The following article first appeared in Public Sector Executive in August of 2008, http://www.publicsectorexecutive.com/dataview/News/News_Article.aspx?KeyValue=438
I revisited the article to see how relevant it is today and whether progress had been made in the subsequent years. The first thing i notice it the lack of references to social web and participatory culture of the web, I touch, lightly on pervasive media. Have things change however when considering accessibility and usability?
I’m not convinced…
Ensuring a website can be accessed by those with disabilities has been widely discussed, and many public sector organisations are following the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) guidelines on accessibility when developing their web-based services. However, how does accessibility impact usability? Is there any need to distinguish between the two? What about the wider experience of interacting online?
Web accessibility is synonymous with the provision of web services for individuals with disabilities and usability is considered a more general concept, relating to the ease with which everyone can use web-based services. However, the two are intrinsically linked. Although improved web accessibility is important, web developers need to take into consideration the needs of all visitors, rather than just those who need to use a screen reader to navigate web pages for example. Consequently, the key to the provision of both usable and accessible web services is that web designers think of the users’ needs first and foremost, and adapt the design accordingly. By doing this, they are able to create web services that all users can benefit from.
Focus on users
When developing a usable web service, public sector decision makers should first identify all target groups – not only those the organisation is currently interacting with. Who are they? How do they want to interact with you?
For example, a local government body may wish to raise its profile among the teenagers living in the community. One way of engaging with this particular segment of the population is via the web.
Due to the rapid pace of web technology development, the public are now using a variety of platforms to find information, access services and interact with public sector bodies. These include games consoles, PDAs and mobile phones, as well as assistive technologies such as screen readers and voice browsers. In addition, individuals may wish to have access to public services at their convenience, so it is important that a website is easy to use not only with a PC or Mac, but also with a mobile phone, public kiosk or other appropriate platforms.
To ensure that public sector organisations are able to interact effectively with their communities, and their individual preferences, it is vital that they keep abreast of technological developments that deliver websites quickly and easily. By improving usability and accessibility, organisations can also demonstrate that it is socially responsible, enhancing its public profile among its different target audiences.
There are a myriad considerations when building public web services. It is easy to focus too much on the technical issues, at the expense of design, and vice versa. It is content however that is most overlooked.
All content should be structured clearly with headers and paragraphs, and any particularly important information should be positioned at the top of the page so that users do not have to read through, or listen to, the entire page before getting to the section containing the information they are looking for. To illustrate, it is commonplace on private sector websites that the “contact us” section is located at the very bottom of the page. Some private organisations may not wish to be contacted by the public, and therefore attempt to hide their telephone number or email address at the bottom of the webpage. However, all public sector bodies should encourage a dialogue with their audience and, as part of this, make contact information as easy to find as possible on the website.
Additionally, language should be simple and consistent, and free of unnecessary jargon. By following the guidelines of the Plain English initiative, an organisation can become known as a reliable and useful source of information. Ensuring that language used on the site is easy to understand is important not only because information should be accessible to those whose first language is not English, but also because if the public is able to find information easily online, it is less likely that they will have to resort to customer support services. In essence, improving usability leads to cost savings and makes more funds available for improving the overall effectiveness of the organisation.
To ensure that an organisation’s website meets general usability and accessibility requirements, it is worth investing in user testing during the planning stages and upon completion of the site. Despite the wide range of automated testing tools available, they are not nearly as accurate and reliable as actual user testing. Moreover, a site can be technically compliant while being difficult to use or functionally inaccessible, which is why user testing is crucial in measuring the degree of ease with which users are able to find information and interact with the organisation in question. In addition, once a usable and accessible site has been developed, organisations should remember to monitor the way in which content is added and updated on the site to ensure that the site will not become unusable or inaccessible.
There are some public sector websites that have been designed in a way that enables the public to access information easily using a variety of platforms and with the vast majority of widely-adopted of web browsers. The DVLA (www.dvla.org.uk) and the Training and Development Agency (www.tda.gov.uk) are good examples. These organisations have realised that making their websites more usable and accessible for all is not only beneficial for the organisation from a financial and administrative point of view, but it also enhances their public image. Above all, it enables individuals of different ages, lifestyles and levels of ability to easily access public services online.
Following W3C guidelines is the first step towards improving a website, but it is not enough. Public sector organisations need to think beyond that and take into consideration the needs and preferences of everyone they wish to reach, to guarantee that their web-based services are both usable and accessible for all.