, don’t really bite. Ethical arguments are fine for boom, but are too thin for bust.
4. Accessibility is cheap… no, it’s expensive… no, it’s cheap…
So which is it? The problem is advocates are not clear enough about which aspects of accessibility are cheap and which are expensive.
So, let’s be clear. Not doing accessibility is always cheaper in the short term. That’s why many websites don’t do it.
And, while including thinking around accessibility at the start of site creation makes it less costly than later on, some accessibility requirements are just costly whenever you do them. Especially doing accessibility for video, user generated content, and online games.
One of the biggest failings of the WCAG 2.0 guidelines is a lack of transparency about how much it will cost to implement each checkpoint, and how many people will benefit from it. Site owners currently need an expert to tell them what they can do cheaply and easily, and what they can’t. And the costs can vary hugely depending on the purpose of their site.
I’m hoping to ease this situation by releasing a range of BS8878 tools in 2012 – these will embed some of this expertise to allow site owners to think about these costs and the benefits that come from them, from early in their site production process. Sign up to my newsletter to make sure you don’t miss out on them…
So accessibility is not cheap. But that’s not necessarily game over.
The real question is, is it worth it?
5. We won’t get enough Return on Investment
This is pretty much the most important myth of the lot – without addressing this well, the rest are rather beside the point.
What actually are the financial benefits to organisations of having an accessible website?
I think the accessibility advocacy community have never really answered this adequately.
We’ve hidden behind legal and ethical business cases. And the more enlightened of us have hidden behind disability and aging statistics as an answer of sorts.
But few can answer the most obvious two questions any product manager or website owner worth their salt should ask:
- how much will it cost to make my site accessible, and
- what financial benefit will I get if I do?
We’ve already seen that we’re not clear enough on the costs.
But we’re also very, very hazy on the benefits.
When asked to talk about ROI, it still feels like we haven’t really grasped the complexity of the other factors we claim accessibility can benefit. It is the case that sites without good semantic code will generally fail to get any google juice (see Liam McGee’s SEO and Accessibility Overlap). But we should be wary of overplaying our ‘accessibility is great for SEO’ hand. Listen to any SEO expert and you’ll find there is much, much, much more to SEO these days than things that accessibility will bring as a by-product. And some essential SEO issues, like keyword optimisation, can have a much more complex, sometimes negative, relationship with accessibility. Moreover, while HTML sites which are created to be accessible are easily maintainable, so are inaccessible sites maintained through a good Content Management System these days.
So these arguments are well past their sell-by date.
What would work is the answer to this question: how many disabled people are using the websites you’ve provided accessibility help for?
Pretty much all accessibility advocates have no answer to this question. In the UK, we point back to past successes from Tescos (in 2004) and Legal & General (in 2007). But these don’t cut it these days. Tescos managed to get great ROI stats on the use of their site by people with disabilities because they created a separate accessible site, and even they aren’t doing that these days (because all of us advocates say they shouldn’t). Legal & General’s ROI case is also useful, but close analysis makes you wonder how much their emphasis on usability resulted in the ROI as much as their emphasis on accessibility as they don’t have stats for usage by people with disabilities, just a ‘lack of complaints’.
Worryingly, most of the case-studies we point to (even those from WAI’s useful business case pages) are before web 2.0. And even web 2.0 seems outdated to most website creators these days. So their value is limited when the real struggles that disabled people have with inaccessible websites now are more to do with rich internet applications, multimedia, social networking and use on mobile phones.
No, the important thing is for us to get the sort of quantitative analytics behind accessibility that have powered the SEO industry into becoming a behemoth. We have a lot to learn from their simple model of: let me analyse your site’s google ranking, do some keyword and link magic, and show you how far up the rankings you’ve gone and how many more visitors that’s delivered. That’s Return on Investment anyone can understand. Trying to put accessibility through the same model reveals the awful gap: we can do the magic bit in the middle, but we have no tools at all to tell you how many disabled people your site attracted at the start, or how many more we’ve delivered by doing our accessibility work.
Without that, expect the SEO consultants to charge the earth and do little marketing, and expect yourself to have to work much harder than that for a smaller wage and impact.
If you want to help Hassell Inclusion and our partners change this contact us…
6. If you build it (to be accessible) then they’ll come…
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.
If you make your site beautifully accessible, you may get better google rankings, but it doesn’t guarantee you visits from people in the disabled and elderly communities. You’ve got to have a site whose purpose appeals to them (otherwise they’ll still struggle to use sites they actually want to use, even if their accessibility and usability is appalling).
And, even if they do want to use your site, you need to market it to them like you would to anyone else. And unfortunately, it’s still too difficult to easily market products to disabled and elderly communities, mostly because the communities are rarely communities; they are often disparate, isolated people.
This is another constraint on ROI which needs attention.
So Hassell Inclusion and our partners are working on this one too. Contact us if you’d like to join in.
Expect part two next week…
That’s enough for us all to reflect on for Christmas.
In Part Two, for the New Year, I’ll take my 2011 accessibility myths further to cover:
- Accessibility and Inclusive Design are anti-creative
- Accessibility and Inclusive Design help everyone
- Disabled people use Assistive Technologies
- Accessibility’s just about blind people – now for platforms
- Text is more accessible than other media
- The most important accessibility requirement for images is alt-text
- The most important people in accessibility are developers
- It doesn’t matter if your mobile site/app isn’t accessible, just as long as your desktop site is
- Websites have to be accessible from the start
- BS8878 is just for huge companies
Have your say – shape the debate
The views in my article are designed to challenge our accepted views of accessibility. But I believe we accessibility advocates need to face up to whether we need to change those accepted views if we are to be more effective.
We can only do that together, so please:
- leave me a comment if you agree and want to add to my arguments;
- leave me a comment to tell me where I’m wrong
If we can become more effective through this debate, then we’ll not only have a Happy Christmas but a more prosperous New Year.
If this blog has been useful, you might like to sign-up for the Hassell Inclusion newsletter to get more insights like this in your email every other week.
Roll of honour – other useful myths blogs that came before me…
- 2010: Ian Pouncey’s Web Accessibility Myths – four great points well made
- 2011: Five Myths about Accessibility Myths – useful article, which I’ve tried to learn from in writing this…
- 2005: Roger Johansson’s Accessibility Myths and Misconceptions – the original ‘classic’
- 2005: Webcredible’s Web accessibility myths – old, but still makes some good points, especially around how accessible websites do not need to stifle creativity
- 2006: Web Design Group’s Accessibility Myths – rather outdated now