Christian Heilmann

Inaccessible by brand?

Wednesday, July 6th, 2005 at 11:30 am

As a part of my job I am right now conducting an accessibility audit of one of our clients’ sites. My findings so far and the background and history of the project are a perfect example of how much of a gap is between accessibility best practice tutorials / articles and the real business world.

The Project

  • We have developed and maintained the site since 2001
  • We are only partly responsible for the design and the content. A design agency delivers all of that – with focus on print and TV.
  • It is a maintenance project on a monthly budget that includes all deliveries – from content maintenance (image optimization) to server infrastructure and hosting
  • To keep within budget, the maintenance development is outsourced to an office outside the UK with a quick turnover in developers of a wide range of skills and quality awareness

The client expectations and attributes

  • The site should show the brand and be “fun to use”
  • The client is not dependent on the site as a main customer channel – it is a worldwide known brand and has real outlet stores.
  • The site does not have any products for sale or order; it is simply another communication channel to show the brand

The technical background

  • The technical implementation was initially ASP with some database functionality for lookups and was optimized to work for IE4 and Netscape Communicator 4.x. All the interactive sections like signing up for the newsletter, download of fun wallpapers, screensavers and other brand collateral is still in this format and just got a new lick of paint in between.
  • About two years ago, the client wanted to go Flash, but have an HTML fallback option. Both should be maintained from the same source, and there should not be any overhead or extra work for the HTML version. This is achieved by using XML for the content, XSLT to generate the HTML and Turbine to generate the Flash on the fly. The live site is generated statically by Cocoon.
  • As interaction with a database was out of budget and scope, all the earlier mentioned server-interaction sections are opened in pop up windows.
  • As the Flash version is the “fun to use” one the site as it is now automatically sends users with Flash enabled to that one – rendering the HTML version as an “accessible” version rather inaccessible for users with special needs and Flash.

Enter “Accessibility on a shoestring”

As the brand is constantly in the limelight and also gets a fair amount of flak, and with some gentle prodding of yours truly, the client got aware of accessibility needs and demanded “some of that”.

In an initial presentation I tried my best to point out that accessibility is more than just some technical changes to the HTML, introduced different kinds of disability and showed sections of the page that are inaccessible by trying to use them with a keyboard and speech recognition.

Aware of budget restraints, I came up with three options to tackle “the accessibility problem” (they were named differently though):

  • COA (cover our a…. you know): Get rid of the automatic redirect and offer the user a choice between a Flash version – that might not be accessible to all – and a more basic HTML version that is accessible. Offer a mean of contact on each page to tell the client about issues and offer an accessibility statement explaining why some parts of the site are not accessible.
  • Clean Up: All of the COA and changing the forms not to appear in pop-ups any longer.
  • Face Facts: Embracing the fact that most of the site is not necessary content but advertising, we split the site into “brand experience” and “business” sites, where the former can be as flashy as they come and the latter easy to use and fully accessible.

Needless to say, the budget demanded COA only, and after another brand session the client decided not to have a landing page that allows the user to choose between Flash and HTML but offer a small link to the HTML version on the Flash site.

So here are the facts:

  • The site content is brand orientated, most text provided only makes sense when you can see the imagery that comes with it or there is simply no text but only visuals.
  • These visuals and any content has gone through a painstaking and expensive approval process, and the client won’t be happy for us to tell we cannot use it for an accessible version.
  • Anything we come up with as extra for the accessible version (information text, alternative texts, changes to “click here” and “choose on the right” wording) has to go through the same approval processes.
  • The client does not want to spend extra time and money on the accessible version and relies on us to do the right thing. We get paid as the delivery agency and there is no need for them to get someone involved in accessibility.
  • As part of the Flash/HTML redesign was us telling the client there is no extra work involved, it is tough for us to say, “Well there is more work involved now”

Now tell me: How many tutorials, best practice and information articles about accessibility have you seen that help in this case – and it is not a singular case, a lot of design oriented agencies and those who have to rely on third party content face the same issues.

We got the bloggers, and brochureware small to medium business web site owners, now it is time to think about how to make business aware of what accessibility encompasses. And no, there is no such thing as “Accessibility does not affect design”, unless the original design is developed with diversity in mind.

Maybe it is time to stop advocating accessibility as an easy to achieve goal, and a technical problem that can be tackled independently from the other layers involved.
It is a state of mind, a way to design and write that anyone can benefit of.

Products developed with limitations in mind have given designers a new perspective and resulted in innovation. Thomas Edison developed the carbon transmitter (microphone) for Bell’s telephone because he had trouble hearing its faint sounds. On his invention of the phonograph, Edison explained: “Deafness, pure and simple, was responsible for the experimentation which perfected the machine.”
From Innovative Design Inspired by Accessibility

Digital Web will release an article of mine on the 20th called “10 reasons why our clients don’t care about accessibility” with more examples like this one.

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