BS8878’s one year anniversary – the UK web community assess its achievements

To really know if a website is accessible you need to user-test it with its disabled and elderly audiences.

That’s one of the key recommendations of British Standard BS8878 which aims to increase understanding of the importance of accessibility and best practice ways of how to ensure it across digital web production for an audience of non-technical website and app creators.

To really know if BS8878 is being effective in communicating those messages you need to user-test it with website creators and others in the web production community.

So, to mark BS8878’s one year anniversary, its lead-author, Jonathan Hassell of Hassell Inclusion, has done just that, as well as asking major voices from the UK accessibility scene to give their thoughts.

And the results are in…

In a nutshell

In one year, BS8878:

  • has been taken up by a large number organisations across a wide range of sectors of the UK digital economy
  • has provided clear, non-technical advice on compliance with the UK Equality Act, and helped move accessibility from a bolt-on component to a fundamental part of digital production
  • has established itself as an easy to use, practical solution to help organisations embed inclusive design within their processes
  • has enabled organisations to communicate their accessibility requirements more clearly with design agencies and accessibility and usability organisations
  • has helped reduce the cost and improve the quality of delivering accessible products for organising implementing it

In 2012 BS8878 needs to broaden its user-base and increase its uptake with SMEs, via the provision of low-cost support documentation, case-studies, tools and training. And it needs to prove its value on the world stage to fulfil its potential and become an international Standard.

Uptake of BS8878 exceeding expectations

According to the British Standards Institution, take-up of BS8878 has exceeded its own expectations and, based on a snapshot of current users, the Standard is now being applied across a range of sectors, including central and local government, the NHS, police, retail, housing, education and charities. BSI Sector Development Manager David Fatscher said “We are delighted with the uptake. It shows that there is a real need for clear, non-technical guidance that complements WCAG 2.0 and can help steer those commissioning the development of web products through the entire life-cycle. What’s more, the last twelve months have seen encouraging initiatives from Government and campaigners like Martha Lane Fox in recognition of the important role that accessibility plays as an enabler of digital inclusion.”

BrowseAloud are one organisation who, with BSI, Nomensa, the Digital Accessibility Centre and Hassell Inclusion, have promoted BS8878 since its launch, in a series of half-day seminars across the UK. “Feedback was extremely positive”, says David Robinson, BrowseAloud General Manager. “Delegates, such as Marketing & Communication Managers and IT and Web Managers, found the new standard really easy to understand and gained a real insight into incorporating web accessibility into their online communications in a cost-effective manner.”

BS8878 as a practical way of achieving inclusive design and legal compliance

So what has BS8878 contributed to the accessibility scene since it’s launch?

One crucial contribution, according to Dr David Sloan from the University of Dundee, is that it “moves the focus of web accessibility beyond content – and all the limitations that go with only measuring web content accessibility – to the process of delivering inclusive online experiences. This was a very important step that we desperately needed to take, and greater awareness of how we can measure quality of effort made towards inclusion is essential for progress.”

This link with inclusive design is what attracts agencies like Nomensa to use the Standard. “We’ve taken our increasing activity with BS8878 as a positive sign that organisations are considering the strategic importance of inclusive design. BS8878 is a practical tool that really helps us help our clients humanise technology!” says Simon Norris, Nomensa’s CEO.

The Employers Forum on Disability also believes BS8878 has a role to play in enabling organisations to adopt inclusive design. “As chair of the Business Taskforce on Accessible Technology, I am delighted to mark the first birthday of BS8878” says Susan Scott-Parker, EFD’s chief executive officer. “It is a standard that really pushes developers, especially corporate developers, to place real-world accessibility at the heart of everything they do. It is good practice that helps everyone, including the corporate signatories of the Taskforce’s Accessible Technology Charter who have publicly committed to making IT accessibility a mandatory consideration in normal business.”

The Standard is also being used by those providing education and training in Inclusive Design. Suzette Keith and Gill Whitney run the MSc in Digital Inclusion at Middlesex University. “Our students use BSS8878 as a framework in assignments such as improving the accessibility of a real website linking a group of older people in the UK to groups in three other countries. The Standard guides them in identifying the specific needs of older people through inclusive design and develops their problem solving skills by requiring them to prepare design briefs which prioritise solutions that would work for everyone.”

Martin Sloan, a legal Associate in the Technology, Information and Outsourcing Group at Brodies LLP highlights the Standard’s usefulness in understanding the requirements of the Equality Act: “When I referred to BS8878 in a recent blog I was asked why I hadn’t referred to the W3C’s WCAG instead. My answer was that the majority of people involved in procuring web and app design services (or responsible for internal legislative compliance) will find BS8878 a far more accessible (no pun intended) document than the W3C’s technical guidelines, and provides a framework that goes beyond a list of technical design requirements. BS8878 emphasises, and this is important, that simply complying with the WCAG guidelines is unlikely to meet the requirements of the Equality Act. As BS8878 explains, organisations can’t simply carry out an automated tick box check of the HTML, but instead need to user test the site or app itself to ensure that it actually is accessible.”

Organisations showing first signs of the benefits of BS8878 implementation

While full implementation of BS8878 requires a cultural change in organisations that may take a long time to plan, implement and review, some organisations are already enjoying the benefits of having taken the time to do that.

Rob Wemyss, Head of Accessibility for Royal Mail Group explains, “BS8878 is an integral part of Royal Mail Group’s accessibility strategy. The last 12 months has seen a marked shift in our approach to delivering accessible ICT using the standard. Embedding accessibility into the project delivery lifecycle is an ongoing challenge. BS8878 has given us the framework to help reduce the cost and improve the quality when delivering accessible products our customers want to use.”

The Standard is also being adopted in the education sector. “We needed a set of guidelines that are practical and relatively easy to follow for people creating our Virtual Learning Environments and learning content who aren’t just web developers” says E.A. Draffan, Research Fellow in Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton. “BS8878 ticks all the boxes for us, as it includes advice for those procuring as well as developing websites.”

The newly founded Digital Acessibility Centre (DAC) have also found the standard useful. “As a small organisation whose prime purpose is to promote accessibility, we decided to design and build our own website using BS8878 to guide us” explains Cam Nicholl, DAC’s Director of Sales & Service Development. “The biggest hurdle was where to actually start. Luckily Jonathan Hassell provided us with the answers we needed during a training session he gave to one of our clients who has also decided to work towards conformance with the Standard. And once we started, we found it relatively easy to move forwards.”

BS8878’s growing importance to accessibility and usability agencies

Usability and accessibility agencies have also found the standard useful for their work.

Léonie Watson, Nomensa’s Director of Accessibility and Web Development, said: “Throughout the last 12 months Nomensa has created BS8878 strategies for a growing number of organisations. It’s given us an opportunity to live and breathe the standard, and we’ve accumulated lots of insight and experience that we can feed back into BS8878 as it develops in the future.”

Robin Christopherson, Head of Digital Inclusion for AbilityNet, has also seen the Standard make a marked impression on website owners across all sectors. “Organisations are now coming to AbilityNet with a clearer perspective on what is involved in inclusive design, and with an appreciation that accessibility isn’t just a bolt-on component that all too often drops off when the wrong decisions have been made. We’ve also heard fewer horror-stories of design briefs that have been short on detail when it comes to specifying accessibility, which often leads to a long battle to achieve it – a battle which isn’t always won. It has also lead us to introduce a managed solution where organisations can embed AbilityNet expertise to help achieve compliance and, once achieved, maintain it. It’s very encouraging to see organisations taking accessibility so seriously, and BS 8878 has played an important role in this process.”

User Vision’s CEO Chris Rourke agrees: “BS 8878 (and its predecessor PAS 78) has helped move the accessibility topic from the realm of the front end developers to the overall site management.  It firmly positions web accessibility in the context of inclusive design, as something that site managers can (and should) consider from the very start, especially in the selection of experienced design vendors and the accessibility statement.  The 16 steps follow a logical and comprehensive path that most businesses should be able to follow.”

There’s still more work to do…

However, while everyone agreed BS8878 provides useful guidance for large private, public and third sector organisations, Sandi Wassmer, MD of digital agency Copious, feels another step is needed in its second year: “It now needs to move from awareness to uptake, with opportunities for SMEs to participate”.

Many of those interviewed felt that the cost of BS8878 was a constraint to its uptake, noting that, while they understood BSi’s business model and appreciated that the Standard is freely available to view in many UK public libraries, the £100 price tag was putting off smaller organisations finding out what BS8878 has to offer them.

And the Standard’s lead author Jonathan Hassell, now himself the Director of the SME Hassell Inclusion, feels it has much to give SMEs. “When I started my business I needed to create a website in a week. Within 2 hours I’d worked through the BS8878 production process, and found that the questions it asked me – about my site’s purpose, its audiences, and why they’d use my site – ensured I created a site that was based on a clear understanding of the needs of all my users. The result is not just an accessible website. It’s a good website.” He’s sharing how he did it via his Implementing BS8878 blog.

Other initiatives to make the Standard more available to SMEs include the ‘Website in 1 Day’ training course developed by Hassell and accessible WordPress developer Graham Armfield of Coolfields Consulting. Says Armfield: “We’re finding that the combination of BS8878’s decision framework and WordPress’s ability to allow people to quickly prototype websites can allow smaller organisations to create simple v1 websites which meet many of their users’ most important needs within one day.”

BS8878’s future is global uptake and more support documentation

So, what’s the future for BS8878?

The Standard is receiving quite a lot of interest from outside the UK. Jonathan Hassell’s BS8878 summary presentations have been viewed by over 6000 people from more than 25 countries, and he is presenting BS8878 case-studies at the CSUN Conference in San Diego in February, and in India later in 2012.

These are the first steps towards moving the standard towards becoming an international standard; something which was encouraged by the international accessibility standards community at a Joint BSi/JISC CETIS accessibility workshop earlier this year.

As part of the drive towards internationalising the Standard, the IST/45 committee who created the standard are seeking more feedback on its value and any ways it could be improved via the BS8878 community of practice on

And expect to see more activities designed to encourage uptake of the Standard:

  • more opportunities for awareness and training in BS8878, both as a high-level overview, and its implications for individual job-roles
  • creation of ‘starting point’ templates based on a number of common website scenarios
  • creation of tools to help organisations create and share the accessibility policy documentation they create when following the BS8878 production process
  • creation of case-studies of BS8878 implementation from large and small organisations
  • creation of a robust approach to measuring the benefits of BS8878 to organisations
  • more support to help the BS8878 communities on and linked-in to really take-off

Keep up to date with BS8878

To keep up to date with the next stages of the evolution of the Standard and the support ecosystem growing around it, join the BS8878 Community of Practice and sign-up to the Hassell Inclusion newsletter.

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