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Is Accessibility Meaningless?

Allan Bisset

Despite the dire warnings about downturns and recession, more and more marketing budget is still going on line than ever before.  Accessibility and Usability are terms that marketing managers or anyone involved in commissioning websites or online campaigns will hear ad nauseam from web and internet marketing companies.  Many will also charge extra (using their own bespoke approach or standard software) for auditing those elements quite independently of any web design costs.

Rather than get bogged down in terms and concepts that are largely meaningless in a marketing sense,  if you want to get exercised about anything then focus on  USER EXPERIENCE.

There’s so much confusion about what the terms Accessibility and Usability mean anyway and what responsibilities brand owners actually have.  In SEO terms, a site must be “accessible” to search engines by not having design elements that hinder spiders (they don’t like filling in forms, can’t see form elements like drop downs for important contents and can’t see any JavaScript links that don’t have a more “accessible” fail safe link like plain old HTML).

Focussing on Accessibility (in the more widely accepted industry sense) in isolation is meaningless.  Accessibility is driven by a set of regulations that somehow seem outside the process of building a good website.  They are a set of rules you have to abide by, even if you don’t quite understand why, that are applied very often “after the event”.  Understanding your user, building a site that’s effective and delivers the best possible experience for those identified users is what is important.

The fact is that websites need to be accessible (and usable) by everyone – not just those with disabilities – if they are going to achieve your commercial objectives.  That certainly requires the site to be both accessible and usable, but the important question to address is how much weight to give to those two elements.  Achieving the optimum User Experience involves so much more than simply adhering to guidelines or legal requirements.

Your site should be engaging, fun, informative as appropriate to the audience.  Easy and logical to use, it should make life easier and encourage people to come back again and again.  It’s entirely possible for a site to highly accessible (conforming to all the guidelines and automated validators in the world) but also be barely usable.  Similarly, a site that is highly usable can also be completely inaccessible because it can’t be viewed by its intended audience (e.g. the surprisingly large percentage of UK users who are still on Dial Up and can’t wait for Flash-laden pages to load).

Achieving the best possible User Experience means that you have to understand your audience.  That does requires consideration of the balance between Accessibility and Usability, but those elements are just contributory factors in achieving that overall objective.

Optimising your site via SEO and content or other white hat techniques for example is also crucial – you’re not very accessible (or indeed usable) if no one can find you!  There’s no simple answer to weighting the balance between Accessibility and Usability.  Every site is as unique as its intended targets.  But these, and other considerations, should be so intrinsic to good web design that regarding them as discrete entities is meaningless.

Technical development and design, usability and accessibility, are all just components of the genuine objective – which is to deliver an online User Experience that is creative, engaging, effective and works for all concerned.  An online User Experience that customers will want to have again and again because it is informative, inspiring, entertaining and above all useful!

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