For World Usability Day: The state of accessibility

Today is World Usability Day.

To celebrate I’m spending my day with User Vision in Edinburgh presenting on accessibility and BS8878 to audiences I don’t normally get the chance to talk with.

Here’s a (subtitled) video of a discussion between User Vision’s CEO, Chris Rourke, and I on the current state of accessibility.

And, in text form, here are my notes for that filming as a transcript.

I hope you find them interesting…

1. BS 8878 was based on the PAS 78 Guide to good practice in commissioning accessible websites. Why make it an official Standard rather than a PAS – what extra benefits did you want to achieve with that change?

  • A Standard gets more respect because of the extra effort in getting it reviewed and agreed. That’s why WCAG 2.0 is so well known.
  • And making BS8878 a Standard enables us the possibility of making it an International Standard so the best practice in it can be applied more globally.

2. It’s been 11 months since BS 878 was released – what has been the impact / uptake of this standard and is it meeting its intended goals?

  • It’s goals were to share best practice in the first Standard about the process of accessibility rather than it’s technical aspects. It’s succeeded in helping harmonise the separate worlds of inclusive design, personalisation and WCAG approaches to accessibility. It’s also put a stake in the ground for the importance of mobile and IPTV accessibility, even if the technical guidelines we want it to point to aren’t quite there yet.
  • Uptake is always difficult to measure, and it’s still early days for organisations to go public and say they have changed the way they work to follow BS8878. However, some organisations already have including: Royal Mail, and Southampton University. And many others are working on it. BS8878 is one of the best-selling standards BSI have ever created – so it’s met their goals. I’ve trained many organisations globally and my BS8878 presentations on slideshare have been viewed by over 6000 people from over 25 countries.
  • I’m currently in the process of collecting feedback from organisations which are implementing it, and creating case studies of its effectiveness.

3. What types of companies / organisations are using the BS 8878 standard?   Would you like other types to use it more?

  • Of course, as I believe the Standard can both help disabled and elderly people and the organisations creating the websites they use, I’d always like more organisations to use BS8878.
  • At the moment it’s being used by government, education, and financial and service companies. So it’s mostly large companies at the moment, but with a wide range of website purposes.
  • However, I’m also using it to help me create my own business site for Hassell Inclusion to prove its usefulness for SMEs – I’m blogging about this too to help other SMEs.
  • And I’m starting to train smaller organisations – even those who know very little about the web – in it too.

4. Previously, the perception was that for accessibility to be addressed more widely, some type of highly publicised legal action against a non-compliant site would need to be taken. With this seeming less and less likely as time goes on, how can we ensure that accessibility remains near the top of company agendas.

  • I totally agree.
  • For me, the legal argument is like buying an insurance policy you’re not sure you need. You’ll do it, but you won’t spend time or money on it. And you won’t check to see if it’s actually helping anyone other than your risk manager. While there are some cases where the law has helped inclusion (I’m thinking of the AFB’s work with google docs, and helping motivate Apple’s creation of Voiceover) they are very few.
  • The business case – the 11m disabled people in the UK, and the rapidly aging population – is much more compelling. So too is the potential for using accessibility as a USP for your products like Apple is now doing with Voiceover.

5. How do you think the UK compares to the rest of the world in terms of awareness of web accessibility and general level of web accessibility build into most sites?

  • My travels tell me that the UK is among the top countries in the world for awareness and implementation of accessibility, as we’ve had a law requiring accessibility for over 10 years, and that law doesn’t just apply to public service sites.
  • The US and Canada are fast catching up due to recent changes in their disability laws. Some parts of Europe are also maturing in web accessibility due in some part to the European Commission’s championing of inclusion. Awareness in the Middle East, through UservIsion’s work in Dubai and MADA’s work in Qatar, is also improving. And I’m hoping to go out to Japan and India soon as they are getting really interesting…

6. At the BBC you advocated and encouraged testing of new developments with a sample of disabled users.    What do you think are advantages from actually testing the new site / application with disabled people compared to simply auditing it against guidelines such as WCAG 2.0?

  • WCAG 2.0 is useful but it doesn’t ensure disabled people, or anyone for that matter, can actually use your product. It’s a great way of ensuring that when you do that user-testing, the product has a chance of being usable, but it certainly doesn’t guarantee it for most modern web products. And, for me, user-research at the start of a project is as important as user-testing at the end of it. A pound spent understanding your users’ needs at the beginning can save many thousands of pounds later in the process if you really want disabled and elderly people to use your site.

7. Do you think the current technical de facto standard of WCAG 2.0 is adequate for the current and future web technologies?

  • It’s a great start for now.
  • But it needs updating to handle technologies like mobile web and mobile apps better – they aren’t even new any more.
  • And each guideline needs to be costed – to give an example: alt-text costs very little, audio description costs loads, but you wouldn’t know that from the standards or the priority levels…

8. What do you think are the biggest challenges holding back greater accessibility online?

  • The benefits need strengthening and clarifying:
    • Maximising the size of potential disabled and elderly audiences:
      • We need to further remove barriers for disabled people getting online (due to complexity and cost of assistive technologies) which limits the number of disabled people who will use any organisation’s websites.
      • We also need better ways for organisations to ensure disabled people know that their website has been designed to work better for them than their competitors, which limits their return on investment in accessibility.
    • Getting a clearer picture of the size and needs of these audiences:
      • We need better ways for organisations to get data on the number of disabled people using their websites so the benefit can be properly assessed.
      • We need better ways for those disabled audiences who don’t usually complain (those with literacy difficulties, dyslexia or learning difficulties) to make their views known to organisations whose sites they are having trouble using.
  • The costs of accessibility across platforms need to be lowered, especially for multi-platform accessibility:
    • from the user’s point of view – sites can require different assistive technologies for use on each platform, and then still not provide a good enough user-experience (especially on mobile)
    • from the site creator’s point of view – the different technologies, accessibility capability and guidelines for each platform make things more difficult and costly.
  • From there it’s all about education:
    • Getting rid of unhelpful myths like ‘accessibility is anti-creative and results in uninteresting sites’, and find ways of engaging the creativity of web production teams to create compelling, multi-modal, accessible web experiences.
    • Making sure website owners understand the business case and make justifiable decisions on how to prioritise inclusion alongside other business imperatives, including things like data protection and security.
    • Making sure the next generation of product managers, project managers, web developers, user-experience designers and researchers, marketeers and authors know what they can do to make their work include rather than exclude disabled and elderly people.

9. What are you doing now with your new company Hassell Inclusion

  • Hassell Inclusion is all about maximising those benefits and minimising those costs, for disabled and elderly users, and for companies creating products for those users.
  • We’re doing research into the opportunities and risks new digital trends and technologies pose for inclusion, to help inform strategy for those concerned with digital inclusion.
  • We’re grasping some of those opportunities like the potential of the Kinect to be the breakthrough in capability and cost needed to push sign language recognition forwards – see our uKinect proof of concept for people with learning difficulties who use Makaton signing.
  • We’re working with other innovators to ensure any risks to inclusion posed by new technologies are mitigated – looking, for example, into mechanisms for lessening the current high cost to organisations of providing audio-description to help blind people access information in videos.
  • We’re working to make available any of the best practice insights and experience that I generated in my years at the BBC, as Standards (like BS8878), blogs, presentations, support tools, training or consultancy to other organisations.

Want more?

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Neil Allison says

Hi Jonathan,

I attended your presentation at Uservision and really enjoyed it. Please can you post the slides so that I can share with colleagues?

Many thanks!

Jonathan Hassell says

Hi Neil,

Glad you enjoyed my presentation. You can find it at:

Hope your colleagues like it. Let me know if they have any questions.


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