Web Designer, Heal Thy Self | January 24, 2004
I'm really glad so many of you enjoyed my article on web accessibility. A few interesting points were raised in the comments that I think are worth expanding on.
Isofarro is correct that this site has a few accessibility issues of it's own. The text in the header is definitely a problem (as there is no text equivalent) and one I'll add to my growing todo list. I also agree that the main nav poses accessibility issues. The font I've chosen is a very small pixel font which a few people have mentioned is difficult to read. Also, because the nav items are rendered as images, you cannot change their size. However, unlike the first problem which was an oversight, this was actually a conscious decision.
This site was always intended to be a personal site. I never imagined it would get popular and the site was built with a limited audience in mind. Also, as it was a personal site, I wanted to have a bit of fun with the design and do things I wouldn't normally do on a commercial project. I'd previously use pixel fonts on my photo gallery (definitely not an accessible site) and wanted to carry the branding through to this site. At the time I did consider the accessibility issue, but decided in this instance, the aesthetic issue was more important. This is something many accessibility advocates would find hard to justify.
I believe you need a solid understanding of accessibility issues to build great websites. However I also believe that you need to balance them against other aspects such as usability, standards compliance, aesthetics etc. I'm not suggesting that you should ignore one for the other. The importance thing is to understand the issues and make conscious decisions based on all the contributing factors. At it's core, this is the essence of design. Understanding the problem at hand, all the contributing factors, and crafting something that's an elegant balance.
Accessibility, like usability and web standards, isn't a stick you use to beat people with, and it's also not an absolute. A site isn't either accessible or not (although some sites are pretty bad), it's a question of degree. When building commercial sites, I tend to aim for somewhere between AA and AAA compliance. In the case of this site, the lack of a textural equivalent for the header text means technically it wouldn't even get an A rating. However, apart from that minor oversight, this site stands up pretty well.
Building to a site to a set of accessibility guidelines is an indication of intent. It says that you have an understanding about the issues and you're doing something positive about them. These days, for most commercial sites I build, I suggest people have an accessibility statement outlining their policy and the guidelines they are aiming for (something that's also on the todo list for this site). The important thing to note is the word "intent". Very few sites get built that reach the guidelines 100% on each page, and fewer stay that way once they are live. An accessibility statement (and bobby rating) says "this is the level we're aiming for, but if you encounter any problems, let us know and we'll endeavour to fix them".
This brings me neatly on to my next topic, as the same holds true when building a site to web standards. I'm sure some people put up the little xhtml/css web standards buttons to say "ha ha, look at me, I'm totally compliant". However for most people it's simply an indication of intent. It says that you are aware of the issues and will aim to have your site validate to a set of standards. This is something I do on this site.
On the left hand side of my index page, under my blog roll and RSS feed, you'll see a couple of little validation buttons. Clicking on these links will take you to the W3C validation page which will attempt to validate this site. If you try it now, you'll see that the site doesn't currently validate. The site did validate when it was first built, and for a good few months after that. However over time a few errors have crept in. I added a couple of geo meta tags which I copied and pasted. In doing so I forgot that I needed to close the tags and this has caused a few errors. The rest of the errors are caused by character encoding, often from copying and pasting url's or writing posts in a word processor.
So does having these validation images/links make me a fraud. Am I trying to pull the wool over peoples eyes to make them think this site validates when it doesn't? Well, apart from the fact that there would be no benefit in me doing this, I'd be pretty dumb to add a validation link and not expect people to click it. The links are there as a demonstration of intent, to show transparency and hopefully, if errors creep in, people will be kind enough to let me know.
If you've read some of the article on this site, you'll realise that I have a strong interest in things such as usability, accessibility, design, process and web standards. Not being a single issue kind of a guy, I feel that all these competing pressures are of equal importance. Web design doesn't take place in a vacuum and requires a holistic approach to get right. There are a number of people who feel it's all or nothing. Either your site is 100% compliant or you're part of the problem. However I believe the right approach is to offer incentives to encourage people to build better websites, not beat them up if they don't as far as you'd like.
Posted at January 24, 2004 8:00 PM